I got up at 4:30 all on my own this morning. I wanted to be up that early, because I wanted to be in a particular place exactly 42 minutes later. I am not normally a morning person, but it was surprisingly easy this time, because I was so excited about the whole thing. I had to admit that I was amused, though, that I was so very awake, in stark contrast with the people 103 years ago who were enjoying their last 42 minutes of sound unaware sleep.
Lotta's Fountain stands on a small traffic island in the middle of the intersection of Market, Kearny, and Geary. It's been there since 1875, a solid metal object impervious to what was thrown at it 31 years after its placement. As it was a prominent and resilient landmark at the time, people met there to keep track of each other through all the smoke and dust, and they continued to meet there in the following years to remember that morning when everything was so uncertain and nonsensical and terrible. As time went by and the proportion of survivors to their later-generation descendants skewed toward the latter, the meeting became more of an outright ceremony, a celebration of the City itself as a reborn entity just as much as a celebration of its people. I've written about this ceremony in several different stories and contexts, but this year, given that today is April 18th is Saturday, I jumped at the chance to actually be here for it.
Market Street was almost entirely empty at 5 AM, save for the knot of people surrounding the Fountain. There were easily over a hundred of us, possibly as many as two hundred. I was definitely one of the youngest people there, aside from some little kids that accompanied their parents, but on the whole, it was a very diverse crowd. Some seemed to be treating the whole affair very solemnly, apparently focused on the death and destruction that beset the City. Others took more of a festival approach, with flags and whistles and the letters SF emblazoned on pretty much every article of clothing they were wearing. Others still seemed to be largely there in support of the fire department. There was a small but particularly visible contingent of people dressed in period costume, pulling the predawn gathering into the realm of living history now that the event itself is so close to passing from genuine living memory into purely written and photographic records or secondhand accounts. And, this being San Francisco, there were a few particularly colorful characters that seemed to have no connection to the ceremony itself, but were taking the chance for an audience at which to praise Obama, support peace, denounce Proposition 8, and generally garner smiles in reaction. Regardless of the undoubtedly disparate reasons for everyone's interest in attending, it was exciting to see that this many people still care enough about what happened to drag themselves out of bed in the pitch black and collectively remember.
The ceremony proper began with a local senator, the chief of the fire department, the event organizers, and various other fire officials and VIPs of some sort pulling up in an old (though I don't think 103-old) red fire engine. They were followed by a huge shiny black car containing two of the remaining survivors, ages 107 and 105. The survivors were, apparently, interviewed, but I don't think they had a microphone, and I unfortunately couldn't hear a word they said. I'd hoped that I could get a chance to talk to them, but that didn't end up happening. I would have asked, "How do you think the City's view and treatment of these events has changed over the past 103 years?" Judging by the fact that a couple of other survivors died in the past year, this is a question I - or anyone else - might not get another chance to ask.
All the talk stopped at 5:12 AM. There was supposed to be a minute of silence, and that was so important that a few people in the crowd actually shouted at the senator that it was 5:11 and he had to stop talking in a few seconds. And there was actual silence, though not for the full minute; much of it was filled with bagpipes. While I appreciate the use of the instrument in solemn occasions, I would have preferred the actual silence, a long minute of expected lack of obvious noise from anywhere in the streets of such a normally-busy city, a distinct contrast from the minute of rumbling and cracking and growling we were commemorating.
After the silence, there were a few brief words from the senator, the fire chief, author James D'Alessandro, and the event organizer. They spoke of how wonderful it was that so many of us had gathered, how great a City this is to survive so much and come out so strong, how being prepared for the repeat is key to continuing to live here. The actual description of the events went unsaid, however; it didn't need to be described, since we all knew what it was that brought us all out there.
And then we sang. Or some of us did -- I felt awkward in the fact that I did not know the words and thus could not participate. The song in question is called simply "San Francisco," and comes from the 1930s movie of the same name. I didn't know the melody either, but the nondeliberate polytonality of the crowd's singing was still obvious to me. It didn't bother me; the lack of being in a single key didn't matter at all. Those who were singing sounded like they meant it enough to make up for those of us who were keeping quiet, and that sentiment meant far more than the actual music did.
In the end, a wreath was laid on the Fountain, the VIPs returned to their respective vehicles, and they took off in a motorcade of blazing sirens, met with claps and cheers. They did a lap around the block and then disappeared down Market, leaving the crowd to disperse. Some did so immediately, but others lingered longer. I remained there until about 6:30, engaged in conversation about Enrico Caruso, spaghetti western operas, which buildings remain that show signs of damage, what kind of geological mechanisms are responsible and how we understand them so much better now, even though there's still so much we don't know.
The light was right at 6:12 AM. There was no daylight savings time 103 years ago, so their 5:12 was an hour ahead of ours. As I'd read in so many period descriptions of that day, the light was the slightly greeny blue of dawn, with a narrow strip of warm yellow silhouetting the Ferry Building. That was, in a sense, the lightest it got on April 18th 1906; the rest of the day was engulfed in flame and smoke enough to obscure all sense of time of day. April 18th 2009 has been gorgeous and cloudless.