Circa Berkeley

By J. Cote
Friday December 21, 2007

This story was supposed to have begun on my father’s shoulders and, in a moment, it most certainly will. It was also meant to be longer and about my dad and me, one of many tales I’ve written about my fathers’ and my relationship. Instead, I think it’ll end up being about something different. Anyway, I’ve only a thousand words so here goes.  

When I was five, I sat on those shoulders watching a noisy parade march its way up a major thoroughfare in Berkeley. My dad and I, alongside my brother and mother, stood patiently next to a large ornate clock. The giant timepiece graced the sidewalk outside of a local department store called Hinks like an immense lollipop protruding from the walkway’s edge. If you look for it, it still stands there today. The clock read 7 p.m. on that cool autumn evening; I was dressed warmly in pajamas with feet. I was astride my father’s neck so I could see over and above the other peoples heads: the Berkeley citizens who’d also come out to line the boulevard from storefront to curb to view the evening’s procession run north up Shattuck Avenue.  

The University of California marching band led the way as they trumpeted and tossed about their shiny instruments below fuzzy black shakos that stood atop their heads like bouffant hairdos. In tow, and suited up in full uniform, was the campus football team in whose honor the hoopla was about. As the parade moved along, the boys of fall waved their arms and revved the crowd up over the ruckus of fight songs blaring out in preparation for the next afternoon’s Big Game. In Berkeley, they haven’t had parades of that type in over 40 years. 

Usually when people write stories or talk about Berkeley in the ’60s and ’70s, it involves Mario Savio and the Vietnam War. They also tend to go on and include facts about hippies, Telegraph Avenue, tear gas, the University of California, People’s Park, James Rector, Ronald Reagan, the National Guard, SDS, the SLA, the Weather Underground, as well as painting vivid pictures of the counter-culture, subculture, and drug culture of those times.  

For me, though, growing up in Berkeley during those years, some of my story did involve much of the aforementioned (yes, I threw rocks, was tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, but it was an experience much like John Boorman’s personal reflections in Hope and Glory, a film about growing up in London during the blitzkrieg where most of it was just fun and excitement), but throughout those influential times I also frequented places like Iceland skating rink with its scent of damp rubber matting that mixed with the chilly air as the steam and warmth of a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup from a vending machine revived me into hitting the ice one more time.  

I grew up watching indescribable sunsets slip into the ocean from perches atop Indian Rock, a landmark of ancient stone that lies at the foot of the Berkeley Hills, where the view frames the bay like a picture. I developed as a young boy by learning about thrills and pain from flying at breakneck speeds on wax paper down the long cement slide of Cordornices Park as I skinned every visible part of my body. I also experienced the lesser excitement of mercilessly riding the Merry-Go-Round in Tilden Park till I’d vomit all the cotton candy and pink popcorn I’d consumed onto the lawn out back. Mine was an innocent, some might say bucolic, existence growing up in Berkeley during that time and for the most part, I loved my childhood magnificently. 

When I was little, my father used to take me fishing out on the Berkeley Pier where the end seemed to go on forever. As we strolled towards its tip and deeper water where the Golden Gate Bridge looked stoically on, we’d eventually end up standing next to each other casting out then settling in; him nursing a small brown bottle of beer and I, fiddling around, incessantly tightening my line or hanging over the rail peering into the water for a hopeful glimpse of something. We were fishing for striped bass, a species that travels in two worlds, the ones of saline and fresh. We never caught many of them, it was usually bullheads and smelt for us, but it didn’t matter; we were outdoors and free on an open bay with the salt air of life in our nostrils. Today, in Berkeley, you can still do most of those things.  

Like that striped bass who swam between two realms, Berkeley for me as I was growing up actually felt like separate worlds also. I was a young white kid from a blue-collar, conservative home coming along in one of the most radical and changing places in the country. Because of those times and my culture at home, I constantly felt like I was trying to fit in, or, possibly just because of who I am I never really felt too connected. There was also the fact that Berkeley itself presented many paradoxes at the time between the juxtaposition of the old guard Republican institutions and the radical upstarts that could leave one feeling a bit disjointed. In any case, you might say I had a confused adolescence, but haven’t we all? 

Originally, one of the themes I wanted to mine when I thought of writing this recollection of growing up in Berkeley in the ’60s and ’70s was how when you live here you’re lulled into a sense of being exquisitely unique.  

Growing up in Berkeley back then, or even now for that matter, the feeling of being different, of being very different permeates much of a Berkeley person’s life as they walk down its streets and pass its fellow citizens on their way to a coffee shop or bakery. Maybe it is its deep and illustrious past, maybe it’s because of the university and all the diverse ideas and people that intertwine and get mixed up like a human recipe for fruitcake, I don’t know. 

“Where are you from?” someone asks. 

“Berkeley,” I answer, just as easily as if I could be saying San Ramon. 

“Oh, Bezerkeley,” they reply with a dumb smirk on their face and a knowing look in their eye that tells me they know nothing at all. 

“Yeah Berkeley,” I answer. “Asshole,” I think. 

I’ve always disliked the moniker that popped up for Berkeley sometime in the mid-’70s. In fact, I detest it so much I promise not to repeat it anymore in this story. Somehow it suggests to me that the people who choose to live in this town have something severely the matter with them. That may be true, but is it really necessary to advertise it? 

Seriously, Berkeley is different, the people in it are different, and the way in which things are done here whether it’s socially, politically, or spiritually usually are very different. Why shouldn’t we feel unique, everyone including the evening news when I was growing up was telling us we were. This feeling of being distinct, special, atypical of the rest of the country can at times feel very intellectually alluring and emotionally appealing. It can also leave you feeling somewhat superior if you let it.  

I guess that’s one of the things that bothers me about Berkeley as well as myself, the egotistical idea that we’re better than someone else, say someone living in Des Moines. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like living here, in fact, I love living here, it’s just sometimes I feel we can take ourselves too seriously in our ideologies. Getting out in the rest of the world has tempered that a bit for me and I understand pretty clearly that what happens in Berkeley probably won’t play in Peoria. 

I’m saying all this because I recently moved back to Berkeley after being away for 20 years. I’d relocated to Richmond, a town only six miles to the north but a far greater distance in its social and psychological aspects. While residing there, I had tried to be a good citizen, learning about its history and contributing to its community; my wife taught and still works in their schools, and it’s a city where I continue to run my small business, but things needed to change and fortune had it that Berkeley and the neighborhood I knew best had me back.  

It’s been suggested more than once that you can’t go home again and for the most part I think that’s essentially true. When moving back here I was careful from a personal standpoint that it was for reasons that were realistic and without any expectations. Too many times in the past I’d made geographical moves based on trying to feel different or thinking that life would change and it didn’t. I could be miserable, or happy, in any environment I’d like to think, but that’s only partially true. 

It’s been a strange sensation to come back. I never went away really, at least not very far away. Everything I continued to do for the most part over the 20 years I lived in Richmond, see friends, shop, eat out for dinner, I did either in Berkeley or Oakland. What leaves me feeling odd is that not only am I back living somewhere that I grew up in as I revisit my past during walks along streets and neighborhoods I frequently haunted, it’s that I’m left with an extreme sense of this is where I really belong. I never knew how much I missed living here until I actually returned. 

I’m not sure what the purpose of my story has been to this point but I do know that I’m way over my allotment of a 1,000 words and that some editor at the Planet will probably cut it, but heck, its been enjoyable to remember and write it. 

And oh, there’s this: that night, after the parade, when we arrived home late to our rented house on Carlotta Street, my parents woke me from the back seat where I lay comfortably wrapped up in a blanket. From far away, like a dream, I heard my brother outside calling for our cat, a grey-striped, tiger-lined fellow named Felix who was the center of my brother’s attention. Abruptly, I heard a blood-curdling scream emit from him as my parents rushed to see what was happening. Out in the middle of the street lay my brother, next to our prone and lifeless cat.  

While my parents stood at the curb watching him grieve in the middle of the road, I stood alongside them not comprehending the situation. It was the first time I had encountered death. As my brother continued to sob uncontrollably in the street while cuddling up against his dead cat, I went and lay down next to him on the cool hard pavement and began to cry right along with him.