Bubble Lady Captures Berkeley’s Beat

Friday June 04, 2004

“I’ve spent the last 30 years being a public nuisance,” says Julia Vinograd, adding—with a smile—“in a positive way.” 

Berkeley’s unofficial street poet laureate is a familiar figure on Telegraph Avenue, and anyone who finds a table at the Caffe Mediterraneum soon finds Julia approaching with several of the 48 volumes she’s published. 

“I wave my books at people, and if they open them, they find themselves outraged by the fact that they’re actually readable,” she says. 

A Berkeley native, Vinograd was raised in Pasadena, another world entirely, before returning as an undergraduate in 1961 to study poetry under the likes of Gary Snyder. 

Caught up by the turbulent events of the early ‘60s, she found herself among the 700 students who occupied Sproul Hall for the Free Speech Movement Sit-in. 

“I wasn’t anybody important,” she says. “I wasn’t a politico—I was a poet, an English major.” 

After graduating from UC in 1965, Vinograd headed off to the University of Iowa for her Masters of Fine Arts, and then, two years later, it was back to Berkeley. 

“When I left, all the girls looked like secretaries and all the boys looked like law clerks,” she said. “When I came back, there’d been a cultural revolution. Now they all looked like they’d just walked off a tapestry. I wandered around the streets with my notebook and tried to capture it all.” 

It wasn’t just a notebook she carried as she made her entry into the world of street poetry. Vinograd quickly established herself as “the Bubble Lady” for the bubbles she created to entertain children. 

“I basically do one book a year now and I blow bubbles for the kids. Otherwise, I’m useless,” she quips. 

In the early years it was two books a year, slim volumes created with a mimeograph machine and a stapler. Today’s books offer twice as many poems, slick covers, and machine bindings. 

“Until recently they were $3 each, but I had to go up to $5,” Vinograd said. 

But if you’re running short of cash, don’t worry—she’ll either cut the price or offer to barter. 

“I love trading. I get at least half my holiday presents every year by trading with street vendors,” she explains. “I also do CDs now.” 

Like so many in Berkeley who remember the ‘60s, Vinograd harbors a soft spot in her heart for that long-vanished era. 

“You could do pretty much anything you wanted to and live pretty much any way you wanted. The Grateful Dead started as a garage band then, and now music is so corporatized that garage bands don’t have a chance. And a lot of people stayed on the street by choice,” she explains. 

For poets and artists, Telegraph offered tons of good food, “and all of it very cheap. In the beginning, I hung out at the Med and the Forum. And there was Pepe’s Pizza Parlor, where we went for the best ice cream. That was when the crew that was filming The Graduate got kicked out of the Med and they had to shoot Dustin Hoffman from the street.” 

Vinograd recalls one delightful moment “when a group of young, very blonde kids walked up to me and said, ‘We know you. We’ve been rolling joints on your face through three states.’” 

It was then they produced one of her books, which they’d used as a platform to capture the debris spilled as they rolled up their doobies.  

But one thing’s a lot better these days, Vinograd says, and that’s poetry. 

“There’s a lot more poetry right now. The ‘60s produced the worst poetry I’ve ever read, everyone trying to capture the essence of their acid trips. The ‘50s were good, and things started coming back in the ‘70s. The critics were mad at Charles Bukowski because people actually read him, and critics feel that poetry is something that should have to be interpreted.” 

Vinograd anticipated one question before it could be asked—how much does poetry writing pay? 

“You make a living off your books when you’re dead,” she said. “Right now, one book pays for the next.” 

Vinograd has no shortage of friends, and her sister Deborah—also a Berkeley resident—creates the illustrations that add yet another dimension to some of her poetry books. 

Though she walks a little less because age and time are taking their toll on her legs, Julia Vinograd remains a fixture along Berkeley’s Telegraph row, offering poems, conversation and the occasional bubble to all.