T is for Topsy-Turvy: Our interviewees describe when things went haywire

It’s been a topsy-turvy couple of years. But it’s not the only time in recent memory that the world’s turned upside down. As the Omicron variant has once again derailed our path to normalcy, I decided to search the Oral History Center’s collection to see what our interviewees have described as topsy-turvy. Referencing the trivial to some of the most challenging times in recent history, those who used the adjective included household names like Chief Justice Earl Warren and California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, as well as artists, urban planners, venture capitalists, and Rosie the Riveters. Topics raised include the rise of Hitler, atomic weapons, the Great Depression, educational equity, campaign finance, messy houses, and downtown San Francisco. Here are the results. 

See below for a detailed description of how to search our collection by a keyword like topsy-turvy.

Mannequin crumpled over broken furniture in a test house after an atomic explosion
Mannequin after the Operation Cue atomic blast, 1955 (Photo: National Archives)

The rise of Hitler

Betty Hardison: Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project

“The world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly.” 

During World War II, Betty Hardison worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyards for the department responsible for repairing ships damaged during Pearl Harbor. Here she reflects on why she gave up her dream of university and journalism and took her first job.

Betty Hardison
Betty Hardison

When it was time to go off to school, I sold my clarinet and I went to Armstrong Business College in Berkeley. . . . It no longer exists, but it was a very prominent business school at the  time. I took secretarial and all phases of business. But at that time, then, the world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly. . . . Journalism was a strong goal. I had been editor of the yearbook and things like that, so I thought that I wanted to go to the university and take journalism. But then with the world being turned upside-down, I went for my first job.

Related discussion within the interview: educational expectations for women, life in Calistoga, California during the Great Depression

Downtown San Francisco

Robert Riley: 1988–2000 Curator of Media Arts, SFMOMA 75th Anniversary 

“He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad.”

Three screens on a wall with blurry images of street scenes
Steve McQueen’s “Drumroll” on display (Photo: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art)

Robert Riley, the curator of media arts for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recalled the inspiration for artist Steve McQueen’s work, Drumroll. McQueen had visited San Francisco during the exhibit of his work, Bear, in the early 1990s. 

When he was in San Francisco, he experienced the hurly-burly, topsy-turvy development of the downtown—there was a lot of construction when he was here. There was traffic mayhem. . . . He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad. He work-shopped an idea here of putting a camera lens into the drain hole of a striped orange construction barrel, which he borrowed. He’s a large man. He decided to start pushing the barrel down the street and just telling people to look out.

Related discussion within the interview: acquisition of Steve McQueen’s work, Bear; the development of Drumroll 

Atomic bomb testing

Jean Fuller: Organizing Women: Careers in Volunteer Politics, Law, and Policy Administration

“Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?”

Jean Fuller, director of women’s activities of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1954–58, was present at an atomic bomb test explosion in May 1955, dubbed Operation Cue. Conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission outside of Las Vegas, the test was designed to determine how the blast would affect people (represented by mannequins), food, and various structures. Looking at before and after photos of a test home, Fuller discusses the results with her interviewer, Miriam Stein. 

Jean Fuller in coveralls leaning on a sign that says Civil Defense Administration
Jean Wood Fuller, 1958 (Photo: Federal Civil Defense Administration/Internet Archive)

Fuller: Now, here’s the before scene of that living room where we saw the man all topsy-turvy. As you see there were draperies and there were Venetian blinds. Now, had they had the draperies pulled completely across, the blinds probably would not have done quite as much damage but they were only as people normally leave them.

Stein: Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?

Fuller: No, he was upside down here someplace.

Stein: That’s right. He was hanging over a chair.

Fuller: Yes, but he undoubtedly would have been dead.

Related discussion within the interview: detailed account of the atomic test

Campaign finance

Earl Warren Sr.: Conversations with Earl Warren on California Government

“Some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy.”

Earl Warren, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and also received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was governor of California and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Here he discusses campaign finance with his interviewer, Amelia Fry, and an editor from Doubleday and Company, Luther Nichols, who was assisting Warren with his autobiography.

Earl Warren painting
Official paining of Earl Warren as governor of California

Nichols: I think Alioto spent half a million dollars—

 Warren: More than that.

 Nichols: It came out to something like six dollars a voter — six dollars a vote—

 Warren: Well, I’ll tell you. Of course, it’ll go along that way and then some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy. Now, you take that fellow who was elected—was it governor or senator—in Florida this year [1971]. He was a little country lawyer, Chiles, his name is— He’s a little country lawyer, he had no money of any kind to spend, but he told them he was going to start in the north of Florida and was going to walk clear through the state making his campaign. And, by George, he did. He’d arrange every way that— To start in the morning where there was a television station, and they’d pick him up there, say something about him, and he’d always stop at a television station at night. [Laughter] He got publicity that way and never spent a nickel on it, and he went all through the state, and he beat the whole outfit. [Laughter]

 Fry: And he got all that free TV time!

 Warren: Oh yes, he got all that free TV time.

 Fry: He must have had a million dollars of TV time!

 Warren: [Laughter] And never paid a dime for it!

Related discussion within the interview: decision to run for governor, campaign finance

Education

Justice Cruz Reynoso: California Supreme Court Justice, Professor of Law, Vice-Chair United States Commission on Human Rights, and 2000 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient

“Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting.”

Cruz Reynoso, who received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was the first Hispanic California State Supreme Court justice. Here he reflects on race relations and parental involvement in schools.  

Cruz Reynoso
Cruz Reynoso (Photo: UC Davis School of Law)

I will tell you a story because it turns things topsy-turvy. I may have told you about this. I was invited to go speak on a Saturday to a parent-student group in a school in the Los Angeles area. When I got there, I noticed that practically everybody involved was Spanish-speaking, and a great majority of the kids there were there, but the leadership of the PTA and practically everybody in charge was Latino. So I asked, “Is this an entirely Latino school? Do you have some other folk?” And they said, “Oh yes, about 20 percent of our students are Anglo.” And I said, “Well, where are the Anglo parents?” And they said, “We don’t know. We keep inviting them; they just don’t come.” I was bemused because I have heard that story told a hundred times about Latino parents by Anglo parents, “You know we keep sending these notices. They don’t come. They must not be—” They don’t say this, but the implication is “they must not be interested in education or must not be interested in their kids.” Well, I just said, “Maybe you ought to do something more so they feel comfortable when they come to these meetings and so on.” Something is not quite right when 20 percent of the parents don’t come to a Saturday function that is supposed to be good for everybody. I don’t know what they have done right or wrong, I really don’t. I nonetheless have the absolute sense that they haven’t done enough. Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting. And we as human beings are smart enough to be able to figure things out on how to make those folk feel more comfortable and so on.  

Related discussion within the interview: affirmative action generally, and in particular at UC Berkeley

Venture capital partnerships

Paul Bancroft III: Early Bay Area Venture Capitalists: Shaping the Economic and Commerce, Industry, and Labor Landscape

“Others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today—I don’t mean today, but up until recently.”

Paul “Pete” Bancroft was an early participant in the venture capital industry and president, CEO, and director of Bessemer Securities Corporation. Mr. Bancroft also devoted considerable time to The Bancroft Library, which was founded by his great grandfather, Hubert Howe Bancroft. 

Paul Bancroft
Paul “Pete” Bancroft

It finally evolved, unfortunately, to the point where the venture capital partnerships were investing so much money that with the fees they were getting, the 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the assets, that they were making more money that way than they were on the profits that were being made when the investments were sold. It meant that they were really starting to lose sight of really making money on the companies they were investing in. Which is why Arthur Rock and others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today— I don’t mean today [2010], but up until recently.

Related discussion within the interview: venture capital partnerships, CEO salaries, Bessemer Venture Partners

The de Young Museum. . . and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jim Chappell: Directing the Resurgence of SPUR & Urban Planning in San Francisco

“Who can hate a baby seal?”

Jim Chappell is a retired urban planner whose forty-year career focused on intertwining environmental conservation into urban design. As the director of the nonprofit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), he helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Here he discusses design and structural problems with two California landmarks.

Jim Chappell with San Francisco Ferry Building in the background
Jim Chappell

The de Young Museum harkens back to the Midwinter Exposition of 1894, and then opened as the de Young Museum in 1895. It grew topsy-turvy over the years and was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In fact, they built a steel exoskeleton around it to keep the walls from falling down. It had never been a great museum in terms of collection or building. And they are related. . . . 

The [Monterey Bay] Academy was three or four years behind the de Young, so they got to learn from the mistakes, or at least knew what they were going to be up against when they started. Like the de Young, it was a building that had grown like topsy and was a mess of a building even before the earthquake. And then in the earthquake, pipes broke, which isn’t very good if you’re an aquarium. . . .

A baby seal peaking up out of the water
A baby seal

So in March 2000—this was three-and-a-half years after the first de Young bond vote—there was an $87 million bond on the ballot for the Academy. They needed 66 2/3 percent “yes.” They got sixty-seven. Phew. Just sneaked by. It was a different call than “old art.” It was “kids.” Their poster for the “yes” on the measure was a baby seal. Who can hate a baby seal? 

Related discussion within the interview: California’s proposition system, the adaptability of Golden Gate Park, and the evolution of parks and recreation since the 1800s.

Some other references to topsy-turvy

The Great Depression

You see, you had a topsy-turvy country.” Karl Holton, first director of the California Youth Corrections Authority, in the oral history collection, Earl Warren and the Youth Authority.

Art 

“I am  astounded  by  the  energy  of  her  construction  machinery  in  the  landscape, the  ‘topsy-turvy,’  earthquaking  quality  she  accentuates  in  her  paintings  of  San  Francisco  streets,  and  the  destruction  of  the  cumbersome Embarcadero  Freeway.” Nell Sinton: An Adventurous Spirit: The Life of a California Artist

Organizational turmoil

“Then, after a little over three years there, when things went topsy-turvy at DuPont Merck, I called Bill and asked, ‘Got a job left there?’ So that’s when I came back to Chiron, in ’94. It was an interesting period.” David W. Jr. Martin: UCSF Professor, Genentech Vice President of Research, and Beyond

The music industry

“The whole job pays 1500 bucks, this is a seven-piece band, but it cost $500 to rent the piano. So the piano is making three times what any of the musicians are making. This is how things have gone. The world, everything’s topsy-turvy. The priorities are all askew. So this is the kind of stuff we’re facing.” Jazz musician John Gill in Turk Murphy, Earthquake McGoon’s, and the New Orleans Revival.

A house in disarray

“We arrived in the most topsy-turvy mess of things in that house.” Ursula Bingham: A Lady’s Life: New England, Berkeley, China

How to search for a keyword like topsy-turvy

You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. From our home page, I entered topsy turvy in the search box and clicked search. (I did not get a different result with/without a hyphen.) There were 18 total results, including when the interviewer used the term or it appeared in an introduction. 

Screen shot of search box

When you get to the results page, you might not initially see any oral histories. This is because the “full text” feature is off by default. On the results page, toggle on “Fulltext search.” A number of oral histories will populate on that page in a list. Please note that sometimes I get better results when I change the default “all the words” to “partial phrase.”

Screen shot of results page showing "full text off"

 

Screen shot of results page showing full text on

Screen shot showing partial phrase

From the results list, click on any oral history. The next page will provide information about the oral history, such as interviewer, publication date, project, and so on. That page also enables you to read or download a PDF of the oral history. Without downloading, I entered the word “topsy” into the oral history search feature and selected “highlight all.” Then I just clicked on the arrow to be taken directly to the word. Repeat clicking on the arrow to see all examples of the search term within the oral history. 

Screen shot of search within the Oral HIstory

Jill Schlessinger is communications director and managing editor for the Oral History Center. She received her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials, including our podcasts and articles, are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.


Just launched: the Global Social Responses to COVID-19 Web Archive!

We are pleased to announce that the Global Social Responses to COVID-19 Web Archive has been launched. Created in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic — and curated by 29 librarians throughout the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation and beyond — the Archive documents regional, social responses to the pandemic, which are critical in understanding the scope of the pandemic’s humanitarian, socioeconomic, and cultural impact. With an emphasis on websites produced by underrepresented ethnicities and stateless groups, the Archive covers (but is not limited to): sites published by non-governmental organizations that focus on public health, humanitarian relief, and education; sites published by established and amateur artists in any realm of cultural production; sites published by local news sources; sites published by civil society actors and representatives; and relevant blogs and social media pages. At the time of its launch, the Archive featured over 2,000 websites from over 80 countries in over 50 languages.

You can access the collection in Archive-It here: https://archive-it.org/collections/14022.

For more information about the Global Social Responses to COVID-19 Web Archive (including a full list of curators), see: libguides.princeton.edu/covid-ivy.

For a blog post that may be redistributed across the Confederation and beyond, please see the following: https://ivpluslibraries.org/2021/03/iplc-launches-the-global-social-responses-to-covid-19-web-archive/.

The Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation’s Web Collecting Program is an initiative of the Confederation’s Collection Development Group, under the direction of the Web Collecting Advisory Committee and Samantha Abrams, the Web Resources Collection Librarian. If you have questions about the Global Social Responses to COVID-19 Web Archive (or if you’d like to get involved by proposing one of your own collections), please reach out to ivyplusweb@library.columbia.edu.

I hope you’ll join me in recognizing those (copied here) involved in making this important resource available to researchers and the general public: Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez, Ellen Ambrosone, Yuusuf Caruso, Paloma Celis Carbajal, Stuart Dawrs, Charlotte Giles, Glaudia Götze-Sam, Tristan Hinkel, Bogdan Horbal, Lunja Jeschke, Thomas Keenan, Ksenya Kiebuzinski, Miree Ku, Joshua Kueh, Hyoungbae Lee, Heather Martin, Brandon Miliate, Brendan Nieubuurt, Setsuko Noguchi, Liladhar Pendse, Anna Rakityanskaya, Deborah Schlein, Joshua Seufert, Alain St. Pierre, Sean Swanick, Amy Torres, Gudrun Wirtz, Ryan Wolfson-Ford, and Lou Zhou.

Source: Samantha Abrams, Columbia University Libraries. Posted by Liladhar Pendse- participant-curator in the archival project (UC Berkeley Library).


Episode 3 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our third episode is from Amanda Tewes.

Episode 3

Greetings, everyone. This is Amanda Tewes.

As we are all still hunkering down at home, I wanted to share with you a few selections from Robert Putnam’s classic book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Now, I can’t say that this book is a personal favorite of mine – in fact, it brings up some not-so-fun memories of cramming for my doctoral exams in American history – but it has been on my mind lately, especially in thinking about our shifting social obligations to one another in times of crisis, like the 1918 Influenza Epidemic or the heady days after 9/11. 

Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, following decades of what he saw as degenerating American social connections, and much of the book reads like a lament of a changing American character. 

In the context of our current moment, the following passages stood out to me:

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The Charity League of Dallas had met every Friday morning for fifty-seven years to sew, knit, and visit, but on April 30, 1999, they held their last meeting; the average age of the group had risen to eighty, the last new member had joined two years earlier, and president Pat Dilbeck said ruefully, “I feel like this is a sinking ship.” Precisely three days later and 1,200 miles to the northeast, the Vassar alumnae of Washington, D.C., closed down their fifty-first – and last – annual book sale. Even though they aimed to sell more than one hundred thousand books to benefit college scholarship in the 1999 event, co-chair Alix Myerson explained, the volunteers who ran the program “are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. They’re dying, and they’re not replaceable.” Meanwhile, as Tewksbury Memorial High School (TMHS), just north of Boston, opened in the fall of 1999, forty brand-new royal blue uniforms newly purchased for the marching band remained in storage, since only four students signed up to play. Roger Whittlesey, TMHS band director, recalled that twenty years earlier the band numbered more than eighty, but participation had waned ever since. Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tens of thousands like them across America began to fade.

It wasn’t so much that old members dropped out – at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members. Organizational leaders were flummoxed. For years they assumed that their problem must have local roots or at least that it was peculiar to their organization, so they commissioned dozens of studies to recommend reforms. The slowdown was puzzling because for as long as anyone could remember, membership rolls and activity lists had lengthened steadily.

In the 1960s, in fact, community groups across America had seemed to stand on the threshold of a new era of expanded involvement. Except for the civic drought induced by the Great Depression, their activity had shot up year after year, cultivated by assiduous civic gardeners and watered by increasing affluence and education. Each annual report registered rising membership. Churches and synagogues were packed, as more Americans worshipped together than only a few decades earlier, perhaps more than ever in American history.

Moreover, Americans seemed to have time on their hands. A 1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago fretted that “the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. Life magazine echoed the warning about the new challenge of free time: “Americans now face a glut of leisure,” ran a headline in February 1964. “The task ahead: how to take life easy.” …

…For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently, without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. 

Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league at the Ypsi-Arbor Lanes in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Lambert, a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years when Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert’s need and unexpectedly approached him to offer to donate one of his own kidneys.

“Andy saw something in me that others didn’t,” said Lambert. “When we were in the hospital Andy said to me, ‘John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn’t hesitate to do this all over again.’ I got choked up.” Boschma returned the feeling: “I obviously feel a kinship [with Lambert]. I cared about him before, but now I’m really rooting for him.” This moving story speaks for itself, but the photograph that accompanied this report in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American. That they bowled together made all the difference. In small ways like this – and in larger ways, too – we Americans need to reconnect with one another. That is the simple argument of this book.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

There is a lot to find discouraging these days, but I actually have been heartened to see the ways in which Americans – and individuals the world over – have been committing and recommitting to each other and to their communities. Citing a “now more than ever” argument, folks are setting up local pop-up pantries with food, household supplies, and books; some are reaching out to their neighbors for the first time; and of course, we are practicing social distancing not just to keep ourselves safe, but also our communities.

Witnessing these acts, I have to wonder if Putnam’s argument about a decline in social obligations and connectivity was just one moment in American history and not a full picture. What will the historical narrative about this time be? Are we now experiencing a blip in social relations, or is this a great turning point? I’m hoping for the latter.

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!


Episode 2 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our second episode is from Shanna Farrell.

Episode 2

These are strange, challenging times that we’re living through. As we shelter in place near and far, trying to reduce our chances of contracting the coronavirus, each day brings news of something else, the dust barely settled from the day before. It’s forced us to adapt quicker than we thought possible. Or maybe that’s just me.

As the fallout from this global pandemic unfolds, I’ve been watching as an industry I love – food and beverage – has begun to collapse. Bars and restaurants all over the world, including in the Bay Area, have closed their doors indefinitely. There are over half a million restaurant workers in San Francisco alone, many of whom are scrambling to stay on their feet. My partner, who manages a bar in the heart of a thriving neighborhood, was temporarily laid off, along with over 1,000 other employees in his company alone.  But as their income and health insurance evaporated, people in the service industry have banded together, creating fundraisers and support groups. Maybe there is hope in the dark.

This community-driven spirit is one of the reasons why I cherish the food and beverage industry. It’s also made me think about Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Solnit chronicles how people pull together in times of crisis from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to 9/11. As a realist who tries my best to be optimistic, I’m hoping that we can all take a page out of this book – restaurant industry and beyond – and emerge from this pandemic stronger than when it found us. 

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Paradise Built in Hell, a chapter called “The Mizpah Cafe” about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

The Mizpah Cafe

The Gathering Place

The outlines of this particular disaster are familiar. At 5:12 in the morning on April 18, 1906, about a minute of seismic shaking tore up San Francisco, toppling buildings, particularly those on landfill and swampy ground, cracking and shifting others, collapsing chimneys, breaking water mains and gas lines, twisting streetcar tracks, even tipping headstones in the cemeteries. It was a major earthquake, centered right off the coast of peninsular city, and the damage it did was considerable. Afterward came the fires, both those caused by broken gas mains and chimneys and those caused and augmented by the misguided policy of trying to blast firebreaks ahead of the flames and preventing citizens from firefighting in their own homes and neighborhoods. The way the authorities handled the fires was a major reason why so much of the city–nearly five square miles, more than twenty-eight thousand structures–was incinerated in one of history’s biggest urban infernos before aerial warfare. Nearly every municipal building was destroyed, and so were many of the downtown businesses, along with mansions, slums, middle-class neighborhoods, the dense residential-commercial district of  Chinatown, newspaper offices, and warehouses. 

The response of the citizens is less familiar. Here is one. Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser, whom a local newspaper described as a “women of middle age, buxom and comely,” woke up on the floor of her bedroom on Sacramento Street, where the earthquake had thrown her. She took time to dress herself while the ground and her home were still shaking, in that era when getting dressed was no simple matter of throwing on clothes. “Powder, paint, jewelry, hair switch, all were on when I started my flight down one hundred twenty stairs to the street,” she recalled. The house in western San Francisco was slightly damaged, her downtown place of business–she was a beautician and masseuse–was “a total wreck,” and so she salvaged what she could and moved on with a friend, Mr. Paulson. They camped out in Union Square downtown until the fires came close and soldiers drove them onward. Like thousands of others, they ended up trudging with their bundles to Golden Gate Park, the thousand-acre park that runs all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. There they spread an old quilt “and lay down…not to sleep, but to shiver with cold from fog and mist and watch the flames of the burning city, whose blaze shone far above the trees.” On their third day in the park, she stitched together blankets, carpets, and sheets to make a tent that sheltered twenty-two people, including thirteen children. And Holshouser started a tiny soup kitchen with one tin can to drink from and one pie plate to eat from. All over the city stoves were hauled out of damaged buildings–fire was forbidden indoors, since many standing homes had gas leaks or damaged flues or chimneys–or primitive stoves were built out of rubble, and people commenced to cook for each other, for strangers, for anyone in need. Her generosity was typical, even if her initiative was exceptional.

Holshouser got funds to buy eating utensils across the bay in Oakland. The kitchen began to grow, and she was soon feeding two to three hundred people a day, not a victim of the disaster but a victor over it and the hostess of a popular social center–her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Some visitors from Oakland liked her makeshift dining camp so well they put up a sign– “Palace Hotel” –naming it after the burned-out downtown luxury establishment that was reputedly once the largest hotel in the world. Humorous signs were common around the camps and street-side shelters. Nearby on Oak Street a few women ran “The Oyster Loaf” and the “Chat Noir”–two little shacks with their names in fancy cursive. A shack in Jefferson Square was titled “The House of Mirth,” with additional signs jokingly offering rooms for rent with steam heat and elevators. The inscription on the side of “Hoffman’s Cafe,” another little street-side shack, read “Cheers up, have one on me…come in and spend a quiet evening.” A menu chalked on the door of “Camp Necessity,” a tiny shack, included the items “fleas eyes raw, 98 cents, pickled eels, nails fried, 13 cents, flies legs on toast, 9 cents, crab’s tongues, stewed,” ending with “rain water fritter with umbrella sauce, $9.10.” “The Appetite Killery” may be the most ironic name, but the most famous inscription read, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.” Many had already gone there or to hospitable Berkeley, and the railroads carried many much farther away for free.

About three thousand people had died, at least half the city was homeless, families were shattered, the commercial district was smoldering ashes, and the army from the military base at the city’s north end was terrorizing many citizens. As soon as the newspapers resumed printing, they began to publish long lists of missing people and of the new locations at which displaced citizens and sundered families could be found. Despite or perhaps because of this, the people were for the most part calm and cheerful, and many survived the earthquake with gratitude and generosity. Edwin Emerson recalled that after the quake, “when the tents of the refugees, and the funny street kitchens, improvised from doors and shutters and pieces of roofing, overspread all the city, such merriment became an accepted thing. Everywhere, during those long moonlit evenings, one could hear the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, from among the tents. Or, passing the grotesque rows of curbstone kitchens, one became dimly aware of the low murmurings of couples who had sought refuge in those dark recesses as in bowers of love. It was at this time that the droll signs and inscriptions began to appear on walls and tent flaps, which soon became one of the familiar sights of reconstructing San Francisco. The overworked marriage license clerk had deposed that the fees collected by him for issuing such licenses during April and May 1906 far exceeded the totals for the same months of any preceding years in San Francisco.” Emerson had rushed to the scene of the disaster from New York, pausing to telegraph a marriage proposal of his own to a young woman in San Francisco, who wrote a letter of rejection that was still in the mail when she met her suitor in person amid the wreckage and accepted. They were married a few weeks later. 

Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course, one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted–and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple the old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise. 

Of course people who are deeply and devastatingly affected may yet find something redemptive in their experience, while those who are largely unaffected may be so rattled they are immune to the other possibilities (curiously, people farther from the epicenter of a disaster are often more frightened, but this seems to be because what you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must–there is no time for fear). There are no simple rules for the emotions. We speak mostly of happy and sad emotions, a divide that suggests a certain comic lightness to the one side and pure negativity to the other, but perhaps we would navigate our experiences better by thinking in terms of deep and shallow, rich and poor. The very depth of emotion, the connecting to the core of one’s being, the calling into play one’s strongest feelings and abilities, can be rich, or even on deathbeds, in wars and emergencies, while what is often assumed to be the circumstance of happiness sometimes is only insulation from the depths, or so the plagues of ennui and angst among the comfortable suggest. 

Next door to Holshouser’s kitchen, an aid team from the mining boomtown of Tonopah, Nevada, set up and began to deliver wagonloads of supplies to the back of Holshouser’s tent. The Nevadans got on so well with impromptu cook and hostess they gave her a guest register whose inscription read in part: “in cordial appreciation of her prompt, philanthropic, and efficient service to the people in general, and particularly to the Tonopah Board of Trade Relief Committee…May her good deeds never be forgotten.” Thinking that the place’s “Palace Hotel” sign might cause confusion, they rebaptized it the Mizpah Cafe after the Mizpah Saloon in Tonopah, and a new sign was installed. The ornamental letters spelled out above the name “One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin” and those below “Established April 23, 1906.” The Hebrew word mizpah, says one encyclopedia, “is an emotional bond between those who are separated (either physically or by death).” Another says it was the Old Testament watchtower “where the people were accustomed to meet in great national emergencies.” Another source describes it as “symbolizing a sanctuary and place of hopeful anticipation.” The ramshackle material reality of Holshouser’s improvised kitchen seemed to matter not at all in comparison with its shining social role. It ran through June of 1906, when Holshouser wrote her memoir of the earthquake. Her piece is remarkable for what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t speak of fear, enemies, conflict, chaos, crime, despondency, or trauma. 

Just as her kitchen was one of many spontaneously launched community centers and relief projects, so her resilient resourcefulness represents the ordinary response in many disasters. In them, strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world. It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms. It is utopia itself for many people, though it is only a brief moment during terrible times. And at the time they manage to hold both irreconcilable experiences, the joy and the grief.

——

Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with next time, and in the meantime, from all of here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.

 


New Special Season of the Oral History Center’s “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief. 

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break. 

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness. 

Our first episode is from Amanda Tewes.

The Berkeley Remix Special Season
The Berkeley Remix’s Special Season for Coronavirus Relief

Hello, everyone. This is Amanda Tewes, and I am an interviewer with The Oral History Center. The State of California, including my home in Contra Costa County, is under orders to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, so I am coming to you today from the inside of my closet.

This is a trying time for everyone, but I’ve had the opportunity to stand back and acknowledge my incredible privilege in being able to work from home, in being confident that I can afford my next rent payment, in knowing that I have quality health insurance. I can comfortably practice social distancing because I am not on the frontlines of this pandemic, offering medical care or even trying to feed the hungry and newly-unemployed. In fact, I have friends in these fields, and thanks to them I have a front row seat to how COVID-19 is exacerbating the social problems we ignore every day.

As a historian, living in the time of COVID-19 is a bit surreal. I am constantly thinking about what to record about this moment. What will be important for future generations to know? How will we talk to children about something that could become their first and most formative memories? What moments will prove most monumental? Will we even recognize a turning point when it comes?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. I do know that I feel a bit like a boiling frog. Every day — no, every hour — brings new and distressing information, and restrictions that seemed incremental have landed us in a situation I couldn’t even have imagined two weeks ago.

What I can tell you is that even while I am social distancing at home and trying to find ways to reduce anxiety, I am also trying hard to stay connected with the world around me, to absorb all the news — good and bad — and to reach out to those I care about. This is a moment to share our various vulnerabilities and to connect with our neighbors — even virtually.

In that spirit, I want to share with you some of my vulnerabilities as an oral historian in a behind-the-scenes look at a recent interview. As interviewers, I think we push some of the human experience out of our minds when it comes to producing oral histories, because we are — rightly — focused on documenting the stories we record with narrators, and on the historical nature of our work. But, “this is a people business,” as my colleague, Todd Holmes, likes to say, and both the interviewer and narrator bring a lot of baggage into each situation. Sometimes literally.

In November 2019, I traveled to Delaware for an oral history with a woman I was very excited to interview. But even though I’ve lived in Massachusetts, I’m never enthusiastic about traveling during the winter. I’m a California girl through and through.

So with reluctance, I packed my recording equipment and winter coat — the real one, not my NorCal one — and flew across the country. 

I have a checkered record in winter air travel, so I’m always nervous about this. But traveling with recording equipment is doubly stressful. I carry on my purse with my computer, as well as my camera and microphones and SD cards. However, I have to check my camera tripod stand and the stand for my portable light. The light itself I try to gently squish into my suitcase, which is difficult when you need to pack bulky sweaters.

You’ve probably guessed where this is going. I flew from Oakland to Philadelphia, but my suitcase did not. I looked around the empty luggage carousel and thought, So I guess this is happening.

True, I was lucky that my tripod bag arrived. This meant that at the very least, I could put my camera on the tripod and conduct an interview. But what about my interview outline nestled safely in my suitcase? What about the carefully-curated professional winter wardrobe I packed for the two days of interview sessions? Oh, those were long gone, the airline company told me. If I was lucky, I would be reunited with them before I left the East Coast.

After racing to the rental car location, I had to find an open store at 10:30 at night. I was woefully unprepared to complete this mission in rural Pennsylvania — or was I in Delaware already? I bought emergency hygiene products and the first sweater I saw that wouldn’t interfere with my lavalier mic.

Before falling into a fretful sleep, I texted my narrator about the situation and the potential for delays for our first session, depending on any lingering issues I faced in the morning. It was fine, she assured me, all would be well.

The next morning after I drove to the interview location in rural Delaware, I parked at the top of a hill and lugged my equipment what felt like a mile in the cold. In fact, my rental car was kind enough to warn me that conditions were freezing. 

When I extended my hand in greeting, my narrator started coughing up a storm. Oh God, I thought, is she even going to be able to sit for these interviews? Was the baggage situation an omen? No, she assured me, she had brought supplies like cough syrup and tea. She could make it through.

After two sessions separated by a short lunch, it was apparent that the cough medicine wasn’t working. My narrator was truly sick and soldiering her way through my questions — sometimes forgetting her train of thought. I was also distracted by the outline I printed with a hotel printer clearly in need of new toner. On top of which, I felt so unprofessional in my travel jeans and ill-fitting, new sweater that I found it difficult to feel “authoritative.” All in all, we were a miserable bunch.

I left that interview and drove directly to the airport to the luggage I was assured was waiting for me — maybe, probably, depending on the service personnel who answered the phone. After a two-hour round trip to the airport and my recovered suitcase in hand, I figured the situation could only improve.

But then I woke up the next day to a text from my narrator. Her car wouldn’t start, and she would be late because she needed to pick up a rental car. Why couldn’t we catch a break here?!

When we finally met up, my narrator and I coughed and sputtered our way through the final interview session, hoping that we hit upon the most historically-salient points of her life and work.

I think it’s safe to say this was not my most technically proficient oral history interview. To make matters worse, my narrator was herself a practitioner of oral history. But when I reviewed the transcript from this interview just a month or two later, instead of feeling utterly horrified from a barrage of bad memories, I kept laughing to myself and actually took stock of what I learned from this experience.

I learned to be patient in the face of unexpected and even frustrating interview circumstances. But most importantly, I learned to be patient with myself. Even though I am a professional oral historian, I am also human. Life happens. I don’t always get to be perfect.

And even though this was far from my best oral history interview, it was an accurate snapshot of a moment in both of our lives that influenced the way the story was recorded and how it will be remembered.

We don’t know what tomorrow brings. So even in these trying times, I hope you can still find reasons to laugh, and to show patience for yourself and others. 

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!