I’ve lived in Berkeley for 40 years, and I’ve seen Telegraph Avenue in all its incarnations—war protests in the ‘60s, drug sales in the ‘70s, street punks in the ‘80s, and rampant seediness in the ‘90s. So a week before Christmas, I barely notice the holiday crowd, a mix of shoppers, students, panhandlers, hawkers of cheap jewelry, and purveyors of anarchist bumper stickers. Carrying a sack of Christmas purchases from Cody’s Books and Amoeba Records, I make my way toward the concrete parking structure off Durant and enter the dark corridor that will return me to my car.
On one side is a shabby yogurt place, on the other a grimy tobacco shop and a space filled with photocopiers and a single shaggy employee who slouches alone over the counter. Near the rear of the corridor stands an alcove with elevators and a battered steel payment machine, the obvious victim of many frustrated parkers. A scratched screen instructs me to pay two dollars, so I remove the fat brown wallet from my hip pocket. Nothing but twenties. The machine swallows one and returns a wad of greenbacks, then, wallet and cash in hand, I walk to the elevator doors, push the button and wait. Something groans within the wall, the doors creak open, and I enter. As I press three, and a second passenger slips through the door just as it closes to seal us together in the compartment for our journey upward.
He is large and young, 40 years younger than I am, and a stunning medley of races. His skin is the color of a creamy cappuccino, his cheekbones are high, and his hair explodes in a rasta with bleached tips. He wears jeans, soiled basketball shoes, a greasy oversized jacket, and a flannel shirt that covers a powerful chest. He looks at my illuminated third-floor button and reaches to press five. Then his eyes fall upon my wallet and the several bills still in my hand.
“Nice wallet,” he says.
I cram the crumpled bills into their place among the twenties and quickly return the wallet into my hip pocket.
“I used to have a nice wallet like that,” he says. “But one day it was gone. Somebody took it.” His face is blank, his stare steady.
I force what I hope is an understanding smile. “It’s tough to lose a wallet. The money, the credit cards, the I.D.” His eyes are a clear, wild green that is deeper than imagination. I wonder what they have seen.
“It was my black-belt wallet,” he says, his voice soft, nearly a whisper. His eyes widen. “It was beautiful. But somebody stole it and now it’s gone.”
“I’m sorry that happened.” I shift my weight as our car creeps upward at an impossibly slow speed.
“It was beautiful. Not leather like that, but beautiful. I got it with my black belt.”
I have run out of things to say to him, so I stare straight ahead at the closed doors. Finally the car stops at my floor, but he moves between me and the opening door, his arms apart to encircle me in an embrace.
“I love you, my brother,” he says. “I love you, my father.” And his muscled arms surround me and pull me to his firm body. I am amazed at his strength and at is mercy. He releases me and smiles for the first time, a gentle, sad smile.
I step quickly from the elevator, the doors shuffle closed, and he continues his journey without me.
A good kid, I think, as I walk to my car. Troubled, perhaps, and lost, but a good kid. I should have wished him a happy holiday. Yet I cannot control the instinct to reach to my hip pocket and check for my wallet.