The place I’ve called home for the past year or so is a motel just off Route 1 as it heads down the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. Late on the night of the earthquake a friend called me from where she lived near Carmel, an hour’s drive south, to tell me what had happened. It was early the next day with me, since I was in southern Ireland, having just buried my mother. God was having a busy month of it. Aside from Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake, He had found time to direct a few cows into the path of a train carrying pilgrims to a shrine at Knock, in County Clare. Why put the pilgrims on a train to pray to Our Lady of Knock if He was going to detain them with injuries after the train crashed into the cows? He must have planned it out, right from the moment He created Knock, centuries ago.
It was hard to get news of the earthquake’s damage directly from my motel, but secondhand reports indicated it was still standing. When I got back the following week the kind Dutch ladies who live next door had cleaned everything up. In my kitchen there was a bucket full of broken crockery and the remains of Robespierre’s head. I had plaster-of-Paris bas-reliefs of Robespierre and Saint-Just hanging on the wall. At a shock of 7.1 on the Richter scale Robespierre, who believed in the Supreme Being, plunged from the wall. Saint-Just, who probably agreed with Fouché that the words ‘Death is nothing but eternal sleep’ should be posted at the gates of all French cemeteries, dropped too, but stayed in one piece. I could have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for money to buy a couple of teacups and a new Robespierre, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. Around the motel, residential and catering to the lower end of the income scale, the fear was that the owner would himself use FEMA money to upscale the place and throw everyone into the street.
A couple of days later I went for a walk round Watsonville with my friend Frank Bardacke, who has lived there for 17 years. You would not have known it from the daily newspapers – initially at least – but Watsonville, about eighteen miles from the epicentre in the Santa Cruz Mountains, had been hit the worst. Of 765 buildings destroyed in Santa Cruz County, 333 were in Watsonville, as were 553 of the 2438 buildings countywide suffering major damage. We walked along Lincoln St and at first all seemed well, aside from tumbled chimneys announcing the folly of building with brick in California. Then there’d be a swath of disaster: boarded-up windows, porches askew, red tags on the front door indicating that the places were done for. With a house as with a person, the dividing line between life and death can be almost imperceptible. We’d look at an apparently healthy house marked with the fatal tag, and only after a minute or two see the skewed twist to the roof that meant the quake had bounced it off its foundation blocks and broken its back.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.