San Francisco on October 17, 1989

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From cbslocal.com, Bay Area Marks 25 Years Since Loma Prieta Earthquake

This is an excerpt from the current draft of my book-in-progress, The Song of Kate Elizabeth. In this scene, the narrator, “myself,” a fifty-something white male, is telling a story to his long-lost sister Kate, a fifty-something white female, about why he left the New York family home in 1986 and came to San Francisco, where he ended up staying.

A little background on Kate: When she was still in the womb, she suffered brain damage that resulted in both mental limitations (topped out at a third grade math level, a fourth grade writing level, and an eighth grade reading level) and physical limitations (she has low muscle tone, so she can’t speak with precision, balance reliably, or operate her fingers independently to perform such tasks as touch-typing).   

The narrator and Kate are settled on some old wooden beach chairs on a beach in Kauai, with rich green mountains on either side of them and pristine, blue water stretching out before them. They’re just a short, sandy stroll from a shack that sells drinks, sipping sweet concoctions from coconut shells. Kate’s has no rum, while the narrator’s has plenty.

On October 17th, 1989, there was a pretty big earthquake in San Francisco. Not sure if you remember that, or saw it on the news. I’d been in a few “little” earthquakes before, and they’re actually kind of fun, because the ground jiggles around like Jello for a couple of seconds. This was not like that at all.

I was working at the night class when it happened [He was working as a tutor in the Disabled Student Programs and Services department of San Francisco City College, and the night class served students with any kind of disability, but was primarily set up to accommodate those with jobs in the daytime]. Down in the basement. Actually at the exact moment it hit, I was actually in the bathroom, standing up at a urinal, doing my business, maybe whistling, because I was all alone in there, or maybe reading the stupid graffiti that was all over the wall at eye level. All of a sudden the entire room began to move up and down, the lights went out, and all around me I could hear a terrible loud grinding noise, which was the sound of the building, all around me, being massaged, squeezed, bent, and released.

I had enough sense to maneuver myself to the doorway, because I knew that was the safest place to be, and as I made my way in that direction I was moving through that small bathroom that I knew quite well, but to me this room was now made of rubber, and some gigantic maniac was twisting it around and turning like the bellows of an accordion. Having made it to the doorway, I stood there, holding tight to the sides of the doorframe, as I knew I had to do, as the entire doorway, including the ground on which I stood, continued to move up and down, and I felt like I was riding some kind of surfboard over a choppy sea.

Eventually the movement stopped, and it was dead quiet and dark. But the basement was barely illuminated by emergency lights, so I made my way back to the classroom. There was chaos when I got there, because no one could find the flashlights.

Gradually we formed a chain and got everyone out, including those in wheelchairs, and we stood in the warm evening laughing and making plans.

I could have walked home, but I gratefully accepted a ride on the back of a motorcycle courtesy of Sophia, a brain injured student who I liked because she was extremely hard-working and enthusiastic, despite near-crippling disabilities. She had a passenger helmet for just these situations.

Sophia was always a bit ragged, as if she were pulled recently out of a fight, and her fingers were coarse and rough, accentuating this impression. She wore a leather jacket and untucked guy shirts, tails flapping around, and due to her injury, she couldn’t move her left arm. Or, she could move it, but only in certain ways. You could see a scar beginning at her neck, which went down in the direction of that “gimpy” arm.

As to what caused her injury, all she remembered was sitting at the windowsill of her apartment, and the next thing she knew she woke up in San Francisco General, her arms and legs dangling from the ceiling on ropes. A nurse told her that she had fallen out of her window, had lain on the sidewalk bleeding for about four hours, and that the people who found her thought she was dead. At the hospital, she was brought “back to life.” She had seriously injured her brain in the fall, and one arm, but she somehow managed to live, or they somehow managed to save her life. She has no memory of whether she fell or was pushed. Apparently it’s very common for people to blank out the event that leads to the injury, regardless of whether it was an accident or foul play.

I think a lot of Sophia’s charm came from her feeling extremely lucky to be alive. In a very real sense, she was given a brand new life, because the “old” one, the one before the injury, was so very far away. When people damage their brains like that, they really do become another person.

Your injury, of course, was different, because it happened before you were born, yet in a way, it’s the same: It still transformed you into a completely different person, but in your case, we never got to meet that “first” person.

Oddly enough, there was another Sophia there who had also suffered a brain injury. She was Scottish or Irish, and very pretty, with long, curly blonde hair, makeup, the whole deal, but in contrast with the “first” Sophia, this Sophia was very bitter. I think I would be bitter, too, but the strangest, and most interesting thing about the brain injuries is that they can  go all kinds of ways. The second Sophia was profoundly aware of her lost status as a self-assured person in the world, that she was now sitting around in a cheap government building under fluorescent lights with a bunch of chumps learning baby math, when she should be doing, X, Y, and Z with persons A, B, and C. What happened to her was, she was sunbathing somewhere on Ocean Beach, and wasn’t clearly visible or something, hidden in a dune, and a dune buggy came by and hit her.

The first Sophia, who might have been a child of the streets or whatever, very much a wild kid, was extremely street smart, and I think what that essentially means is working that charm. I’m sure you came across quite a few street-smart folks in your time. You know, it means looking at people directly, and smiling at them. It means showing appreciation, and respect. For many people, that’s pure survival. 

In addition to being street smart, she was just really driven. She clearly wanted to learn, and to express herself, and she had strong ambitions. She was trying to write an essay about The WELL, this ancient online community, which started just four years earlier, in 1985, and just might still exist today. “WELL” is all in capital letters because it stood, or stands for, “whole Earth ‘lectronic link.” Pretty funny how they spelled “electronic” as “’lectronic,” so they could get the word “well,” huh? At the time, so, 1989, this was a very tricky essay to write, because no one wrote about these things back then. People were just starting to use modems to dial into the Internet, and it was text-only. No pictures, no music, certainly no 3D, AI, or anything like that. So she was trying to describe what it was to me, and why it was important, and it all sounded very strange.

I climbed on the back of Sophia’s motorcycle on the night of the earthquake, and I felt a strange sort of thrill, being there. It was really warm in the city, there were throngs of people out, walking, and rooftop parties were already beginning to form; occasionally, you could see and hear, up above, people screaming in reckless joy, drinks in hand. At the first intersection we came to, she slowed down and said, “Ok, this is strange,” and I didn’t know how to drive at the time, so I had a kind of clueless, eternal passenger’s view of the road, but I looked and saw that there were a lot of vehicles in the intersection, more than usual. Then I realized that there were no traffic lights, so everyone had to sense when it was ok to go, and that’s how Sophia got across. It was later that I found out that ever since her injury, whenever she got to a traffic light, she had to quickly run through a process more or less like this:

  1. Ok, there’s that color again.
  2. Now, is that the color called “green,” or is that the color called “red”?
  3. Ok I think it’s the one called “green.”
  4. Now, is “green” the one where you stop, or is “green” the one where you go?
  5. Oh, never mind. I’ll just watch, and see what other people do. 

So in a sense, that was probably the best time for me to be a passenger on Sophia’s motorcycle, because everyone else was more or less on the same level. There were no colors, no codes mediating things, it was just people, in vehicles, figuring out what to do.

These brain injured students were so different from one another. They were called “ABI” students, for “acquired brain injury.” Meaning, they weren’t born with their injuries, as you were, but had “acquired” them at some point in their life. Like you, they functioned like anyone else in many ways, without a disability, except that they had particular areas that were just… broken. But unlike you, they grew up without a head injury so there was more of a contrast between their non-broken and broken aspects.

This one guy, Dan, was a brilliant mathematician before his injury. He rode a mountain bike on a trail without a helmet, which is, well, probably right up there among the least intelligent things that a person can do, and he knew it. Of course you know what I’m about to say; he took a tumble, banged his head on a rock, and damaged his brain.

But this guy was very polite, humble, patient, well spoken, and diligent, as he slowly reconstructed his abilities, building them back up, piece by patient piece, starting with baby math. He told me that after a few years, he could do complex math problems that he used to be able to do before the injury, but he needed to do them very very slowly, using a completely different set of strategies than he used before, and I was imagining that he was forging new pathways in his brain, to circumvent the damaged sites. He said that it would take him all evening, say, four or five hours, to do one problem, whereas before the injury, he could do each problem in about ten minutes or so. But it was something.

Then one day he was sitting working out a problem when he felt as though a whole wall had come tumbling down in his head, and he could suddenly see all around in his head, and could once again do the math problems in ten minutes or so.

Most of the ABI students didn’t say stuff like that; that was pretty unique.

But another one, a young kid, probably a teenager, told me something that I found equally amazing. This kid was painting a house, and had fallen off the roof and hit his head. His speech was profoundly affected, and he had to re-learn how to read and do basic math, but he had a cheerful, happy-go-lucky personality.

At one point, I was sitting around with a bunch of the ABI students and they were talking about their injuries and problems. This kid, in his happy-go-lucky way, said something like, “Being brain injured was the best thing to happen in my life,” and the others sort of ignored him, you know, they looked at him a little like, “who are you?” and the little “party” broke up, folks dispersed, leaving just me and this kid, and I asked him why he would say something like that.

And he told me, beaming, something like, “Ever since the accident, I’ve felt just incredibly happy. It’s like I saw the light.” And I believed him. Like the math guy, this is another situation that is just really rare. But I can see how that could happen. 

Still, after meeting all these ABI students, it occurred to me that I was no longer scared of dying, but that I was terrified of living with an injury like that. Yeah, maybe I’d “see the light” and “get happy,” but most of the time that’s not the way it goes. Not by a longshot. You are going along, minding your own business, and suddenly, wham; you’re just not the person you were before.

When Sophia dropped me off at my apartment building, it was weird, because the intercom didn’t work, nor did the front door lock, so people were taking turns guarding the door. In the confusion as I approached the crowd at the door this young woman who recognized me gave me a hug, and this felt reassuring, but also a little surprising, and looking back, I’m realizing that might have, you know, “gone somewhere,” but it never did. I gratefully walked the dark stairs to my dark apartment, and let myself in. In my little apartment, the only evidence that there was an earthquake was that a shampoo bottle had fallen off of a shelf into the tub. Later, I hung out with Adam and a few others and we watched the TV, which showed pictures of the broken bridge, the broken freeway, the broken buildings. 

In the next few days, or maybe even weeks, everyone in San Francisco talked pretty much only about the earthquake, and that was true about just about every conversation we had with the students, and every single writing topic. I remember that “happy” kid talking to one of the teachers, and he was nodding his head and smiling, and said just the one word, “earthquake,” as though that said it all. And the teacher patiently prompted, “What about the earthquake?” But despite the ground that sometimes moves, I very much appreciated my new routine of walking to work in the community that I lived in, walking to work to talk about the earthquake and coach students in writing about the earthquake, and gradually other topics, walking to work in the funky, quirky Mission district, with its aging Victorians painted lavish colors, its humble cafes and used book stores, so much better than commuting way out to that bland office park in Concord, with its bronze palm trees.

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