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Going to and from Work in Downtown Berkeley on a Friday of the First Rain

By Mike Palmer
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:46:00 AM

My alarm is the morning news at 6:30; 

I awake to an interview with a man who used 

to work as a guide on Mt. McKinley in Alaska 

but left that job to go to Iraq and record the thoughts 

of people whose homes had been bombed 

and destroyed 

by the Americans. 

He’s compiled these into a book. 


The interview goes on until  

Amy Goodman tells him “You have ten seconds” 

for a final response. 


It’s 7a.m. I want to 

sleep in—for at least another half hour. 

But I can’t. 

I have to be at work by 8:30. 

Punctuality is an important category on our 

annual performance evaluations 

and the fewer checks in the “needs improvement” column 

the better. 


I get up, shower, eat and leave. 

I remember what Uncle Charlie 

played by Joseph Cotten in 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt said: 

“I can’t face the world until I’ve had my morning coffee.” 

So I go directly to Peet’s on Shattuck Avenue 

for a nonfat latte. 


It’s the first day of rain in months; 

people seek shelter. 

Inside Peet’s a homeless man says 

“It’s already 8:25. I have to get back out there.” 

He says this with the determined focus 

of a high-powered executive 

or of a policeman who loves his job. 

His possessions are in a metal cart with tiny wheels; 

His hair hangs like wet strings against the side of his head. 


Leaving Peet’s I continue up Shattuck Avenue 

past the Bank of America and 

the Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Nepalese 


And the Marine Corps 

“Officer Selection Office” 

that isn’t as big as it looked on the TV news. 


Outside McDonald’s  

a man I’ve seen sleeping in the doorway 

of the abandoned skin care spa 

staggers down the center of the sidewalk, 

roused out of his soiled sleeping bag bed  

by the rain and wind. 


With all the energy he has  

he punches the air in front of him 

the way you imagine King Lear acts toward the end of the play 

shouting in his own language. 


A man in a suit, carrying a briefcase, 

hurriedly walks by. 


I’m afraid of King Lear but when I walk by him 

he stares directly into space  

missing me completely. 

I watch him stagger away around the street corner 

and out of sight. 


I walk down the street past 

the store that sells only Bollywood videos and saris. 

I enter the Golden Bear office complex and 

get on the elevator at the same time as Renita, 

who works in payroll. 

It’s one of the few times 

we’re close or speak to one another 

about anything other than 

the printer that keeps jamming. 


The hallways leading to our office are carpeted and clean; 

the lighting and temperature  


The sounds muffled.  

If it were not for the windows 

I could be in some underground complex in  

Antarctica or somewhere  

in the center of the earth. 


From the offices of the ones 

who have large windows 

and who make more money 

than those who work in cubicles 

you can see what’s outside 

but you can’t hear anything 

except the sirens: 


the fire trucks, the police, 

the ambulances. 


At 6 p.m. I leave work 

and go to the Musical Offering Café  

across from Zellerbach Hall. 

Tonight they’re serving lasagna. 


I stand in front of the glass door of the Musical Offering 

and watch Marcella the Muse as she moves among the tables 

as gracefully and as peacefully 

as a young doe in a field of grass. 


There are plenty of empty seats in the place and 

I consider going inside but 

turn and 

go home. 


The rain has stopped. People 

look happier. I hear the wind 

breathe through the wet leaves on the trees. 


The dark clouds 

slowly roll away 

like the smoke from an explosion. 



Somewhere in the distance 

I hear the song of the BART train  

as it stops and leaves for the next station. 


All day, all night 

it plays the same long note.  


In the apartment above mine 

I hear a couple talking. 

I can’t understand what they’re saying. 


And the silence returns.  

But it never left.