At a very few minutes past five yesterday afternoon, I was tucked into a window seat at Le Petit Cochon sipping a moderate bordeau and reading an excessively slow novel. This little French cafe-cum-oyster bar is fitted rather like a pocket handkerchief between the entrance to the garage serving the apartment building above it and the blank front of an office on its same street level floor. Twenty-five years ago, the building as a whole was in final design, one of the first of nearly a dozen multistoried, faux-arts and crafts memorials to be clustered downtown.
Twenty-five years ago, at that time and in this town as well as all over the Bay Area, the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook forcefully enough to teach all present of our mortal reality. We all know where we were and what we were doing and I have not yet met anyone who remembers doing anything as seeringly important as witnessing the event itself.
In addition to my own immediate experience of those moments, I remember watching others grapple with immediacy. A coworker rushed into our workplace as we were sorting through the protocols for closing it, perhaps 15 minutes after the quake (The power was out, book stacks had spewed everywhere and there was a general lack of confidence as we saw the amount of cornice work that had dropped from the exterior of the building, framed as that exterior was becoming by clouds of black smoke from the auto tow company fire a block away). She couldn’t locate her high school freshman daughter (This was all so close and yet so far from the era of cell phones and perpetual parental access). They were rejoined within the hour, the daughter is now herself a mother, and I can readily imagine that that toddler’s grandmother still marks the date as containing the longest moments of her life.
Walking home from work–and walking seemed to many of us the only acceptable form of transit as though feeling a bus’s rocking or even a bike’s bump againt the pavement might overstimulate our just-passing cessation of inescapable ground movement–I was stopped by a stranger who screamed in my face that the Bay Bridge had fallen. He wasn’t intending any sort of personal assault on my earspace and probably didn’t even know he was well within the zone our culture dictates as personal space of another. He had simply lost his own boundaries, become detached from the certainty of up, down, beside, and among.
Passing a branch of the same system where I worked, a branch that happens to have been erected on a granite nobble of earth beneath the top soil, I saw that its lights were stil on although we had closed the library system as a whole forty minutes earlier. The granite, we discovered, had so modified the quake hyperlocally that the staff were clueless about why they should be expected to close and get themselves home or off to discover wandering family members. (Again, this happened so close to the borderline of time at which point the when web access would have offered immediate response as to why, but close on the far side of that time border). I explained the situation to the children’s librarian, herself the single mother of a five-year-old. A five-year-old who immediately became, in her mother’s eye, in need of being sought, found, and held. The child was fine, their reunion was doubtlessly fond, and–in a case of irony–the mother, who was abut 35 and appeared to be in perfect health–died suddenly a month or two later, creating an orphan that the earthquake had not.
Twenty-five years is not a long time, and it is a lifetime, and it is both stark and permeable. In our metric-shy country, we accord 25th anniversaries the same reverence that vending machines still accord quarter dollar coins. Somehow we can make sense of 25% of an even hundred. It certainly is easier to do that than to try to apprehend the seismic power that 6.9 indicates.