Berkeley… We Are Not In Diamond Springs Anymore Toto

I transferred from Sierra College to Berkeley in 1963. Here I am looking proud in my UC sweatshirt.

My wandering off to Berkeley in the fall of 1963 introduced me to a totally different world compared to my childhood home of Diamond Springs with its population of 750 and nearby Placerville with a population of 4,000. Sierra College got me out of the sticks, but just barely. I rode a school bus there and the kids came from small rural communities not much different from Diamond and Placerville.

Telegraph Avenue became my Mecca at Berkeley. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants, while numerous languages assaulted my ears. I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe for middleclass America, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of Berkeley, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and the atmosphere. I would grab my coffee and climb the narrow wooden stairs in back for a coveted balcony seat where I would watch the ebb and flow of the city’s unique flotsam. 

Cafe Mediterraneum as it looked on my last visit a few years ago.

A quick jaunt across Telegraph produced another treasure, Cody’s Bookstore. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties. I saved my explorations for Saturdays when there was time to indulge my passion for books. I would disappear inside and become lost to everything except the next title.

I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies. Over one lunch period, I reported in a letter home, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell. Apparently, there were too many to count.

Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; picket the Oakland Tribune, sign up to help in Goldwater’s political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, YAF or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Toto, nor was it Diamond Springs, Placerville or Sierra College.

To simplify my first year, I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and regular meals. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue. Three other dorms, one for men and two for women, comprised our corner of the universe. Co-ed living accommodations were still in the future. Strict House Mothers existed to enforce the rules and protect their charges. Women were only allowed on the first floor of the men’s residence hall. Slipping one up to your room was an expellable offense.

Each dorm was nine stories high, brand-new and exactly the same as the others. One of the grad students responsible for our well-being immediately dubbed them monstrosities of oblivion. My sixth-floor room came complete with a roommate, Clifford Marks. Cliff was a slightly built young man with bright red hair, freckles and a mischievous personality. Later, we would share an apartment. Like me, he was a political science major. Eventually, he too would join the Peace Corps.

For entertainment, we could watch the antics of the girls in the dorm directly across from us. If we were lucky, they might wave. One evening a pair of roommates pulled their shade, set up a lamp between them and the window. And undressed. Slowly. It was a surprise our building didn’t fall over, given that every guy in the dorm was glued to the windows on the women’s dorm side.

But all of these were the lighter side of Berkeley and college life. I was soon to learn how serious academics were at UC— and that a revolution was brewing. I’ll continue my story next Wednesday.

Friday’s Travel Blog Post: I finish off Peggy’s and my exploration of the tide pools of Harris Beach, Oregon. The shells of turban snails provide dandy homes for hermit crabs, limpets are masters of creating a vacuum, barnacles suggest why keel-hauling might make walking the plank seem like a stroll in the park, and we find acres of grass growing where we only expected seaweed.