Virginia Bakery… Virginia Cleaners… Virginia Street—it’s all right there on two short blocks in a small north Berkeley neighborhood. As I jog past the bakery’s storefront, the scent of warm bread and joy from inside drifts out into the street deliciously.
Farther on, a group of drowsy Hispanic women are trudging to work at the drive-through cleaners as dawn peels away the darkness. This’ll be just one of several Berkeley neighborhoods I’ll run through this morning; one of many memories I’ll have of growing up and moving on.
It was the Chocolate Ribbon cake that I liked best—that’s what I always asked for on my birthday. Sometimes I’d get it and at others, well … maybe something unexpected. This morning, it’s the dainty little chocolate-chip tea cookies that tickle my nostrils and get me to thinking of when I was young and that corner shop held so much pleasure.
Part of my run takes me down Cedar Street past a small Craftsman house where in 1969 I seemed to have lost a simile of that earlier word—my virginity. I’m not exactly certain about the facts of that night when I was fourteen; high on LSD and returning back to her home to “fool around” after seeing Walt Disney’s Fantasia, but embodied in me there’s a song and a girl that I’ll probably remember forever.
As I jog around in the city I grew up in these days, one that doesn’t seem so large anymore as I navigate around all of its boundaries, it’s often very cathartic. For a time, 20 years to be exact, I’d left Berkeley to live somewhere different. Reacquainting myself with the town again, I’m amazed by the return of so much from my past as I run through my life and the places that shaped who I am.
Most of the time you won’t find me running through neighborhoods though. In the early mornings when I like to jog and have the energy to do so, I get myself to the track at the local junior high school. Going around in circles is a fairly boring form of exercise, but the forgiving dirt surface and recollections from the past keep my body and mind coming back.
It was when I was in the 7th grade and on that very same field that one of my gym teachers singled me out and suggested that I might want to sign up for the track team. I was 13 years old at the time and probably feeling like many young adolescents do at that age—lost and confused about life. Being asked to join something did a lot for my esteem and for a while it was how I identified; I was a runner.
Previous to that, and for a major part of my childhood, I’d been a fat kid. I used to arrive home after school and plop myself down in front of the TV where I’d gorge myself silly on junk food ‘til one of my parents came home. Creature Features—that’s what I’d watch. In fact, now that I think about it, they probably ran those late afternoon movies for latch-key kids just like me. These days, it’s just “Maury”, “Ms. Banks,” and “The Doctors”; how depressing the thought of that is.
After I became a runner, though, on those afternoons following school, I’d go down to the track to run and work out where I’d invariably see many of my schoolmates. As they sat around chatting and smoking on the lawn while I huffed and I puffed and circled them furiously, they pointed and snickered at me as I ran. I suppose it was mean of them to do that but I didn’t care, I felt happy and accomplished pursuing my athletic endeavor. Little did I know that by the next year I’d also be sitting in the middle of that field—tripping on acid and smoking big joints as I watched others run happy and free.
Growing up, and also as a young adult, I resided in many places all over Berkeley and Oakland. When I was younger, I actually lived in three different houses on one short block in the course of several years. My parents never owned a home in their lifetimes, never really put down any serious stakes. For me, maybe the running came natural.
Recently, I bumped into my old gym teacher again, a man well known throughout this town and the healthiest, best looking seventy year-old I know. I told Jack about this story and thanked him much for the encouragement he’d shown me as a kid. I also let him know that I was running again on a track so important in my life, explaining about how I’d begun to weep as I labored on that course once more.
What touched me so much that it brought me to tears was recalling how the track helped me mend; summoning memories from far and now as I circled restoring my center. In reality, the tears were for the gratitude I felt for being able to run again—to sprint and feel free and reflect on my life, changing for a moment what disturbed me. For many years, I thought I’d lost that ability for good.
Solano to Shattuck, down Hearst to San Pablo, I’ll run to the end of the pier. As I look back at the town from the middle of the bay, the scope of the picture becomes larger; this city, this place that I love and call home, is where I was meant to be. Whoever said you can’t go back home was probably right in the end, but to return to a place that feels so good certainly seems fulfilling today.
So it’s not blocks, or miles, or streets that I run, it’s my history passing under my soles. Nearing my house as the iPod spools on uttering Neil Young’s ballad “Country Girl,” I trot along briskly and think about Corkie and where in the world she’s gone. Suddenly back home, it occurs to me now how little my life has really changed.