Friday 2 July 2010


… the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things: Of shoes –­­ and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings …”

We are approaching the end of my diligent blogging, dear readers; this will be my last post about Berkeley; only two more to go, dealing with the trip back to the old continent.

This post is difficult for me to write, which is why I saved it to the end. It is dealing with the underbelly of UCB, a short segment of Telegraph Avenue that starts just outside the university, when you are traversing Sproul Plaza, starting from Sather Gate, and crossing Bancroft Avenue. As the eternal nerd I am, I have always entertained a peculiar love/hate relationship with this extraordinary place. Actually, when talking about Telegraph, we will discuss here only the small, rather narrow, part of the avenue, ranging about four blocks southward from UCB’s Sather Gate.

The Avenue continues much farther, about 7 kilometres, all the way into Downtown Oakland. But, already after 300 metres it is shifting character rather abruptly at Dwight Street, at a sharp bend, about where the young lady below is urging on reluctant passersby with her whip. Beyond the bend lies just an average broad city street, with business districts interspersed by residential homes; a far cry from the hustle at its very beginning.

Telegraph Avenue started out, in Berkeley, as Choate Street way back in 1873, when the university was moved there. Already at that time, a horsecar line connected it to Oakland, along the present stretch of Telegraph Avenue. In 1892, the whole stretch, by then already trafficked by electric streetcar, got its present name.

Telegraph proper is a phenomenon cumbersome to describe, being rather remote from the average American street as it is. We may best consider it as an earthly counterpoint to the more lofty atmosphere reigning at the adjoining UCB Campus. Whereas Campus is full of energetic and smiling youngsters, ambling among classical buildings and cooling off on the greens under shady trees, with bright hopes for the future and full of glee and games, Telegraph is more of a sleazy urban canyon through which wallows a most amazing diversity of human beings, often bound on a downward journey through life.

Having said this it is also true that coursing through all this ruckus can be an exhilarating experience for the occasional visitor or the odd student, homeward bound after a day’s good work at Campus. The human condition, exposed in all its misery along this street, is largely mitigated by the generous Bay climate, which leads to a general atmosphere of good humour encompassing high and low, good and bad, fast and slow.

If you are looking for cheap, but amazingly varied and good, food, this is the place to go, keeping company with many a poor student who otherwise could not afford a healthy meal. Sitting at one of the cheap eateries, you can have the most surprising meets of people at any day, from students to beggars, or from artists to IT experts (like the one I met myself at the veggie eatery, see “The green, green Grass of Ho-ome”).

The shopping experience can also be extra-ordinary, at least if you are interested in music and literature. Two large music shops, one of them harkening to the intriguing name of “Rasputin”, can find for you and sell you any CD ever produced; and Moe’s bookshop has an amazing variety of used books to satisfy your most eccentric requests. Sadly, Cody’s bookshop, my personal favourite from 35 years back, has recently folded up; still, its façade can yet be admired from a corner table in Caffe Mediterraneum, the same table where Dustin Hoffman was filmed, sipping coffee and glancing at Cody's in the cult movie “The Graduate”, way back in the mid-sixties.

But, all in all, Telegraph as phenomenon stands and falls with the people living and working on it, or just passing through, quickly or more slowly, over weeks and even years. Have I already mentioned that I never was completely at ease when walking this arena of the human condition? If so, I trust you understand that you cannot expect from me a comprehensive survey. Let me just give you an inkling of it, by drawing sketches of typical fellow human beings that seem to thrive on this amazing stretch of land.

The first, most impressive, category of regulars consists of the PROPHETS, fellows with a distinct and forceful message, sometimes engaging crowds of listeners, but, more often than not, spreading the gospel to precious few. The gentleman above is swearing by the Old Testament and rather knowledgeable about its most hidden stanzas. Out of them he has deduced that Judgement Day will come on May 21, 2011 and end on October 21 2011. Although rather forceful in his speeches, garnered with fire and brimstone, he was easily accessible for private discussions and proved to be quite amiable when queried about details of his bible studies. He even accepted, with a condescending smile, that I did not fully rely on the logic of his analysis, but kept assuring me that his deductions were sound, as was his belief in the One Old God.

Let’s move on to the New Testament. As could be expected, the prophet in question, proselytizing on the basis of this more recent biblical underpinning, shone with a more modern and suave appearance, using a rather laid back approach to teaching his gospel. His message was inscribed on a flag held in his steady left hand (the right hand being used to shake hands with passersby), on which were written the following holy words: “It’s easy to be an atheist if you don’t think where everything came from”. His poise was unmoved by my humble attempts to explain to him the original big bang from which the universe came from, since, as he assured me, someone had had to cause that explosion as well.

Let’s move on to more mundane messages. The Gentleman writing the slogan “UC Berkeley: out of Peoples’ Park” is a forceful politician of native Indian descent, being a Member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and owning the impressive name of Zachary RunningWolf. He is calling himself “Leader” and has been running for Mayor of Berkeley several times, albeit with limited success. When queried about the slogan written on the sidewalk he explained to me that, according to native Indian philosophy, private persons did not have the right to own land and, if such rights existed, they should be attributed to the native population, that is, the Indians. A case in hand in his view was Peoples’ Park.

Now, that got me interested. In the ‘sixties, the University had bought up a residential block, adjacent to Telegraph, with the aim to build student athletic facilities on the land. This plan was met by furious opposition from a coalition of radical forces, squatting on the land, despite heavy police involvement, and effectively transforming it into a park that exists to present days, the Peoples’ Park. Legally, the situation is in limbo, with the University not ceding its right to the land. In practice, the park is a going concern that no public authority would dare to negate, after almost 50 years’ of occupancy. A grove of rather large trees is already dominating one third of the land, the remainder consisting of greens and a scene for performances. The scene’s platform is usually being used as sleeping ground for down-and-outs in between performances.

After this small aside we are moving down from the lofty heights of prophets to their more humble followers, the MARTYRS. These are the people who keep the big leaders going, collecting means for their sustenance and helping to propagate their masters’ voice. It is in their nature to be self-effacing, so we cannot, to our regret, tell any elaborate story about these personalities.

Next in line comes a considerably more colourful bunch of people, the STREET VENDORS. Tourists, paying a short visit to Telegraph, usually believe that these are the main attractions populating the street. There is no denying that they provide spice to the experience, both in terms of personality and the goods/services they provide. These are the schooled actors on the scene, depending on their apparition and performance to attract willing customers.

The products they are selling are usually cheap trinkets, with the occasional good buy, hidden among the manifold, which many a tourist discovered to his/her delight.

One product I found beguiling was the painting of nice young ladies’ hands and feet with “henna”, giving rise to all kinds of colourful tattoo-like adornments, with the additional advantage that the “tattoos” would bleach out in time and not give rise to irreversible mistakes.

Let’s leave this crowd to the tourists and move on to less promising folks, the VAGABONDS. The engaging atmosphere of Telegraph is attracting all kinds of drop-outs, be they former students, runaways from home or simply people having tired of the labours of normal living. They are the most pleasant to behold when they have just arrived and still are exhibiting joy and enthusiasm, whilst sitting on the sidewalk in this marvellous outdoor theatre, being spectators as well as actors.

Circumstances will gradually become less enticing for them, when the charm of the place is wearing off and the play-acting becomes daily routine. The peregrinators are eventually becoming locals, start dressing up in army fatigues, getting dogs and getting “under the influence”. Thus mellowed, they pass their days in patient passivity, living on the street and begging for their sustenance from eager bystanders.

Their artificial mellowness has, of course, to be maintained by continually adding appropriate smoking paraphernalia to the mix. The task of providing this falls on the DEALERS who move around rather circumspectly and can usually be observed and pictured only at a distance.

Quite apart from the usual drop-outs we find the more serene gentlemen without a home who have their fixed abode for sleeping in the small streets adjacent to Telegraph, usually below sheltered shopping windows and other nooks and crannies. When the morning sun is warming up their sleeping bags they pack their belongings in shopping carts or knapsacks and gravitate towards Telegraph, to sit quietly in the sun amongst the buzz, which provides them with company of a kind.

In the middle of the hubbub we can find several nice places, to drink coffee and have a good time, that were my favourite haunts for relaxing and reading a newspaper after lunch. The most renowned of these is Caffe Mediterraneum that, since the ‘fifties, has catered to distinguished customers, such as, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg of the Beat generation. Allegedly, Caffe Latte was invented here, since the customers could not stand the strong espresso coffee on offer in the café, with its Italian barista, and would ask that generous amounts of milk be added to the brew.

Can INTELLECTUALS still be found lingering in cafés like Mediterraneum or, more recently, Peet’s Coffee & Tea? Before answering this question, allow me to issue a warning. The jovial person in the picture below, sitting in Mediterraneum, drinking Latte and reading the San Francisco Chronicle IS NOT an intellectual! He is definitely one of the pretenders, hoping, no doubt, to attract to his table the odd artist still frequenting this café.

Having said that, the person sitting opposite him on the table IS an intellectual. In fact, you are looking at the famous Berkeley street poet Julia Vinograd, the Poeta Laureata of Telegraph Avenue, author of some fifty poetry books and honoured with a Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award by the City of Berkeley. You can appreciate her as the last living link to the earlier, more proficient period of radical poets, having had Allen Ginsburg as her mentor when she was a budding youngster. By the way, Allen wrote his famous poem “Howl” at the exact table were she is sitting.

Not to be bested, also Peet’s Coffee & Tea, even if established on Telegraph only recently, can be seen housing one or the other creative artist. The group depicted below can surely be counted among the intellectuals. We can but guess its members’ occupation. I would wager that we are seeing here two authors, busy with analysing their latest projects, their muse smiling encouragingly at the amiable discourse.

Let us round up the presentation of the human condition by looking at another of Telegraphs’s striking features, the numerous murals adorning building walls. They are found in varying circumstances, from embellishing a school front, like in the picture below, via hiding a raw façade with a colourful banner-like painting, to the most impressive of them all, spreading out over half a block and telling the story of the early, radical, days of UCB and Telegraph.

You can see a small section of the latter, monumental, painting in the picture below. It shows the gathering of the crowds fighting for the creation of People’s Park. The whole mural, which is actually almost as old as the events it is depicting – preserved as it is, no doubt, by the generous Bay climate – is letting us glimpse the curious mix of radical revolution, public elation and inclusive participation that characterized the Free Speech and Anti-Vietnam Movements, in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, as practised at major campus sites and as originating, to a great degree, from this very Campus and city blocks.

You have to be of the same generation as the painters of, and those painted in, this impressive piece of street art to really understand and appreciate its impact. Alas, we are talking about a generation soon to be gone – let’s face it, I am also part of it – and the generations after us may read the monument in different ways, grounded in THEIR experiences and challenges. I could imagine them reading the tale, NOT, as a story of triumphing over repressive forces, RATHER, as a tale of vainglorious efforts by LES MISERABLES, ever destined to fail, to rise against the stream of globalized progress that is forcing ever increasing shares of the middle classes on a down-ward path away from prosperity.

“Wow!” I see that I am getting carried away by my own rethoric, as usual. Let’s stop here and finish this exotic post with a poem by Julia, our beloved Poeta Laureata. The few verses that follow, being rather dear to me, manage to capture the essence of the Telegraph Avenue of our times, putting my more voluminous scribblings and pictures to shame.

Things are so bad
that one of the young street guys
was pimping his puppy.
It was only 5 weeks old, eyes filmy, couldn’t walk yet,
just rolled around trying to play
with a small stuffed flappy-eared white rabbit toy
its owner kept dangling in its face
and grabbing back.
There was a scrawled cardboard sign
saying “puppy love, only a quarter”.
It costs to stop and smile.
The young guy caught people’s eyes to draw them closer.
After all he buys dogfood and deals with the cops,
he’s entitled.
Maybe the puppy will make him enough money
to buy himself a pimp’s classy new cap
with a feather in the band.

1 comment:

Frank Schönborn said...

Lieber Emil,
Vielen Dank für deine vielen Informationen, welche mir gestatten, dein bewegtes Leben als Beobachter zu begleiten. Ich bewundere dich für die vielen Reiseerlebnisse, welche dir vergönnt sind. Meine Bewunderung gilt auch deiner Photographierkunst, deinem stilvollen und bildhaften Englisch und nicht zuletzt deiner technischen Fähigkeit bei der modernen Nutzung des Internets. Da bin ich noch Lichtjahre dahinter!