An Urban Shrine

November 14, 1990|By Rasa Gustaitis | Rasa Gustaitis,Pacific News Service

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. UNTIL LAST WEEK there was nothing at all unusual about the corner intersection half a block from our house. A wooden fence hides the bushes and trees on the corner lot and occasionally a sprig of mint or a dandelion pushes through to the sidewalk. There's a city trash can here, and a stop sign. We pass this corner daily, as do children on their way to and from the nearby school.

At 4:30 p.m. last Tuesday, an out-of-control Cadillac came speeding down the steep hill east of here. The man at the wheel -- 91 -- may have been dead already from a heart attack when his car hit a Peugot, killing a woman inside and injuring four others, then collided with a Buick which exploded in flames. Suddenly four people, including two children, were dead and one was dying at the intersection.

When my daughter came home, moments later, she saw the old man on the sidewalk, the Cadillac upside-down, diapers strewn across the intersection. Firemen were working desperately to extract victims from the smoldering wreck. About an hour later, when I got home, the last body was just being removed.

You can see this street corner where it happened from our front windows. From now on, we would never look at it, or pass it, without recalling what we witnessed there. The man who saw the children thrust their arms out of the burning car and call for help would be haunted by them, even though he could not have saved them.

The sight of the dead old man and the scattered diapers would stay with my daughter, like the sight of the girl who jumped out of a window across the street from her high school a few years ago and lay splashed on the sidewalk, her blood sprayed on parked cars.

Everyone carries some horror imprinted on a personal geography. For a while it is an after-image, superimposed on whatever you happen to be looking at. Then it recedes and only surfaces occasionally, a flash of nameless anxiety that stays with you until you remember the buried scene and acknowledge it again. Many carry horrors beyond the ability of others to imagine, but surely nobody can walk through life long, especially in America's cities, and be entirely spared.

Hours later that night, I went out to walk the dog, choosing a route away from the accident site. The police flares and yellow ribbons were still up, redirecting traffic. As I returned, I saw a city cleanup truck had arrived and realized that by morning there would be no sign of the tragedy that had occurred.

People would pass this corner again, stepping on the concrete where the children, the women, the dead old man lay just hours before. I felt a need to call out to my neighbors, to gather everyone in a circle around this place of violent death.

In another country, another culture, there would be an acknowledgement. Everything would stop for a while. A ceremony would be held. A medicine man might burn cedar, a priest might burn incense to aid these souls in their travels to the other world. But what do you do in a polyglot city where people are killed daily by gunshots, knives, drugs, accidents? We have no common rituals here to help us.

In the morning I cut some flowers in our garden and headed for the corner. A neighbor joined me and suggested we see if others wanted to fill the bouquet.

We stopped at the home of a couple who, being gay men, are closely acquainted with death in this city. They grow exceptionally beautiful flowers and gladly picked their loveliest roses, lilies, dahlias. When we arrived at the corner we found a bouquet of asters already there. We tied it, together with our flowers, to the stop sign.

That afternoon, when my daughter returned from class, she saw dozens of bouquets piled around the stop sign. Someone had tied a small teddy bear to the pole with yellow police blockade tape. By evening a votive candle was burning. Then there was a whole row of candles. Looking out the front window, my daughter called out, ''Look, it's a shrine!''

The moon was almost full and the street was bathed in blue light. A woman in a long black skirt, with a black shawl, was standing, her hands folded, beside the flickering candles and the mound of flowers. We stayed by the window in silence and I knew that, somehow, the essential had happened. A new picture had superimposed itself on the after-image of the accident.

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