On October 17, 1989, I was riding my bike home from my Clinical Psychology class at UC Davis, looking forward to watching the Bay Bridge World Series Game 3—San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland A’s—on TV with my boyfriend, when the earthquake struck. The Loma Prieta earthquake. I didn’t even feel it.
The 5:35 game hadn’t started when the quake hit at 5:04, and so the many TV cameras recording pre-game excitement at Candlestick Park actually televised the earthquake to millions of people. It would, in fact, become the first large earthquake ever to be broadcast live.
Right after the shaking some fans assembled at Candlestick let out a cheer believing it was a sign that the series battle between two teams from the same metropolitan area was now christened by unseen forces but when power went out, murmurs of confusion rippled and within minutes, players were gathering their family from the stands as people were told to leave the park. Only about half the fans were in their seats at the time of the quake and had there been any more seated, their weight on the structure would have made the concrete less able to retain its integrity.
The earthquake hadn’t been centered in San Francisco though. It had been centered in the Santa Cruz mountains, where our home was. Or where our home HAD been, before my parents’ separation a few months before. During my first year at college—‘88-‘89–things had somehow crumbled and I’d come home on weekends over the course of the year to see dad crying in the living room and intervened on his behalf only to be informed that I wasn’t welcome to come home if I couldn’t support my mom’s decision to divorce. Then that summer—of ‘89, months before the quake—dad moved out, and my mom went a bit bananas—obsessively making my 13 year old sister do the Ouija board— until one day, shit exploded and my sister ran off to the neighbors house where dad came to get her from and we didn’t see or talk to her again for almost a year. In the interim, mom moved out of the dome on Hazel Dell Road—the last place we’d all live as an intact family—and I moved my stuff to Davis to live with Steve, while Dad and my sister (and brother, who was in and out) were living in the Hazel Dell dome.
When the 6.9 magnitude quake hit, my sister was in the house but my dad was up the road, at the well which was over a hill and not visible from the house. The earthquake rocked our geodesic dome so violently that it slid off it’s foundation and made the deck which encircled the entire span of the home’s exterior break away from the house. Once it was over, dad ran towards the house and screamed at seeing it, knowing my sister was inside but in trying to get in to find her, discovered he couldn’t because the back door we always went through wouldn’t open anymore. Everything had shifted, and was twisted in different directions, so the door was still a rectangle, but the door frame was a rhomboid, and wouldn’t budge. My sister was fine having found a doorway to get into but stuff was everywhere, windows broken, the house cracked and a complete wreck. Dad and Alex left—having to obv move out—and Jeff squatted near the dome for a few days but left to go somewhere and after that the house sat there alone, dark, broken and eerie.
The divorce wasn’t yet final so one weekend soon after the quake, my mom, my moms friend Mary, myself and my boyfriend Steve went to see it and retrieve things of ours that might have been left behind, one example of which was our family pictures and baby books, which were still in the ruined house inside the drawer they’d always been in when we lived together.
The smell of the house is what I would remember most for years after. The refrigerator had been slammed forward, and tipped and door open, was laying on the counter. The food that had been inside had been flung out of the fridge and lay rotting. The odor of this rotten food was mixed with the smell of my sister’s smashed fish tank—gravel, broken glass, Angel fish on the floor of her bedroom—and her broken bottles of perfume, creating an aroma of rot, and fish, and perfume that bled into the carpet and the walls.
The floors were sloping and rising, and almost spongey—clearly not on solid ground—and the house groaned and creaked.
One surreal thing I saw that day besides the physical destruction of a home I’d loved was a baby blue chest of drawers that my parents had put under the deck of the house to store. It had been my younger brother’s changing table and then his dresser but put under the deck of the house when it wasn’t needed anymore. The shifting of the house had caused the deck (still mostly attached to the house) to land on top of the dresser, and when I took a picture, one ten inch deck joist is visible and denotes just how heavy the entire deck itself was even while this baby blue dresser held steady as if in a strength beyond rationality. I’ve forgotten much of the intense/scarring feelings from that time but am glad I listened to the feelings that day because now I have this picture as both an emblem of our family history as well as evidence of the surprising resilience of forgotten ordinariness.
In the end, the insurance company (my parents somehow had earthquake insurance) eventually decided to lift the existing damaged structure back up and onto the foundation rather than demolish and rebuild. Geodesic domes are known for being earthquake resistant and in some ways, that was accurate. The home is still there—visible on Google—but they named the driveway/road something specific and when they did the address of the house changed too.
[On a side note, after the house was fixed and my dad and sister were moving back in, a tow truck driver bringing my dad‘s beloved ‘57 Chevy (that didn’t run but was his dream project that we’d moved around to all our various cities for 20 years) up the hill to the dome, ended up somehow not setting his emergency brake(?) and after he got to the top of the hill, the truck started rolling backwards with the Chevy still on it and flipping over in the field, destroying the Chevy.
I ended up with those family pictures, and still have them. Mom had them for many years after the day we saw the dome but when I moved to Virginia and James and I bought 6348 Tisbury Drive, she asked if I would take them because I was at that point pretty geographically settled and she wasn’t. Fast forward multiple decades—about three—and I’d (accidentally) find out that some came to believe I had the pictures for Different reasons which I won’t detail here but which is indicative of the misunderstandings that often accompany broken families. I’m certainly not hoarding these pictures; much of that life honestly feels like it didn’t even happen. It’s now just bits and pieces, enmeshed in a larger much-more complex experience]