Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Berkeleylandia: A Valley Transplant

Fresh out of high school from a small Central Valley California cow town, Modesto, California, I walked straight into the heart of Bohemia, U.S.A. and streets filled with bare feet, reefer smoke, the smell of wine and coffee, tie-died hippies, anti-war protestors, artists, musicians, self-made poets dropouts and losers.

It was the late 50-s, early 60's when I first set foot in Berkeley California and loved it; I was an art student just down the road, at the other end of College Avenue in Oakland, and spent much of my off time lurking and hanging around Telegraph Avenue.

It was the perfect excuse for an artist with a little black sketchbook to gawk at an sketch an incredible assortment of rogue characters, sipping wine or coffee in some cramped joint smothering in the smell of cigarettes, pot, and incense.

Small cafes offered venues of poetry and live music, folk and sometimes jazz combos. Stands lining the streets pawned tie-dyed t-shirts, homemade jewelry and incense. Young people with long hair, torn pants, and scrawny beards lined the streets and I was frustratingly straight, dieing to fit in somehow.

An shady dingy foreign film cinema with two screens and no soda and popcorn concession, was a hangout for audiences hungry for dark and austere foreign films with tedious English subtitles, films by Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Eisenstein, Satyajit Ray, Luis Buñuel, Cocteau, Di Sica, and Kurosawa. Speechless, I pretended to enjoy the films just to be hip and in the process broadened my world beyond imagination far beyond the Hollywood epics and musicals I had grown up with.

I stayed away from the protests over one thing or another, war, politics, freedom of speech, religious and artistic freedom. Mainly  I was afraid to take a stand on anything. I was a looker, an observer, a watcher. And Telegraph Avenue, that leads straight into the University of California was abuzz with colonies of anti-establishment beings, all at home with weirdness. I loved it. A weird Chicano boy from the valley.

So I was happy just pretending to be a citizen of Berkeley, never giving away my true origins. The underground station KPFA was airing strong then showcasing the best in subterranean folk and rock. On Friday nights they held a live open mike hootenanny allowing local musicians to play. I would accompany my old friend, artist and folk singer Barry Squires who often took a turn playing. I was amazed by the talent the show attracted: mandolin, guitar, sitar, banjo and harmonica players and crooners.

I  loved hanging out at the record and bookstores and spent hours scouring beautiful books full of exquisite reproductions of the masters, architectue and ancient art, books I could never afford. I even liked their smell ever since I was a kid in the public library in Modesto.

My favorite restaurant on one corner of the avenue, served decent Mexican food reminding me of my roots, and my favorite dish was Chicken Flautas, topped with guacamole and served with a side dish of hot salsa to dip into. I never ordered anything else. Once, after telling the owner I was an artist, he asked me if I could design him some new menus. I did, and instead of the fee, I asked if he could trade me free meals and he agreed. I was to eat there free for a long time afterwards.

To this day, I still get a kick out of visiting Telegraph Avenue, which to me and many others is Berkeley and never cease to be amazed how it still is a haven for misfits, drifters and dreamers just like me.

1 comment:

V said...

Great post Rick! This makes me ache for Berkeley the way most miss a lover. Berkeley hasn't changed one bit, that's what I love about it. (Well, come to think of it, there is a huge discrepancy in the diversity of the university, but that's a story for a different day.) I used to live right of Telegraph and would just wander around. You're right, it's a safe haven for the lonely, loner artists. I think I'l have to take a trip to the Bay soon! :)