Friday, June 22, 2007

Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


I never knew what to do in college. I used to walk around by myself and stare at the baleful moon, shooting rats and staring through the windows of the houses down the street.

You learn a lot about cities while they sleep, and Berkeley is no exception. For one thing, a college town doesn’t really sleep. The closest you get is the gray haze of the last hour before sunrise, when the only folks awake are night owls burning the candle at both ends. That’s the hour I love the most, when you can smell the potential in the air, like the crisp taste of cloves on your tongue.

I loved Berkeley, but I never felt at home there. Somehow, even though I felt a great affection for the city and its inhabitants, I never felt as if I were a part of the organism. There was always something keeping me away, setting me apart from the normal course of events. I often wondered why it seemed as if I was cursed to stand apart, to walk alone . . . but now I have come to understand that it was merely my destiny, if such a word is appropriate. I don’t know if I believe in destiny but I know now that I was set apart for special things. There is no such thing as coincidence: I see that now.

The town is built around the University like a cocoon protecting a soft pulpy mass of flesh. The campus is set into the base of the hillside, with the cyclotron and the defense laboratories resting on the roof of the town, overlooking the entire bay. Because of the research they do up on the hill there are spies everywhere, but most of the students and faculty are unaware of their presence.

I met a spy once. It was during those happy and carefree days when I had managed, against all odds, to forget the constant and unremitting danger I lived with. It was the pills I took, the pills my mother made me take that dulled my senses and were fattening me for the eventual kill.

When I stopped taking them I began to perceive the world as I once had, with all the colors and sounds and shapes that I had forgotten. I had allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security, and as unforgivable as that was I knew I had no one to blame for this turn of events but myself.

There’s something strange in the Berkeley air. I don’t know if I could find it at another school, in another school-town in another state or country. But as you rise up on the gradually sloping eastern hill on which the town as built you also pass up and through and into a different state of mind, as if you are passing through and up and apart from the constraints and conceits of mundane life. College has its own mundane, its own sense of normalcy, but it is far removed from gas stations and pharmacies.

You ride a bus up from the freeway. If you took the freeway through to its terminus you’d either end up in San Francisco or San Jose. If you needed to go to either place you could simply take BART, but BART only stopped at Shattuck, a block west of the campus.

The closer you edge to the campus, the more conventional civilization begins to fall by the wayside. Amazingly, there are no fast food restaurants inside the campus or, in fact, anywhere east of Shattuck. Of course, you can find a Taco Bell, a McDonalds and Burger King all within about a quarter mile radius of each other. I had McDonalds every Wednesday afternoon and it was a treat after the bland and starchy stink of dorm food.

On the last block of University Avenue before you enter the University you pass Comic Relief (although I hear they have since moved) and a decent record store whose name escapes me. But then you reach the streetcorner right before the big gate and there’s an administrative building right there, rather large and clunky and God have mercy on you if you have to go in there.

The entrance to the University is laid out in a large U-shaped courtyard before you reach the actual roads that line the campus. Of course, the roads themselves are closed to most traffic, with the exception of emergency vehicles and groundskeepers and the like. As you head up University drive there’s a beautiful grove of trees to your immediate right, a hidden track of darkened greenery left to quiet and contemplation on warm spring days when the campus fills with the noise of city activity.

After the copse you pass two life sciences buildings. If you keep going due east you’ll pass the huge library complex set at the top of a beautiful northward sloping glade. It’s a straight shot to the stadium and the amphitheater, both set into the hill at the rear of the campus proper, directly under the grade that leads to the cyclotron.

But I usually turn right after the life sciences building, climbing a small hillock between the massive Dwinelle complex and the tiny Durant Hall. That’s one of the most beautiful places on campus, a small glade with green grass and trees with huge spreading leaves perfect for passing an hour or two with a book, watching the people pass. In the fall and the spring, that’s when the girls pass by with their sundresses on. Girls don’t wear slips anymore.

Of course when you pass by Dwinelle you’re almost to Sather Gate and once you pass through those great grand wrought iron archways you’re in Sproul Plaza and you’re in the full press of history and fully in the midst of the assembled student body. There are always people, always people at all times of the day and in all situations.

This is where the riots were held, the famous protests and the chants and the marches. Of course, all that’s in the past now. There are always some token politicos on the scene – it goes without saying – but the overriding emotion on this campus, and I assume on campuses across the country, is apathy. People work hard to get into these universities. They work hard once they’re in the universities. If they don’t work hard, they party. They don’t want to throw away their personal achievements or their equally important personal luxuries on some vague sense of broad responsibilities. There are just too many things to do, and no one cares. I didn’t, and knowing what I know now I can't say that my priorities were entirely misguided.

I’ve been to the campus at Santa Cruz and it’s really amazing how they designed it to be the polar opposite of Berkeley. It was built in the years immediately after the unrest of the nineteen-sixties, so it was planned without any central location, no unifying plaza like Berkeley had with Sproul. All you have is a string of disparate campuses set miles apart in the midst of a primeval forest. It lacks something very vital to the college experience, I think.

Opposite the Sproul building in the plaza is the King Student Union building. The University bookstore sits in the Union’s basement along with a few related retailers, the college memorabilia store and a small convenience outlet that sold cheap candy. There are also a few assembly rooms in the union as well as the ballroom. A large staircase curves down from the ballroom mezzanine.

I’ve been to the top floor of the Union exactly once, on a campus tour during my junior year of high school. It was a good trip. I was still taking my pills during that part of my life and I suppose I was distracted by any number of things. That is maybe why I made the decision to come to Berkeley.

Anyway, after a brief meeting with an enrollment executive, we dispersed and were given a few minutes to ourselves in the union building. I found an exterior porch to the side of the main meeting room, a small rooftop alcove facing west over the city of Berkeley and towards the bay. On a perfectly clear afternoon you can see the fifteen odd miles from the top of Berkeley on through to the Golden Gate Bridge, and if you catch the afternoon just right you can see the sun setting through distant gaps in high tension cables drawn and pulled half a century ago. That’s when I knew I wanted to go to Berkeley. I tried to take a picture but – of course – I ran out of film at just the wrong moment, and when I turned around the sun had moved and the image was gone, save for a lingering shiver in memory.

But memory is like that. It creeps and crawls like a chimera, tricking and taunting you from behind a curtain. You think you remember something but you don’t, not really, not really in any meaningful way. Memory can be an illusion, a cruel deception. Of course, this seems overwrought, like something in an adolescent diary. But its hard to feel anything but grim resentment towards the workings of your own mind when you know you’ve been set upon, betrayed and trapped by circumstance. They’ve been lying to me since the day I was born, and sometimes I want so badly to just accept the lies and the illusions, to convince myself that I’m happy because the world says I should be, that I should take my pills because I need to be healthy.

But I don’t want to be “healthy”. If I’m healthy then the men who killed my father, who killed 3,000 people in New York and countless thousands more across the world, will be able to get away with it.

Once I took apart one of those pills they send me in the mail. I cut the membrane open with an exacto knife and there was a small creature living inside it, a small pink worm with minuscule antennae sticking out of its forehead. When I opened the capsule there was a brief whiff of something pungent, like valerian root mixed with sulfur. I surmised that this was the creature’s atmosphere, this was the air it needed to survive in the pill until it could prosper in my innards.

After I saw this I was repulsed. I emptied my stomach in my wastebasket and lay on the hard industrial carpeted floor of my dorm and sweat in the cold for a quarter of an hour. I didn’t eat for two days, rather I flushed my body with the harshest laxatives I could find. I drank castor oil by the bottle. I gave myself repeated enemas, one after another.

Finally, when I was satisfied that I had done everything I could to flush the creatures out of my system I began a regimen of white rice and distilled water, which I kept to for a full month. I dropped twenty superfluous pounds and felt better than I had in ages. The spiritual visions that had almost left me forever returned with a vengeance, and I began once more to understand things which I had imagined forgotten.

Sometimes I tried to see if there were any bugs left in my system. Once I saw small shapes burrowing in the flesh of my forearm, so I took a knife and tried to dig them out. I never found them, however. If they are still there I can’t find them. Maybe they die and rot.

Berkeley is a beautiful city, a wonderful place to live and to learn. But there’s also something unbearably disingenuous here as well, something rotten and sticky and covered in vomit right at the very core. Sometimes when I would walk around in the night I would see things, I would see people doing things I didn’t understand, that couldn’t make sense. But I saw them nonetheless, and I had no choice but to try and reconcile what I had seen with that I desperately wished to believe was true in this world.

There are garbage trucks that run in the night, making their way unobserved through the tight city streets of America’s great cities. The trucks stop at a corner in a major metropolis and men in black leather jumpsuits pour out of the back. These men wear helmets that obscure their faces. They carry high-caliber machine rifles slung over their shoulders.

They pour into the ghettos and barrios and liquidate the homeless and the abandoned on America’s streets. They take the bodies and put them into the back of the truck where the remains are never seen again. People just disappear off the streets. I’ve never seen it but I’ve heard tell.

After Sproul you come up against the southern border of the campus and Bancroft Avenue. Bancroft runs all the way down back to Shattuck, where the movie theaters and the Barnes & Noble are. But right down the way out of the union and by the tree-lined sidewalk you find yourself on Telegraph Avenue, the heart and soul of the campus. When I dream of Berkeley, this is where my sleeping heart brings me.

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