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Shakin' & Bakin': The 'Quake Of '89

I had just moved to California six weeks before. Across country for my birthday. I sold my car to my grandparents. I was sharing a house with two friends in Capitola, an eight minute walk from the beach, another two more minutes to the Santa Cruz city line.

I did the head hunter thing and found a receptionist position over the hill in San Jose. The hill being either Route 17 or old Route 9. I can not remember the name of the mountain between the coast and the San Jose and San Francisco area.

My friend Jennifer picked me up in the business district of San Jose at a little bit past five pm, as usual, on October 17, 1989. We wove through the buildings and traffic on our way to her car when the earth began to pull and push us and there was a sound like a hungry giant’s stomach rumbling.

I thought "What kind of an idiot builds an underground subway on a fault line?" Jennifer later told me she thought she was fainting.

What I said was, "Are we having an earthquake?"

Jennifer screamed, "Yes! Run!"

I asked, "Where? You do not out run an earthquake!"

I grasped the chain link fence nearby for support. Jennifer stood frozen in the "I am going to bolt!" position (I later discovered that I was the only person she has stayed with during an earthquake).

A woman pulled up near us and asked, "Are we having an earthquake?" "I do believe so." "Oh, I thought I had a flat," and then she drove off. She must have been a native Californian.

The building directly across the street from us was doing a steel hula, its vertical blinds waving with each rock and roll of the ground (I found out later that the newer buildings were built on a roller system to help withstand earthquakes). I remember thinking that if those windows exploded Jennifer and I would be impaled by thousands of glass shards. I hoped that if that happened I would die quickly.

"Does it always last this long?" I asked Jennifer (as this was my first earthquake I had nothing to compare it to). "No! This is bad, really, really bad!" Jennifer looked absolutely terrified. I do not remember being afraid. Worried, yes, but it was out of my control, the earthquake, the possibility of death by glass rain or being eaten by the hungry giant known as Earth. I could only ride it out, in this case, both literally and figuratively.

What ever song the earth was dancing to finally ended. Fifteen seconds. Fifteen seconds? Really? Only fifteen seconds?

Jennifer and I made it to her car. We had not gone far when we saw a convenience store that appeared to be open. The lone worker was selling what she could the old fashioned way: paper, pen and calculator (her cash register drawer had been open when the earthquake had begun and knocked out the power).

We shared the "happy to be alive" laughs and arm hugs that strangers do when they come through a shock together. Her battery powered radio then informed us that we were not through it yet: a top section of the Bay State Bridge had collapsed, part of the mountain between us and home had slid onto Route 17 closing it down.

Jennifer and I headed to Route 9, the old route over the mountain. We were not the only ones of course.

As we got closer the police single filed the cars and just behind us closed the road. What were we driving into?

By now it was dark and we knew this usually one hour drive was going to take a while. If a damaged tree fell and blocked the road we would have trouble trying to turn around.

I can not remember exactly how long it took us. Four hours maybe? We passed the time trying to read the bumper sticker on the car in front of us. Not as easy as it sounds as it was now dark and we were watching out for downed branches. The bumper sticker said, "I may grow old but I will never grow up." We were disappointed. All that work for that?

Jennifer and I discussed creating a story about some kind of ancient society guarding demons kept in an underground prison. There would be sections of this society in the US and Japan as the tectonic plates were shared by both countries. The earthquake would have released all or some of these demons and the two sections of the society meant to guard them would have to join forces to recapture and reimprison them.

We finally made it home. I remember being shocked that we did not lose our television or stereo. A neighbor came by to make sure our heat, electric, etc was all turned off so when we did get power back there was no risk of explosion. People were taking turns playing their car radios so we had information coming in.

Jennifer’s boyfriend Mark, who worked in Santa Cruz, made it home. He told us that the Pacific Garden Mall area in Santa Cruz was gone and that there was digging going on at a Coffee House as it was believed there was a girl trapped in there (we later found out she had been killed during the earthquake).

Mark and a few of the neighbors settled in under a tree in our small front yard and did some cocaine. I do not do drugs but if I did cocaine would so not be my drug of choice after an earthquake. A ‘lude maybe, or Valium.

One neighbor’s pet parrot had escaped and he was searching the area calling for him, "Pickles! Pickles!" He set the bird’s cage on his roof with the door open in case Pickles came back. It made for an interesting silhouette in the moon light. I can not remember if Pickles ever came back.

I took a run through the what was called the Capitola Village to check on some people I knew. This area was right along the beach, very touristy, small quint shops and a tea house called Mr. Toots and a bar called Margaritaville (not part of the Jimmy Buffet chain).

It was dark. There were no lights except the emergency lights set up by the police to mark the cracks in the road. Windows were gone, glass sparkled along the ground. The wharf still stood and the ocean looked like it had diamonds on it from the starlight. If a tsunami was coming the ocean was not giving warning.

My friends were ok and I headed back home taking a different way near the police station as I knew there was a pay phone out front. I jumped over a few cracks in the road and tried the phone. Dial tone and my timing must have been perfect as I got right through to my family in Massachusetts. It was eleven pm my time and they had of course seen the earthquake news on their local channel but had not been able to get through to my house. I asked them to call Jennifer’s mother and sister, who lived across town from them, and to let them know Jennifer was ok.

I can not remember how long we were without power. I do remember that both Route 17 and Route 9 were closed for almost a month. There was no way to get to our jobs and no work to be found in our area, unless one had construction skills, so we spent our savings and maxed out our credit cards on rent and food. Spent a lot of mornings and evenings on the beach (I am a couple hours dead white and get sun sick and heat stroke easily so afternoons were spent inside).

When the highways were reopened they were one lane only so a one hour drive turned into a three to five hour drive. The city tried to consolidate by having buses going back and forth during peak times.

If the earthquake had happened six months after I had moved there instead of six weeks I would have been able to survive it financially. I would have been more secure in the new life I was trying to set up. As it was, going into debt that deeply in a literally damaged area was lethal to that new life.

I moved back to Massachusetts in January 1990.