Oct. 17, 1989 —
I had just felt what it was like to be clothes tumble-drying in the old Kenmore. My little white Toyota gyrated while I rationalized away a 6.9 earthquake. “It’s a flat tire! It’s two flat tires! How many goddamn flat tires could it be? Maybe I need a tune-up?” My favorite old-time rock radio station just went dead. A song I knew all the words to was no longer to be heard in my bucking Camry.
My first instinct was to put her in reverse and back up at least until North Beach. But the only direction open to me was forward to the East Bay. I was really quite impressed that the bridge was still standing. It had always seemed to me like the mega-version of the erector set my cousin Herb gave me for my seventh birthday. I stepped heavily on the gas pedal to get the journey over and done with as fast as possible. Perhaps this big erector set was still thinking it over? I must get home to the East Bay to watch the World Series with the guys. Isn’t that why I left the office early? Why would I be on this toy at 5:04 p.m. if it weren’t for the Series?
Then the traffic, everyone with a heavy foot on the gas pedal, came to a jolting halt. The air had waves of stinking fuel rising from the stopped cars, motors still running. Many people, led by a man driving a motorcycle, came running towards us waving their arms and screaming , “Run, the bridge is collapsing!” The majority of people I saw sitting in their cars observing this remained sitting in their cars in disbelief or fear, whatever. Perhaps if they disbelieved hard enough it would go away. They’d be on their way home to catch the Series. I was more realistic, being more experienced, having a cousin Herb who once gave me an erector set a long time ago.
I blasted out of my car and then blasted right back in. I forgot to turn the motor off and keep the key. I could allow myself that much presence of mind just in case disaster was not as imminent as I feared. I also grabbed my purse containing a 10-pound book on the Philippines, given to me by my friend Sarah with the blond hair, from Berkeley.
I began to run. I breathed hot auto exhaust as I weaved in and out of the abandoned cars as others now came out of their stupor and decided to move it. Yes, this was indeed reality. We were awake. This was really happening. Since it had been some time since my erector set days, I ran a lot more slowly than I would have liked. I made a lot of movements with my arms but my feet didn’t do too many wonderful things. I removed my high-heeled shoes and picked up some speed running right through the pantyhose “hatched” early this morning. Remarkably, the bridge was clean. No pebbles or bits were on it to lodge in my bare feet. I then ran the fastest half mile or so of my life with or without a 10-pound book on the Philippines dangling in my bag.
Knowing that my husband might be just seconds ahead of me in his old red Volvo just approaching the point of the bridge’s collapse made me feel dizzy. I looked around me and saw others, mostly women, gagging from fear. Men gagged behind a curled hand in front of their mouths as if it were only a cough. They held an attache case in one hand and “coughed” into the other.
From time to time I would stick my head over the railing to see what had actually occurred. I finally saw the section that had collapsed.
My first thought as I reached Yerba Buena/Treasure Island was to phone home. Is my son alive? Is the house standing? Is the dog alive? The parakeet? The goldfish, that my son won at a carnival and that had managed to stay alive in a bowl for seven years? I got on line to use the phone. There were shorter lines to buy toilet paper in the Soviet Union than this line. And while on line, people gagged, cried, smoked fiercely and were frightened and shaken and surprisingly polite and friendly as well. The blimp came over from Candlestick Park to film us. Helicopters circled us. Navy by the truckload passed and waved to us. Boys. Children! Who was saving whom? “Please don’t go out on the bridge, sonny. I’ll go. Your mom will have a fit … God forbid!”
And now I have to decide what will happen inside of me if I find out that the house fell on top of the boy, the dog, the parakeet and the fish. What if I can’t get through and have no knowledge at all of what happened to my life? I thought about it for one and a half hours. That’s how long it took for it to be my turn at the lone phone. My call confirmed all was okay at home — and I had tremendous energy. I would stay overnight in San Francisco with friends. In the morning I could get gas for my nearly empty car and cross the San Mateo bridge, if it was still standing.
Safe in Bernal Heights, we listened to helicopters equipped with searchlights to scan the ground, police sirens and ambulances all night long. We watched the Marina burning from the living room window. We plugged the TV set into the cigarette lighter of my friends’ truck and watched the news.
My friends’ Dobermans sniffed me awake in the morning. Two sweet Dobie girls couldn’t figure out what the lady with her toes sticking out of her stockings was doing asleep on their couch. I was dreaming. It wasn’t real. See, it was a dream after all.