The person I was at 5:03 p.m. on Tuesday October 17, 1989 was not the same person at 5:05. That 5:03 girl was insecure, self-absorbed, and sad. She looked to others for validation and approval. She hated being alone but found making friends impossible. I guess you could say she died in the Loma Prieta earthquake, and that was in many ways a mercy.
(5:03 girl did have magnificent hair, though):
The only good thing about the day of October 17, 1989 was that my long, lonely work hours at the Santa Cruz Ace Hardware downtown were broken up by making keys for the people working at the new Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. They were named Sean and Robin. They were funny and cool and had to keep coming in for stuff they needed. I was thinking I wished they were my friends.
At 5:04, several things happened at once. Some things you probably know about. The upper deck of the Bay Bridge broke and tilted onto the bottom deck. The World Series was halted. The Cypress Structure collapsed.
In fifteen seconds, Northern California remembered the price of living in such a beautiful place so near the Pacific Ocean. Life isn’t always so pacific here. Sometimes Mother Earth rolls over in bed and shakes everybody off.
Ace Hardware was in a hundred-year-old brick building built on marshy landfill. Do you know what liquefaction is? I can tell you what liquefaction in a major seismic event feels, hears, and looks like.
At 5:04, I happened to be by a big oak desk. I dove beneath it as debris crashed to the ground, sealing me in. Twelve people died in the surrounding buildings, including Robin and Sean, crushed by falling beams on the other side of the wall.
I kicked my way out when the hard shaking stopped. The ground jiggled underneath the floorboards. When I finally stepped over the shards of broken glass into the daylight, the hot sun on my head was ecstatic. Fierce joy rushed me on my way home through the white dust clouds and past the split trees dripping sap. Smoke billowed out of roofs, smashed glass and bricks littered the sidewalks and sewage spurted through sidewalk cracks like geysers.
Every breath tasted like smoke. But I was alive.
Two days later at my parents’ house, I watched the news while workers wheeled Robin and Sean’s sheet-covered bodies out of the rubble. I started to cry. Then I stopped. The tears for my wish-friends dried up and I’ve held them in ever since. Robin was deeply loved by a desperately hopeful sweetheart who rallied for rescue workers to keep searching until they found her. Sean was a little girl’s dad.
Why them and not me? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I was a cranky nineteen-year-old college student with very few friends, very little passion for anything or anyone. I only cared about myself. I wasn’t helping anybody. I wasn’t making myself of use to anyone.
Most of my life doesn’t happen in big moments. The Loma Prieta earthquake was a different story. As soon as I returned to Santa Cruz, I entrenched myself as a volunteer at the St. Francis Homeless Shelter. The managers didn’t like me at first. They thought I was an anthropology major there to spy on the guys. After several months of showing up to help with dinner and to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings as moral support, the people running the place cornered me in the kitchen and asked me what I was doing there.
What was I doing there? Finding meaning for my life. Trying to find friends. Trying to make it worth it to the universe that I happened to be next to a big oak desk and so was spared. Trying despite everything to be of some use.
I didn’t say all that. I mumbled something about the will of God. One of the guys handed me a small statue of a nun in prayer and apologized for thinking I was an anthropology major. I kept that little statue for years.
I don’t know what were in the prayers of the porcelain nun. I know what remain in mine every single day since October 17, 1989.
Please let me be of use. Please let me be of use.
Today is the release day for my novel The Ghost Daughter. It’s literary. It’s for grown-ups. I’ve been writing it, in one way or the other, since the day I died. I hope you enjoy it if decide to read it. I really loved writing it.