Six weeks into the new school year, and I’d made a couple of new friends in our new town. They lived in the neighborhood behind our back gate and through the abandoned vineyard, and if you squoze in between the two pieces of fence you wouldn’t have to go all the way around. It was how we got to the bus stop every morning. I’d been invited to hang out after school with perhaps E or was it C (they were best friends and I was someone new and therefore maybe interesting), and the three of us were riding our bikes up and down the street and around the cul-de-sac named for a wine grape varietal, just like every other street in the subdivision.
We’d watched TV and had snacks and all their little sisters were playing together, and I was just getting used to riding my bike on pavement instead of a dirt road or field like I’d grown up doing, when all of a sudden it felt like the bike was being pulled sideways out from under me. I fell over.
At first I chalked it up to my still-wobbly riding skills (unused to smooth surfaces as I was) but then I saw the little sisters huddled in E’s doorway. “There was an earthquake!” one of them yelled. No wonder I was disoriented. We went to C’s house and the TV, which had been tuned to the Giants-A’s world series game, became instead breaking news about the earthquake.
I decided that instead of watching all the scary things on TV at my friend’s house, I’d go home and watch them there. When I got home, my mom said that she and Lissa had been on the California king-sized bed in my parents’ room, and at first she thought Lissa was shaking the bed. After a few seconds, however, she realized that it was an earthquake. There was no damage to anything in our house, and though we were all a little shaken up (no pun intended), we turned on the news to see the first footage of the massive destruction that the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake had caused all over the bay area. Fires raged in the Marina district of San Francisco. A piece of the Bay Bridge fell down. A mall collapsed in Santa Cruz. A whole section of freeway fell in the East Bay, crushing ~40 people to death instantly, and days of rescue efforts to extract remaining survivors from their cars would continue. We sat, speechless. It was the first time I ever remember feeling truly mortal.
Many years later, the 1989 quake became a touchstone for people living in California, people with ties to California, fans of the Giants or the A’s. We’d learn that because of a quirk of fate, the World Series game scheduled for that day in which the two Bay Area teams competed meant that a disproportionately large number of people were indoors watching the game rather than in their cars on the bridges and freeways, and therefore probably saved many lives (normally, at 5:04 PM, many thousands of people would have been commuting). I’d go on to date a boy in high school who celebrated his 11th birthday that day, and marry a different boy who had his own story about the quake, even though he lived three states away when it happened. Looking back, what I remember most was the feeling of disorientation, the feelings of dread and fear the scenes of destruction caused. I felt many other earthquakes over the years, and every time, as I stood in a doorway, I flashed back to that sunny afternoon on my bike. I think about it sometimes when we’re on a bridge, silently saying the “No earthquakes” chant like someone on Press Your Luck says “No Whammies.” The possibility and, honestly, the likelihood of an earthquake is just something that comes with the territory when you live on the West Coast. The uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for living here, just like uncertainty in general is one of the prices we pay for being alive.