Berkeley of Your Mind

by Briggs Nisbet

A small city looms large in the collective consciousness....

Recently I met a Washington bureaucrat on his first visit to the UC Berkeley campus. "I was surprised I could get onto the campus so easily," he said to me. Raising my eyebrows, I asked him why he thought it would be difficult. "Oh, you know, I thought there'd be demonstrations blocking the entrance."

"And were there?" I inquired.

"No!" he said in astonishment. "It was really quiet." And then, looking around at the rustic interior of The Faculty Club, he said. "Hey, this place looks just like the Adirondacks."

I could see he was disappointed that mythical Berkeley had not lived up to his expectations. I could have told him there was an animal rights activist hanging off Tolman Hall in a rock climbing hammock. But I didn't. I guess I didn't really want him to have the satisfaction.

Berkeley is as much a place of the imagination as it is a not-so-untypical American town. In the public mind, Berkeley is Babylon or worse (Gomorrah comes to mind): A place where tie-dye shrouded gypsies throng the streets, and half (or entirely) naked revelers consume mass quantities of illicit substances, enticing the sons and daughters of Middle America with the siren song of alternative lifestyle. This vision darkens the thoughts of many a parent. I know. When it came time for me to cash in on the (almost) free college education that every qualified (B average plus a couple of language and science classes) California high school student was once entitled to, my parents were pleased that the (then new and not yet veggie) Santa Cruz campus was my first choice. When it turned out I was rejected from Santa Cruz and would have to go to Berkeley (second choice), they were hysterical.

They rounded me up and stuck me in the car for the 2-hour drive to the sylvan seaside campus, and begged an interview with the UC Santa Cruz Dean of Admissions. He listened impassively to their tearful pleas to admit me while I slumped in my faux leather chair seat and writhed with embarassment. I went to Berkeley. My desperate parents made a last attempt to save me from the maws of Bohemia by putting me up in a women-only student residence presided over by a very large Scottish housemother. My mother recognizing in Miss Molly (as we were instructed to call her) a fellow-Victorian, nearly sobbed with joy to find someone to protect her daughter's virtue. Too late, Mom. Well, they tried. By the end of the year I was living in a flat on Milvia Street with my long-haired non-student boyfriend figuring out how to steam brown rice and cook Burdock root. This would never have happened, of course, if I had gone to Santa Cruz.

Perhaps it is hard to believe that Berkeley looks a lot like Canton (Ohio, that is), with MacDonaldses and Taco Bells and a video-rental store on every corner. The neo-classical dome of city hall looms over a public square in the center of town, and the main drag, Shattuck Avenue, looks like any other small business district where 19th-century brick office buildings squeeze up against small storefronts selling shoes, baby clothes, paperback books, knick-knacks, and, okay, the occasional cappuccino. Even Telegraph Avenue, the site of infamous stand-offs between The Establishment and Hippie-Radicals during the late 1960's and early 1970's, looks like nothing so much as a Gap ad these days, with neatly attired undergraduates filling the cookie stores and neo-Italian Bauhaus cafes. There's even a Gap store.

People's Park? A volleyball court/homeless cultural center (with public toilets!). Sproul Plaza? Dull as a doorknob, except for a string of folding tables dispensing information about Young Republicans (the Republican Party is the largest student organization on campus), Jews for Jesus, or a student social group. Even the ASUC (student-run) store is being sold to Barnes and Noble. The hideous fact is, Berkeley looks an awful lot like everywhere else in the Republic of Free Enterprise these days.

But that's not really the point, is it? Every culture needs a place to embody the prejudices, temperament, and idiosyncracies of the times -- its zeitgeist. Usually, the symbol or the idea outlives the place: Waterloo, Woodstock, Watergate. Often, the place becomes merely a descriptive: Byzantine. Or loses it's proper name altogether: bohemian. There's no way to know what literary transmogrification will befall "Berkeley." Who knows now why the place was named for an Irish bishop and philosopher of the 18th century? In any case, I think Bishop Berkeley might fit right in with the local spirit of the times. Something of a health nut, the good bishop extolled the wonders of stewed prunes in his 1752 pamphlet, "A Treatise on Tar Water."

All this is to say, really, that, for better or worse, P.C. or culturally challenged, Berkeley has been good to us. Enterzone, I mean. But now we say farewell to our birthplace-- an Apple Quadra 650 located in the basement of a former seminary across from People's Park in the heart of the zeitgeist. We were never really a Berkeley 'zine anyway. The postal address of Enterzone is in Oakland, where we live. Oakland. A Real Place. Founded by real estate developers. We have a ball team. There are malls. Sigh. But we'll miss the notoriety.

[east bay map]

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