Tag Archives: Berkeley

The Girl on the Corner

Years ago, I would watch the same homeless man from my third floor window in Berkeley each evening as he approached people on the street with his book of poetry. Some would stop and look, others would keep walking without so much as acknowledging his hello. His mannerisms fascinated me, his bright purple cap and smile always ready and waiting for the next passerby. I was the voyeur, the girl upstairs with the notepad full of observations.

In the beginning of my tenure as a Berkeley resident, I had a hard time not stopping for people on the street. I knew to be careful, but they were people. Often I planned my routes to work and the grocery store as to avoid certain homeless characters, including my friend with the purple hat. It was too painful to look him in the eyes and tell him I had nothing to give, when really I had quite a bit for a twenty-four year-old.

My compromise was always food. If I had any, I would offer. I will never forget the look of gratitude from the man with the purple hat when I handed him a bundle of ripe bananas from my tote after my weekly visit to Andronico’s Market. I lugged the rest of my groceries straight home and wrote an email to my friends and family to share my story, eager to express myself in writing before I ever had a blog.

However, not all the stories were pleasant, and over the years I collected many that taught me to keep a safe distance. Berkeley is full of mentally-ill homeless people, the remnants of a failed health system and a closed center to help them. I learned where not to look or step in the mornings as to avoid human waste. I watched in disappointment as an elderly man whose bike I had watched with my husband, whose story I had patiently listened to, who even ate dinner one cold night at McDonald’s alongside my husband, scream at us in the street that we were racists for not stopping to give him money.

Of course, there were many others who said terrible things, but that old man was the saddest. We had helped him many times, but he had no memory of it. Others cursed our souls, accused me of anorexia, threatened to stab us in coffee shops. Maybe the worst remark was the strange man who stopped in the middle of a busy walkway and told me he was a serial killer with the kind of laugh that makes you believe him.

Needless to say, I have had my fair share of experiences with homeless people, enough so that our move back to Sacramento has felt quiet in regards to my interaction with them. Until yesterday. I had seen her before, from a distance, a small feminine figure with a furry hoodie pulled over her head, sitting on the median around the corner from my house, begging. This time, I pulled up right next to her at the light, her body in a ball, her knees tucked to her chest, the early morning cold not worth the effort to stand.

I checked my coin tray but then thought better of it. I reached back and rummaged through my lunch to pull out two bags of trail mix, then rolled down my window.

“Do you want food?” I asked.

She nodded as I extended the bags. Her eyes stopped on my hippie offering. My eyes stopped on her black eye, her taped-together boot. In every other way, she looked like a normal high school kid ready to get on the bus for the day, her tight jeans and colorful sweatshirt trendy, her backpack waiting on the concrete.

“I don’t eat that.” Her expression was hard, reminiscent of many of the tough kids who have passed through my classroom.

“Okay,” I replied, our eyes locked. I rolled up the window.

I wanted to tell her she must not really be hungry. I wanted to feel satisfied I did not offer her any money. Instead I drove away haunted by her black eye and taped-together boot. Even if she was not hungry enough to eat nuts and dried berries, something was seriously wrong. She was not begging for fun. Someone hurt her.

Next time I see her, I will call the authorities and hope some group will at least give her an option different from the one she now chooses, on the median around the corner from my house. It is so easy to detach, to decide we should not help because someone is too rough, too ungrateful, too crazy, too whatever. My first instinct was to detach, too. However, knowing the stories of my kids at school, it is easy to imagine how she might have ended up in that spot, angry and alone.

Sometimes, it matters less how people got themselves somewhere and more what choices they have to change. While I understand reticence in offering money to homeless people, I empathize with the reality that I have no idea what got them there, what it feels like to be at rock bottom, to spend the night cold, on the street, afraid. Absent of drugs, abuse or mental illness, I cannot believe anyone chooses this reality over what “the rest of us” have.

As I lay awake contemplating her fate, homeless or otherwise, I realized she touched something in me that only awakens for my most troubled students, my human rights studies, my desire to write. I think it is time to try my hand at writing something a little grittier, a little less about escape. Something true to my heart and all I have seen in the past few years. Something hard instead of easy. Wish me luck.

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Fall Break Escape: Visiting Our Old Life

Three years ago, Alex and I moved from Berkeley to Sacramento, an hour and a half away. While we were happy to trade in our tiny one-bedroom apartment for a little more space and a lot more time with family, we also gave up things we really loved about living in the San Francisco Bay Area: close friends, amazing restaurants, a wide range of weekly events, walkable urbanism, proximity to the ocean…

Every break I have from school, we venture back for a couple days to reconnect with our old lives:

Friday night we stayed in San Rafael, following a leisurely drive through Wine Country. As soon as we reached our hotel, I begged Alex to jump in the car to make the trek 25 minutes further so we could watch the sunset over Muir Beach. What I didn’t realize was that the beach is angled away from the setting sun, so instead we enjoyed the dimming light, remembering how often we used to come and sit in the same spot when we lived in Berkeley. It was our spot to imagine the future. I guess it still is.

This time my imagination of the future included a need to own the teal house overlooking the beach… Alex quickly pointed out that we could paint any house on the beach teal, but that seems beside the point.

Woke up ready to cross the Golden Gate and head into the City for brunch and the Bluegrass Festival. No matter how many times I cross this bridge, it’s always magical.

A little SF mural flair, Guernica style.

Delicious brunch at Zazie’s with friends. Made us feel like locals, like maybe we were home again.

A very grown-up game of Go Fish while we waited for the Lumineers at Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park– a completely free music festival, (and just one more reason I love San Francisco).

Lucky hand of Go Fish!

Doing a frightening job protecting our precious piece of real estate as the crowd rolled in for the Lumineers– Golden Gate Park was packed but beautiful in the sunshine!

And, what we waited for– one of my favorite bands, the Lumineers. Sitting on Alex’s shoulders, listening to lyrics about love and family, I felt momentarily at home in a sea of people.

Ironically, as much as we love to visit the Bay, I am not sure it will ever be where we call home again. Odd, right– to love a place so much and not want to live there? I still need something a little quieter, a little more laid back… Somewhere I can imagine raising my own family. Thanks Lumineers for searing that word family into my head tonight. I leave you with some crudely shot footage that makes me smile. Life captured briefly, imperfectly, but still beautiful. So show me family…

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How do you pick where you live?

Every time Alex and I get home from vacation, we want to move.  We long to live somewhere with cleaner air, maybe even a beach to run on with the dog.  Somewhere you can comfortably walk to town from your house or apartment, where the car is less important than it is in suburban Sacramento.  Our wish list goes on– less heat, more connection with the outdoors, you get the picture.

But does this place exist?

Yes, I’m certain it does, but not without trade-offs.  It probably costs more than Sacramento, not to mention that our jobs are here.  The irony, is that we already had much of what we were looking for when we lived in Berkeley, minus the right jobs.  Walkable urbanism, nearby coastline, no need for a car until it was time to drive back to Sacramento to see family.

But, therein lies the catch.  We, or as my husband likes to point out, I, wanted to come back to Sacramento all the time for family events.  My family is big and close, so there is always something worth coming home for.  Eventually, we realized we could live in a house in Sacramento and not drive back and forth all the time for the same price as our tiny North Berkeley apartment.

We also recognized that life was pretty much the same in Berkeley as it is in Sacramento– jobs, dinner, exercise, sleep, weekends.  However, ironically, we traded friends for family returning to Sacramento, as most of our close friends have now migrated to the Bay.  This trade in itself is alright, family should come first, but the idea that life is the same wherever you live is a partial truth.  In the big ways, it is mostly the same, but in little, surprisingly important ways, it’s different.

We miss walking to the grocery store, running in the Berkeley hills to stare out at the Golden Gate Bridge instead of people’s unwatered lawns.  Jumping on BART to be in San Francisco, arguably my favorite city on earth.  Our weekend jaunts to the Pelican Inn, only forty minutes to enjoy the ocean.  So many things, really.  And, to be fair, there were also downsides: expensive rent, earthquakes, small/noisy living space, mentally ill bums defecating outside our front door… Alright, Berkeley was not perfect either.

I get that life is trade-offs.  You pay more for less in places that are most desirable.  You leave behind family and/or friends to chase different priorities.  But something makes me sad about prioritizing where I live above my family.  Then again, something makes me sad about not being able to comfortably breathe the air in the city where I live, at least in summer.  Don’t get me wrong, Sacramento has plenty of aspects worth appreciating, but the smog and sprawl really crawl under my skin.

Three years into our return, we’re at a precipice.  I want to spend one more year with my same students, as I loop fourth and then fifth grade, but after that, we’re thinking of leaving again.  For where, I’m not sure.  Carmel (more likely Salinas/Monterey/Santa Cruz), Portland, Ashland… The list is just beginning to form.  But, I have this feeling, that no matter what, I’m giving something up. Either proximity to my family or those other things I value.  My mom chose Mt. Shasta, my dad lives in Sacramento.  It’s in my blood to be torn.

The compromise, of course, would be to stay but try a different neighborhood, which is something we’re thinking about doing in the interim.  Small neighborhoods, like East Sac or Midtown, show glimmers of those things we like, but we’d likely have to rent instead of own, at least to have anything comparable to where we live now.  And, it would still not fix the smoggy air or stifling summer heat, let alone the lack of ocean.  No, not all of California is on the beach, (too bad, really).

I want to know, what have you picked in life?  The familiar?  The different but far away?  How have you coped with the compromises inherent in any of these choices?  Or, did you hit the jackpot– all the friends and family you could wish for in your ideal place to live?  I want to hear about your experiences as I think through my own future choices.  At the end of the day, I know happiness exists wherever you let it, but other places still call to me, particularly those places with crashing waves.

I think my first choice of places to live would be somewhere near Carmel (above), but my husband favors even rainier places like Portland or Dublin, (yes, really).  Above all, I find myself drawn to the sea.

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My Alter Ego is Named Grandma

One of my goals for this summer is to be more spontaneous, to go with the flow, to allow new experiences to wash over me, instead of avoiding them.  Sometimes I joke that my alter ego is named Grandma.  She enjoys curling up on the sofa with her dog, reading good books, and going to bed around 11PM.  She has even been known to fall asleep in her chair with company over, and she often avoids unscheduled activities.

Don’t worry.  I do not have multiple personalities.  I just have a part of myself that is very set in routines, plans, managing expectations.  I’m alright with this because I think it is important to know what you like and to not always do things just because you do not want to disappoint others.  However, I also do not want to miss out on exciting parts of life just because I did not plan for them.

So, yesterday, on a whim, I climbed into my car with my husband and my dog and drove to Berkeley for lunch to celebrate the birthday of one of my nearest and dearest friends, Liz.  We picked up fried chicken sammies from Bakesale Betty’s in Oakland, (which is absolutely amazing and a must-eat if you’re in the area).  Then, with the help of another one of my nearest and dearest, Jen, we surprised Liz on the Berkeley campus with a picnic near her office.

Mind you, this may not seem over-the-top crazy, but it was spontaneous and required some effort to get down there, two things that Grandma doesn’t like.  So, I’m happy to report that I successfully overcame my alter ego and had a lot of fun in the process.  Our picnic was delicious and it was awesome to hang out with friends in the town we used to call home, (and miss dearly!).

Now, for the next adventure Grandma is dreading, a five-day road trip to Olympia, WA and back, for roller derby, dirty Portland bars, and that magnificent Oregon coast…

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I just sat and listened…

In my old life, I belonged to a secret club of commuters.  I woke up three mornings a week at a quarter to six, caught the 7AM train from Sacramento to Richmond, then took BART to Berkeley and walked to work.  Door-to-door, my commute took two hours and twenty minutes each way.  I left the house each morning at 6:40 AM and returned each evening a little before 8PM.  I only intended to do this for a couple of months, but thanks to the bad economy I did it for almost one year.

A few rides into my new routine, I discovered that I was not alone.  There were dozens of people that rode the same route, some taking the train all the way down to San Jose or switching to a bus in Emeryville headed for downtown San Francisco.  We were all part of the same club, regardless of the length of our commute.  Many riders had been doing it for years, if not decades.  All had their own reasons.  Cheaper housing, spouses employed in Sacramento, kids attending certain schools, students unwilling to relocate.

The ambassador for the club was a little old Indian man who introduced himself the first time he spotted my 10-ride pass.  He asked me questions about my life, sized me up to figure out how long I would last.  Many commuters did not make it.  They quit before it ever became a routine.  But this little old man showed me the way of the train.  He made sure I knew about the secret commuter club parties– birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, all celebrated by the veteran commuters on a pre-planned car of the train.  They even threw a holiday party, complete with alcohol and dancing.  My little old friend was reputed to be quite the drunken dancer.

Introvert that I am, I avoided becoming a true member of the club.  I preferred to finish up my daily analyst work, read novels, write, and listen.  And, boy did I listen.  I heard so much on that train.  I listened to men and women start extramarital affairs.  I eavesdropped on conversations about healthy eating, train track suicides, inner-club gossip.  I knew who was supposed to be the bitch and who was losing custody of their kids.  Turns out people talk a lot when they sit on the train.  They also do their makeup, curl their hair, and drink, a lot.

I never knew that this little club of commuter warriors existed until I became a temporary interloper.  But, if you ever take Amtrak from Sacramento to the Bay Area, they are there, living out a portion of their lives on the train.  To make things more bearable, they have formed an eclectic little family.  If you stop to look and listen, you will find them.  I do not miss my commute, but I am grateful to know the secrets of the train.

My commuter badge of honor.

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