The day after: Two memories of Oct. 18, 1989

October 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 17, 2014

I have two distinct memories — one good, one bad — of the events of Oct. 18, 1989.

That was the day after the infamous Loma Prieta temblor. Classes were canceled that day as the university — indeed, as everyone and everything in the San Francisco Bay Area — assessed the damage from the prior day’s event, which is better known to the rest of the universe as the San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake was a profoundly startling event; one never expects stable elements such as building floors and walls, let alone the ground itself, to gyrate wildly. Relatively few people were killed in the incident, but still the disaster made me contemplate mortality.

A big part of college, of course, is finding one’s identity. And just a few weeks in, it had started to become apparent to me that my true identity was not that of the star student, able to put his nose to the books, concentrate on the text and emerge a few hours later with a strong understanding — let alone mastery — of the material.

(Remember, this was shortly before web browsers were invented, and several years before the expanding popularity of the Internet led to the availability of tools such as Wikipedia, which make it relatively easy for someone to acquire at least cursory knowledge of virtually any topic.)

It also was becoming clearer to me that I wanted to write, or at least to explore a career in writing, even though this didn’t seem like a very practical or remunerative path to take.

The earthquake drove home that I might not live that long. It also reminded me that I probably shouldn’t spend too much time on pursuits that I didn’t enjoy, or on ones that I wasn’t good at.

The specifics of exactly what I did aren’t clear to me, but I recall going that Wednesday afternoon to speak about this with one or more of the RAs in my dorm. Subsequently (that day? another day soon afterward? I’ve no idea), I walked over to the decrepit structure that then housed student publications and talked with some of the editors of Release, a weekly student entertainment and arts tabloid.

I ended up spending a large chunk of my undergraduate career in that building. (Which I gather has since been demolished.) I had a lot of positive moments there, and plenty of negative moments, too. But I look back on my resolving to get involved with student publications as a good decision.

There’s no question that this choice played a big role in influencing the shape of my life, especially my career path.

But something not so good — something which I still remember, and which still pains me — happened earlier that day.

After the earthquake, the community was told to limit water usage. I forget the exact reason for this; either there were questions about whether the quake might have damaged critical parts of the water treatment and/or delivery infrastructure, or there were concerns that the local reservoir (perhaps a dam?) might be cracked and could leak catastrophic amounts of water.

At any rate, on this very sunny and quiet Wednesday, we were facing the prospect of a water shortage that might last days, if not longer. At the time, California was in the midst of what wound being a five-year-long drought, so pretty much everyone was familiar with various water conservation measures. What was new on this day, however, was the fact that everyone was refraining from showering to help ensure that we’d have water available to drink.

At some point, perhaps the early afternoon, I was sitting alone in my dorm room listening to KZSU 90.1 FM, the Stanford radio station. (I believe that I may have been struggling to read Aristotle or something else for my CIV culture survey course.) During my sojourn, one of the student DJs came on the microphone and announced that engineers had inspected the water system and found that it was safe to resume all normal activities.

For some reason, I was unwilling to take this assurance at face value. I’m excellent at imagining problems, many of them completely illusory, so I guess I feared that the announcement might have been some sort of prank, or perhaps I thought that the KZSU disc jockey might have been the victim of some terrible chain of miscommunication.

So I looked up the phone number for KZSU, which must have been in the university telephone book (remember those?!) that was issued to all the students. I got a hold of the DJ and asked if he was sure that it was OK to take a shower. He basically repeated the information he’d read on the air — an inspection of the water system found no issues; it was OK to resume normal usage — and that was that.

I made a beeline for the shower, eager to wash away the grime of having had to stand outside for a few minutes after the earthquake and of the ordeal of having spent the previous night in my own bed.

I remember feeling pretty clever with myself as I showered alone in the third-floor bathroom. I’d been listening to the news! I was well informed about the latest updates! I was the cleanest, best-smelling person in the dorm! I was on the cutting edge!

My smugness would evaporate long before my hair dried.

When I walked back to my dorm room, I encountered a small group of students in the hallway. All looked at me with disgust written on their faces.

Isn’t there a ban on showering? one of the students asked me.

All my self-confidence vanished. I haltingly attempted to explain. Oh, KZSU announced everything was fine with the water supply. I checked that it was OK…

The skepticism that was apparent in my audience was thoroughly dispiriting. It was clear that I had zero credibility. I felt embarrassed and humiliated.

I think about that moment occasionally, and it still makes me cringe. It was one of those times when I became suddenly and starkly aware that how I thought of myself, and how I thought others perceived me, was vastly different from the reality.

Years later, I’m still embarrassed by — and still embarrassed on behalf of — my younger self.

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