Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Century Later in Shaky Town

Back in the old days - let's say spring 2001 - the biggest threats to America were a terrorist attack, a major hurricane disabling the Gulf Coast and a catastrophic earthquake in the Bay Area. As of today, 2006, it's two down and one to go.

Living amidst all the earthquake centennial hoopla and press coverage, a San Francisco citizen can easily become paranoid. You get an eerie sense that the nation is watching The City closely, waiting for a violent tectonic tantrum so that television programming can hurry up and get back to what it was immediately post-Katrina – horrifically real, tragically entertaining and brimming with good ol' fashioned anarchy.

After the long-awaited shake-up, all that's needed is a somber word from Brian Williams, maybe a heartfelt tear-up from Anderson Cooper, and out comes the popcorn and beer. Americans will hastily gather in their living rooms, ready to 'tsk-tsk' our unfortunate situation and mutter to one another, "Those poor people" and "I could never live there. I'll take blizzards/tsunamis/floods/hurricanes/locusts any day but not that."

In red states, there'll undoubtedly be a lot of talk about how we deserved it – Sodom this, Gomorrah that, etc. And while the rainbows of a gay pride flag will not protect human flesh any more than the stars of a Confederate flag did, Mama Nature has very little interest in human politics. When She stretches, yawns and/or farts, we're all at Her mercy. As I heard recollections today, one old woman said: “Rich or poor, we all shook the same.”

And so, like any civic-minded insomniac, I headed downtown in the dead of night to join in the commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. At nearly 3:00 a.m., the corner of Third and Market was abuzz with activity - folks in period costume, cops in their finery, network anchors getting make-upped, fireman and firewomen practicing ladder pulls and everything lit up expectantly. The porta potties were lined up, the JumboTron was getting fired up and the news vans all propped up their erect satellites – ready for action.

Arriving early has its advantages; I simply picked out my spot and watched as police barricades were set up around me, keeping the commoners at bay. I live by the rule: If you look like you belong, eventually, you will. Consequently, I ended up sitting in special seats reserved for families of 1906 survivors. I mean really, aren't we all just one big family of survivors?

Beyond the celebration of San Francisco itself, it was great to see an occasion where the arrival of really, really old people brought the biggest cheers. These folks came in beautifully restored antique cars and were greeted like royalty. Out came the walkers and sloooowly up the ramp they went - the oldest at 109. There were a dozen survivors in all and some could hardly remember what day it is, let alone what happened a century ago.

Individually, they were interviewed by our beloved mayor, Gavin Newsom, and every year, the old ladies flirt shamelessly. Norma Norwood, known as The Earthquake Baby at 100 years of age, was conceived in a tent in Golden Gate Park, after her family was displaced after the disaster. Norma evidently inherited her parent’s randy nature and let Gavin know she'd be happy to keep him warm, if duty calls. Norma also offered stories about her childhood and how she was raised by prostitutes. “Norma, I could talk to you all day,” cooed His Honorable Hunkiness.

In various speeches, there was talk of Hurricane Katrina and how San Francisco can be an example to New Orleans (no mention of Mississippi, dammit.) No matter how devastating a blow, a strong and passionate citizenry can bring a city to its feet again and thrive in a way it couldn't before. It is well known that pre-earthquake and fire, San Francisco was an opium-dependent, red-light town – violent and greedy on its best day. You simply did not come to town unarmed for fear of getting Shanghai-ed. Suffice to say, there was no tourism.

The City came to be rebuilt stronger and more confident than before the quake. (And yes, we blamed the authorities for not doing enough back then too.) As I watched the wreath being placed on Lotta’s Fountain by Fire Chief Joanna (a tough Irish chick with five boys) and our Police Chief (a tiny Asian woman named Heather) I was down right vuhklempt. At the time of the 1906 quake, 5:12 a.m., there was a moment of silence and then slowly, one by one, sirens rang out from all corners of The City.

People cheered to our survival and the determination of our ancestral city dwellers. The swelling crowd was led in a rowdy rendition of “San Francisco” – no one seemed to know any verses, just the refrain, “Open up those Golden Gates!” I was bursting with love for my city, especially as I prepare to leave it.

Then someone came to the podium announced that the bars were now open. It was 6:00 a.m. and we were all still alive.

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