May 4, 2014

Exploring Berkeley

When I was growing up we moved around often, staying in one city for a few months to a few years. The summer and fall of 1956 found us in Berkeley for five months. Just about everything was different from what I was used to in southern California – it seemed like a foreign country. I tried to adjust but never felt comfortable, always off balance, with a queasy stomach.
But the city was wonderfully charming, more like a village planted on the side of a hill, with old houses, old buildings, narrow streets, pedestrians, and wild overgrown public stairs built into the hillsides. And the university created its own pervasive ambiance of intellectual superiority. Berkeley was a friendly mix of sedate and stimulating, and everyone in town felt it, loved it, and was proud of it. But I never quite measured up to its expectations. I fell short – I was the outsider. Is that how it always feels when you move into a setting where everyone else is already settled in?
My dad’s job kept him away from home during most of the week, home on weekends. My mom felt obliged to reassure me often about his absence, “Your father loves you very much.” It sounded to me like she didn’t care much for his schedule, but what could she do? He was the breadwinner and did whatever he had to do. I guess Nana didn’t care for it, either, because she came up from South Pasadena to help out for a while.  But my mom and I had some wonderful times together in dad’s absence, exploring, shopping and dining.
My dad did not eat fish, in fact his palette was very limited, so during the week mom and I could have tuna salad, artichokes, creamed tuna on toast, fish sticks, cream of celery soup and all kinds of different foods for dinner. She loved fish, so it was a real treat to discover Spenger’s restaurant down toward the marina. Fresh fish, any kind you wanted. It was like a carnival inside there, it was so much fun; low, dark and cavernous, with all kinds of nautical paintings and accessories, like ships wheels, ropes, compasses, gauges, and such. There was a lot to look at. Mom was an adventurous eater and would order swordfish or king crab, but dad always ordered hamburger steak, which never failed to irk her, thinking he should overcome his fixed tastes since we were sitting in a specialty seafood restaurant. Their differences did not escape me as I downed the delicious jumbo shrimp.
In those days my mom loved to get out and explore, and luckily, I had to go with her. I think she enjoyed the role of teaching me, but it was more along the lines of duty, and she took her role seriously. It seemed to me that she was very aware of my character flaws and set herself to fix them. After all she was both mother and father for most of the week, so she simultaneously coddled and commanded me.
There were many new sites to see in Berkeley, Oakland and nearby cities, and we explored by car and on foot. Sometimes we would set out walking the neighborhood. The people we encountered were all friendly, and I tried to memorize the new street names as we passed. Once, we came upon a little neighborhood market where I was introduced to fresh halvah. I passed that test, it was delicious.
Or we would set out in the car and end up at antique stores, looking for a treasure among all kinds of old stuff. Or we’d end up at Hink’s department store looking for some bargain. Or we would drive a little further and explore Lake Merritt in Oakland, a huge lake right in town that was home to thousands of birds. She knew the names of many of them. I liked the coots that ran on top of the water when they took off.
One time we extended our exploration of Lake Merritt and went down to the docks, where thousands of small boats were parked, and nearby, the giant commercial ships would arrive from all over the world. The Port of Oakland has been completely renovated now and is a popular tourist destination. But in those days it was strictly a shipping center where trains rolled down the middle of the streets, ships were loaded and unloaded, and only dock workers hustled around – no tourists like us. And it was run down – had seen better days. We walked out on the old rotting wood, floating sidewalks to inspect the incredible variety of small boats, some serving as a home. Everybody we met seemed most comfortable in their watery, rolling neighborhood. Some invited us on board and showed us around. My mom was friendly and talkative with everyone, rich or poor, and people warmed to her as they quickly detected her spirit of equality.
Her openness that day alarmed me when we happened upon a little café at the intersection of a maze of narrow pier walkways. There were working men all around, and she was the only woman in sight. But she insisted we go into the café – she wanted a cup of coffee there. To me it seemed like a dangerous thing to do, and I felt powerless to defend her if it came to that. Inside was cramped and dark and full of men eating and talking. When she walked in conversation stopped, and they welcomed her graciously. She smiled and chatted and smoked and laughed her laugh. Not one man said or did anything disrespectful. They were enjoying the company of a beautiful woman, and she was enjoying the attention of men. Everything was fine. She taught me it’s okay to be friendly and talk to everyone.
We left the café and headed over to where the giant ships were docked. They were huge, about three stories high, with countries of origin printed in different languages and colored flags speaking different coded messages. Tugboats were slowly pushing the giants this way and that. The wooden docks we walked on were old, very old. Old pillars and splitting railroad ties, with gaps where you could see the ocean a few feet below. The floors were loose and broken, and they creaked as the water lapped against them, but seemed to hold up okay if you watched your step. We found ourselves standing on solid footing, looked up, and here comes a giant ship slowly heading to its berth right in front of us. Inching its way closer and closer right at us, the giant ship towers over us and is getting so close I can read the numbers painted vertically on the bow showing its depth in the water. A thousand tons of steel slowly and silently coming to a stop just a few feet in front of us. It is going to stop, isn’t it? There we stand, just watching, spellbound, when . . . CRACK! We are launched a foot in air as the bow hits that dock and breaks it like little matches. Now the ship was stopped. We landed on the floor, and tried to get our bearings. Looking at each other for any damage and, seeing none, we broke out into hysterical laughter and walked back to the car. Enough exploring for today.
I only attended the old, two-story school for a couple of months, but in that time managed to learn the times table, get in a fight with the school bully, and receive encouragement for my artistic talent. And I was beginning to make friends, beginning to fit in, when suddenly, dad’s job was taking us to a new city.
On my last day the teacher announced to the class that I would be leaving that morning. When the time came, I stood up and everyone said good-bye. I’m walking down the stairs, and then look up. There by the railing upstairs is Gwynne, a beautiful, red haired girl I had hardly ever spoken to. She’s sobbing, “Mark, I love you,” over and over. No one had ever said anything so personal to me. It stopped me in my tracks, and my heart pounded as I looked up at her. This was a thrilling surprise, but what could I do about it? My mom and dad were waiting in the car for me. The kids back in the classroom were laughing and ridiculing her for such an emotional outburst, and that made me sorry. I wanted to stay there, talk to her, find out more, but I had to go. I was nine years old, and we were moving away, driving to Portland, starting right now. Looking up at her I hoped she would understand how I felt, since I could not express it in words.
That night en route north I remember they were re-broadcasting War of the Worlds with Orsen Welles on the car radio. As I sat there in the dark back seat, my mom and dad tried to get me excited about the story, but I was lost in my own thoughts.

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