My wife had to take a weekend class at UC Berkley, so we trudged up the coast late Friday afternoon. The drive was beautiful and uneventful. The kind I like.
The hotels were full as it was the university’s graduation. We stayed in downtown Oakland on the upper floors of the City Center Marriott. It sits just a few blocks inland from Jack London Square. There is a certain irony in Jack London Square being surrounded by massive industrial complexes and urban blight with the warm exhaust and hum of the freeway pouring down from just above — not really his kind of place.
In our room, the bay stretched across the window and we could mark the enclaves of the peninsula leading into the city. San Francisco was nearly dead center, but the city had disappeared into the evening fog before we arrived. I woke up early to watch the fog recede, a ferocious tide retreating in slow motion.
The Bay Bridge began as a shadow and then slowly found its definition in the straight lines and curved suspension cables that define both main gates of the city. Downtown San Francisco peeked in and out as the sun rose. Seeming to wake from restful sleep, it would push back under the covers not yet ready to bear the cold or light of day. And then, surrendering, it stretched itself into the sky to say good morning — a beautiful city.
I love the Bay Area. I am drawn by its simple and eclectic charms, by the pleasant surprises hidden among the cliché and well-worn tourist paths. I have never failed to encounter some unexpected gems. This trip was no exception.
I dropped my wife off at the Berkeley campus and found parking just off Shattuck Avenue. I walked Shattuck looking for coffee and stumbled across a place with an atmosphere and menu that seemed settled in the Mediterranean with a nod to Jewish delis. The coffee was strong but appealing. Taking a seat by the window, I put in my ear buds and gazed out to the street.
The colorful life of Berkley did not disappoint. The people walking across the window seemed to span every possible manifestation of life and personality. Later, as I was walking I encountered the most memorable of those.
She was seated on a bench. Her clothes were blackened with grime and her hands dirty in a way only achieved by hard living. Framed in matted, unkempt hair her face was an utter contradiction. Fresh and remarkably clean, I could see she was a mere child with exceptional beauty. Her two brilliantly blue eyes caught mine and, for a moment, each of us considered the other. She smiled. I smiled. I turned and left her sitting on the bench. She stayed with me, is with me still, accompanied by some regret for not even offering a hello.
I walked Berkley for hours — six hours — in widening concentric circles. I came across the Poetry Walk, tucked in between Shattuck and Milvia on Addison Street.
The sparsely traveled block is the home to 128 cast-iron panels of poetry from a broad spectrum of writers. Each has some connection to the Bay Area. I spent almost two hours reading each 2-foot square, considering them, confused by them, inspired and moved. It is a brilliant work of art. One piece captured the essence of my life and of this column. I close with it.
I must love the questions
as Rilke said
like locked rooms
full of treasure
to which my blind
and groping key
does not yet fit.
and await the answers
mailed with dubious intent
and written in a very foreign
and in the hourly making
no thought of Time
to force, to sqeeze
I grow into.