Downtown Berkeley

By Ralph Dranow
Friday December 21, 2007

“There are so many different worlds passing through this spot,” I think, standing on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street in downtown Berkeley in cool twilight. It’s a visual feast, a slightly surreal movie unfolding before my eyes.  

Inside the Washington Mutual Bank, workmen are perched on ladders, dabbing at walls with white paint. Next to the bank is Tully’s Coffee; in front of it, a man in a white T-shirt paces back and forth, frowning, while speaking into a cell phone, as if in the next minute he will have to make a life-altering decision. Inside Tully’s, some student types in neat sweaters are immersed in their own private little universes, gazing intently into the faces of laptop computers.  

Meanwhile, outside, two men are having an animated conversation next to the BART station. Suddenly one of them, wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a New York Yankees cap turned backwards, begins, banging rhythmically on some newspaper vending machines and rapping in a fast, harsh cadence: “If you’re running with sharks, you better think like them.” He sounds almost professional, but no one pays any attention to him; it’s all just background noise. 

There’s an open manhole with chains around it in front of BART. An older woman walks over, peers down into it. By the BART entrance, a young, light-skinned black woman with blonde streaks in her hair is carrying a rainbow-colored skateboard and quietly asking for spare change. She doesn’t seem to be having much luck, but doesn’t look fazed. A casually dressed man and woman, probably in their early 60s, amble by, nibbling gelato, abstracted expressions on their faces. A middle-aged man in jogging gear trots by.  

Two neatly dressed men hurry past Tully’s, speaking rapidly in some African language. A sad-eyed woman, with the words “Boss, Clean City” on the back of her jacket, sweeps the street with brisk strokes.  

Then a man who looks like a circus performer appears. He’s dressed in a long black coat, feathered black hat, ruffled white shirt. Dreamily he saunters back and forth, carrying a guitar and talking into a cell phone. I’m waiting for him to perform, but he disappears as suddenly as he appeared.  

The image that stays with me the longest is this one: a few wooden benches arranged in rectangular fashion. Several homeless men slumped silently on the benches, packs like small glaciers beside them, their faces drained of any expression. They look as if they’ve been sitting there for days.  

The sights and sounds of Shattuck Avenue, on a mellow September evening, a movie that could go on and on and never get boring.