It didn't take long, after I relocated to California in 1973 from the Midwest, to find my way to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. UC Berkeley had been in the news and on the covers of national magazines all during the turbulent 60's, 70's and thereafter.
I made my way to the campus because I wanted to visit the place where it all happened, and I got more than I bargained for during my first visit. I stepped onto the Campus of UC Berkeley, just off of merchant and student hang-out clustered Telegraph Avenue, directly into infamous Sproul Plaza. Sproul has been the center of student activities, demonstrations, marches, marchers and counter-culture activities for decades.
Practically anyone famous has either been there to speak, demonstrate, organize a student protest or to lead a rally at one time or another.
On the day that I arrived, there was a white minister preaching in front of the Administration building which abuts Sproul, as it is affectionately known as by the students. The towering clocktower was lurking just off in the distance, in addition to the gates which appeared to be a gateway to the remainder of the sprawling campus.
What was so odd about the scene that was taking place in front of me, was that 3 or 4students, as I recall, were surrounding the preacher as if they were exuberantly listening and methodically responding to his sermon. However, the closer I got I realized that instead of saying amen to confirm the word or to support the preacher, these youngsters, all males, were heckling him and matching his every utterance with expletives.
Each time that he read, quoted a scripture or made an utterance, his small listening audience would shout back ‘ah f***ck you, or you are just a f***cking liar. Then to my dismay and sudden admiration, the minister who was approximately 35 years of age continued to preach; he was completely undaunted and simply ignored the rantings.
For just as Stephen of the bible did when he was in the process of being stoned to death by his audience(he looked up into Heaven), this young minister continued preaching and maintained his dignity along with a graceful and loving smile on his face.
Now I on the other hand thought, let me get away from here before lightning strikes, for after all surely God was going to strike Sproul at any moment. So I left this unusual scene behind, headed elsewhere on campus and enjoyed the rest of the sites, the topography, the beautiful array of campus buildings, the towering eucalyptus trees and eucalyptus groves..., then afterward I headed back down Telegraph Avenue and hung out among the vendors.
I lived almost next door to Berkeley, in nearby El Cerrito California. Each day when commuting to work in San Francisco, one block away from the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building, I rode the bus down Arlington Street, Scenic Drive, University Avenue and onto the expressway in order to complete my 26 mile commute to San Francisco, which culminated with our crossing the towering Bay Bridge. I repeated the same routine each Monday through Friday, always passing about a block away from the Campus entrance.
The area that we shared atop the mountain, with Berkeley and other nearby cities, provided a continuous breathtaking and picturesque view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. In front of our house was a lavish Country Club and golf course, and our neighbors were NFL players from the World Championship Oakland Raiders football team, business executives and other upper and upper middle class business professionals.
When it wasn’t too foggy in the Bay Area, you could see the city of San Francisco either from the massive first-floor wooden deck, which was surrounded with huge windows, and merged into the 1st floor's living room. The house was designed so that you could enjoy an ongoing picturesque view of the Bay Area from mostly any vantage point. And San Francisco was much closer when looking at it directly across the Bay, instead of traveling around the Bay by car, bus, boat, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) or even helicopter.
The Bay Area, particularly San Francisco, was known for among other things, unrivaled theater. I have seen numerous live productions at the Orpheum Theater, The San Francisco Play House, The War Memorial Theater, The Golden Gate Theater, The Lorraine Hansberry Theater..., including The San Francisco Ballet, The Nutcracker, Shenandoah, The Phantom of the Opera..., not to overlook the greatest theater of them all, the Poetry Slams, which often take place in smaller venues in and around Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
Shortly after relocating to the West, some friends from back East came out to visit both southern California, and me, in northern California. Since I was entertaining them, especially Becky, one evening I checked the newspaper in order to determine where I could take Becky after we went out to dinner. Becky and I made a joint decision to attend the theater following dinner.
Oddly enough, nothing much was happening in the theater district that weekend in San Francisco, but there was a performance taking place that evening at the Zellerbach Auditorium on the UC Berkeley Campus; it was entitled Gorf or something like that. So I said Becky, let's go over to Zellerbach and see this performance. Truthfully, I didn't know anything about Gorf, it was just something to do and both of us loved theater of all types.
So off we went to dinner at Hs Lordships on the Berkeley Marina, and afterward to Zellerbach in my friend’s borrowed olive green Mustang.
Now Becky was a nice woman and from a well cultured and coiffured family, she was tall, beautiful and did I say acculturated and beautiful? We made it to the theater on the Berkeley Campus just before the theater house lights went down. Fortunately or unfortunately, as you will see, Becky and I had been able to garner excellent seats in the Orchestra Section at the last moment.
The evening performance began with a nude cast walking out on to the stage and standing it would seem directly in front of us.As the cast stood before us in full frontal nudity, I thought, uh oh, and trusted that Becky would remember that this was an unplanned event given all of the nudity that was staring us in the face: in other words what was taking place before us and the rest of the audience was not planned on my part.
Then I looked over at Becky and whispered, do you want to leave? And she immediately replied, yes! Wow, first the F' the preacher responses from the groupies, as the youthful preacher preached, and now this! And unbeknown to me at the time, this would not be the last time that I would witness nudity in the City of Berkeley.
I have had some great times at the historic college and in the college town, in fact since that time, U.C. Berkeley has become a favorite hang out of mine. I seriously considered attending UC Berkeley in the past, particularly, the Graduate Theological Union, however, God had other plans for me at UC Berkeley's Bay Area arch rival school, Stanford.
The last time that I visited the UC Berkeley campus, I participated in a 3-day workshop with world-renown authors and scholars from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, The Caribbean, Cuba, The United Kingdom and the United States.
I was immediately accepted by almost all of my peers at the Conference, and I informed them that I was currently working on a paper myself entitled:
The Historical Successes and Failures of Black Male Leadership in the Americas, The Land Down Under and on the Continent of Africa.The comments that I made about my paper created quite a stir, and afterward resulted in a prolonged discussion. However, my unfinished paper earned me an invitation to join this international group of scholars and writers at this year’s conference which is to be held in Lisbon Portugal later this year.
Now, as I previously stated, I have had great experiences (some unusual) in the city of Berkeley and on the UC campus, from Shattuck Avenue to the Clock tower; out on the Berkeley Marina where the upscale 5 star Dock of the Bay Restaurant and Club (owned by my pastor's brother Eddie, father of Diane from the group Sly and the Family Stone - both of them would often show up at the house) was once located; and there were restaurants and night clubs like the incomparable 2-story Hs Lordships, Solomon's Girunda's (now Skates Restaurant)on the Marina…
Both of the latter, a restaurant and the other a restaurant night club, sit right out on the Bay in part, or mostly atop the water. Both establishments are silhouetted by the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, and separated by the 2 mile long Berkeley Pier. A sweetie of mine from Pasadena and I once strolled romantically (about a mile out on the pier) one evening as if we were going to walk across the Bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge. And of course being a younger man then, I got my ‘smoocheroo’ on, right out in the center of the bridge.
From the U.C. Berkeley Lab down to Alcatraz Avenue or Dwight Way (home of the famous People's Park), U.C. Berkeley was and still remains the perfect setting to understand what happened and
what were some of the outcomes that resulted from the ‘go for it, if it feels good and do your own thang generation’!Shortly after the scholarly conference ended that Sunday afternoon, I said my goodbyes to my new friends who were mostly headed to the airport, and headed down Telegraph Avenue to visit with some of the homeless people that I had been ministering to in the world renowned People’s Park. After leaving the park that day, I walked a block down Dwight Way and turned back onto Telegraph Avenue in order to catch a bus that would take me back down on the Peninsula.
But as I stood waiting at the bus stop for the bus to arrive, just around the corner from the house where San Francisco Examiner newspaper magnate's daughter Patti Hearst was once held after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army years ago, something appeared to be out of whack.
For out of the corner of my eye I could see the image of a man approaching from the left, my guess is that like the preacher, he was also approximately 35 years of age.
And, what appeared to be wrong before, soon after came into fruition when I slowly began to turn my head in the direction of the approaching intruder.
A practically nude man, who was carrying a box of Chinese food in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was walking towards me. He was shirtless and his underwear and pants had fallen to around mid-thigh. And you guessed it, his white limp dangling penis was fully exposed for the entire world to observe. Everyone who was in back of him got to see his uncovered rear end.A crowd gathered around him before I could respond to his simultaneous request for a light for his cigarette, as surrounding restaurant and coffee shop patrons watched this surreal scene in amazement from their seats and tables in establishments near the corner of Telegraph and Dwight Way.
Now as I said before, it is not uncommon to experience or witness peculiar events taking place around the UC Berkeley Campus, however, this was a rare occurrence even by Berkeley’s, a self-proclaimed sanctuary city’s standards. Berkeley has always been considered a liberal city. In fact, Berkeley is commonly referred to in this area as the People’s Republic of Berkeley given the liberal positions that the city government and its citizens often take.
Berkeley is also a city that welcomes political refuges to come there for sanctuary, and on occasion these political refugees are foreigners, foreign nationals and sworn enemies of the United States of America. Berkeley is considered to be so liberal that someone once quipped that when the mayor of the city was sworn in some years back, that the magistrate instructed him to ‘raise his left instead of his right hand’ at the swearing in ceremony!
But getting back to the practically naked man who was apparently ‘as high as high could be’ from drug or alcohol usage (as he tip-toed shoeless, shirtless and nearly pantless down Telegraph avenue while hearing music that no one else could apparently hear), this event topped an incident that occurred on a previous occasion when I visited the 'outdoor citizens' at the People’s Park.
One day while visiting, I sat at a massive wooden picnic table with about 8 or 9 of the Peoples Park's permanent homeless residents, they were black, white, Latino, male and female. That day I brought my keyboard over and practically everyone that was seated at the table, mostly former musicians; each of them took turns playing the mini keyboard as it was passed around the table. I will always remember the female vocalist who also played my keyboard; she said:"we are homeless but not helpless"!
Then just as suddenly someone pulled out a pipe, lit it, took a puff and began to pass it around the table so that everyone that was seated there could take a hit off of the pipe. And, not out of disrespect to me as a minister, they also passed the pipe to me the Reverend. You could have called this a combination 21st century 'pass the peace and pass the pipe U.C. Berkeley style Eucharist service'.
However, instead of wine and bread at this service, each person, black, white, Latino, male and female took a hit off of the sage filled pipe. We were having communion true enough, however, this was neither an Indian powwow (peyote)nor a Eucharist service. Thank God that I can honestly say that I have never imbibed any chemical substances in my life, and I had no intention of starting that day, fellowship or not.
The other thing that made the pass the pipe experience so surreal was that it was taking place in broad daylight, in deference to the possibility of the Berkeley Police Department showing up on the scene.
After the ‘pass the peace-pipe ceremony’ was over, Rosie, an accomplished black homeless artist and regular at the park showed up and encouraged me to come with him to the other side of the park; I had been counseling Rosie on a one-to-one basis.
Rosie wanted me to meet his friend, who was affectionately known in the Park as the Hoola Hoop Lady. And when we walked up to her she was doing just that, hoolah hooping to the music that was coming from her boom box that was sitting opposite her on the ground.
She was, I would estimate, about 30 years of age, Caucasian and very striking, in that she not only hoola hooped, but her complete attire was a striped-colored bikini. Just to the side of her were two old-fashioned brown bushel baskets which she used to transport and to dry her laundry. Around the rim of each basket, hung pieces of laundry which consisted of colorful women’s lingerie and bikinis drying in the sunshine filled air.
Well, Rosie was very happy to see both she and her laundry (er herm) I noticed, and he invited me to join him on the ground in order to watch her hoolah hoop. So we sat on the ground as she continued her performance (in her bikini). Shortly after she stopped hoolah hooping to the music. Then Rosie introduced us as she took a seat on the ground (still in her bikini) and began playing on my keyboard (in her bikini). I tried to be polite and nonchalant, as this practically naked woman sat in front of us.
While she played, Rosie and another male, who turned out to be a retired professional keyboardist from the area began to take hits off of his sage-filled pipe.
Well, hrm hrm, I wonder if John the Baptist or Elijah, out in the wilderness of Judea, or Jesus and the Apostles ever experienced a scenario like that back in their time?The bearded musician, who was apparently well known in the Fillmore, the Haight and up on the Divisadero was draped in black; he looked like a hold-out from the 60’s or 70’s, and wasted no time telling me about the glory days when his group took songs that were recorded by famous musicians like Jimmy Hendrix …, and 420’ed them. I asked, 420’ed the songs, what does that mean?
To be continued…Peace & Grace
Now in the event that anyone is wondering how I feel about the Bay Area, I absolutely love this place - I fell in love with it the first day that I stepped off of the airplane in South San Francisco, and my feelings about the place have only heightened since becoming a permanent resident.