Over the next two days, I drove around town the best I could, stopping in at various hangouts to see how friends were making out. In fact, they were, for the most part, doing just fine. The atmosphere in many parts of San Francisco was almost festive. There was lusty cheering—and free champagne—at the Washington Square Bar & Grill when the lights finally came on again. In the heart of the Marina, Bob Mulhern was barbecuing hamburgers on the sidewalk outside his restaurant. There were, predictably, earthquake T-shirts. Herb Caen of the
San Francisco Chronicle
wrote of one shirt that read: THANK YOU FOR NOT SHARING WHERE YOU WERE WHEN THE QUAKE STRUCK.
There was even some talk about the World Series. That Wednesday morning, in a candelabra-bedecked press conference in the still-dark St. Francis Hotel, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent quickly put matters into perspective. Calling the Series "our modest little sporting event" and deferring to the more important, immediate needs of the community, Vincent postponed Game 3 until the time was "appropriate." Nobody I talked to had a quarrel with that decision.
It is often said that there is nothing like a disaster to bring citizens of a community closer together. To me, that now seemed more true than ever. I liked my town, I told myself; it was so damned resilient, so full of humor in the face of things gone wrong. We'll celebrate anything. And I told this to any number of mostly disbelieving out-of-town radio interviewers who called me at odd hours throughout the day in search of gloomy reports from the scene.
The mood was not nearly so happy on Friday when I walked to the Marina, which is not far from where I live, and spent the morning among people suddenly displaced from their damaged and destroyed homes. There was one gray apartment building that was leaning drunkenly over the street, its hours obviously numbered. Persons carrying red slips openly wept, because those meant your building was unsafe and would have to come down. Property damage in San Francisco alone was estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
And yet, the bad news was tempered. By week's end it became apparent that the death toll in the immediate Bay Area was not in the hundreds but in the scores, for there were fewer cars under the fallen overpass on the Nimitz than was at first believed. Under normal rush-hour conditions, that freeway would have had bumper-to-bumper traffic, but on Oct. 17 many commuters left their jobs early, either to drive to Candlestick or to head home to watch Game 3 on television. The World Series, it was suggested, had actually saved lives.
And on Saturday morning, almost four days after the freeway collapsed, a man was pulled from his flattened auto, alive. The skyscrapers downtown were virtually unaffected by the quake, which says something for modern engineering. And the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, which had survived the 1906 quake, appeared largely unharmed, except for a flagpole that was slightly askew.
But it will be a long time before life resumes a normal course here. Traffic, an enormous problem even before the quake, will be a mess for months. And the cleaning up will go on and on. Maybe the resumption of the World Series, now scheduled for Friday, will prove, as many have contended, therapeutic. But the scale of relative importance has shifted significantly. Before the earthquake the city was embroiled in heated debate over Proposition P, the Nov. 7 ballot measure that would permit construction of a new, $115 million downtown stadium for the Giants, to replace the oft-ridiculed Candlestick. Would the fact that the Stick had sturdily survived the quake cast its future into a new light? Will a people confronted by damage in the billions be willing to authorize expenditures for a new ballpark? Maybe, maybe not. But in the wake of the disaster, no one was even asking.