Slap Shots

San Francisco ... in the '90s
Immediately following the earthquake of 1906, survivors of the disaster posted messages for each other at Lotta's Fountain at Geary and Market. This Tuesday morning the former community bulletin board is again a magnet for locals, perhaps 75 souls bundled up in hats and scarves, slurping Bloody Marys in the chilly air, celebrating the annual anniversary of the quake and fire. Police cars and fire trucks block the streets. TV camera crews dutifully record the event, after which they'll reload tape, move down the street and shoot Joe Montana's retirement, then, maybe, cover the anniversary of the baking of the first loaf of sourdough. It's a big news day. The protesters should be showing up any minute with bullhorns: "The quake is a revisionist lie! Doctored photos are proof!"

A woman takes the microphone and makes everyone sing "San Francisco," followed by a prayer and a moment of silence for the thousands killed and 300,000 rendered homeless 89 years ago. As the First Nationwide Bank clock hits 5:12 am, police and fire engine sirens wail at once, echoing off the tall buildings downtown.

For some reason, mayoral flack Noah Griffin is introduced to sing "San Francisco" again. Griffin is a big gregarious guy with large teeth and a great voice, a Nipsey Russell with pipes: "Tell me you're the heart of all the Golden West/ San Francisco, welcome me home again/ I'm coming home to go wandering no more!"

The handful of survivors sit in chairs on a small riser, a pastiche of hearing aids, wrinkly faces and gravely voices. The crowd quiets to hear their stories.

Albert Woodson, 91, lived at an orphanage out in the sand dunes. He doesn't say much about the quake and instead dives into a long, rambling summation of his life. He got a job at the Palace Hotel, delivering flowers and working in a nursery. He met Mr. Hearst one day, and sold him some redwoods. He became an expert on gardening, hosting a radio show on NBC before working in television for many years on the program Digging With Albert, and teaching at various colleges. He winds up his time this morning with the traditional sign-off, "Goodbye and good gardening!"

Dr. Gene Cantu, 89, takes the microphone.
"I'm a San Franciscan. I'm still married to the same woman that I married 58 years ago."

"Is she here?" asks the host.
"No," replies Gene flatly. "She wouldn't get out of bed."
Asked to remember any stories about the earthquake, Gene launches into his version:"We were living on Taylor Street, near Grace Cathedral. The bulk of the earthquake struck through that area. The chimney came through the roof and killed one of my brothers. My other brother developed meningitis. We were living at Portsmouth Square, across from the old Hall of Justice. He died there. I had a sister that went to the Jane Parker School, which was the only girl's grammar school in San Francisco, on Broadway. I've known most of the people in North Beach, and have known them for most of my life, I guess. And that's it. I love this place, and it's unfortunate that most people -- too many people -- aren't interested in what's happening. They hope somebody else will take care of it. That never happens. It takes a lot of people to try and change the changes that are necessary to make this city again something that it used to be, because it certainly is not now. That's my observation. That's it."

Cora Lee is 94, but will turn 95 in a few weeks, so everyone sings happy birthday. Her memory is vivid: "The morning of the earthquake, we were living on Fillmore Street. My father had a fruit store there, and he, of course, got up real early to come down to the market to buy his vegetables, and he never came back. He was killed downtown. He was talking to some men in front of Polladini's -- the fish place -- and the earthquake came, and he got frightened and he started to run across the street, and a pole came down and killed him. So my mother was left with the four children. She had to go out and work. And close down the store -- nobody wanted to run the store. So my mother went out and worked for 25 cents an hour cleaning houses, and she raised us four children. And by the way, I think she did a very good job."

Richard Gross is next: "I was born in San Francisco in 1903. I'm a true San Franciscan. My father was born here in 1876. He was a member of a club called the Centennial Club, a hundred years after independence. A few days after the earthquake, my folks were walking with me and we met another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Brownstone, with a little girl. The little girl was crying. My father asked why the little girl was crying. Her father said, 'She loves soup. And you know, we can't have a fire.' The National Guard and the Army were patrolling the streets with instructions to shoot anyone with a fire. My father said, 'We have a little brick stove on the curbstone, and it's only a few blocks up. If you'll walk with us, we'll make the baby some soup.' Which they did. The first day I met my future wife I fed her, and I've been feeding her ever since."

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