67. Berkeley

Published on 10 May 2024 at 12:50

© 2024 Robert Sickles

I’ve crossed paths with some unusual folks while travelling through Berkeley, California. As far as I know, that’s where I met my first half human-half butterfly, or so she said. And there was the street musician who encouraged me to play along, except he was performing on an invisible and inaudible violin. OK, I guess he was a mime. Yes, I know… not really surprising that there would be odd ducks in Berkeley, nor that I would find them.


The Three R’s

Driving from New Jersey to California, I had picked up a couple of hitchhikers in Ohio, college kids on summer break from NYU, Michael and Lisa. They were going to Berkeley, and offered to pay me to take them all the way—I think they were pretty comfortable in my car! I didn’t realize how much of a detour that would be for me since I was supposed toi be heading to LA to see my parents, but I was enjoying the ride so we all went to Berkeley. Michael would be travelling farther on to the coast, and I stuck with Lisa who was going to stay in Berkeley with her younger sister; we found her living in one of the oddest places I think I’ve ever seen.

We pulled up at this big rooming house a few blocks off UC Berkeley campus.  The old building had been divided into student housing and was home to a number of students and artists. One was a slightly older fellow, Elgin, a teacher in the School of Music. He was the son of the landlords, the middle-aged artsy beatnik couple who lived on the lower level. I was invited by Lisa's sister to crash on the couch in her quarters for a few days. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was an awful racket from a saxophone and other horns, like each player was trying to out-blurt each other. Lisa’s sister said that it was Elgin and a few of his students, practicing in his room. “He teaches at the U. They’re these really cool experimental music guys! Arrhythmic and atonal jazz, can you dig it?”

I looked at Lisa whose had puckered up her face like she’d bitten a lemon, so I knew we were feeling the same way. “Sounds like hogs being slaughtered,” she mumbled.  We all needed to speak loudly over the noise which continued on late into the evening, and every evening that I stayed there.  Years later I heard of “primal scream therapy” and it reminded me of those musicians in Berkeley.

The landlords were pioneers in the ethical lifestyle of making a small footprint on planet earth. Sounds good, right? But they’d taken the “Three R’s,” recycling, reusing and repurposing, to an obsessive level. One wall of the dining-kitchen area was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, and on those shelves were dozens of large glass jars and bins, each labelled neatly, such as: BOTTLE CAPS, BROKEN EYEGLASSES, SMALL NAILS, THREAD SPOOLS, MISC. SCRAP METAL, PAPER CLIPS, THUMB TACKS, BUTTONS, PENCIL STUBS, etc. There were signs taped here and there, reminding the residents of how to think and act regarding Our Mother Earth. Someone was always filling jars, carrying bins and talking about and jars and bins. I soon learned what the deal was with all of that.

Dinner was served for everyone on a long table. Elgin even stopped practicing to join us. After our meal, I was asked if I’d like to help by wiping off the table and counters and sweeping the floor.  I saw that everyone leaped to action to pitch in with evening chores. I was told that before I threw anything away in that house, I needed to pick through and save the pieces for the labelled jars. The husband’s deadpan advice was, “If you have any doubts about where to put anything, son—this is very important—please, ask! And just note, the bin marked “OTHER” is for dust, soil, and crumbs only. I always go through that one more time before dumping it in the compost. This whole house produces only a couple pounds of trash per week for the landfill!” I noticed that his wife had a project going on the back porch, labelling a few more big jars. My “whatever” facial expression and shrug made him unsure that I would comply with the rules, so he kept his eye on me the whole time I worked. I should have wanted to know what they did with the stuff in the jars, but then again, I didn’t really care to hear him go into it. After three days of a headache, I’d had enough of the loud jazz and all that garbage sorting, it was time to get back on the road to LA.

Later in August, I passed through Berkeley again on my way to Seattle. The town was always the boisterous epicenter for youth energy and social change, I wanted to see if I could gather any more experiences with interesting people before settling into college. But the vibe was so different; confrontation and violence took over the streets that had been carefree and colorful just a few weeks before.  People hustled and jostled with a meanness in their eyes. It was late August, 1968, only a little while until the Democrats held their convention in Chicago, and the nation realized that darker days had come. I was glad that I’d caught a glimpse of Berkeley’s “simpler times” earlier in the summer.


Bertie’s Place

Several years later I was travelling with Jack, my earlier teacher and partner in musical instrument making. We were delivering a small keyboard instrument to a customer in the Bay Area.  The delivery was timed to coincide with an Early Music Festival near Berkeley, and we planned to show off our instrument and generate some sales. We accepted the kind invitation of lodging for the night from a local member of the music community, a Ms. Bertrand, or “Bertie.”

Bertie, long a widow and in her nineties, was living alone in a grand old home. Inside, she had crowded the rooms with art treasures and décor collected from around the world. She had statues and busts; jade carvings; African masks; Persian rugs; a carved Indian screen; and some amazing Japanese swords. There was a massive grandfather clock, a grand piano and a golden concert harp, and not a lot of open floor space. No chair was without a drape of some fine tapestry, robe or pelt. It was the latter that came to be a bad thing for me.

Bertie also had a passion for Pomeranian dogs. She must have raised and shown champions in her time. Just before we arrived, her little delight, “Dinkie” had delivered a litter of puppies. They were barely bigger than avocados, helpless and all whiney- squealy, and I pretended to admire them. It wasn't easy for Bertie, with her failing eyesight, to say how many puppies there were. Which came to be a good thing for me.

After a late dinner, Jack and I moved to the living room where we rolled out our sleeping bags. I made my bed on top of a big pelt and slept soundly. How could I have known that Dinkie liked to nestle with her puppies under the folds of that pelt?

In the morning, I was straightening the room and found a flattened, lifeless puppy. I wasn’t sure if I had squashed it or if it was already a goner, but it clearly died under the pelt where I was sleeping. I asked Jack what should I do, and he said he’d take care of it and wrapped in in a paper towel. He pretended to go stroll around her back yard, and buried the poor thing by the fence. I felt so guilty.

As Bertie cleared the breakfast table, she said, “I should have mentioned… you really want to watch where you sit and walk to avoid the little puppies. I’ve lost a couple over the years due to my own carelessness. So tiny when they’re new! Aren’t they just adorable?” Jack didn’t want me to delay our departure by confessing to murder. He pointed at his watch, thanked Bertie for hosting us, and ushered me to the door. We never heard another word from Bertie, and it seemed that our secret was safe. 

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Kathy M
8 days ago

You have more interesting experiences than anyone else I know! I wonder if the folks you originally stayed with ever became lax with their "three R's"? Our recycling in Mesa has become very restrictive and they don't take alot of that stuff anymore.

7 days ago

Berkley is definitely an interesting place. You seem to be able to find all manner of interesting people and places. Love you stories, thanks.

7 days ago

Robert, I didn't realize that you have so much in common with what's-her-name, the SD governor, the one who loves puppies so much! Your sad confession severely limits your future political ambitions!