24 November 2005

All Night Laundry, North Solano

If you know your way around Berkeley, that title won't make any sense. There is no such thing as "North Solano." But Solano Avenue is the main thoroughfare of North Berkeley, and that's close enough for me to make an awkward stab at symmetry with the opening line of my (many people's, actually) favorite Weakerthans song, "None Of The Above."

For those of you who don't know it, the song starts out, "All night restaurant, North Kildonan," and goes on to portray in exquisite detail the beauty and sadness of the solitude, shared or otherwise, that we sometimes seek out and sometimes stumble upon and is sometimes thrust upon us in those hours that hang suspended somewhere between midnight and dawn.

I've always tended to be somewhat of a solitude seeker. As a child, one of my recipes for happiness was to unearth some corner or cubbyhole where no one would ever find me and curl up with a comic book or a daydream. All these years later, the main thing that's changed is the nature of my hiding places. There's something to be said for out-of-the-way cafes or bars, and in nice weather there's always the park or the woods, but for full-on reflection, brooding or rumination the former can be too confining and the latter too unbounded. But one place that nearly always fits the bill is the all-night laundromat.

T.S. Eliot may have measured out his life in coffee spoons, but mine has been more about scoops of detergent. Some of my soul's darkest nights and some of my most blissfully contented hours have been whiled away in garishly lit laundrettes with only the gurgling of soap suds and the hypnotic clink-clank of coins trapped in the tumble dryer for company.

And tonight was just such a time. Tomorrow I'm off back to England and it occurred to me that some clean clothes might be useful. So just before midnight it was down to Solano Avenue, to the 24-hour laundromat I've been using since at least 1990 when I'm in Berkeley. In Berkeley itself, there's a deep-seated resistance to all-night establishments, presumably because they might require workers to keep unsocial hours. But just over the city line in Albany you'll find a 24-hour supermarket, doughnut shop and laundromat: pretty much all the prerequisites of civilization.

Tonight being Thanksgiving Eve, the street was even quieter than usual, and except for a couple random lunatics who wandered in and out again, I had the laundromat to myself. I read a chapter of Boswell's Tour To The Hebrides, with its amusing account of how Samuel Johnson's disinclination to "relinquish ... the felicity of a London life, which, to a man who can enjoy it with full intellectual relish, is apt to make existence in any narrower sphere seem insipid or irksome."

Then I stepped out into the street, and there was something in the air that felt more like rural Northern California than the Bay Area, that evoked memories of places like Laytonville and Fort Bragg and Willits and Eureka - in all of which I've had my late-night laundry moments. Years, hell, decades gone by, I thought, and here I am in the same Eternal Laundromat. Lines may form on my face and my hands, new clothes may cycle endlessly into the ragbag, only the laundromat stays the same. It was somehow depressing and comforting at the same time.

The laundry was done, but I wasn't ready for the night to be over. Train whistles came drifting up from West Berkeley the way they do on still East Bay nights, and it was time to wander. Somewhere along the way I hooked up with Aaron and we roamed through North Berkeley and Albany, much the same as we might have done after a Gilman show sometime last century, with a requisite stop at Winchell's Doughnuts (no longer known by that name, but old-timers will know whereof I speak). The booths were gone, replaced by little tables, but little else had changed, right down to the hooded man staring zombie-like at the endlessly repeating lottery numbers on the screen in the corner.

Then we walked again, and by now we'd exhausted all our political arguments and our news about friends and family and our speculations about what the future would bring; now there was nothing left but to revisit those streets, those feelings, those memories that we'd never dream of digging up in the light of day. "I was walking up this street in 1988 when I got this idea for a song," one of us would say, and the other would say, "No way, this is the street I was thinking of when I wrote that story," and then we'd go on to think about all the faces, all the places, all the people who've come, stayed a while, and spun off again into parts ethereal.

In another time and place, we probably would have walked till just before dawn, and then suddenly decided that we had to make a mad dash to the top of the hills before the sun rose. But neither of us is quite as crazy as we used to be, and about 3 am I retrieved my car from the laundromat and dropped Aaron off where he was staying. As I drove away, I turned on the radio. It was tuned to KALX, and a kid named Danarchy was talking about, "This thing I'm, um, going to play, it's like, um, from this compilation, it's like called The Thing That Ate Floyd, and it's all these early Lookout bands who used to play at 924 Gilman and stuff, and this track's by a band named Crimpshrine, it's called 'Summertime.'"

The music kicked in, the years fell away, and I thought about all those nights knocking around the streets, hanging out in doughnut shops, scratching down random thoughts and words and grabbing at melodies that flitted through our heads the way the winds off the Bay teased the treetops on the back streets of Berkeley. Who would have thought that it would add up to something a kid would be talking about on the radio in the 21st century as if it were important, as if it were history?

But there we were, and here we are, and for one tiny moment on one deserted street in Berkeley, everything was just about right.


kendra said...

that's crazy that you heard danarachy playing crimpshrine! i stayed late after my show giving him a very brief introduction to that comp and other bands from that time. he's a rad kid, and it just reminds me how great this place can be.

Larry Livermore said...

He must be a fast learner, because he followed up with "Life During Wartime" by Pinhead Gunpowder.

Anonymous said...

it IS history. i don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing (even for myslef). speaking from someone from a yonger generation, these songs are our classics of love,and they'll never fade away. and by the way, this post was absolutely beautiful, thank you.


Tim said...

This is a brilliant story, it makes me kinda jealous that there seems to be none of that creativity in my city in the UK. Is it something in the water?


Jeremy said...

Wonderful post. That Weakerthans song isn't my favourite, but it is the song that hooked me on them forever. My doughnut shops and all-night wanderings from the early '90s were on the other side of town from North Kildonan, so when John K. sings "I Hate Winnipeg" about our hometown, I feel like I can relate to his bittersweet reflections of judgement, comfort and loss.