It was 20 years ago today: 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

Written by Sven Eberlein
This is my “where were you” story I had fun with a few years ago…

Something warm and viscous was dripping down the back of my pants. I was on my hands and knees, facing a pair of alert Japanese eyes and the frantic stares of a Moroccan, an Argentinean and a Texan, all hunched under the table like cats under a couch after narrowly escaping the neighbor’s dog. The floor seemed to be breathing, and I felt like I was swimming in one of the artificial wave spas back in my native Germany. After another moment of bathing in this illusion the shaking got more violent and my body retreated into its fetal position. Looking at various kinds of hairballs glued to chunks of Russet potatoes scattered around the floor, the source of the substance trickling down my rear-end suddenly became agonizingly clear: The bowl of chicken gravy on the table!

Just about two years earlier, in September of 1987, I had stepped off the plane for the biggest adventure of my life: One-way ticket from Germany to the San Francisco Bay Area, ready for a life of peace, sunshine and academic advancement at Cal State Hayward. It hadn’t taken long to figure out that it wasn’t Harvard, but this place was much better, anyway. Here at Carlos Bee Hall, the college dormitory, everything was just a bit too quirky to make you long for ivy-league credentials. There was Kenichi, my Japanese roommate who didn’t speak a word of English, Caco, a gay Moroccan who could recite Shakespeare backwards, Mauritio, an Argentinean bodybuilder who dropped the soda machine on his leg while trying to scam a free Coke, and Fish, a Texan Dead Head and master of the Defender video game.

The five of us, fresh off our respective boats and planes, had become the most unlikely of friends in just a short time. Before long, we had established our little ritual of meeting at the Cafeteria round-table for early dinner. October 17th, 1989 was a special day for me because it was Tuesday and that meant we would be indulging in all-you-can-eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes. We had just sat down to discuss the thickness of American gravy in our even thicker foreign accents, when the rumbling began. Somebody screamed “Uuthquake,” and within seconds the whole motley crew of college freshmen and international vagabonds was ducking for cover.

Hunkered under our table, we all looked at Kenichi, whose Japanese origin emanated the confidence of an experienced earthquake veteran. “No wurry, no wurry!” he stuttered, elegantly sewing together two samples of his ten word vocabulary. The rest of us were staring at each other on the floor, not sure whether to be worried or amused. The closest one will come to experiencing an earthquake in Morocco, Argentina or Germany is the shock-wave that stomping soccer fans release to celebrate their team’s winning goal, but this was an entirely different ballpark. After a few more seconds of unrelenting tremors, my whole life flashed by me like a highlight reel, with the closing credits drenched in mashed potatoes and chicken gravy.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I heard myself whisper, as I was backing my saucy behind from underneath the cafeteria table. Then my survival instinct took over and I started hurdling over fallen chairs and salad-bar wasteland toward the door. On my way through the hallway I stumbled by a Namibian exchange student on the verge of breaking Fish’s Defender record. He had battled himself into such ecstasy that he probably thought this was all part of the game. When I finally reached the front door, the shaking had stopped and Carlos Bee Hall stood proud and peaceful against the setting sun of a mild October evening.

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Sven Eberlein

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