Apr. 18, 2004

The Prodigal Son's Brother

by Steve Kowit

SUNDAY, 18 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "The Prodigal Son's Brother," by Steve Kowit, from The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press).

The Prodigal Son's Brother

who'd been steadfast as small change all his life
forgave the one who bounced back like a bad check
the moment his father told him he ought to.
After all, that's what being good means.
In fact, it was he who hosted the party,
bought the crepes & champagne,
uncorked every bottle. With each drink
another toast to his brother: ex-swindler, hit-man
& rapist. By the end of the night
the entire village was blithering drunk
in an orgy of hugs & forgiveness,
while he himself,
whose one wish was to be loved as profusely,
slipped in & out of their houses,
stuffing into a satchel their brooches & rings
& bracelets & candelabra.
Then lit out at dawn with a light heart
for a port city he knew only by reputation:
ladies in lipstick hanging out of each window,
& every third door a saloon.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1906 an earthquake struck San Francisco. It was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. At the time, San Francisco had a population of about 450,000 people and was the busiest port on the Pacific coast of the United States. Business had been booming, and new office buildings, factories, mansions, and hotels had been constructed all over the city.

The earthquake began near dawn, at 5:12 AM on a Wednesday morning, and lasted for a little over a minute. Scientists later determined that the San Andreas Fault had moved about twenty-three feet. The quake measured 8.3 on the Richter scale, and it was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and as far east as central Nevada. The epicenter was near San Francisco.

A San Francisco journalist named James Hopper said, "The earthquake started . . . with a direct violence that left one breathless. . . . There was something personal about the attack; it seemed to have a certain vicious intent. My building quivered with a vertical and rotary motion and there was a sound as of a snarl. . . . My head on the pillow, I watched my stretched and stiffened body . . . springing up and down and from side to side like a pancake in the tossing griddle of an experienced French chef."

A policeman said, "[The streets] began to dance and rear and roll in waves like a rough sea in a squall, [then] sank in places and vomited up car tracks and the tunnels that carried the cable. These lifted themselves out of the pavement, and bent and snapped."

After the quake ended, most people tried to get out of their homes. One man said, "Humanity began to pour out of the buildings like ants. . . . I saw women in their night robes, and men in pajamas and striped underwear all around me. Many knelt down and prayed while others laughed . . . at the outlandish array of wearing apparel."

The world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso had performed at San Francisco's Grand Opera House the night before, and he woke up in his bed as the Palace Hotel was falling down around him. He stumbled out into the street, and because he was terrified that that shock might have ruined his voice, he began singing.

There was a loud sound of an explosion as the city gas plant blew up. Wooden structures caught fire from overturned stoves and immediately began to burn. The fire department went out to fight the fires, only to find that the city had lost all of its running water. Firemen attempted to stop the spread of fire by dynamiting whole city blocks, but despite their efforts, the fire raged for three days and most of the city burned to the ground.

One man took refuge from falling debris in a meat locker, only to find himself freezing to death. Then the fire came and kept him from freezing, and the freezer saved him from the fire.

People slowly began to realize the extent of the destruction. Hundreds of houses had collapsed, hotels had broken off their foundations and toppled over. Thousands of chimneys had fallen through roofs. The new city hall was destroyed. More than 500 city blocks and more than 28,000 buildings were in ruins. 250,000 people were left homeless. Nearly 3,000 people died. Americans mourned the loss of San Francisco, one of the country's greatest cities. The journalist Will Irwin wrote in the New York Sun, "The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, lightest-hearted, most pleasure-loving city of this continent, and in many ways the most interesting and romantic, is a horde of huddled refugees living among ruins. . . . San Francisco is the city that was."

But people immediately began rebuilding the city. In three years, about 20,000 new buildings went up. Someone wrote an anonymous rhyme to boost morale in the building effort; it went, "Hear the hammers click and clatter? Hear the donkey-engines snore? We are making San Francisco four times bigger than before."

Since it was rebuilt, San Francisco has continued to be one of the most beloved cities in America, and one of the most beloved by writers. John Steinbeck said, "[San Francisco] is a golden handcuff with the key thrown away." And William Saroyan said, "If you're alive, you can't be bored in San Francisco."

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