There’s a nod to revolution in the image of Che Guevara on a T-shirt. But it’s an empty gesture, vacuous of meaning as the place where it’s worn: Berkeley, California. Both Berkeley and Che are dead.
The graffiti on the streets has been blotted out, save the sanctioned murals of historiographical importance, paintings venerating the sixties. They keep like photo props for tourists who pose for pictures flashing peace signs. Perhaps a flower in their hair. An unmarked cop car orbits the campus, yet its presence is less to quell an uprising and more to garner tax money for a bankrupt state. The police reach deep into students’ pockets during routine traffic stops.
On the corner of College and University Avenue, I make pizza. After ten years abroad, it’s as if I’ve dug a tunnel through the earth and fell out the other side back where I began—asking, “what can I get you?” in the restaurant industry. I try recall the affection I once had for this city but it’s like trying to rekindle a love affair with a ghost. I sniff for a mixture of weed and tear gas, waiting for a girl to walk by, long-haired and braless, an ideal. I get nothing. Reaching for the reputation that precedes the city, I haunt the past.
On my lunch break, I watch a documentary in the office, Berkeley in the Sixties. The narrative begins in ’64 with the Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus, a protest qualified as a civil rights panty-raid by a college administrator. As I eat a slice off a cardboard plate, I learn that a block north from where I work, the fledgling Black Panthers sold Mao’s Little Red Book at mark-up prices to purchase shotguns, in order to police the police of Oakland. And at the draft office in Oakland, running full-bore for the Vietnam War, the super glue leaked out of the keyholes. The work of Cal students, no doubt. Fifty years later, it seems impossible that this place was ever the epicenter of sex, drugs, and radical politics in America.
Berkeley now looks less like a place of rebellion and more like a playground. The kids in the street are just that—several boys wear suits but their starched collars frame hairless faces. Two girls in high-heels walk into the restaurant awkwardly. Virginly. They look as if they’re barely used to their bodies. I eavesdrop while they flip-flop on choices for pizza. I note a particularity about Americans, especially marked in younger people, which gives us the airs of indecisive children. Our ideas rarely seem complete before we open our mouths, forcing us to splice our sentences with a hundred “likes” to buy time. We throw around the superlative as if it’s the least of things and we do this loudly because Americans are loud, like children are loud. One of the girls points for pepperoni. She says, “It’s, like, the best pizza in town.” I thank her and smile because I’m in a good mood, mostly because business is slow. She hands me her Hello Kitty debit card. She doesn’t tip, but I assume she doesn’t understand tipping as she’s never worked behind a counter a day in her life. She’s lucky. She’s still a kid. I slide her pizza into the 450 degree oven. I look outside and spot another hint of revolution in the work of the prophet Steve Jobs. Four college kids walk by waving their smart phones, just like that Little Red Book during a Mao Tse-Tung speech. Although Mao and Steve were both great prognosticators, it’s apparent who has won out. The recipe was simple: Steve Jobs left behind toys, not ideas, and in Berkeley kids love toys.
Today, the most visible practitioners of past ideologies are the drop-outs and street kids. The former have been here since the sixties and the latter have flocked to the city to wait on history to repeat itself. They both do a lot of waiting. While they wait they hock hemp necklaces or ask for change. They’re a mishmash of every spiritual or political movement that has washed up in the Bay Area—one part moveable bacchanal, one part Zen minimalist. The young ones are nursed on nostalgia for something they’ve never lived, like the Grateful Dead, like free love. They remind me of myself ten years prior when I believed in the power of conversation to change the world and if I didn’t have exorbitant rent I would spread out a blanket with them for a chat. In the time it would take to regrow a headful of dreads, we could have a working theory for peace on earth. But no. Instead, on my way to work this afternoon I met my former self (the one that never left town) in the form of a panhandler. With the smiling tenacity of a Greenpeace fundraiser, a disheveled white guy asked for a cigarette. I shrugged, told him sorry. He asked for dollar. I placed a quarter in his palm. “I got a hole in my bowl, you got a nugget to plug it?” he said. I laughed and we made eye contact. We had an inside joke. A decade ago I would have ducked into an alley with him, but today, I told him sorry, no nuggets. It had been a while since I heard that joke and I wanted to retort with another, “What’s the difference between a street kid and a homeless person?—ten years.” I didn’t, because I don’t begrudge the unemployed just because I hate my own job. Continuing, I repeated the joke in my head. The punch line is particularly fitting for Berkeley. It translates to a homeless population ranging from starry-eyed idealists to shell-shocked veterans. They, the homeless and future homeless, live in their very own park one block off Telegraph Avenue, the closest commercial artery to the university. The park was created in the sixties when students tore up a campus parking lot to build a garden. They named it People’s Park; it was evidence of what a better world would look like if the youth took over. It now resembles an open-air psych ward. Perhaps it was the effect of tuning-in too much on psychedelic drugs but I’ll bet it also has something to do with former Governor Ronald Regan decreasing federal spending for the mentally ill in the eighties. Way back when he ran for governor of California in ‘66 he itched to “send the welfare bums back to work.” Almost fifty years later they’ve yet to clock in. Cut a diagonal through the park at three p.m. and you’ll see Food-Not-Bombs, a non-profit, truck in soylent-green flavored confection for those who never joined mainstream America. Or for the adherents of dying ideologies. Or for those with mental problems. Or for those who just don’t want to make pizzas for college kids at ten dollars an hour. Can you blame them? After lunch, the street kids and veterans return to stroke Schrödinger’s cat in the shade of the John Lennon Memorial Plum Tree.
The second sign that the heart of the sixties still beats like a drum circle, albeit distant and dwindling, are the people who lived it and didn’t end up sleeping outside. Before meeting my former self in the park, I was at a poetry reading at an art space in South Berkeley. I showed up late. I didn’t have any cash for a donation so I told the doorman, a senior, that I was unemployed. He looked at me and nodded in respect. I took a seat, noted the lava lamps on the piano, and scrutinized a poet at the microphone over rows of grey and white hair. Four poets read, some bad, some great. The lexical field included George Bush, Xanax, and cats. Crop circles, chem-trails. There were political poems and light sexual innuendo and several poems about mortality, perhaps because of the poets’ advanced age. During intermission I made a tea. While admiring a gallery of beat-poet photos, I overheard and caught glances of two older people conversing. She just came over to say how much she appreciated the poems, especially the line, we don’t have to take back the night because we never lost it. They talked past each other, like drunken students at my pizza joint, although it was different. I recognized it. It was how people on LSD speak, in broken affirmations. She listened, and, like an evangelist, made piercing eye contact as she caressed a poetry chap book. She wore tied-dye. Nearly pulled into the kaleidoscopic spiral, I had a flashback—in the millennium there were still more tied-dye t-shirts than American flags in Berkeley. The shirt was ungodly bright and distracting. I thought that it was for the better the things were out of fashion, and besides, the American flag is far more harmonious, more ordered, esthetically speaking. I also thought perhaps I’d spent enough time during my twenties in the sixties.
I left early. I biked past the house where Patti Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army. In front of 2603 Benvenue, now a brown shingle four-unit apartment, in an otherwise home-owner neighborhood, sat a beat up Honda Civic. On the street SUVs were parked. There was a hybrid car. I expected to see a bumper sticker for gun control. I imagined the surveillance photos of Patti Hearst at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a M1 Carbine.
Back to the pizza. To the students. And the future of the sixties. At work for an eight hour shift, during our transactional relationship, I ask our customers why they chose to attend UC Berkeley. My hypothesis was that somebody gave a shit about the past. My hypothesis was wrong. The reasons students give me are—the quality of education, or, I wasn’t accepted to Stanford, or Harvard, or, it was close. While keeping tally of replies, I remember something that a university professor once said—you can’t give a percentage based on a sample size under 100 respondents. It’s not representative, she said. I can safely say that, of the 110 students I questioned, 0% attend Berkeley for its past of activism or for nostalgia. They came because it ranked sixth in the world in the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. It makes sense, though. Why would you want to pay 50,000 dollars for an undergraduate degree from a school that was cool in the sixties? But it goes further than that. The students of Berkeley want to get rid of the rare vestiges of the sixties—People’s Park and the street kids. In a survey conducted by Berkeleyside, 65% of respondents said they would visit Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers. Likewise, an Op-ed in the Daily Californian relates what is a common sentiment on campus: People’s Park, despite its history, should be run over with a bulldozer. It seems it took us years to get over the sixties, but we finally did.
Sometimes in the restaurant I hear the languages of countries where I’ve lived in the past decade. Pretending to be elsewhere, I speak a fluent French to an exchange student. Tell him I went to school in France. I converse in a clunky Arabic to a Middle Eastern Computer Programmer. Tell him I learned it in Palestine. I practice my Spanish with a coworker. “My major was languages…of course I should use my diploma… I’m looking for another job…don’t mention it to the boss.” I ask him what he thinks of California. The weather reminds him of his native Mexico. “And Berkeley?” I ask. He says the girls are cute. I agree. “No, I’m not from here,” I say. “I’m from Texas, although I could never live there. It’s too conservative.” Why the Bay Area then? “It’s one of the most picturesque cities I’ve seen.” Speaking in a language I don’t master, I employ vocabulary like favorite and best. I use hyperbole. “Great nature.” Spreading ingredients across a pizza, I want to tell him the truth—that like the street kids, the Beats before them, and the Okies before them, I initially came west looking for something. Guided by hippie clichés, it was a promise of reinventing oneself, and that, as soon as the high school graduation cap hit the ground. The San Francisco Bay Area carried that promise, and perhaps it still does for some (although you meet far fewer people who have renamed themselves “Tree” or “Wind” than you used to). Instead, I censor myself from waxing nostalgic and repeat what’s in the mouths of so many my age—“San Francisco is too expensive now.” I switch back to English to better articulate. “Oakland, on the other hand, is at a crossroads between affordable, beautiful, and busted.” He asks if I like Berkeley. “Not particularly. But I used to,” I nod to the customers, “when I was their age.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see the girl waiting for her pepperoni pizza. I check the oven to see if the oil has begun to gleam. “Five minutes,” I let her know. I tell the boss I’m going for a smoke and ask him to watch the oven. Clocking out, I listen to him, under his breath, attempt to wrap his brain around the day’s poor sales. “Well,” he says as he shoves his fists into his pockets, “Cal’s not playing today.” He stares longingly out the window. “I’m sure when football season starts things will really pick up. Plus it’s been raining quite a bit…” He scans the clouds on the horizon, perhaps trying to discern in the weather a sign from a Protestant God. Is he predestined to succeed? Everything that happens in the known universe somehow relates back to the success of his business. He makes calculations, projections; he remembers the great amount of money made last Saturday night. I nod. What he can’t understand is that whether business is boom or bust I still get paid the same amount of money, which is a little too close to minimum wage for comfort or for the six years I went to school. More business means more college kids snapping their fingers at choices for pizza. They live the best years of their lives on the other side of the counter where I’d rather be. They grin over the menu. Their future is bright. It is tethered to no past.
Outside, smoking at a reasonable distance from the restaurant, I can see straight across the San Francisco Bay to Marin. Behind me is the promontory of the Berkeley Hills. It’s gorgeous but unaffordable to live in both places. Us peasants, if we have homes, pile up in valleys. That class hierarchy should express itself through the language of geography is an unchallenged argument in Berkeley. It’s nearly feudal when you look at it from certain angles. The landed gentry—perhaps the people who lived through the sixties and came out moneyed on the other end—descend the hills in the evening. I watch a couple step out of an electric car, a Tesla. She wears alpaca. He’s bald with a pony-tail and donned in hi-tech hiking gear. He holds the door for her at an all-organic restaurant. As I take yawning drags on a cigarette, an etiolated man digs through the trash for pizza. He moves as slow as a mummy. History seems to be his burden.
I flick my cigarette and return to work. The girl, who I’ve completely forgotten and who my boss has completely forgotten, is still waiting on her pepperoni pizza. When I step behind the counter she licks her lips. I look in the oven. I’ve burned it, while I thought of the present, while I dwelled on the past. I offer her another pizza, for free this time.
“Like, we’ll be late for class,” she says between sighs. I notice a tone of revolt in her voice.