Breaking Bread, Crumbling Buildings

Herbert Gold's newest book, "Travels in San Francisco," will be published this winter by Arcade-Little Brown

Thirty years in San Francisco, and my persistent nightmare has been the fantasy of being caught in one of three places for the major earthquake: with shampoo in my hair; sweaty and nude in the steam room of the Press Club, and the third not mentionable. I was shampooing in the shower at the Press Club when the building started to rock. I finished rinsing, came out and found a woman emerging from the steam room, trembling, saying, "This scares me."

I tried calming her with the warm, reassuring, compassionate words, "We just had an earthquake."

It didn't work. There were high waves from the pool splashing against the walls. "Well, let's do some laps," I said.

I started swimming, thinking this routine might help her, and she stood by watching, aghast. Then the lights went out. "The lights went out," I said to her, warmly, reassuringly, compassionately.

I assumed it was an electrical short from the flying water. It was more than that. Upstairs and out on Post Street, a block from Union Square, people were standing and discussing. The windows of I. Magnin had popped out; sheets of glass had fallen, and now ambulances were sirening down the street. It was an exceptionally warm late afternoon. Although people were hurt by falling glass, by pieces of buildings, plaster and such, there was a sense of spectator distraction going on. All we need is Jeanette MacDonald singing "San Francisco" to Clark Gable, I thought.

I hurried up the hill. Shopkeepers were sweeping up--and standing guard.

At home on Russian Hill, I found heaps of books on the floor. The only real damage seemed to be the shattered glass from a framed self-portrait by Zero Mostel. I mopped it up and presume I'll pick up the rest of the glass in my bare feet in weeks to come. My kindly former wife had taken the trouble to come by and leave a note on my door: All the children were safe and accounted for. No electricity here; no phone.

I was supposed to have dinner with friends at Allegro, a little Italian restaurant on the corner. By this time, proprietor Angelo Quaranta had sent the cooks home, but he set out bottles of wine and water, plates of cheese, bread and marinated peppers for everyone in the neighborhood. I was meeting people I hadn't met in 30 years on this block. I was still trying to reach my children, but the phones were not working. I kept trying the car phones of two neighbors until one said, "You almost got through that time." I wasn't sure what that meant--to almost get through.

From the roof, we could see the out-of-control fire in the Marina. A passing bicyclist said houses built on this jello-like compound had collapsed. Since we were at the top of Russian Hill, people were strolling from all directions to admire the scene. A Japanese film crew, assigned to make a commercial the next day, arrived early to film this unassigned, unscheduled bonus event.

I managed to find candles. I went back out on the street, where there was a Bastille Day festival feeling, a gallows laughter. I lost track of the number of people who thought they were making a joke by repeating the Hemingway line, "Did the earth move for you, too?"

The table with Angelo Quaranta's wine provided the central command post; people gathered around with their heavy equipment--portable televisions, battery radios, car telephones. Since we were being told not to drive, not to clutter the streets, we stayed, drank and gossipped. A dental technician asked, "Do seismologists get paid?" Then she answered ahead of the rest of us: "And if so, why?" Ambulances and fire engines provided most of the traffic.

Sophisticated travelers began to talk about snowstorms in New York, power outages in New England and the number of children who might be conceived tonight. "Soviet Armenia is sending a food plane," someone said. When we heard the announcement that President Bush was sending Vice President Dan Quayle to San Francisco as disaster relief, a whooping cheer went up.

A neighbor with whom I quarrel about parking came to stand next to me. Last time we had spoken, it had been at a level of shouting and threats. This time he said: "My mother in Vermont got through to me on the phone."

Again I went upstairs to my flat, following instructions to disconnect electrical connections and fill containers with water. I bumped my shins in the dark.

Normally I read before bed. It was odd not to be able to do so.

Occasionally during the night the phone would ring and no one was there, but various relatives and friends called during the intervals when the phone worked. At 4 a.m., a French-language broadcaster woke me, wanting to tape my answers to the question, "What were you doing . . . ?"

"Sleeping," I said in my adequate French, "and good night."

There was no newspaper available in the morning, so I finally glanced at the front page of the late Tuesday edition of the San Francisco Examiner, picked up in a reflexive habit when I left the Press Club only a few minutes after the quake. The right-hand headline was "Wall Street Has Jitters." The headline on the left, above an article by a sports columnist: "Excitement Missing From the Series."

I looked out my window at the famous House of the Flag, the only surviving building around here after the earthquake of 1906. It flew the flag, and, according to legend, that's why firemen concentrated their efforts to save it.

Gradually, it began to sink in: Today, there are people dead, people homeless; the jokes and flirting and drinking of wine were the available means of coping; this is not a movie; the fires are not fireworks, and Jeannette MacDonald is not going to sing.

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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