Paul’s mother had died. My family was making a condolence call. I’d left work early for the occasion. We were all sitting under the Lady Bank’s rose arbor on Paul’s terrace when the plates began to rattle. Waves of water surged from the swimming pool out over the terrace. Every object in the house danced to the floor. Paul’s wife Charlene calmly stood, walked over and bent protectively over my pregnant wife. The arbor stayed up under my riveting gaze. After an interminable moment the shaking stopped. For a while. The luckiest people were the ones who didn’t have cause to wonder for even a moment if their loved ones were safe.
The weather had been unseasonably warm for mid October. Now, as I drove down de-chimneyed streets to our rental, the late afternoon had a radioactive feel to it, as though the air held an invisible menace made suddenly palpable by the earthquake.
My neighbor’s chimney had crushed his Cadillac, but my plywood box stood stiff and straight. The kitchen cupboard doors had remained shut. My other neighbor had taken the liberty of shutting off my gas. He’d heard that Pacific Avenue, four blocks away, had fallen down.
I raced back to assure my family that our home was still there, and then returned home to change into work clothes and walked downtown to join in whatever rescue efforts might have begun.
In geology, as in real estate, location matters. The town stood on river bottom alluvium- deep sand that amplified the shaking. Knowing that, I braced myself for what I might see.
Now you see buildings, now you don’t; a 45 second earthquake with no intro; life, which seemed so hectic and arbitrary an hour ago, was suddenly transformed into a nostalgic norm into which this new reality couldn’t possibly be absorbed. A geologic plague had raced through town, infecting every building. It left some healthy enough, but others were crippled or dead where they stood.
A confederation of enforcers in a variety of uniforms was moving people from Pacific Avenue. I didn’t think that ‘Zoning Board’ would sound officious enough, so I told them that I was a Planning Commissioner come down to assess the damage. They waved me through.
I couldn’t believe that there could be so much destruction with so little blood. It was as if everyone had left before the quake began. In fact they had, for this was the day of the first game of the World Series and both local teams were playing. And now the downtown was completely deserted. The enforcers were barricading the side street approaches. I had the avenue to myself.
I walked a block to the north end of the mall, so that I could take my inventory from the top. I didn’t see the firefighters at the rear of the first building I passed, trying desperately and unsuccessfully to reach those trapped beneath the bricks. I proceeded with my mission.
I was a living camera, or tried to be, taking mental snapshots of each façade, noting collapsed cornices, stair-step cracks in the brickwork, shattered storefronts, sifting the rubble with my architect’s eye. The historic buildings were the most obviously damaged, unreinforced and defenseless in their innocent beauty. The post-war boxes, offensive in their disregard of craft and quality, stood like usual suspects, shrugging off any involvement.
The Cooper House, former courthouse turned pedestrian heart of town, had been recently retrofitted seismically. It had been money well spent: in 1906 the building had collapsed; this time it stayed up and no one was injured. But it looked at once exhausted and slightly over-inflated, its walls cracked outward all around.
The eight-story, residential Hotel Palomar was still standing, but I couldn’t see how. It was so punched in.
The home of the entertainment weekly, the Good Times Building, was now incontinental. A wall of water sheeted down its three-story cast iron and glass façade from burst sprinkler pipes in the attic.
I approached the south end of the street. A large crowd was forming behind the barricade. I had just about completed my inventory. There stood the building that housed Plaza Books, its freshly painted three story façade colorful and unscathed. I walked past the bland single story Fords department store. I became less focused on my inventory as I became self-conscious under the gaze of the hundreds standing behind the police barricade. Then I noticed the owner of the Plaza Building, standing at the center of the barricade, at the front of the crowd.
As I approached, I said, “Hal, looks like your building did ok.” He looked bewildered, and pointed back. I turned to look. The brick sidewall of his building had fallen off, down and through the roof of Fords. At least one person was dead inside. They were searching for others.