Paul Madonna, the well-known San Francisco artist who beautifully illustrated my book A Writer’s San Francisco, was recently seriously injured in a car accident. I am wishing him a very speedy recovery and wanted to share with you a few pieces from that book that he enriched so much.]
We have a small backyard, shared with our downstairs neighbor, that is microscopic by suburban standards but big enough for a table and chairs, a few sculptures, and San Francisco’s favorite weeds. From the yard you access the basement, where the washer and dryer live. In the basement, you get to see the old gal’s foundation, which is sturdy with new cement in places but that has a nasty spot of old concrete mixed right from Bernal Hill in the months after the Great Quake. Take your fingernail to this hundred-year-old pebbly cement and it flakes tight away. That is not a good thing in earthquake country.
It is proper that a stop on the bohemian international highway like San Francisco should exist on shaky ground. That San Francisco has known killer earthquakes and that it is always in the market for another great shake serve as excellent metaphors. Writers don’t write books, after all, they let earthquakes pass through them. This is why describing a book to another person is such an exercise in communal folly. You are forced to say, “The book is about X.” But what you would love to say, if the other person could understand you, is “I just gave birth during a cataclysm to this strange, darling thing.” So, as metaphor, it is splendid that San Francisco is earthquake country.
The reality, however, is much less excellent, which is why we are paying attention to our foundation. The magnitude 8.25 quake that struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906, lasted forty-nine seconds. I invite you to watch the second hand on your clock as it ticks out forty-nine seconds. To call that an eternity, as your building is shaking, is an apt cliché. Twenty-eight thousand buildings were destroyed, two hundred and twenty-five thousand people were left homeless, six people were shot for looting, and one poor soul was shot by mistake. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and as far inland as central Nevada.
Businessman Jerome Clark described what he saw as he disembarked from the commuter ferry that morning:
“In every direction from the ferry building flames were seething, and as I stood there, a five-story building half a block away fell with a crash, and the flames swept clear across Market Street and caught a new fireproof building recently erected. The streets in places had sunk three or four feet, in others great humps had appeared four or five feet high. The street car tracks were bent and twisted out of shape. Electric wires lay in every direction. Wagons with horses hitched to them, drivers and all, lying on the streets, all dead, struck and killed by the falling bricks.”
Jack London, a San Francisco reporter at the time of the Great Quake, described the quake’s aftermath: “On Thursday morning, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. All about me were the palaces of the nabob pioneers of Forty-nine. To the east and south, at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flames. I went inside with the owner of the house, who was cool, cheerful, and hospitable. ‘Yesterday morning,’ he said, ‘I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes.’”
Writers live in perpetual earthquake country. You hope to gather your wits and work on your novel. The phone rings. It is your brother, telling you that your elderly mother is being mistreated and robbed by the nursing home where she resides. This crisis passes (it takes three months of your time). Again you try to gather your wits. You go into your day job as a professor of literature and learn that, rather than being able to teach the books you believe you should be teaching, this year you must teach assigned texts—horrible ones, to your mind. This crisis does not pass—all year you balk and feel sick to your stomach. Are your wits gathered? Not hardly.
Who isn’t living in earthquake country, metaphorically speaking? But the writer is supposed to do her sensitive work even as the building shakes. How plausible is that? When your stomach is churning because your mate is angry at you for something or other, when you have a thousand things to attend to before dinner, how plausible is it that when dinner ends you’ll be able to rush to your manuscript? In earthquake country—where we all reside—how are masterpieces even remotely possible?
Jack London wrote: “On Mission Street lay a dozen steers, in a neat row stretching across the street, just as they had been struck down by the flying ruins of the earthquake. The fire had passed through afterward and roasted them. All day Thursday and all day Friday the flames raged. Friday night saw the flames finally conquered, though not until Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill had been swept and three-quarters of a mile of wharves and docks had been licked up.” I live a stone’s throw from the ghosts of those charred steers and know that, whatever the tumult, I had better get on with my writing.
There is a special utility in living in a place where earthquakes are regularly on your mind. It helps you remember that the disturbances of everyday life must somehow be transcended. I think you’d have the same incentive to produce your own necessary calm if you lived in sight of Mount Vesuvius or on desert land previously inundated by the Great Flood. These reminders of cataclysm are helpful. It is good to recollect that everywhere is Earthquake Country; and that we write, if we write at all, not because a special silence has descended but because we have hushed the universe with our own fierce intention.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock