Wednesday, August 05, 2009

When The Radical Hits The Road: Dispatches From The People's Republic Of Berkeley

Every time I fly to the left coast and feel this disoriented I try to remember that getting from Shoreline to San Francisco back in 1848 took between six and eight months, depending on whether one went overland or took the water route. Of course I feel disoriented: I deserve to feel disoriented, since it is actually absurd to travel that far as fast as I did.

Where am I? Why am I here? Oh.

Well, I'm in Berkeley, where I have never been before, although I have visited San Francisco about four times, and every time I do I phone Mrs. Radical and say, "We've got to move here." Actually, she made the same phone call to me a few months back. And while the part of Berkeley I am in (at least so far) doesn't seem as spiffy as the parts of San Francisco I have been in, the short walk from the hostel where I am staying to Telegraph Avenue was a reminder that there are some places in the world that have not been homogenized and upgraded for the wealthy. I walked by People's Park, which is still decorated with a home made sign, and where they have not fenced in the grass to keep people from hurting it by sitting down and reading a book. There seem to be a fair number of homeless people living there as well, something that is no longer allowed in Tompkins Square Park, a similarly radical and communal space on the Lower East Side of New York during the 1960s and 1970s.

The other thing they have on Telegraph Avenue is culture. I searched "Berkeley" at Indiebound before I left, and this place has nineteen independent bookstores. Nineteen. There are twenty-eight in New York (but that is counting all the Museum bookstores), and there is exactly one in Shoreline, home of a world-class university -- pardon me, two, if you count the used book store operated by the Bryn Mawr College alumni association. And having only walked five blocks of Telegraph, already I have found two record stores. They sell actual vinyl, as well as CD's. I have also located three head shops, which have in the window an impressive collection of bongs, a variety of products to clean the bong, and so on. I took a look around and I do not think finding something to smoke in the bong would really put a person out either.

Oh, yeah. And if there was any doubt in my mind that I wasn't in Kansas anymore Toto, after eating a great Mexican dinner for peanuts at Mario's La Fiesta, I walked into Moe's Books and William Vollman was giving a reading from his new book Imperial.

Everything smells of patchouli. Decades of patchouli.

Anyway, back to business. I am here to do some research for the next three days, and then go to another history camp (a different history camp than the one I attended last summer.) So more about that later. But let me just say: if you are reading this, and you are a friend of mine, and you ever hear that I am considering buying a ticket on Southwest Airlines, please remind me that on the five hour flight from Big Regional Airport to Las Vegas, the chief of the flight attendants performed an ongoing stand-up comedy routine. I missed much of it, thanks to the Bose noise canceling headphones that I had buyer's remorse about three weeks ago but now am thanking the Goddess and Dr. Amar G. Bose for. But the half hour at the beginning of the flight and the half hour at the end of the flight were agonizing, perhaps more so because the man next to me was working on his computer, and had his left elbow jammed in my side; and the (very large) man behind me had his enormous, bare foot up on my other armrest.

What is it about men and space?

Oh I know, my conservative critics will say that I want socialized this and socialized that, but that I have no taste for the volk. Well, I have to admit that my occasional distaste for The People does give me pause: the jolly camp counselor routine is not my bag, nor is the dirty foot in my face thing something I would endure again without delivering a carefully prepared speech to the offender. But I'll tell you one thing: Southwest knows how to get people where they are going, and on time too. In fact, they might want to consider hiring Zenith grad Herb Kelleher to run national health care, because every time he tinkers with his business model it works better. For example, I still find it disconcerting not to have an assigned seat, and I have always hated standing in those lines. On the other hand, you have to queue for every airline. And because the lines to board Southwest planes are no longer free-form (everyone has an assigned place in line, which means seating is first-come, first-serve and people settle where it is easiest once the best seats are full) people become naturally more orderly and rational in how they board the plane. I have never seen planes loaded as efficiently as the two I was on today. It literally took about twenty minutes from the time they started to load to the moment the plane pushed off from the gate, and because they still allow you to check one bag free, there wasn't the added hazard on each end of worrying about whether someone was going to drop a suitcase on your head. Furthermore, although other airlines allow you to pick a seat (aisle, please) it is simply the illusion of choice, unless you are in business class or first class, since more often than not your seat changes on the day of the flight and you end up sandwiched between two babies. So having an assigned seat is actually faux privilege; and certainly not a privilege worth fighting for if Southwest can get me in a seat, any seat, more efficiently and get me to my destination on time.

So that assigned seat is kind of analogous, if you think about it, to the increasingly fragile privilege having private health insurance. Maybe you get what you need, but because other people are being treated in the emergency room, your local hospital goes bankrupt. Or you pay through the nose to make sure you are protected from catastrophe, but then they deny coverage for this and that, and you just pay, and thank your lucky stars that you didn't need an experimental brain transplant or something that would be really expensive and force you to live under a bridge.

I think some folks down on Telegraph Avenue may have already had uninsured brain transplants: I'm going to inquire into that tomorrow when I mosey down there for breakfast, but it sure looks like it.

And then off to the archives. Wish me luck.


Unknown said...

Welcome to Berkeley! Although we've become so used to our wealth of bookstore riches that it feels like Berkeley doesn't have any bookstores at all (Black Oak Books closed, and we lost Cody's last year). Good luck in the archives!

Robert Self said...

Can't believe you've never been, my dear. Funny, but if you had seen Telegraph 20 years ago you would think that IT HAD been upgraded for the wealthy.

Re: men and space. My experience is that invariably men assume that any arm rest adjacent to them is THEIRS. Being myself more inclined to compromise and negotiate, I generally think that I'll wait and see what develops when I first sit down. And then a man climbs in, and negotiations are over. Arm rest is his. Then he gives you the giant leg spread, and you might as well turn sideways and face plant on the side of the plane for all the room you have in YOUR seat.

But this process is tranferable virtually anywhere: department meeting, locker room, gym, elevator, line at Starbuck's, etc. I think it's one (and I'm just saying, one) reason that many men of my generation and class found feminism appealing. It offered validation for stepping outside that insidious, totalizing, non-stop contest over alpha status in every quotidian encounter.

That said, the alternate interpretation is: when you step outside that process, all that happens is you lose the arm rest!

Cheers and have fun in CA!

Dr. Virago said...

Robert's comment reminded me of men on NY subways spreading their legs so they took up half of each seat on either side. Ugh!

But TR, did you mention to either of these space invaders that they were selfishly causing you discomfort? If you're like me, you probably didn't and suffered in silence (well, at least until this blog post). From now on I *swear* I'm going to politely speak up. And if I'm in the situation like you were, I'll pit them against each other: "Excuse me, sir, but since the man to my left is hogging much of my space, would you mind giving me a little more and removing your foot, please? I would very much appreciate it, thank you." Then foot guy can feel smug and superior over elbow guy, and elbow guy will just feel shame.

Heh heh.

droyles said...

You have to hit up the place next door to La Fiesta–it used to be Cafe Intermezzo, but now it's called Cafe Mattina or something. If you get a salad, get it with the poppyseed dressing, and if they have corn chowder or coconut curry soup, get that.

Knitting Clio said...

I've been to Berkeley several times over the past two decades. While there are vestiges of the old days still around, it has become increasingly yuppified and quite expensive. I was there last month for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth. They were able to negotiate a reasonable rate at the Hotel Durant so I had nicer accommodations than you (which you helped pay for since my travel budget comes out of state funds -- at least for now).

re: Southwest -- overall, I find it more pleasant and efficient than other airlines (and I actually like the comedy). The last trip was not so great, though. I was on the same plane from SFO to Bradley and could not deplane without losing my exit row, aisle seat. Fortunately I was smart enough to pack both lunch and dinner -- so with the free snacks I was well fed.

PMG said...

I grew up near Telegraph Ave, and have spent the rest of my life wandering around other cities wondering why I couldn't find a row of independent bookstores anywhere.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Used to live there and miss it. I'm glad People's Park is still a free space.

Hey now, us lowly volk ain't so bad.

jen said...

Dr. Radical, I assume Shoreline is where you live, not teach. In which case there are 3 indie bookstores, though one is mostly a cafe at this point. Plus crazy neverending books, which I think still exists?

Historiann said...

"and the (very large) man behind me had his enormous, bare foot up on my other armrest." Up until that point I would have suffered in silence. Seriously, the comedian-flight attendant could have dispached Mr. Foot and would probably have enjoyed it--no confrontations necessary. Now he's just going to stick his enormous bare foot all over everyone else's armrests, Radical!

In any case, the bare foot story almost makes being "sanwiched between two babies" sound appealing! (Love that expression, BTW--"sandwiched between two LAP babies" will be my new code for "nightmare flight from hell."

Sisyphus said...

You've been to Berkeley now, but what about the Oak-town? You need to head out that way and get some delicious Ethiopian food --- I'd make suggestions but can't get google to tell me which is the vegan Ethiopian place my friend really likes.

Have fun in Berkeley!

castor_de_luxe said...

you must must must go eat a slice (or two or three) of the pizza at the cheeseboard pizza cooperative. it would be a sin not to. make sure to hit up the cheeseboard next door for amazing baked goods and their superlative selection of cheese!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I really miss Berzerkely. I definitely miss Moe's.

If you've never taken a walk through Tilden Park, I recommend you go. There are several entrances, but the easiest is probably the one just up Centennial Drive (which begins just behind the campus stadium). There's a small gravel parking area on the right hand side of the road, about mile or so from where the drive begins. The trail here is wide and very green and shaded, though after a few miles it slopes sharply upward, looping around and becoming very sunny. The upper trail is spectacular. If you do get a chance to go, though, do stay on the trail. There is mucho poison oak in Tilden and until it turns red in the fall, it can be hard to spot.

econprof said...

Only one independent bookstore (I presume you mean the one with the athenian name)?
You might check out the real shoreline (the suburbs on the shoreline east of your shoreline town): R.C. Julia in Madison,Ct.
I liked it very much...

Anonymous said...

You make People's Park seem like some kind of pleasant place. In fact it is disgusting and dangerous with aggressive panhandling and open flouting of the law. I wouldn't even let my kid walk by that place in daytime, at night it is truly scary.

Orlando Hotels said...

Glad to read your article. I was in Berkeley last year and enjoyed lot. I missed it very much! it is quite good place.I am glad to know that People's Park is still a free space.