In Berkeley

The clouds boil over the Berkeley campus, black and churning…and perhaps with rain, even that seems possible, although extremely unlikely in the California August. And the hills tilt, the whole setting foreshortened. Truly, the university once seemed much farther from the town’s center, and the slopes not quite so steep. My recollections of Berkeley are either inaccurate or undergoing upheaval. Jane and I are visiting for a few days, staying on the main commercial street, Shattuck Avenue in a beautifully restored hotel. Which may be what puts restoration on my mind.

It is the past I so wish to restore. This is where it happened, the division between the two halves of my life. A couple of decades with an intact body, then a bullet and the rest. Regret has always permeated thoughts of this town since 1968, mixed with fear. But now that has changed. A sort of turbulence has shifted things, including the seasons. Locals are talking about it, how August simply isn’t like this. Summer fog is normal, of course. But not all day. And not with clouds like these. The wool jacket designed to make me a bit dressier if an occasion demanded…well, I am wearing it all the time.

Someone has graciously offered to lead me on a tour of the campus, and off I go…and the university is going too, perhaps shrinking or shifting. I cannot say which, for it all seems different…30 years since I set foot here. Which was an era in which I still set feet, along with my aluminum crutch. Now, with so much neuromuscular water under the bridge, I am wheeling. And in some ways this is just as well. Certainly, I can cover more ground, see more of the passing view. One of the problems of walking with a crutch in a neurologically compromised state, is that the eyes are always on the ground. Cracks in a sidewalk, roots shifting a pavement, it’s all perilous for someone who lurches his paralyzed right side. At least I am now synthetical. Batteries churning, wheels rolling, wagons ho.

Uphill. It starts at the entrance of the university on Oxford Street. For the first time in my life, the name of this western border is finally sinking in. Why is the street named after a competing brand, another university? Don’t these people know anything about marketing? Such thoughts obliterated by the slope of the place, the surprising steepness. Was it always like this? Doubtless, but barely noticeable to a footloose youth with all the spinal cord in the world. Who cared? Who noticed? Within seconds, it seems, the campus also having shrunk, we are paralleling Strawberry Creek. A redwood glen, authentically riparian, shady and twinkling with that most miraculous of parched California summer substances – water.

The student union is precisely as I recall it, its concrete satellite buildings only slightly weathered in their five decades of existence. The 1960s made its architectural mark before the students made theirs. I pause at Sather Gate and ask Jane to do the same. This is, I explain, our iconic campus view. I hate having to say this, for it sounds so corny. Yet it is true. Such an odd thing, this gate, with its black wrought iron, gleaming gold leaf and crystal globes. Must have looked strange on the drawing board. Alma mater. Honestly, I never thought the words would have such power. But there it is, this beautiful portal to knowledge, the Italianate bell tower rising straight behind it, the campanile. And maturity? Surely it is this, the common sense to stop and look and take in what has always been there. And not corny, because if I ever doubted it before, my mortality is now with me every moment, my constant companion. Along, of course, with Jane.

Which is why I am so glad she is with me when our tour guide Paul agrees to a pause near the site of the student hospital. Cowell Hospital. Now gone. The place where I spent the three or four weeks after my shooting in 1968 has been torn down. It was old then, and it would be ancient now, space inefficient…which is the thing about the Berkeley campus. There isn’t much. The Haas School of Business, beautiful arching design and all, has taken taken the hospital’s place. Which is fine. Faculty Glade, a sunny, sloping meadow in the redwoods, is still mostly there.

And I am mostly here. That is the incredible thing, the tendency to emotionally withdraw from this location being enormous. The suspect was last seen walking…. Here right through this glade. And now I am rolling, 40 years having elapsed, and that is the other thing. The 40 years have made a difference, and not all bad. Not at all. After all, here is Jane, and Paul our warmhearted guide, and we have this day. And in my day I made the most of this, all of it. Whatever it took from me, inadvertently. At Bancroft Avenue there is nothing to do but pause and stare dazedly at the traffic. Only so much human experience an introvert can take in…especially with the approach of Telegraph Avenue.

Even slightly infamous in my day, the setting for both the urban young intellectual and the urban young criminal, a vibrant enough combination as long as a certain tense balance remained. Pauline Kael and her two film theaters, run with her husband just there…or was it there? The Carlton Hotel no longer a hotel, although the bricks remain. Kip’s hamburgers, complete with open flame and melting grated cheese, those are gone too, Chinese food in its place. The Café Mediterranean still there, seemingly unchanged, even the old mural intact, as Paul points out. No, it is what’s up the street that glowers. I have to stop and stare and muse. A corner, Haste Street, is that it? The name of this street too resonates with layers of meaning. What is the hurry? The haste? It is the right word, though oddly applied.

Something burned, an old building, which is hardly surprising. Such is the nature of this neighborhood. Almost a century old, hardly designed by Haussmann, this neighborhood. Just stuff that went up, presumably as the campus went up. And this corner went up in flames leaving what looks like a World War II memorial bomb ruin set aside in London or Prague. A gaping hole, literally, flanked by the exposed brick work of the adjoining old buildings. And why, I ask Paul. He throws up his hands. The owner will not build. He is waiting…for Godot, perhaps. Fuck him, I decide. Though I have not really decided anything.

For the ghost of adolescent battles hangs over the neighborhood. I was around for it, though hardly a part of the proceedings, being freshly paralyzed. The larger battle, over the nation and its place in the world and its morality in the cosmos…well, there is no end to this battle. Which is why there is no end to this afterimage of battle. People’s Park, a symbolic piece of local real estate, is just around the corner. As are all the bitter memories, enough bitter people still remaining to make change difficult. And somehow, into this opportunistic gap, one essential change, the rebuilding of a burned-out hulk, has not occurred.

And just as I have returned to this place after 40 years…finally, and not just in body but now in spirit…this seems to be one of those moments. Those articulate moments, when the soul speaks in a particular way. And it is saying…that death must not be forgotten. Nor the fingers, the missing fingers on the hand of one of the students who took care of disabled people like me back in 1969. I had hobbled across Sproul Plaza that day in May, or perhaps June, and there he was, his hand bandaged. What happened, I asked. Utterly bewildered, he held up the mass of white gauze, showing me the gap where two of his fingers used to be. The police shot them off, he said, not quite believing his own words. Me leaning on my crutch, he staring at his own misbegotten hand…both of us dumbly waiting for what? Delacroix to paint us long after the barricades had fallen? Somewhere between numb and romanticized, forgotten and inflated lies my late 60s moment of Berkeley history.

And what of the Berkeley present? Surely the culture wars are playing themselves out here, merely a variation on a national theme. The property owner and his legal right to a piece of land versus the community activists and their right to not have an eyesore on a public thoroughfare. All united, if they choose to be, in grief. The stuff of life, after all.

And the community division may have a geographic component, if I recall Berkeley at all accurately. People with a bit of money live in the hills. Many rarely see this savage gap in architectural continuity. Which is why it’s hard to imagine the solution, something along the lines of community policing, the crime-fighting impact of repairing broken windows, fixing this broken commercial district…this needs to be considered on foot, on wheels, on the ground. By people who live in this area.

As for my thoughts about honoring the past…well, I can only think of my cousin David.

During my early 20s, living in Britain, he was the other disabled member of the family. Down n syndrom had left David with the mind of a seven-year-old, yet his mother had bravely insisted on his right to be. Particularly, his right to be at home. Which he was. Very much at home. In his late teens, David made his presence known from the moment I arrived at the local tube station. We are full up, he would say, living a hotel fantasy from a television soap opera…which with a savant’s memory he could recall fully, a decade of episodes. David’s imagined hotel being full up, he slammed down the telephone receiver…until I called back, desperately hoping for a ride from the station. David. It wasn’t that he did the wrong thing, but too much of his own thing.

It was years later that David’s brother-in-law, now on the board of the very pleasant Devon halfway house where he resides, put his finger on the matter. He should never have lived at home, my retarded cousin. For David was retarding progress for everyone. Too loud, sucking too much oxygen out of the atmosphere, too much, really. It was a splendid idea trying to include him in this way, honoring his status as a human being. But in practice, this simply did not work out. I believe it harmed David’s brother Anthony. My cousins recall Anthony going off to boarding school in tears. He needed more attention. There Not enoughavailable. Everyone was trying to do the right thing. But the right thing required a painful choice right out of ‘The Yearling.’ David needed to be in a home…a home he could share, not dominate.

People’s Park is now home to vagrants…an acreage littered with hypodermic needles, as well as painful memories. It needs a home too. The current one is not being shared. The vagrants living there badly need their home…and that is the real problem. It is not this street corner real estate that has been abandoned, but the mentally ill. Are there too many mentally ill? Is this somehow the problem of the afflicted? I pull this question straight out of the air, where it hangs over all of us. I distill it from the Zeitgeist. And the answer is no. California has more than 35 million people. Its loonies were released from institutions decades ago with the promise of a former actor turned governor…a man who always smiled and never laughed…that that thing called ‘the community’ would somehow take care of its screw-loose population. Of whom there is no excess, just a constant percentage…now feral after years loose in the streets. And what is to be done? What ultimately happened to my down syndrome cousin, David. Find them a home. Find them a home and pay for it. For all homes have a way of costing money. The homeless are costing us neighborhoods and even cities, because we don’t really want to share the sidewalks with them. We are not facing this, and meanwhile we lose ground…and yet, here it is, a human problem, not a real estate problem. And this is the place to start, the only place, here on the ground with the people that live there year-round…and it may not be pretty, but it is, at least, the common ground.

Comments are closed.