In 1991, my family suffered a great loss. It was our house. The firestorm in Oakland/Berkeley took our house along with almost 4000 others. Looking back on it, it’s hard to imagine that many homes being lost in a single event. But it happened and we survived. I was home alone that morning and the only family member to see the last minutes of the house. Luckily, I escaped in time and was able to drive our Peugeot station-wagon out of the neighborhood and over to my friend Dante’s home. After a few hours of calming down while watching the news, I finally got in touch with my parents who were at a near by relief center. We stayed at my uncle’s house in Oakland the next few nights waiting for permission to visit the neighborhood.
I have many memories of what happened that week, but two of them have had a very vivid lasting impression on me. The first memory was seeing the entire neighborhood completely burned to the ground only left with chimneys and foundation walls. It was a completely different landscape. Everything was in black and white, or so it seemed. Even the red bricks of the chimneys were scolded grey and black. The scene looked like a black and white photograph of a bombed city during world war II. As I looked around at the other lots and our neighbors sifting through their debris, I was reminded that even though the houses and contents were gone, we were still alive and that’s all that mattered. The only things in color that day were the people.
The other memory I have is lifting up some burnt remains of my house and finding broken shards of pristine chinese porcelain from our kitchen. Yes they were broken, and yes they could not be salvaged, but it was truly amazing to find these gleaming white pieces of ceramics with brightly painted decorations amongst the grey-scale carnage. When I examined the pieces more carefully, I wondered how a force so powerful like the fire could affect everything so dramatically except for these little pieces of clay. At 15 years old, and completely unaware of it, I was having a serious existential moment with my life and the objects that surrounded me.
to be continued…
*photos via google