The Mysteries of Berkeley

by Michael Chabon


Where passion is married to intelligence, you may find genius, neurosis, madness or rapture. None of these is really an unfamiliar presence in the tree-lined streets of Berkeley, California. For a city of one hundred thousand people-toss in another thirty thousand to account for the transient population of the University-we have more than our share of geniuses. The town, to be honest, is lousy with them. Folklorists, chefs, tattoo artists, yogis, guitarists, biologists of the housefly, GUI theorists, modern masters of algebra, Greil Marcus: we have geniuses in every field and discipline. As for neurosis, you can pretty much start at my house and work your way outward in any direction. Obsession, fixation, phobia, hypochondriasis, self-flagellation, compulsive confession of weakness and wrongdoing, repetition mania, chronic recrimination and second-guessing-from parents of toddlers, to fanatical collectors of wax recordings by Turkish klezmer bands of the 1920s, to non-eaters of anything white or which respires, to that august tribunal of collective neurosis, the Berkeley City Council: if neuroses were swimming pools one might, like Cheever's swimmer, steer a course from my house to the city limits and never touch dry land. Madness: a painful thing, which it does not do to romanticize. But it seems to me that among the many sad and homeless people who haunt Berkeley one finds an unusually high number of poets, sages, secret Napoleons and old-fashioned prophets of doom. The mentally ill citizens of Berkeley read, as they kill a winter afternoon in the warmth of the public library; they generate theories, which they will share; they sell their collected works out of a canvas tote bag. As for rapture, it is harder to observe firsthand, and is furthermore something that people, even people in Berkeley, do not necessarily care to discuss. But Berkeley is rich with good places to be rapt: at the eyepiece of an electron microscope or a cloud chamber, at a table at Chez Panisse, in a yoga room, under a pair of headphones at Amoeba Records, in Tilden Park, in the great disorderly labyrinth of Serendipity Books, on the dance floor at Ashkenaz while the ouds jangle and the pipes skirl, in a seat at the Pacific Film Archive watching Kwaidan (Japan, 1965). I'd be willing to bet that, pound for pound, Berkeley is the most enraptured city in America on a daily basis.

If that statement has the ring of boosterism, then permit me to clarify my feelings on the subject of my adopted home: this town drives me crazy. Nowhere else in America are so many people obliged to suffer more inconvenience for the common good. Nowhere else is the individual encumbered with a greater burden of shame and communal disapproval for having intruded, however innocently, on the sensibilities of another. Berkeley's streets, though a rational 19th century grid underlies them, are a speed-busting tangle of artificial dead ends, obligatory left turns, and deliberately tortuous obstacle-course barriers known as chicanes, put in place to protect children-who are never (God forbid!) sent to play outside. Municipal ordinances intended to protect the nobility of labor in Berkeley's attractive old industrial district steadfastly prevent new-economy businesses from taking over the aging brick-and-steel structures--leaving them empty cenotaphs to the vanished noble laborer of other days. People in the grocery store, meanwhile, have the full weight of Berkeley society behind them as they take it upon themselves to scold you for exposing your child to known allergens or imposing on her your own indisputably negative view of the universe. Passersby feel empowered-indeed, they feel duty-bound-to criticize your parking technique, your failure to sort your recycling into brown paper and white, your resource-hogging four-wheel-drive vehicle, your use of a pinch-collar to keep your dog from straining at the leash.

When Berkeley does not feel like some kind of vast exercise in collective dystopia-a kind of left-wing Plymouth Plantation in which a man may be pilloried for over-illuminating his house at Christmastime-then paradoxically it often feels like a place filled with people incapable of feeling or acting in concert with each other. It is a city of potterers and amateur divines, of people so intent on cultivating their own gardens, researching their own theories, following their own bliss, marching to their own drummers and dancing to the tinkling of their own finger-cymbals that they take no notice of one another at all, or would certainly prefer not to, if it could somehow be arranged. People keep chickens, in Berkeley-there are two very loud henhouses within a block of my house. There may be no act more essentially Berkeley than deciding that the rich flavor and healthfulness, the simple, forgotten pleasure, of fresh eggs in the morning outweighs the unreasonable attachment of one's immediate neighbors to getting a good night's sleep.

The result, perhaps inevitable, of this paralysis of good intentions, this ongoing, floating opera of public disapproval and the coming into conflict of competing visions of the path to personal bliss, is a populace inclined to kvetching and to the wearing of the default Berkeley facial expression, the suspicious frown. Bliss is, after all, so near at hand; the perfect egg, a good night's sleep, reconciliation with one's mother or the Palestinians, a theory to account for the surprising lack of dark matter in the universe, a radio station that does not merely parrot the lies of government flaks and corporate media outlets-such things can often feel so eminently possible here, given the intelligence and the passion of the citizens. And yet they continue to elude us. Who is responsible? Is it us? Is it you? What are you doing, there, anyway? Don't you know the recycling truck won't take aluminum foil?

So much for boosterism. And yet I declare, unreservedly and with all my heart, that I love Berkeley, California. I can't imagine living happily anywhere else. And all of the things that drive me crazy are the very things that make this town worth knowing, worth putting up with, worth loving and working to preserve.

Part of the charm of Berkeley lies in her setting: the shimmer and eucalyptus sting of the hills on a dusty summer afternoon, hills whose rocky bones jut through the skin of Berkeley in odd outcroppings like Indian Rock; the morning fogs of the flatlands along the bay, with their smell of mud and their magically vanishing glimpses of Alcatraz and towers of San Francisco. But I have lived in places, from the Puget Sound to the Hudson Valley, from Laguna Beach to Key West, that rivaled if not surpassed Berkeley in spectacular weather, thrilling vistas, and variety of terrain. Not, perhaps, all at the same time, but to greater extremes of beauty. And yet a city with a beautiful site is about as reliably interesting as a person with a beautiful face, and just about as likely to have been spoiled.

Laid atop her remarkable setting between hills and bay, less consistently fine but at its best no less charming, is the built environment of Berkeley. The town, though laid out in the 1880s, boomed in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire, when it was settled by refugees from San Francisco, fleeing hither under the mistaken impression that the jutting rock ribs of Berkeley's hills would be proof against temblors. The town grew explosively, to its borders, in the twenty years that followed, and as a result the architecture, especially that of her houses, has a pleasing uniformity of variation, with styles ranging from Prairie school to Craftsman to the various flavors of Spanish. There is even a local style-I live in an exemplar, built in 1907-called the Berkeley Brown Shingle, which combines elements of the Craftsman and the Stick: overhanging eaves, square-pillared porches, elaborate mullions and built-in cabinetry, the whole enveloped in a rustic skin of the eponymous cedar or redwood shakes. It's a sober style, at least in conception, boxy and grave and appropriately professorial, and yet after decades of benign neglect and dreaminess and the ministrations of an unstintingly benevolent climate, the houses tend to be wildly overgrown with rose vines, wisteria, jasmine, trumpetvine, and outfitted top and sides with unlikely modifications: Zen dormers, orgone porches, Lemurian observatories. Certain of her streets offer endless instruction in the rich and surprising expressiveness of brown, houses the color of brown beer, of brown bread, of tobacco, a dog's eyes, a fallen leaf, an old upright piano. The harmoniousness of Berkeley's streets and houses is far from perfect-there are tons of hideous concrete-and-aluminum dingbat monstrosities, in particular around the university, and downtown is a hodgepodge of doughty old California commercial structures, used car lots and a few truly lamentable late-sixties office towers. But even the most down-at-heel and ill-used streets offer a promise of green shade in the summertime, and many neighborhoods are densely populated by trees, grand old plantations of maple and oak, long rows of ornamental plums that blossom in the winter, persimmon trees, Meyer lemon trees, palm trees and fig trees, monkey puzzles and Norfolk island pines, redwoods and Monterey pines nearly a hundred years old. One of the remarkable things about Berkeley is that, in spite of its decided inferiority to its great neighbor across the Bay in clout, preeminence, population, notoriety and fame, it has never seemed to dwell in San Francisco's shadow (unlike poor old Oakland down the road). I believe that this may be in part due to the fact that when it comes to trees-a necessary component, in my view, of the greatness of a city-the Colossus of the West can't hold a candle to Berkeley.

But houses and tree plantations, like hills and foggy mudflats, are no reliable guarantors of the excellence of a place to live. That elusive quality always lies, ultimately, in the citizenry; in one's neighbors. And it is ultimately the people of Berkeley-those same irritating frowners and scolders, those very neurotic geniuses and rapt madwomen-who make this place, who ring an endless series of variations on its great theme of personal and communal exploration, and who, above all, fight tooth and nail to hang on to what they love about it.

If there were a hundred good small cities in America fifty years ago-towns built to suit the people who settled them, according to their tastes, aspirations, and the sovereign peculiarities of landscape and weather-today there are no more than twenty-five. In ten years, as the inexorable lattice of sprawl replicates and proliferates, and the downtowns become malls, and the malls downtowns, and the rich syllabary of mercantile America is reduced to a simple alphabet composed of a Blockbuster, a Target, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble, a Gap, and a T.G.I.Fridays, and California herself is drowned in a sea of red-tile roofs from San Ysidro to Yreka, there may be fewer than ten. When the end finally comes, I believe that Berkeley will be the last town in America with the ingrained perversity to hold onto its idea of itself. This is a town-on the edge of the country, on the edge of the twenty-first century, on the edge of subducting plates and racial divides and an immense sea of corporate homogeneity-where you can still sign for your groceries at the store around the corner. A Berkeley grocer is a man who preserves such an archaic custom not in spite of the fact but exactly because it's an outmoded and cumbersome way of running a business.

It's in the quirky, small businesses of Berkeley, in fact, places like the old soda fountain in the Elmwood Pharmacy, Alkebulalian Books (specializing in books on the African diaspora), d.b.a Brown Records (just on the Oakland side of the city limits), or the Sound Well (used and vintage hi-fi and stereo equipment) that the tensions of Berkeley living, the competing claims on the heart of a Berkeleyite to follow one's bliss but at the same time to reach a hand out into the void and feel another set of fingers taking hold of one's own, are resolved. These are not merely retail establishments, poor cousins of Rite-Aid, Borders, Sam Goody's and Circuit City. They are shrines to the classic Berkeley impulse to latch on to something tiny but crucial-the warm sound provided by vacuum tube amplifiers, the mid-sixties sides of Ornette Coleman, the African roots of Jesus Christ and his teachings, or a perfectly constructed Black-and-White (with an extra three inches in the steel blender cup)-and pursue it with a mounting sense of self-discovery. And yet they are also, accidentally but fundamentally, gathering places; they all have counters at which the lonely amateur of Coleman or Marantz, the student of Martin Bernal can pull up a stool and find him- or herself in the company of sympathetic minds. Berkeley is richer than any place I've ever lived in these non-alcoholic taverns of the soul, these unofficial clubhouses of the oddball and outr*. And it seems as if every year another one pops up, at the bottom of Solano Avenue, in a faded brick stretch of San Pablo Avenue, unfranchisable, inexplicable except as a doorway to fulfillment and fellowship. A business that would never thrive anywhere else, patronized by people who would never thrive anywhere else, in a city that lives and dies on the passion and intelligence, the madness and rapture, of its citizens.

Originally published in the March 2002 issue of Gourmet

(c)2002 Michael Chabon
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