October 17, 1989.
Around 5:02 pm or so, I left my office, old room 349 Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley. I wound through the narrow catacombs that made up the third floor at that time, skipped down the stairs and exited the building via a backdoor between the second and third floors. The door exited to a little patio from where I jogged down another set of stairs that slanted towards the east and emptied into the parking lot behind the building. The North Addition to the Law Building, completed in 1995, now takes up this area.
The parking lot had a respectable grade. I trudged up the incline along the backside of the building, heading to my motorcycle parked on Piedmont Avenue. I had only joined the staff at the School of Law a little over two months earlier. Who knows what thoughts attended me that afternoon. Perhaps the Bay Bridge World Series—Game 3 was about to start soon. Perhaps the weather—I seem to recall that it was a nice, sunny day.
I was still on the steep incline at 5:04 when the earth shook, stopping me in my tracks. It was loud, very, very loud, and the motion pronounced. I suddenly felt as if I were riding a bucking bronco. “Whoa! Whoa!” I called out while flailing my arms. Until then, I had never experienced a major quake outside. How long would this one last? I expected it to continue for a while longer, but then it suddenly stopped. No noise. No shaking. The ground again felt steady under my feet.
I knew earthquakes. My first had been the Sylmar Quake of 1971 in Los Angeles. I was in bed at 6 a.m. when everything started to move. Just a few weeks shy of 6 years old, I had not yet developed a fear of quakes. I recall being rather fascinated by it. The shaking lasted for a good long while before finally easing and stopping. My mother came and checked on my at least twice. Her concern puzzled me. Why wouldn’t I be OK? my five year-old mind wondered.
Dazed by the noise and shaking, I looked behind me, to the west. A large plume of black smoke rose from somewhere in Downtown Berkeley off in the distance. During a moment of confusion, I wondered if it had been an explosion and not a quake that had caused the commotion. No, the quake caused the explosion. A car had fallen off its hoist at an auto shop. Months later, I learned that the car belonged to a retired faculty assistant at the Law School, the very person I had been hired to replace.
Eventually, I continued walking up the incline to Piedmont Avenue. I was relieved that my motorcycle hadn’t fallen over. I rode a 1983 Kawasaki Spectre 550, black and red with gold trim. I named it Achilles. I would go on to own two other bikes, a 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 and a 2000 Honda Valkyrie. All were called Achilles; the bike regenerated like a good Time Lord.
As I rode home, many faces filled the streets, on the sidewalks, on bikes, scooters, and motorcycles, in cars and trucks. Confused faces. Shocked faces. Wandering, lost faces. Disaster had united us, briefly erasing our differences. I went slowly, navigating through our collective confusion and humility as I made my way southbound on College Avenue towards my home in Oakland.
When I reached Rockridge BART, I saw men in business suits holding improvised, handwritten signs. WALNUT CREEK. CONCORD. LAFAYETTE. BART had stopped running and they were trapped on the Oakland side of the hills. They were hitchhiking, their signs posing as thumbs.
Around this time, I started hearing sirens. They screamed everywhere. Disembodied sirens. They had an unnerving, agitating effect, like mainlining caffeine spiked with adrenaline.
Around this time, I also learned that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Then I heard about the collapse of the Cypress Structure (above), the double-decker freeway that dissected West Oakland. I had ridden that peculiar stretch just a few weeks earlier. Can’t remember where I had been going, perhaps my motorcycle shop in Alameda. I was on the lower deck. It felt wonky, wavy. The motorcycle bounced and bounced like a flimsy rollercoaster. Based on that experience, its collapse did not surprise me, but the news put a raw hole in my stomach. All those people. Originally, authorities thought hundreds had been trapped in the rubble of the pancaked decks. In the end, 42 lost their lives in the Cypress Structure. Nearby neighbors and factory workers climbed into the rubble with ladders and fork lifts to free those who had been trapped. In general, traffic was light that evening, because of the World Series. Most folks had left work early to catch the game at home or at a friend’s or at a bar.
I lived near Piedmont and McArthur in a little one-bedroom on the upper floor of a two-story, eight-unit apartment building. What will my place look like, I worried as I climbed the stairs. My very large stereo speakers (that my dad had made many years earlier) sat upon plastic milk crates. I elevated them to ameliorate my downstairs neighbor who complained constantly that I made too much noise. I mostly listened to classical music at that time; she should count her blessings that she missed my heavy metal phase. Fortunately, miraculously, the speakers hadn’t fallen over. In fact, I found no damage in my apartment at all. I was shocked.
But no worries about stereo noise that evening. I had no power. My phone didn’t work well, either. I could make a couple of local calls, but could not call my family in Los Angeles to tell them that I was OK. I asked a neighbor in the building across from mine if I could use their phone. I have a calling I card, so you will not be charged, I said, showing them the card. But they just smiled and said no. I rarely spoke with them after that. I ended up calling my family from a pay phone at the gas station on Piedmont. They had learned about the quake the same way the rest of America had: by watching it live during the start of the World Series telecast. The cameras started shaking then cut out.
I ended up spending time at a friend’s place that night. He lived conveniently close by, just a couple of blocks away. A group of us just sat in the dark, talking, eating cold food. I was new to the area and pretty freaked. Hanging with them helped me feel less alone. Maybe I should have stayed the night, but I went back home around 11ish, I think. I couldn’t sleep once I got into bed. Disembodied sirens screaming everywhere kept me up, along with aftershocks.