Our Berkeley day last week started at the St. Francis Hotel on Powell Street, near Union Square. The streetcar runs up a big hill right in front of the hotel. Tourists camp at the east end with their cameras, looking to catch a shot of conductors manually turning the streetcar around. One conductor gets on one end, and another conductor at the other end, and they push the street car as you would an '04 Oldsmobile on a winter day in the Region.
We took the BART under San Francisco Bay toward Oakland and Berkeley. This always give me a little bit of anxiety. Look at the Bay. There’s Alcatraz Island. There’s the Bay Bridge. And there’s a huge amount of water flowing rapidly every which way.
Then think about getting in a train that goes under all of it. When I was at school in Berkeley, a group of students was going for dinner in the Italian section of North Beach in San Francisco. They asked me to go, but I had boxing practice. They got on the BART and went to dinner.
I was studying in the main room of Barrington Hall at 2am when the group of six or so walked in, tattered, sweaty and beaten. It was a weekday. They should have never been out that long. Whatever you have to say about Berkeley, we study our asses off.
“We got stuck under the Bay on the BART,” one girl in a flowing tie-dye dress told me. “For two hours. Power went out and it got hot and stuffy. And dark.” Their adventure made the San Francisco Chronicle. It has never left my mind that when you take the BART from San Francisco to Oakland, you go under one of the largest inland bays in the world.
Alexis and I got off the BART at University Ave. and immediately Berkeley felt different than the last time I was there, which was 2012. I was there for a week-long conference on Venture Capital financing. The certificate hangs in my office at home.
Instead of homeless lying around in front of dingy storefronts, there was a brand new plaza with tables and chairs. A city worker greeted us with a smile. I vaguely recognized him from years gone by when I delivered auto parts all around Berkeley.
We went into Blue Bottle Coffee, which is a modernistic attempt at Starbucks chicanery. Redevelopment is in full swing along Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
As part of the pilgrimage, we visit four places:
I thought about making a stop at the boxing room, where I slept from time to time during my first term in Berkeley. Jim Riksheim was the boxing coach at the time.
“You still haven’t found a place to live, have you, Dedelow?”
“Just don’t let anyone in.”
I made an exception. There was this one trust fund gal from Walnut Creek who didn't mind sleeping on canvas. She also placated me by engaging in a game of "Naked speed bag." There were also a couple of innovative uses of the ropes around the ring. Other than that, I never let anyone in.
With a wife of nearly three decades in tow, I decided to forego the stop at the boxing room.
Doe Library. This is the coolest room in America. As you can tell from the photos, it’s high ceilings and high windows. Books line the walls under the windows and there's huge wooden tables to sit at. The room has an open, airy feel to it, perfect for long bouts with Shakespeare and scientific calculus. Librarians make you keep quiet, just as they did when I was there and when people before me were there. I spent a lot of time in Doe Library doing just what I’m doing now – writing a ton of shit no one will ever read.
Sproul Plaza. This is where Mario Savio gave his famous speech. It was the beginning of the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Mario stood on a cop car:
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious... You can't even passively take part. You've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels ... upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."
Mario and several thousands of his friends were protesting something or other. The important thing for me is that free speech is a real thing. I get the same feeling when I return to Sproul Plaza as when I go to the Liberty Bell museum in Philadelphia. They have a “free speech” exhibit there with video of MLK and dramatizations of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. By now, the three or four of you understand that if there is one overriding principle to what I do, it is free speech. I might even die defending it.
People’s Park. Perhaps the second-most known location in Berkeley behind Sproul Plaza, People’s Park is actually owned by the University and is an extremely valuable piece of land. There's not enough housing in Berkeley and nowhere to build. Rents are outrageous. For the fist six months I was there, I didn't have a place to live.
People’s Park is known for unrest and tear gas of the 60s. It was at the heart of what governor Ronald Reagan was referring to when he famously said that Berkeley was:
"a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants."
Eventually, the University agreed to leave People’s Park as a place where people could gather and express whatever the hell they wanted to… or play basketball. When I was there, homeless people were allowed to sleep in the park. You'd see dozens of them laying all around on your way to class in the morning.
Did I ever sleep in People’s Park? Put it this way, the the trust fund gal with the hairy armpits didn’t mind sleeping on sweat-soaked boxing canvas. But she drew the line at People’s Park.
I read in the Daily Cal when we were there that you can’t sleep overnight in People’s Park anymore but that homeless can lay around all day. As you can see from my photos, they do just that. I also hear that the University may be planning to build on this hallowed land. Hope not.
Barrington Hall. This place couldn’t be any further from its majestic name. Barrington was part of the campus co-op system. You had to work 10 hours a week to stay there. This lowered your rent. No adult supervision was around. There were few rules. At the monthly “Wine Dinner,” some people got naked. I will write a book one day about my experiences at Barrington Hall. For now, I won’t.
That’s about all I have to say about our day in Berkeley. We went back to San Francisco and had dinner at an Italian restaurant that served the best salmon I have ever had. Alexis suggests that when we retire we could move to a big city like Chicago or, if our daughter still lives there, New York.
"Sure, honey, I tell her. "We can move to any city you want. As long as it’s San Francisco.” Talk soon. Bye.