Friday, October 22, 2010


The UC Berkeley campanile
by Sheila Connolly

I just spent a week in San Francisco, attending the Bouchercon writers/fan conference. I’m not going to write about that, wonderful though it was, since many people have already reported on it, more promptly and better than I could. But I allowed myself one free day to sightsee, and I want to talk about Berkeley.
Yes, that Berkeley. Years ago, not long after my husband and I married, we lived in California, in the East Bay. It’s easier to just say Berkeley, but we couldn’t afford that neighborhood, so we lived in UC student housing in Albany, and then in an apartment in Richmond, and finally in a house we bought in El Cerrito (and left before the earthquake!). But Berkeley was always the center of the universe. I worked there, both on campus and in the city, and I took classes there, even got a degree there. So that was what I wanted to see in my few precious hours of free time. The BART stop was directly in front of the conference hotel, and it was an easy 20-minute ride to the heart of Berkeley.
It’s an interesting experience, revisiting a place you knew well, once upon a time. Things change, of course, although the memories remain strong in your mind. It’s like watching a slide show in your head: you’re looking at the current reality while images of the past flash over it.
There were surprises. Sure, I remembered the Cal campus. At one point I held two part-time jobs, one in a building at the very top of campus (across from the nuclear reactor, looking out over the Hayward Fault. Don’t ask.), one downtown, and I used to walk from one to the other (parking in Berkeley was next to impossible even then). But I had conveniently forgotten how far apart things are, and how high the hill is. Obviously I was younger and fitter then. Sigh.
The Cal campus hasn’t changed as much as I expected. The trees are bigger, but there’s still a guy in Sproul Plaza ranting about how big cars and big oil are destroying the world; still street vendors selling odds and ends (mostly earrings); still homeless people panhandling on Telegraph Avenue. Sadly, Cody’s Books there is long gone, but I knew that, and I walked far enough to pay homage to its shell.

The menu I used to drool over
One of my long-cherished goals was to go to Chez Panisse. For those of you who aren’t foodies, that’s Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant in Berkeley, where she all but single-handedly launched the local food movement a generation ago. My husband and I ate there a few times, back when the prix fixe dinner was something like $15. We took our daughter there to celebrate her first birthday (yes, she was a Berkeley baby), so I can tell you almost to the hour the last time I was there, and I can even remember what I ate (pasta primavera). I dedicated my most recent Orchard series book, in which I create a local-food restaurant in a small New England town, to Alice Waters. The restaurant is still there, and still thriving—and the food is still very good.

There were only two additional memories that connected past and present for me in Berkeley. One, I could point to the precise place where our @#$%& Chevette died, on a three-lane, very busy street in the middle of town. The bleeping PCV valve decided to croak right there, and without it the car didn’t work, period. The other: I remembered where I had a dentist who made three gold crowns for me. He was something like head of the UC dental school, but he did what amounted to pro bono work for starving students, and we qualified. I still have all three crowns, in good shape—a lasting (and solid gold) souvenir of my time there.
Berkeley was never “home”, and I arrived a bit late to embrace Robin Williams’ famous line, “if you remember the sixties you weren’t there,” but it was great to visit and retrieve old memories before heading back to the Bouchercon madness.


Sandra Parshall said...

Going back to a once-familiar place after a long absence can be the weirdest feeling in the world. Sounds like you enjoyed revisiting old haunts, though.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

I enjoyed your post, Sheila ~ but especially enjoyed meeting you at Bouchercon (and Sandra, too!). What a wonderful idea to visit an old haunt ~ I would have done the same thing. Very cool!

Edith Maxwell said...

I never lived in Berkeley, but as a southern Californian, always wished I did, and I had and have several friends who live there. I was wandering the streets a year ago. Both my parents graduated from there and still call it Cal.

I visited my alma mater, UC Irvine, 10 years after I graduated from there, and felt like I was dreaming. Familiar and not familiar. It had been a new-born campus surrounded by hills of wild artichokes and grasses. Now it's a city! So strange.


Lisa said...

I've never been to Berkeley. So far I have not ventured too far past the small Arkansas town I live in. However, your statement about old memories flashing over current reality resonated with me. I moved back to the town where I went to college years later and actually lived a block from one of the dorms. I can soooo relate to that statement.

VR Barkowski said...

Lovely post, Sheila. I graduated from Cal in the early 80s. I worked at Bancroft, the rare books library on campus. Talk about a dream job.

When I returned to the East Bay from Seattle four years ago, I thought it was forever. I even set my first book on campus. Now I live in Atlanta. No matter, Berkeley will always remain near and dear to my heart.

Rochelle Staab said...

Sheila, it was a complete blast to meet you and hang out with you at Bouchercon. I smile every time someone posts another photo of us on Facebook.

I was at Berkley once or twice in the 70s. I was in the music business so don't remember the 70s very well. Or the 80s. I'm certain we were at a rock concert - maybe Neil Young or Randy Newman. The weather was gorgeous and everyone around me appeared to be brilliant. So when I think Berkley, I think smart people.

Love that you took the time for nostalgia. Warms the soul.