1 - A Chance
Max Wagner settled in a little niche in the brick wall and tried to stay warm in spite of the biting wind. He had seen better days. He had arrived in California with his family and with his hopes and dreams intact. He was a carpenter by trade, even a master carpenter, and he, his wife, and their young son had hoped for a bright future on the West Coast. He found work almost immediately, and he earned good money. Then fate struck. First, his wife fell ill with Tetanus, dying a horrible, painful death. Only three weeks later while Max was working, the neighbor who watched Max' son sent the six-year-old out on an errand, and the boy was run over by a shying horse. In less than a month, Max lost all reason to live.
The cheap booze he could get down at the harbor was his only solace, and even that was not easy to come by when his meagre savings dried up. Now, two years later, he lived on the streets of San Francisco, begging for pennies with thousands of other beggars. He'd not had his hair cut in a year, and the rags he wore were dirty beyond belief. He did not care. All he cared about was to beg enough for a mug of moonshine.
Right now he was lurking in a narrow alley beside the Grand Opera House. He would hold out there for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until the patrons would start to leave. Then he could offer services like helping the ladies climb into coaches without dirtying their dresses. He had even washed his hands and his face for the doormen of the opera house chased away those whose hands were too dirty to touch the costly garments of the patrons.
He waited patiently, listening to the muted music coming from inside. They were rehearsing. Enrico Caruso would be singing the Don Jose in Carmen. Even Max knew that Caruso was the most famous singer in the world, and the faint music coming from inside touched his heart. Back when he had a wife and a son, they had dreamed of owning a gramophone one day. Tears came to his eyes as he wept over his lost family.
There had to be a pause, for the music had stopped. A few minutes later, a side door opened, and a man in a black suit emerged and lit a cigarette in a tip. Max looked at the man.
"Excuse me, Sir. Are you Mr. Caruso, the singer?" he heard himself ask.
Momentarily startled, the famous man stepped back, but seeing that Max was sitting against the wall and not threatening, he nodded.
"Yes, I am Enrico Caruso. With whom to I have the pleasure?"
Max gulped. The famous man was polite to him, to a ragged beggar.
"Max, Sir. Max Wagner. I'm a ... well, I used to be a carpenter."
"What happened to you?" the great man asked showing honest interest.
"I lost my wife and my son," Max said brokenly. "They're dead."
"Ah, a great tragedy, a great loss. But my friend, this is no life!" With his right hand he fished inside his pockets and produced a coin. He looked at Max sharply. "This is a ten-dollar piece. You can drink it away, my friend, or you can go to a barber to get your hair and beard cut. You can buy decent clothes and report here tomorrow at noon. I'll see to it that there will be work for you, but you must not spend this money on drink. It is your choice alone."
The gold coin sailed through the air and landed at Max' feet.
"Choose well, my friend," the great singer said, and then the side door closed leaving a stunned Max behind.
He stared at the coin in his hand. It was a Gold Eagle, an honest-to-God ten dollar coin. When Max had been a carpenter, he had sometimes earned ten dollars in a week but he had not held that much money in over a year. Slowly, his hand closed around the coin. He came to his feet and walked slowly and carefully along the alley towards the back of the opera house. He thought furiously. Could he really get work at the opera house? Could he still work as a carpenter, did he still have the eye and the hand of a craftsman?
For ten dollars he could drink himself into oblivion for a straight week. He could drink enough to end it all. Yet, he felt an obligation. Even for a rich man such as Caruso giving away a gold eagle was a grand gesture. The famous singer expected Max to right his life using that gift. Could he disappoint the great man?
Two hours later it was getting dark and Max found himself close to the harbor, close to a run-down tavern where he could get a mug of moonshine brandy for a Nickel. He was about to go in when something caught his eye. Opposite the tavern there was a low building, a store of sort. What caught Max' eye was a brightly lit window on the side of the store and a woman's head behind it.
The woman seemed young. She had her full blonde hair bound up in a frayed bun, and she wore glasses perched on her nose. Max' stared at her unable to turn away. She was so pretty. She looked like an angel, like his dead wife Helen. Stepping closer and looking through the window he saw that it was a thrift store. There were rows of clothes on hangers and other used goods.
Suddenly, Max felt the gold eagle in his fist. Was fate giving him a nudge? There was the thrift store with the things he would need for a new start. Then there was the tavern with all the booze he could drink. Max looked down at himself and he felt revulsion. He was dirty, he was stinking, he was human refuse on the street. Casting a last look at the tavern he marched around the corner where the light was spilling from the entrance door of the thrift store. He entered hesitantly and blinked with the brightness inside.
"No begging!" a harsh voice sounded.
He turned and saw the young woman behind a table.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," Max spoke up. "I've got some money, and I need new clothes badly."
The woman eyed him. "You need more than new clothes," she sniffed.
"Yes, Ma'am," Max agreed dejectedly.
His tone seemed to change her attitude.
"Listen, Mister: there's Pritchard's all-night bath and barber shop around the corner," she suggested less harshly.
Was it fate? Was providence placing him in a situation where he could not but try for a new start?
"Yes, Ma'am, but I'd need new clothes for after the bath," he said obstinately, not willing to antagonize fate now that he'd made a commitment.
The woman sighed. "You're a tall one, but skinny. What sort of clothes do you need?"
"Good work clothes, Ma'am. I'm a carpenter."
The woman nodded. "There's a set of clothes from old Mr. Matthews, the cooper." She pointed at a clothes stand. "Why don't you try them for size, Mister ... What's your name?"
"Wagner, Ma'am, Max Wagner."
"Well, Mr. Wagner, try them. They're a dollar fifty. You need shoes?"
"Shoes are another dollar. I'll throw in some wool socks."
The garb of the late Mr. Matthews were a good fit, if a bit wide, and in a bin he found a pair of fairly decent shoes that fit his feet well enough. He thought of something else.
"Ma'am, you wouldn't happen to have a razor kit for sale?"
When Max left the store he was four dollars the poorer, but he carried his treasure towards the bath house pressed against his chest. This was not a gentleman's bath but one that catered to sailors. For fifty cents he was shown a tub filled with tepid, soapy water. There was a mirror, too, and a soap brush. Trying hard to control his shaky hands, Max shaved off his wild beard. He managed to do so without nicking his skin more than thrice. He stilled the blood with a styptic pencil of potassium alum and then submerged himself in the tub. He had a half hour, and he used it to scrub his skin raw.
In between, the owner dropped in to cut Max' hair. The long blonde strands fell away, and when Mr. Pritchard held a mirror for Max, the face that stared back at him seemed strange. He was certainly looking civilized again, and when he dried his skin and donned his new clothes he felt better than in a very long time.
"You want I burn them rags?" Mr. Pritchard asked pointedly, and Max managed a smile.
"Yes, please. Burn them!" Max took a deep breath. "Won't need them no more."
Max could not resist the temptation to return to the thrift store. The woman was about to close it for the night, but she smiled when she saw Max in his newly acquired splendor.
"You certainly clean up well, Mr. Wagner," she said appreciatively.
"I came to thank you, Ma'am. You were so helpful."
"I'm glad that I could help, Mr. Wagner. You've been living on the streets?"
Max nodded, blushing a little. "Yes, Ma'am, ever since my wife 'n son died and I lost my mind."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I can feel with you. My husband died two years ago, but at least I have my daughter. I hope that you'll be all right again."
"I was promised work at the Opera House," Max said with a touch of pride.
"Oh, my! That sounds so fancy!" the woman laughed.
Max stared at her for a moment. She was so lovely when she laughed! She saw his hungry look and she stepped back. He was contrite.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to frighten you. I just haven't seen a pretty woman from up close in more'n two years. I had better leave you now. Again, my thanks, Ma'am."
He turned to leave, but the woman's voice stopped him.
"You have a place to sleep in your new clothes?"
He turned. "No, Ma'am. I was hoping to find a dry place near the dockyards."
She breathed deeply. "All right. There's my shed. It's dry, and you can lock it from inside. You'll find my handcart in it. You can sleep in the cart bed."
Max swallowed heavily. "That's very kind of you, Ma'am. I am right grateful."
"Say nothing, Mr. Wagner. And please, my name is Elisabeth Adams."
She showed him to the wagon shed. The hand cart was indeed large enough to allow Max to sleep away from the floor. He was settling down, his stomach growling after a day without food, when Elisabeth Adams showed again. She carried an old Army blanket, a double slice of bread, and a pitcher with hot tea.
"You'll need some food in your belly if you have to work tomorrow," she stated matter-of-factly.
Max was unable to speak with emotion. He just nodded silently with his eyes brimming a little. The bread smelled heavenly, and Mrs. Adams had spread fresh, salty butter between the slices. She watched him as he ate.
"You need to put some meat on those bones," she remarked.
He stopped eating and looked at his thin arms.
"I'm all but a wreck," he sighed. "I hope I'll be able to hold a hammer."
"Just don't give up again," she answered, and suddenly he felt her hand on his arm. "It were a shame now."
He looked up at her. Again, he stared at her face and he took a ragged breath.
"I saw you through the window of your store, and I thought you looked like an angel come to lead me on the right path again," he said hoarsely.
Mrs. Adams blushed deeply, but her eyes showed no revulsion. Instead, she looked at him with an odd mix of pity and longing.
"Make sure you douse the light before you sleep," she admonished him before she left him for good.
Somewhere, Max heard a bell toll the first hour. He ate the rest of the bread and flushed it down with the tea. Then he rolled himself into the blanket. He briefly reflected that this new day might mark his return to a normal, a respectable life. It was April 18, 1906.
2 - The Handcart
It was still dark when Max woke from his exhausted sleep. The ground was shaking. At first Max was not sure whether his senses were playing tricks on him. The shaking subsided anyway. He sat up.
Nothing in his thirty-two years had prepared Max for the next violent jolts of the ground. The handcart shook wildly, and the beams of the shed groaned as the structure was contorted under the power of the tremors. In his panic Max screamed and he heard echoing screams from the nearby houses.
Not able to see in the dark, he felt for his shoes and slipped into them. He had to force the door of the shed open with his shoulder, but then he stumbled outside breathing with relief. The shed barely stood, but the main house was looking worse. The entire adobe front had crumbled away, and the rest of the house was leaning precariously to the left.
With a jolt, Max remembered the woman, Mrs. Adams. He rushed forward. He tried to see anything in the darkness, but the dust clouds were impermeable to his gaze.
"Mrs. Adams!" he asked hesitantly. No answer came forth. With rising fear, he began to shout. "Mrs. Adams! Mrs. Adams! Are you all right? Mrs. Adams!"
"Here!" The voice he heard was weak and laced with pain. "In the back. I can't get up!" Then a shriek. "My daughter! Alice! Alice!"
Max was already squeezing himself into the semi-collapsed house, wary of touching the remaining uprights for fear of causing the structure to collapse for good. Max was a carpenter, and he knew a thing or two about structures. With utmost care he was able to reach the back of the house.
"Here!" the voice was close.
He could barely see anything. There was a white shape in the dark, on the floor and partly covered by the collapsed second story. He felt with his hands and encountered a soft body covered in a thin shift. In the almost complete darkness, he felt for the ceiling beams that covered the woman. With infinite care he lifted those beams and found other rubble to support them. Feeling along Mrs. Adams' legs, he found another beam he had to lift, and the woman groaned with pain when he finally managed to free the leg.
"My leg's broken for sure," she moaned. "Alice! Please find my daughter!"
"Where is she?" Max asked. "Where was her bedroom?"
"I don't know! I cannot see!" Mrs. Adams whimpered.
"Alice!" Max shouted. "Alice Adams! Where are you?"
"H-here!" a weak voice sounded from Max' left.
The separating wall had crumbled away, and Max could dimly see collapsed beams in what had been the adjacent bedroom.
"I'm under the bed," the child's voice could be heard.
Max could see the shape of the bed under the rabble and he crawled over. He could see a blonde head under the bed.
"I h-hid under the b-bed when the earth b-began to sh-shake," the girl stammered.
Reaching under the bed, Max pulled the girl free. She seemed unharmed.
"Come with me. Let's get your Mom out, too."
He led the girl over to where Elisabeth Adams was still lying. Hooking his hands under her arms pits, Max pulled the injured woman from under the fallen beams. She groaned with pain, but Max saw no other way. Finally, they were all out on the street.
There was more light on the street, and Max smelled smoke. He looked around. Sure enough, down the street a building was on fire. Max could smell gas, too. The two things connected in his brain and he sprang into action. Quickly, he pulled the hand cart from the lopsided shed and spread out the blanket he hand used. As gentle as he could, he laid Mrs. Adams on the cart bed and lifted her little daughter into the cart, too.
Returning to the house, he collected what clothes he could find among the rubble. He even found the strong box where he had seen Mrs. Adams put his money. All this he carried to the hand cart, framing the injured woman with soft clothes. More and more he heaped on the wagon figuring that clothes would be a precious commodity. When mother and daughter were covered in clothes and blankets, Max took the handlebars of the cart and pushed it forward, up the hill and away from the fire that was already spreading along the street.
Max was not in a good shape, but once he set his teeth and started to push he would not stop. It was not easy to push the cart around the rubble on the streets, but he managed. Reaching the next intersection, he saw that more fires were burning to the right. He turned left, merging with a stream of people who were fleeing the fires just like Max. He had to pause for a moment and used the time to look for Elisabeth Adams.
"How are you holding up, Ma'am?" he asked.
"My leg hurts like the dickens," she answered through clenched teeth. "Where are we heading?"
"I don't know," Max admitted. "I'm just trying to get away from the fires."
"Try to head west. Try to reach the Presidio. There's the army. Maybe they have a doctor," Elisabeth groaned.
The little girl sat at her side with panic in her eyes.
"Don't be afraid, Alice," Max soothed her. "I'll get us to the Presidio, and then your Mom will be fine again."
With determination, Max picked up the handlebars again and pushed the cart in a generally westward direction. For the next two hours, he maintained a steady pace. Sometimes he had to deviate to get around the numerous fires, but he kept going with dogged determination.
The houses they were passing now still looked wealthy in spite of their bad shape, but the broken gas lines had sparked even more fires. Max hurried along, feeling his strength fading. Suddenly, a man was standing in front of him.
"A thousand dollars for your cart!"
Max shook his head tiredly. "The woman has a broken leg. I must get her to a doctor."
The man stomped his foot with impatience. "All right, a thousand dollars if you let me load three suitcases on your cart. I'll help you push, too. It's my collection. I must save it!"
Max thought only briefly. Mrs. Adams could use the promised money.
"All right then. Get your suitcases!" he exclaimed.
He sorted the clothes and blankets, and shifted Elisabeth to one side of the cart to make some room. The man returned with a small suitcase. Max wanted to ask the man why he did not simply carry the small piece of luggage, but when he lifted the suitcase on the cart, he felt the weight.
"Coins! My coin collection!" the man gasped and ran back to a nearby house that was already on fire.
Soon the man returned with a second suitcase. "One more," he gasped and ran for the burning house again. He had been inside for a minute when the house exploded. A huge flame erupted and shot skyward engulfing the entire structure. As Max watched, the burning ruins of the house collapsed. Max waited a few moments for the man to return but the heat of the fire was too great. He willed his body to move forward, pushing the now much heavier cart away from the spreading fire and along the street. Forward, just forward! Put one foot before the other and don't stop, he commanded himself.
At one point he looked up from his toil, and he saw Elisabeth Adams look at him. He saw the pain in her eyes, the silent plea for help, and he felt new strength in his limbs. Forward, just forward!
The morning turned into noon and then into afternoon. Elisabeth's face was grey with pain, but no help was yet in sight. By mid-afternoon – finally! – Max saw the Presidio coming up. Soldiers were approaching, and Max stopped for a moment, barely able to stay on his feet.
"Please, is there a doctor?" he asked one of the soldiers.
"You injured?" the man asked, looking Max up and down.
Max pointed at Mrs. Adams. "She's got her leg broken."
The soldier pointed towards the Presidio. "Just straight ahead. Ask again at the gate."
Max nodded and tried to take the handlebars, but his bleeding hands just would not work. He tried again in vain. Fighting tears of desperation, he tried a third time. But then he was pushed to the side. The soldier looked at Max' hands and shook his head.
"You're one hell of a father. Now sit and rest. Ho, Jenkins! Gimme a hand here. This here gentleman's plain done for, and his pretty wife has her leg broken."
Together, the two soldiers pushed the cart for the final quarter mile. In front of the gate, soldiers were already busy erecting tents for an infirmary. An Army surgeon was alerted and came to look at Mrs. Adams.
"Clean break," he mumbled, and a few moments later, Mrs. Adams was laid on a stretcher and brought into a tent. Her scream as her leg bone was set made Alice cry with fear, and Max did his best to comfort the frightened child. Not ten minutes later, the soldiers returned with Elisabeth Adams on the stretcher. Her leg was splinted, and she was barely conscious. Max was pointed to a group of tents being erected.
A sergeant received him there and showed him to a tent. There was no way, however, for Elisabeth to crawl into a tent, nor to carry her into a low tent. Max begged for some wooden staves and some carpenter's tools, and he rigged the tent over the handcart. He could barely hold the tools in his raw hands, but this way Elisabeth could stay in the cart bed and away from the ground.
Soldiers came along with bread and water to feed the people who had made it to the Presidio, and Max was able to get food for the three of them. Next, an officer stepped on a big wooden crate and read a proclamation. By orders of the Mayor, anyone found "engaged in looting or other criminal activity" was to be shot on sight.