No, that isn’t me in the photo. It happens to be my niece Tara. A couple of weeks ago, Tara threw me into a fit of hysterical choking laughter when she texted this picture completely out of the blue. The photo references one of my many mortifying personal stories, and it must have stuck with her, because she spontaneously saw fit to do a reenactment. So I thought I would re-tell the story. I’ve been writing some fairly serious blogs lately and I thought I’d lighten things up this week, in keeping with my vow to periodically post little vignettes that capture the inane, embarrassing, and/or idiotic things I’ve done in the past.
(See, for example, “Broken windows and empty hallways.”)
It all started at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Northern Californians remember that day well. The Giants were about to start the third game of their first World Series in 27 years. They had lost the first two games, but of course there was still abundant hope circulating in the heart of Paula Bocciardi. I was working in the Civic Center and was desperate, of course, to get home for the start of the game. So, like the devoted but precise employee I was, I SHOT out the door at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. as if there were a rocket strapped to my back.
My preferred mode of transportation at the time was my cherished “hog.” It was a red-and-white Honda C70 Passport motorcycle. Okay, it was only 70cc and its top speed was 44 miles an hour, but for the City it was perfect. A few people had dared to call it a “scooter” or, even worse, a “moped,” but I would quickly put those people in their place. First of all, you needed a motorcycle license to ride that bike. Second, the tires were motorcycle-sized so you had to lean into curves as you would on a real chopper. Finally, it had actual gears that you had to shift. I felt studly riding that thing, even though, to be honest, if it fell over I could pick it up with one hand.
So I hit that throttle and zoomed down Larkin Street, heading towards Geary to get home, when suddenly my bike was thrown into the next lane. And I mean thrown like kindling in a cyclone. I had just gotten a new tire, so I instantly assumed that the mechanic had done something terribly wrong. I hollered every expletive I knew into my helmet. Thankfully, I was still upright when I came to a stop. And it was then that I noticed that the ground was rolling, a burgeoning cloud of dust was filling the air, and people were streaming out onto the street. The air got thicker and browner, the traffic lights suddenly went out, and everyone was yelling. I finally figured it out. EARTHQUAKE.
It took me forever to get home, stopping at every intersection in the City because the lights were out. When I pulled up to my apartment building, one of the other tenants was standing outside. “Did you feel it?” he asked. I explained that I had been on my bike and hadn’t really understood what was happening at the moment it hit. To this day, I remember his exact response: “It’s a good thing you weren’t here in the apartment building,” he said, “because you would have lost your lunch.”
There really wasn’t much destruction in my apartment at all. My beloved 19-inch television, perched on top of a trunk, had been shaken off and onto the ground, and a few things on shelves had fallen and broken, but overall everything was okay.
My workplace was closed immediately after the quake because of structural damage, so I headed up to spend a few days with my parents in Clearlake, away from the aftershocks. All in all, then, I was fairly sheltered from experiencing the true drama of that devastating quake.
When I returned to my apartment on Friday night, I settled in to relax and watch television. Channel-surfing, I landed first upon a local news station that was running a montage of never-before-seen footage taken during the temblor from various video cameras around northern California. I started to absorb the horror of what I was seeing: the terrible shaking, the merchandise falling and shelves crashing onto the floors of local businesses, a panicked bartender racing out from behind a bar to escape shattering glass, customers screaming, a freeway collapsed.
Suddenly, I was petrified. It was three days after the event, everyone else was calming down and starting the work of healing, and I became paralyzed with fear. I concluded that there was going to be an imminent aftershock that would be stronger than the initial tremor on Tuesday, and that we were all destined to perish. It was terror delayed, but it was the kind of terror a child experiences when he knows that, the instant he closes his eyes at night, a monster will leap out of the closet.
I needed to take action to ensure my safety. That action, I concluded, was to place a motorcycle helmet on the bed next to me before I went to sleep. That would save my life.
For some reason I didn’t choose my black helmet that made me look like Darth Vader in tennis shoes. In a cool way. At the time, I had a passenger helmet that was a god-awful yellow hue, with no face guard or chin strap, and that’s the one I laid carefully next to my pillow that night.
Well, wouldn’t you know, I was slumbering peacefully when all of a sudden the most clamorous racket arose in my apartment. Wham! Clang! Bang bang bang! It was like John Henry hitting a piece of iron with his mighty hammer. Bang bang bang bang bang! My eyes flew open and the bed was shaking violently and I knew exactly what was happening.
“IT’S THE BIG ONE!!” I shrieked.
I snatched that helmet, crammed it on my head, and raced for the doorway, bracing my arms and legs against the jamb and preparing myself for the inevitable crumbling of the walls.
My doorway faced into the living room, and when I could finally focus, I noticed that my big heavy flower pot, suspended from the ceiling by a long macramé hanger, wasn’t moving. Not swaying a bit. In fact, nothing was moving. Nothing at all.
It seems that, since the power had gone out three days before, the automatic timers that worked the building heating system had been out of whack. The heat was now coming on in the middle of the night. And every apartment had the old-fashioned metal baseboard steam heaters that sound like hammers when water first starts to flow through them. So it was the radiators that were clanking.
And it was my pounding heart that had set the bed moving.
There I was, then, adorned in that yellow beehive of a helmet, pressed in fear against the doorway. I was facing out towards the street, and when I looked out my huge living room window, I saw two passers-by staring up at me.
Did I mention that I was naked?