Noe Valley Voice April 2007

Florence's Family Album

The Crash of '95

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: When this essay was first published, in the May 1995 Voice, Noe Valley residents were recovering from an extremely wet winter.

During this past winter, one of the rainiest in San Francisco history, my man Leo and I managed to stay high and dry in our old (circa 1907) hillside home. But as the rain fell day after day, we spent many anxious moments looking out the window, watching the water rush down 21st Street to Church, and wondering how much more the earth could take!

We found out just how much one late afternoon at the end of January. We were sitting in front of the television set, scanning the weather report, when we heard a loud crash outside the house. Naturally we dashed to the window to see what had happened.

There in the front yard, our newly-built redwood fence, which separated our property from the neighbor's up
the hill, now had a hole the size of a washing machine, with a big chunk of concrete projecting through it.

It was immediately clear that the massive retaining wall next door had collapsed, sending a large fragment through our fence into the area where we keep our garbage cans.

I gulped, realizing that I could have been the target instead of the garbage cans--one of which was now severely dented--had I been depositing the kitchen refuse at the time of the

Leo also remembered with relief that he had started, but left undone, the task of sweeping out an accumulation of dry leaves from the ill-fated area earlier in the day.

This was indeed a close call! Still, we felt fortunate to have sustained so little damage. It appeared as if only six redwood boards would need to be replaced.

Down at street level, however, we were shocked to see the extent of the destruction to our neighbor's property. A jumble of granite, mud, and rocks had crashed down on top of a car that had been parked in his carport for months awaiting repairs. The car, a 1970 Honda normally measuring 41/2 feet in height, was now compacted to 2 feet and almost completely covered with broken slabs of concrete, dirt, and debris.

The neighbor was not at home, so Leo left him a note, just in case he returned after dark and failed to notice the wreckage. It would have been easy to overlook because the rubble was obscured by a thick growth of ivy, which spilled over a wall at the front of the property.

It was still raining the next morning when we noticed our other neighbors Angus and Mariann Pera searching and calling out for their cat Sammy, who had been missing since the night before. They were afraid he had been buried in the landslide, for Sammy had the habit of sitting like a sphinx on the hood of any stationary vehicle.

After half an hour of calling and still no kitty, the Peras became apprehensive. But finally they spotted their cat lounging on the front stairs of Dr. Jerome Goldstein's Victorian down the street.

In his youth, Sammy had been a fine-looking feline, but now that he was almost 18 years of age, he had lost most of his teeth, and his grey and white
mottled coat was shabby and worn.

Everyone suspected Sammy of being a bit senile, because he no longer had the good sense to come in out of the rain. He would just lie about, smiling so benignly that few passersby could resist petting him or uttering a few words of comfort.

Upon retrieving their cat, the Peras carried him home to dry out in a warm corner. Only a few days later, Sammy expired peacefully during a catnap, with that same blissful smile on his face which had always extended from whisker to whisker.

Over the next week, Webb Hill, owner of the property next door, could often be seen outside, assessing the damage and considering his options for stabilizing the slope.

Webb told us that on the morning of the slide, he had been standing between his Honda and the wall that gave way, removing the battery from the car. He was counting his blessings, he said, despite the fact that he now faced the headache of reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the rains continued relentlessly, causing mud and rocks to slough off into the open pit where the car was entombed.

A few years earlier, the recessed floor and walls of the carport had supported a tall, tilting wooden garage, but Webb had been forced to raze it when it became unsafe.

Still visible above the rubble, on the rear wall, are the shadowy remains of a staircase that once led from the house to the street-level garage below.

I remember when our friends the Hacketts lived there 30 years ago. They called it the "mine shaft," because of the steep, dark descending shortcut to their auto. (Patricia Hackett was then a music educator at San Francisco State. Her husband, J.W. Hackett, is the celebrated haiku poet who wrote much of his work while living in Noe Valley.)

After the January cave-in, the "mine shaft" became a traffic-stopper. Some motorists driving past would come to a dead stop, back up to get a better view, then shake their heads woefully as they departed.

Others took no notice at all. A month passed before one of our neighbors rang the doorbell to ask us when the incident had occurred and if anyone had been in the vehicle.

One afternoon in March a police car veered into our driveway in such an urgent manner that we feared we had erred in the eyes of the law. We were quickly mollified, however, when we found that the officers merely wished to learn the details regarding the wrecked car and to offer their services if needed.

On another occasion we saw a group of young Latino men peering under the ivy and laughing mirthfully. Un pronto low-rider!

Nowadays, whenever we have guests, we lift the ivy and show them the Honda. The sight never fails to elicit a stream of laughter because the front of the automobile has taken on an almost human expression -- a squashed-down face with eyes (the headlights), nose (the parking lights), and a wide, grimacing mouth (the bumper), which seems to be saying, "Ouch!"

For months we have been able to inspect the wreckage daily, by looking through the hole in our fence. So we were heartened on March 21, the vernal equinox, to see a swatch of brilliant color on top of the debris.

A hardy, solitary Montbretia plant, the kind that grows in the older gardens of Noe Valley, had taken root, thrusting its sword-like leaves and orange and yellow blooms upward as if to announce that in spite of everything, spring had arrived at last!