Tuesday, April 18, 2006

San Francisco quakes, Gavin rocks

Today's post is the story of my insanely early morning trip to downtown San Francisco in honor of the 100-year Anniversary of the massive San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Hope y'all can live a vicarious moment or two in the retelling.

Like thousands of other Bay Area residents and those visiting from their own tectonic neighborhoods, I knew I couldn't let this occasion pass me by without checking out the festivities. Every year since 1919, people have been gathering downtown on April 18 around Lotta's Fountain at the intersection of Market, Geary and Kearny streets to lay a wreath in honor of the over 3,000 people killed and the bazillions of dollars that it cost to rebuild the jewel that is this City. This was my first visit to not only the anniversary but also to the centerpiece of this event, which I've passed on many walks and bike rides down Market Street since we arrived here less than 2 years ago.

The Quake in 1906 occurred at 5:12am. To get there for this Centenuary celebration, I left our apartment at 4am. We live approximately 30 yards from a Muni stop and I looked at the schedule last night. As I approached our stop, I looked West up Judah Avenue and saw my free ride (all day!) descending. Munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to wash down the espresso I'd finished in our apartment, I strode to the stop as an older, puffy-but-sporty woman approached me with the introductory statement that, "you must have checked the schedule 'cause you're right on time." Self-satisfaction firmly established, I assumed the benevolent fellow-traveller position as we chatted briefly before the bus (the off-hours replacement of the typical train) pulled up. She lives "just up the hill - since 1962". And she was not the type to be "on the Street at this hour". So I mugged her. Kidding. As we boarded the bus, a young-enough-to-know-what's-what fellow sitting in one of the front seats offered up his spot for my shared-stop pal. "I guess that's one benefit of being old," she said as the former owner of her seat stood and I scooted ahead of him in the cramped aisle being increasingly squeezed toward the back. Yes, that and free refills at Denny's.

Our downtown bus was full already as we headed through the Sunset toward Cole Valley and beyond. As we approached downtown, it got more crammed full than James Gandolfini's colon. But all around were friendly San Francisco folks. I listened somewhat distractedly to a hippie couple (bad, graying ponytails on both the Mom and Dad) giggle at the description
of mosh pit ettiquette offered by their pimply late-teensy son. I was surrounded by folks in fleece with travel mugs in hand, probably full of herbal tea or tasty variations on that theme. During regular service hours, the train heads into a downtown tunnel system slightly less appealing than James Gandolfini's colon (sorry - some jokes just need to be repeated). But this night owl route instead delightfully took us past the homeless doorway squatters on Haight Street before winding onto Market, where we all turned politely away from the more criminal types lining that San Francisco artery.

After getting off a few stops early and walking the remaining blocks down Market, I reached the locale for the ceremony. Lotta's Fountain. A gaudy monstrosity that is beloved nonetheless. Thousands had already gathered. I entered the din. And then reconsidered by view. Eventually, I chose the absolute wrong end of the crowd to join. The North end of Market. Surrounded by high school kids forced out of bed well before dawn by their insistent parents, touristy folks with no perceived balance and their entire lifeswork in their bloated backpacks, 7-foot-tall laggards and the occasional gin-soaked homeless person, I did my best to settle in. And then the speeches began. If I never say this again it will nonetheless forever be true - politicians suck. Even if they're the City's Emergency Planning Agency director who's great-grand-something died in the 1906 tragedy...spilling those details through the conduit of a poorly-crafted, "Webster's Dictionary defines 'tragedy' as" yada yada yada speech makes you sound like a tone-deaf bore. The sole exception on this particular occassion being San Francisco's dreamboat Mayor, Gavin Newsome. This guy's slicker than goose poop. In a good way.

Gavin finally connected with the crowd when he began to interview the "survivors" who were approximately 80% fabulous. Everyone loves someone who's passed the Century Mark. Their self-decrecation alone endears them to youngins like me and, well, everyone younger than them. But the dozen or so creaksters herein were often hilarious, even if the sound system in my smelly seats section often required translation even for the most obvious recollections.

As with so many of these "managed events" you can expect only so much spontaneity. Not much occurred during the actual ceremony, which dragged on from the intended 4:30 to 5:30 timeline until nearly 6:30. If you check my accompanying photos closely, you'll see a shot of the "countdown clock" used to spur the crowd's excitement that they finally stopped spinning just before 6:30. But when things died down and everybody on stage got their chance to uncork their tired shtick, the real fun began.

This is San Francisco, after all. Goofballs are everywhere. One of my favorites - the obscure "12 Galaxies" guy was nearby throughout. As was the Ganga Chieftain freak. I soaked up plenty and decided to head down toward the Ferry Building to catch the sun rising over the Berkeley Hills. This morning like so few others recently was crystal clear. There was a man smoking a stinky cigar beneath the Gandhi statue. The Bay couldn't have been more glassy and reflective. But - and please excuse my scatological referencing - I soon realized that I needed to meet with my cabinet. To align my chi. To take a dump. Thankfully, the Ferry Building has a wondrous handicapped stall and no waiting list, so to speak. My bidness done, my glow restored, I waited at the crosswalk outfront, distracted by two Financial District athleto-leano-fascisto types with their Peet's Coffee Venti low-fat latte cups when one said, "there's The Man Himself". I turned to see none other than Gavin Newsome striding confidantly from his Lincoln Towncar. He bounded up the exterior stairs to the banquet-level floor of the Ferry Building before I could even give him advice about his political future. The band inside began playing before the door "swooshed" shut behind him. I asked one of the then breathless 20-ish interns checking off names on a clipboard what event was occurring. It was the "1906 Commemaritive Sponsor Breakfast", she cheerfully responded. I should have had a joke ready. But I didn't. This City suffered enough a Century ago.

So I rode the free Muni back from downtown after returning to Lotta's Fountain to see just how surreal the dismantling of such a spectacle can become. I stepped up to the podium (moved aside and now facing the Fountain) and gave my best Nixon salute. I watched huddled crowds of TV production techs chain-smoking and obviously lamenting that it was barely 7am. Random folks in period dress meandered away from this prior center of activity. 100 years ago this City was beat around like rented Yugo before being thrown into the chasm of reconstruction. Today...well, today's just another beautiful, surprisingly poetic moment in the Life of an astonishing City. I will leave this place in a matter of months. But I feel as though I have seen enough to always draw my heart back. Today will always be a special moment in that reflection.

I'll throw up a pile of pics later. Hope your own day began with a surge and continues on 'til the wee hours. Rock on.

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