20 July 2006

Off The Avenue

It never fails. Every time I come back to Berkeley, I psych myself up to enjoy it and promise myself that even if it falls short of my expectations, I won't waste people's time (or my own, for that matter) complaining about it. And every time, usually within minutes or hours of arriving, I stumble across yet another reminder of this once-great city's sad decline, and, whether or not against my better judgment, can't keep quiet about it.

I landed in the Bay Area yesterday on a beautiful summer's day. The usual Frisco chill was nowhere in evidence, but neither was it 98 degrees with humidity to match as it had been in New York. No, the temperature was just right, barely a wisp of fog or smog in the sky, the sunshine splashed down benevolently over everything and everybody, and it felt like a perfect day to stroll through campus and up to Telegraph Avenue.

I don't go to the Avneue very often. Few people do these days, but I had a specific reason, a bit of banking business that could only be transacted at the Telegraph branch. It went quickly, as there were almost no customers, and I had half the staff ready to wait on me personally. For some reason my checks have the legend "Customer since 1976" printed on them (an error; it's actually been since 1972), and the mostly young employees seemed impressed that someone could be alive that long, let alone have a bank account. I in turn regaled them with tales of how the bank used to have floor-to-ceiling windows until the rioters smashed them so many times that they were finally replaced with bunker-like brickwork, which is why the place seems so gloomy today.

Even allowing time for these geezerly reminiscences, my business was finished inside ten minutes, and I decided to walk up the street to Cody's to pick up a book I needed. I'd barely got half a block before I saw that the Berkeley Market had closed up and gone out of business. It was never that great a store, but it had been there forever. I used to shoplift cheese and crackers there back in the 1968, and I think it had been there at least 30 or 40 years before that. Yes, the Avenue has been in decline for a long time, but some places you just expect will always be there. But apparently Berkeley Market won't be one of them.

That got me paying closer attention, though, and everywhere I looked there were empty storefronts or businesses already closed for the day even though it wasn't even 5 o'clock yet. Even the once-ubiquitous street vendors were thin on the ground, but none of that prepared me for the shock of walking up to Cody's, one of the Avenue's most venerable institutions, and finding it gone.

I'd read that they were going out of business months ago, but somehow didn't take it seriously. I guess I assumed they'd just announced the closure as a way of getting the city to pay attention and address some of the Avenue's problems. But apparently they weren't bluffing, and anyway, Berkeley's 68-year-old adolescent mayor breezily explained that Cody's failure could be blamed on internet book sales and had nothing to do with the fact that Telegraph had been allowed to degenerate into an unpleasant shithole during the time he and his fellow 60s throwbacks have been ruining, er, running the city.

If the internet were really to blame, it's strange that two other branches of Cody's have continued to thrive, one of them in a corner of West Berkeley far less accessible than Telegraph Avenue. But if Berkeley has always - at least since the 60s anyway - been about not only never having to say you're sorry, but also having someone or something to blame, ideally Republicans and/or global capitalism. Which is part of why the Berkeley city mothers and fathers have always been so keen on turning Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues into open-air day care centers for beggars, derelicts, dope dealers and muggers: they serve as living poster children for the failures of "the system." And if one business after another goes bust, well, who needs the petit bourgeoisie anyway?

I rarely see a familiar face on the Avenue these days, but there was one: a long-haired old greybeard who's been begging for spare change in front of what used to be Cody's since the early 70s. He was facing some stiff competition this afternoon, with younger, louder and more aggressive beggars having taken up posts on either side of him. If business gets much worse in the neighborhood, there'll be no one left to beg from, but I expect at that point the Berkeley City Council will either set up a Begging Subsidy program or organize a bus service to transport our indigenous mendicants to and from some of the Bay Area's more lucrative precincts.

Enough griping. On the bright side, I got to spend much of today with my mother, who is far more patient about such things. She just smiles agreeably while I rant and rave and then points out how lovely the flowers look this year. We had a long talk about what's next for me: do I relocate permanently to New York or go back to London? I know that if she could have her way, she'd prefer that I stay in California, and sometimes the notion is tempting, all my complaints nothwithstanding, though if I were ever to do so, it would be in El Cerrito, not Berkeley.

And Sydney's not out of the picture either; there's hardly a day that I don't miss that beautiful city and all my friends there, but realistically, I'm probably not going to end up living there. It would be nice, but short of coming up with a few million bucks or finding a nice Australian to marry me (I'd guess the former would be more likely), it's not going to happen.

So it's looking more and more like New York, and believe me, worse things could happen to a guy. In fact, all my angst about where and how to live could safely be put under the heading of "high class problems." When I think of all the people who don't even know where they're going to sleep tonight, or what they're going to eat tomorrow, or who've been dodging bombs and artillery shells, who've seen their whole families wiped out by war or disease or starvation, it makes me feel guilty for devoting a moment's thought, let alone all these paragraphs, to obsessing over my own comfort and ease.

But I'm only human, much as I'd like to think of myself as something bigger or better, and as such will always have an inbuilt tendency to be a self-absorbed bastard. One of these days I might learn to give more thought to others' needs and less to my own desires, but the best I can say about that is that I'm still a work in progress.


Crumbly said...

Larry, so maudlin, you are. BUT I did notice similar closings of once familiar businesses in downtown Berkeley yesterday. Radstons, the Sun Hong Kong aka Big Chinaland (what?? that place was there forever! or so it seemed), Cafe Firenze (long gone) and many more old haunts that I am too young to be calling old. At least Oscar's is still there...

Nick G. said...

Heres what worries me most about the whole Telegraph Codys thing; aside from it being a tragedy that its gone, you know what store is going in in its place? Peets Coffee. Dont get me wrong, i love peets, i think its damn good, however, it seems a bit close to The Med no? The Med may have its problems, but i love it, its cheap and it has good coffee and pastries. Im worried that it might suffer harder times than it is already if theres is a Peets just across the street. Seems like it might lead to the closure of another Berkeley landmark...unless it has or can get the coveted City Of Berkeley seal for being a historical landmark, which may save it (Something that Brennan's in West Berkeley has failed to get, despite being around for 50 years, but its the same story with countless other businesses in Berkeley...)