UNITED STATES—One Tuesday afternoon, sunny and cool, lullabied by the sound of cars streaming from the 10 to the 110, I neared the end of another day on my Olivetti. Mac, the electrician, ran into the kitchen. “I was watching the World Series on TV,” he panted, his voice congested with emotion. “The camera started shaking. Then TV went blank.”
It was 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989.
The Big One that had been fated for Los Angeles, had struck instead in San Francisco, as the Giants and the A’s met on the diamond at Candlestick Park.
I immediately called home up north. All the phone lines were busy, or maybe they were out, and it was sending a busy signal. Nobody knew the gravity of the situation yet. A half hour later I called again and got a ring. After a few rings I hung up, before anyone answered. I had not spoken to my mom during the time I was in Mexico. Written a few times but not spoken. And was not quite ready to resume speaking. When the phone rang I had the assurance that their part of California had not fallen into the ocean. That was enough.
I was ignorant that the epicenter of the World Series quake was in the Santa Cruz mountains, a few miles from Watsonville. Chimneys tumbled, houses slid off foundations, the old department store—Charles Ford Co.—cracked in the middle, and just down the street, a woman walking out the Bake-Rite bakery with a cake under her arm, was struck dead by a chunk of cornice.
I would learn later that my sister and dad camped out all night in the drug store where all the street windows shattered, leaving it open to looters. There were no looters in Watsonville for greeting cards or pharmaceuticals or anything else. Something else much more treacherous was to appear: city hall flunkies with clipboards who instantly became authorities and authoritarian. They would bark orders at people to leave their homes and businesses, and they would red tag them to be condemned.
The building that housed the drug store was red tagged. The Jefsen Hotel was my parents’ retirement; decades of paying for it had kept us in a frugal way. I learned later that our lousy record player and the Super 8 movie camera—concessions to the technological times—had been freebies from drug wholesalers.
Amidst the gloom a stroke of luck. A new location was found for a greatly streamlined version of my dad’s pharmacy—just enough room for drugs and Russell Stover candy. It required a fast decision. Hesitate and the drug store would have been toast, along with their lifetime investment, the fleabag hotel.
With the help of my sister and a couple employees, they moved the contents of the store. I can only imagine the stress my parents must have suffered, moving a whole business piece by piece, while weighed by the knowledge that the fleabag hotel, all they had worked for, was going to meet a wrecking ball.
It was one more survive-or-die operation in a town where the bedroom of many was now a high school football field and people panicked at every little afterquake; a town where bridges were out, St. Patrick’s church was rubble, and the Odd Fellows’ clock tower had its hands frozen at 5:04 a.m.
My parents needed me more than ever and didn’t know where to find me. My burning desire to “show them” and be a Hollywood success kept me here and blinded me to their need. I wanted to show them I could get along without help, and it never crossed my mind that I might be the person to help. Regret over this has doubtless shaped my character, opened my eyes and made me better. Such is the power of remorse, working in a positive way, but it still doesn’t stop the hurt of the past.
To be continued…
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of “A Very Grady Christmas: Three L.A. Stories,” available on Amazon.com. Grady can be reached at email@example.com/