50 Berkeley 50
an essay by Victoria Nelson
So: a hot fall day in Berkeley, the year is 2011, I'm walking up Telegraph Avenue past the shell of Cody's Books, then the old apartment building I lived in the summer after graduation that is going to burn down a few months from now, the down-at-heel cheap clothing outlets, a single Paleolithic head shop, the bagel franchise and the street tables full of junky jewelry, bumper stickers, garish tie-dyed thermal underwear, and suddenly it's September 1961, I'm fifteen years old about to turn sixteen, and my parents have just dropped me off at Bennett Manor on Channing Way between College and Piedmont, a women's approved boarding house required for all females under twenty-one, complete with evening signout and lockout, a shabby-genteel building trembling on the edge of sea change just as we were (and soon to become a coed rooming house, a Transcendental Meditation Center, a frat house, and a parking lot, in that order)—
My parents drop me off at Bennett Manor, I was saying, and then (they tell me at Thanksgiving, when I come home to a curiously shrunken family house) they pull off the road and cry, even as all thought of them evaporates inside me the second the front door closes, so happy happy happy am I to be out of Encinitas, California (a coastal town far removed from hip for many decades to come in spite of its very own lotus-towered Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and adjoining mushroom burger stand) and up here in the wondrous land of beatniks, coffeehouses, the hungry i and the Kingston Trio—
And my fifteen-year-old self walking up a different-universe Telegraph, still a proper college town main street with an old-time Rexall drugstore, a Bank of America resplendent with enormous shining plate glass windows (to be replaced after 1964 with fortress-strength reinforced concrete), and a Roos Atkins store on Bancroft where fraternity boys and professors purchase proper tweed coats and button-down Brooks Brothers shirts, sorority girls get madras wrap-around skirts and headbands and blouses with Peter Pan collars, the only signs of incipient bohemianism on the Avenue being the New York students in black turtlenecks and leather sandals (long hair only on the women) who hang out on Telly at the old-time Italian coffeehouse the Mediterraneum and also at Robbie's Cafeteria, a dive where I'm accosted my first week by a hipster black busboy who growls at me out of the corner of his mouth, "What part of Africa are you from?" and I not understanding an insult say back, "Oh, I'm from San Diego," a response so guileless it leaves him speechless—
Crossing Bancroft to campus, where the brand-new Student Union sits next to the brand-new plaza in front of the older administration building Sproul Hall: here tiny sycamores have just been planted in neat rows, little trees that bare their gnarly branches in winter, so bonzaied they're not much bigger fifty years later as I look down at the granite circle enclosing the invisible column of "free space" air rising into the cosmos in commemoration of the Free Speech Movement—a story unto itself, I won't go into it right now except to say I was there and years later I lost my blue FSM button dancing at a Halloween party on the north shore of Oahu, and a few months from now Santa Ana winds will be blowing debris from Occupy Cal across it—
Onward to Dwinelle Hall, in the long-ago days home to the English department, where a few years before I arrive the professor Thomas Parkinson was wounded, and his graduate student killed, by a madman with a list of "communists" on campus to murder, and even though Tom P. was not on that list, the man with the sawed-off shotgun passed by his open office door, saw the two of them and gunned them down, an exemplar of 1950s-style commie hunting soon to be swallowed up in the new tidal waves of violence swelling as the 1960s began, the first harbinger of which are the crowds gathered in Dwinella Plaza and in front of Wheeler Hall the day of the Cuban missile crisis, wondering if we were about to go to war or get blown up (crowds of grown-ups wearing suits, I notice, not just students; by this time I am seventeen)—
And one November day the next year I'm looking at the weirdly euphemistic headline in the San Francisco Call Bulletin (the afternoon paper, one of three then, counting the Chronicle and the Examiner): "Shots Fired in the Vicinity of Dallas"—a few minutes earlier I was trying on clothes in a dressing room in the Sather Gate Dress Shop, an old-style store on Durant next to Kip's selling "frocks" and brassieres, where the elderly salesladies refer to breasts as "tissue" and one of them says to me, when I ask what they are talking about so intently on the other side of the curtain, "Someone just killed the President," and now, looking at the headline, I am seeing him just the summer before striding around the stadium playing field side by side with the begowned academics, the celebrity glow of his deeply tanned face startling above his crimson Harvard gown, and he tells us, "My wife Jackie is riding an elephant in India" (the only thing I remember from his commencement speech) and sitting right behind me in the bleachers, all by himself, is campus visitor Aldous Huxley (also a patron of the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship though I don't know this yet), his own leathery wizened face sporting a tan every bit the equal of JFK's—
That same night of Dallas, sitting in the old UC Theater watching Alfred Hitchcock's Thirty-Nine Steps just to get away from this unthinkable event, then gasping, along with everyone else in my audience, when someone in Hitchcock's fake audience asks the vaudeville performer Mr. Memory: "How many presidents of the United States have been assassinated?"—our gasps so loud as the communal visceral shock runs through the theater, they all but obliterate his newly obsolete answer: "Three. Three presidents of the United States have been assassinated. They were Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley."
A domino falls this day of November 23, setting off a chain reaction of violence and euphoria, an indigestible confusion of public murders and private transcendental ecstasy, and in the middle of it all an inconspicuous little card table on Sproul Plaza—I see it in 2011 as clearly as I see it in 1963, the map of southeast Asia with a sign asking, "Where is Viet-Nam?" a country I have never heard of but somehow these people behind the table know that secret U.S. military missions are already taking place there years before we ever declare war, just as years later, after the war of the card tables has been lost and won again, I'm standing in front of a little card table with a sign reading, "What is Oecology?" another word I've never heard of, a word whose spelling is soon de-Greeked as it speeds around the world from its omphalos in Berkeley—
Meanwhile the huge lecture classes and their TA-run discussion groups churn on, the pedagogical life running briskly off there to the side of social mayhem as it has for eighty-some years before 1961 and will for fifty years after, with only an occasional seismic hiccup like the FSM erupting from the huge institutional beast as it slowly digests the social advances of previous decades. Almost imperceptibly, gender and skin color change among students and faculty alike and formerly off-limits curricula pop up in the catalog, always a decade or two behind the times, but slowly some things change even if corporate influence and Regent provincialism and top-down bureaucracy do not—
And here I am again, 50 Septembers later, walking down alchemically transformed Telegraph Avenue toward campus feeling like I'm drifting through layers of geological time back to the last Ice Age, and here's a poster advertising Gary Snyder reading on campus and I'm back to the time I'm asked to a party for him at Tom Parkinson's house on Cragmont way up in the hills and how I instinctively clutch my purse when TP offers to put it in the coat room (his witty response, "Don't worry, we're all perfectly reliable here," sending me into spasms of embarrassment), and news filtering in of a car crash on Euclid and it's my roommate Esther, trying to get to this party in her boyfriend Bob's convertible, the same old convertible he has parked and waiting for us on the highway at the end of the road from Santa Rita Women's Prison Farm where we've all been incarcerated standing up for twenty plus hours after the Sproul Hall sit-in, when the nasty officials, after hasty collective bail is made, decide to release twenty-five young women at 2 a.m. in the morning on a deserted country road to teach us a lesson, but the word gets out in Berkeley and there Bob is with that big grin on his face and that great convertible along with many, many other cars waiting to ferry us home to Berkeley, headlights shining triumphantly in the country night—
This, I was saying, is the same car Esther crashes on Euclid as I'm listening to Gary Snyder tell a bunch of people in Tom Parkinson's living room that jazz and marijuana are the two greatest inventions of the twentieth century and here I am right now, a decade into the twenty-first century, looking at this poster about Gary Snyder reading on campus thinking Tom Parkinson is gone and Gary Snyder may not be around much longer—and who knows about me, for that matter, because let's face it, fifty years is a long long time—but I'm in a Buddhist moment and so is that fifteen-year-old kid, we are me and no time has passed, no time at all, and those faraway days are all happening Now Now Now
Victoria Nelson's second book of stories, A Bestiary of My Heart, has just been published by InkerMen Press. Her new critical work GOTHICKA is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in May, 2012.
Photo credit: Candy Riddell.