Tuesday, February 17, 2009

World-class Worry Wart

I had the great good fortune of growing up in a three-story Victorian house that had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. My parents bought this house in 1970 and slowly rehabilitated it away from its turn-of-the-century bordello interior and hideous stucco'ed exterior. For all its beauty and mostly-original charms, it was a pretty nerve-wracking place to grow up in and taught me at a young age to worry up a storm.

My room was on the third floor, under the eaves, with windows that looked down onto Liberty Street far below. It was cozy and fulfilled all my childhood fantasies of living in a garrett, spying the world from my crow's nest, hiding out in my hermit's cave. But in a strong wind or when the 24 rumbled up and down Castro in the days before the bus line was electrified, the windows rattled like mad. A little dwarf-size closet door under the eaves would also creakily and ever-so-slowly open on its own in that same strong wind, leaving me many a night wide-eyed and terrified, waiting for something to come crawling out. The stairs creaked and popped, sometimes when there was no one on them. Creepy cracked skylights scared the wits out of me more than once. And don't even get me started on the basement.

As a San Franciscan child, I was steeped in the lore of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. I was constantly aware of it, thinking about how our house had survived it, and constantly waiting for the next Big One. Some well-meaning person had given me a reproduction of the front page of the San Francisco paper from the time of the Earthquake as a birthday gift when I was probably 9. In its cheap plastic frame, this stood in my room for years, filling my head with the details. April 18, 5:13 am. 3,000 dead. A fire that burned for four days, burning 2/3 of the city’s houses.

And here I was in our rickety wooden house that could barely withstand a gust of wind and would likely not be as lucky the next time.

Over and over, night after night, I’d mull the possibilities. When the Big One came, would the house crumble? If I was in my room, could I possibly survive, my third floor collapsing neatly on top of the other two?

Or would the house, instead, fall backward in one piece and slide down the steep hill toward 20th Street? That might be survivable, since I could crawl out the windows of my room and ride it out.

But what if somehow it toppled the other way, into Liberty Street? Could I move fast enough toward the back of the house, so that I could crawl out the windows and stand atop the rubble?

Would I be in my pajamas?

Where should I keep my valuables so I could grab them and how could I be sure to get Pancho, my beloved dog-brother, out with me?

And if the house survived, but the fire came, how would the firefighters get me out of those old windows? Would the ladders reach?

What if I had to jump?

It's no wonder I am so very good at worrying. Thanks to that house, I devoted countless sleepless childhood hours to honing my craft, so that the reflex to go mentally catastrophic is instantaneous and I can almost always - no matter the situation - find something to worry about. It's a source of endless amusement to my zen husband. But we'll see who's laughing when the roof caves in and I'm the one with the well-articulated escape plan. ;)

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