When the Center Wouldn't Hold : Emerging Whole, Feeling Unsettled

Diane Johnson's newest novel is "Health and Happiness," to be published next fall by Knopf

Since the earthquake hit, our phone has been continuously busy with friends ringing from Europe or Japan, wanting to be reassured that we are all right, but we are so unharmed that I found myself a little apologetic, not able to repel their anxiety with a single story of personal peril. They've seen on television the horrendous collapsing bridge, the smashed cars, the fiery Victorian apartments, bodies, sobbing bystanders. We have seen neither the reality nor even the television--our electricity was still out Thursday. In a sense, we are farther away from the disaster than they. Our situation at the center (luckily not the epicenter) is one of curious calm. It is odd having to infer peril from the agitative voices elsewhere, and hard to feel scared.

Here on Telegraph Hill, halfway between the financial district and the Marina, which were both heavily damaged, nothing much happened, perhaps because Telegraph Hill is a rock. We were sitting companionably in the kitchen. There was a shaking. My husband and son, trained Californians, got up to stand in a doorway (leaving no room for me, as I afterward admonished). Nothing fell, but the cat vanished like lightning to secret cat caves. The lights went out. We found a battery-powered radio, and tried to hear what we had just been through. We opened a bottle of wine.

I hadn't realized before that disasters don't strike, they develop. You have to piece them together from the fragmented reports before you know how to respond. There is no immediate occasion for panic, so you stand by, prepared to panic later, and in the meantime, feel the curious elation that an unexpected event seems to give everyone. Anyone who has ever been caught up in events that are reported in the media will have been struck by the discrepancy between being in them, and reading about them later. The details of the disaster, concentrated into words and pictures, do not communicate the feeling of boredom and cheerfulness that most San Franciscans seem to be feeling now.

The earthquake came just past 5 o'clock. For a time, we marveled at the plume of smoke rising into the sunset sky from the flaming Marina a half-mile away. Some resourceful neighbors started a gasoline generator, and their lights went on while the rest of the city lay under gathering darkness. We opened another bottle of wine and decided to risk using our gas stove. We had veal scaloppine. When it got too dark to read by candlelight, we went to bed early like pioneers. By bedtime, we hadn't heard how many people had died. The big effect of tragedy was lost in momentary imperatives: fix dinner, check on the children, reassure the cat. The next day our cat, Walter, refused to come out from under his tablecloth cave. We wondered if he knew something we didn't. Outside things seemed so normal one almost resented it.

I took a walk. Most stores were closed except in Chinatown, where an everyday throb of commerce reassured the dazed-looking tourists who wandered with a homeless air among the fruit stands and curio shops. About half the people on the street were Chinese, imperturbably going about their business; the rest were dog-walkers. The high proportion of dogs on the street lent a sense of feral menace, for the real significance is, of course, that no matter what happens, dogs must be walked. The drone of helicopters overhead recalled war, but the pizza place was open; it must have gas-fired ovens. No newspapers to be had, but people who got up early and had gone as far as the downtown bus station, found a little thin Chronicle with its late-breaking horror photos.

The radio last night spoke of "bands of roving toughs," but everyone looked to be full of neighborly love. In the mom-and- pop grocery, a line of people prepared to hoard. I hoarded two cans of corned beef hash but forgot to buy bottled water; in any case, water still flowed freely from our tap. My Italian neighbor warned that the heat still portended "earthquake weather." There was a pleasant silence and a freedom from traffic and a cheery camaraderie among the people I met. Like me, all were unable to bring themselves to a sense of the occasion. We are in a disaster. This is a disaster area. The President is coming. But what on earth was he going to see? By now most of the glass had been swept up, windows were neatly boarded, nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

I imagine this must be the experience of people in, say, Belfast or Beirut. From afar you wonder how anyone could live there; if you are there it must seem normal, like this, until the real horror comes right to your door. A column of smoke rises somewhere else. Distant sirens wail but nearby a pleasant air of good will. The festivity of disaster, a phenomenon often remarked upon.

What good is going through a devastating earthquake if you can't quite feel it? On the street people stop to ask for everyone else's story, because no one has one of his own. But everyone knows someone who was seconds or minutes away from the big crack in the Bay Bridge. By midweek I have talked to four different friends who were on the bridge at various places and they are really frightened.

But the rest of us can't shake off a bemused sense of fraudulence. We haven't done our share of suffering. It's more than sensation-seeking that impels us out here on the street talking to others. I think it's right that people want to share in the disaster that so narrowly missed them, as a way of making it up to the people who have really suffered or died, and as a gesture to fortune, in order to appear to her calculating eye not as a lucky person, ripe for a blow, but as someone who has already been through something and who should be spared next time.

San Francisco, 1906

Remarkable as it may seem, Wednesday night, while the whole city crashed and roared into ruin, was a quiet night. There were no crowds. There was no shouting and yelling. There was no hysteria, no disorder. . . . In all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic-stricken.

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco's history were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror. --Jack London, Collier's Weekly, May 5, 1906

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