Monday, November 9, 2009

A Few Days in October

In October, 1989 I lived in the Richmond District of San Francisco. I was married to a tall southern belle, and we rented an apartment with 15 windows and sweeping views. We'd come to the city two years earlier, with all our stuff in the back of a station wagon. The city had been good to us. 

I painted outdoors a great deal, on the cliffs around Land's End. I had accumulated enough work to participate in San Francisco's Open Studios event. I found a group space at an industrial building on York Street, and paid to show my paintings there. The other artists in the building showed a wide variety of work. Some of it, like the sculpture above, was thoughtful, accomplished and interesting. On the other hand, the idea of "art" is often the refuge of the criminally insane. 

A few feet away from my earnest, boring rectangles, a group of aging white guys—The Architects of Doom—built a large installation, resembling a 1970s rumpus room, a place where the Brady Bunch might go to relax. The night of the show's opening, they gave a performance, by tearing everything up with power tools, while shrieking their lungs out. It was a toss-up between Primal Scream therapy session and prison riot. Unpleasant as this episode was, it was merely the beginning. The Architects videotaped the carnage, and played it back in a continuous loop for the next two days, at top volume [of course], about ten feet from where I had to sit. When people call artists "dangerous," the artists often swell with pride. These guys were dangerous like razorback hogs. 

The Architects were not the only antagonists in the show, just the loudest. Another artist insisted her dog was part of her installation. Predictably, she barely batted an eye when it urinated on other artists' work. I woke with flea bites. Altogether, York Street 1989 was an experience better remembered than re-lived.

Glad was I to pack up my pictures, spray them for fleas and return to my cliffs by the sea. The next weekend, I worked on the painting above. The high point at the center of this composition was fenced off years ago, but when I worked here, a trail led up to it, with a big sign reading, "Stay Back! People Have Fallen To Their Deaths."

It was a perfect day. Seals flipped in the water below me. After a rewarding afternoon, I strapped my french easel to my back and walked home. When I got to my apartment door, the strap broke and the box fell, tearing the panel two inches at the top and putting a permanent stain on the carpeted stairs. I paused for a moment, and thought, "What big effects from a tiny event! If all my actions were this powerful, I'd be a millionaire."

Then came Tuesday afternoon. I was preparing to leave my job at a law firm, on the 25th Floor of a building downtown. I waited for the elevator, but before it arrived, the floor began to move underneath me. I ran back into the office and got under a desk, just before the shaking intensified. The scientists told us the earthquake only lasted 15 seconds. If you happen to experience something similar, it may surprise you, how long 15 seconds can seem, when you think you're about to die. The building continued to sway and settle a while longer, after the ground was still.

One of the worst things about a big earthquakes is the aftershocks. You know they're coming, but that doesn't help. They can be worse than the initial movement, because all your nerves are raw. Only a few minutes had passed when the building moved again. From down the hall, I heard the voice of an ambitious paralegal barking, "First aftershock!" A minute later, she yelled, "The Bay Bridge has collapsed!" This woman annoyed the hell out of me, but she also lent a breath of humor to a dark moment. Like Alexander Haig, she wanted everyone to know that she was in control here. She intended to take charge of this earthquake and make it her own.

Out on the street, there was much confusion. I wondered if I would have to walk six miles to get home. By a stroke of luck, my normal bus pulled up to its stop and I got on. Progress was glacial, due to heavy traffic and a power blackout. None of the streetlights worked, either. By the time I got off the bus, the neighborhood was so dark, I worried I'd get hit crossing the street. The stairs in our apartment building had no windows, so I had to feel along like a blind person. Half way up, I heard the welcome voice of my neighbor, Brian Jackson. His wife worked on the peninsula south of town, and wasn't able to come home right away. We looked out the window and saw the scene in the photo above. The red lights at right are on the Golden Gate Bridge. It's remarkable for what's missing, the lights of the city. This is how it looked in the day:

The aftershocks continued all night. The next morning the sun rose beautifully. This city really knows how to advertise itself. It's like a difficult lover, who never looks sweeter than when she's sorry after a big fight.

We picked up our friend Sara in the Marina. I suggested we take a drink on the roof, and celebrate the fact that we'd survived. The initial reporting was not accurate; 57 people died, instead of "hundreds." When I bought wine at the grocery, there were long lines of people buying beer, charcoal and potato chips. We laughed at ourselves. Our light attitude may seem insensitive, but I, for one, was still terrified underneath it. Unfortunately, there wasn't much we could do to help, and we had time to kill between aftershocks. Later, I read about the Great Earthquake of 1906, and many San Franciscans reacted the same way, climbing Twin Peaks to watch the city burn. They looked remarkably well-dressed for the occasion. 

All of this was long ago, when we were young. We might have died, but we didn't. We can make the same benediction on this day.

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