Sun 14 Oct 2007 5:52 PM
Berkeley has its problems, exemplified best by a recent attempt to score another 12-pack of beer as the evening dragged on. Come ten o’clock most stores, regardless of their wares, are locked up and vacant; liquor stores, not nearly as omnipresent as in most cities, are no exception. It took nearly forty-five minutes in a car to pick up beer, rum and cigarettes. The cigarettes we found in an open store which didn’t sell beer or rum. After our wild success a couple of us took advantage of the warm night and strolled through the streets. A couple blocks up from any major avenues and you may as well have been in small-town USA. Quiet, peaceful, clean. You could walk a couple blocks before passing anyone and no one seemed concerned or uptight about being out. The dog running after thrown sticks probably caused more sound pollution than anything else that night; our open containers and conversation probably presented the neighborhood with its most dramatic criminal incidents of the evening. It was nice, as nice as an evening’s walk can be, and something I’m not normally accustomed to experiencing. Walking down my street after Saturday night you’ll find ample evidence that San Francisco is lacking in small town pleasures such as quiet evening strolls. On any given night there’s a bitter chill blown in off the Pacific which, regardless of your lefts and rights in any neighborhood, cannot be avoided. This doesn’t keep people from the sidewalks, not on a weekend bender. The cement has scars, stains from every bodily fluid ever spilled. The Sunday morning sun alights on drying pools of piss, crusting heaps of puke, hardening piles of shit. The shopkeepers are out with buckets and hoses, washing the remnants of revelry from their doorstep. Thank Christ they are– the number of times I’ve had to step carefully into my own gate are innumerable. The bar next door is shuttered and dim but the woman held hostage by the coin-op downstairs is out in her trademark yellow rubber gloves doing us all a favor.
I’d swear that I’ve never been much for the weekends. Crowds are not my thing, fun is not my thing, seeing people live their lives in this vapid manner is not my thing. Maybe if I hadn’t spent most of my Friday and Saturday nights working it would have been a habit I’d have fallen into but the time has passed and now I just bob and weave trough the assembled teenagers ten years past their prime. They say that 30 is the new 20 but I’d say this adjustment still lends people too much credit in the maturity department. It’s amazing to see people who’ve never learned the lessons of countless nights leaning against a wall, the trunk of a car, a tree or a lamp-post. The same staggering clusters of twenty-somethings screaming shrilly on Friday night return to work Monday morning in their business casual attire. No more fish on Friday for this era, there’s an art-school graduate spinning rehashed disco down the street and everyone has enough money for another shot, no matter how much they complain about being poor. So I step gingerly over their unwillingness to grow the fuck up. Sunday morning sunlight and the streets are deserted except for the miserable wage-earners who had to be in bed by ten to punch the clock at seven. Trash cans outside of the latest art-show/hair-salon have spilled out into the street but soon the DPW will come along and play mommy for everyone. Someone’s kicked over all the recycling bins the length of the sidewalk but soon people will drag them back into their garages. When we were sixteen we used to bike down Market Street in the middle of the night and kick shit over, stone-cold sober and laughing like Leprechauns. Sixteen seems,
in so many ways, a very long time ago.
That’s Haight Street, of course, where bars and traffic are more exaggerated than most other places. It draws from outside the neighborhood, outside the city even. I mostly walk along Waller when I’m heading towards work– collision of residential and urban. Saturday mornings the Church of Whatever hosts spaghetti meals for the down-and-out so they’re sprawled along the side of the building waiting for room, or waiting for a reason to sprawl somewhere else. I pass late sleepers tucked under blankets that carried small-pox over the Atlantic, shopping carts full of trash, dogs looking bored and hopeful, or bored and hateful. A couple blocks down and the Haight-Ashbury soup kitchen has an even greater audience. People are screaming across the street at one another, someone’s cutting through the intersection wearing no shoes. There’s one guy I see almost every day if I’m up early enough. He sits slumped against the wall rubbing his temples maniacally– his hairline has receded from this constant assault. I pass him and I don’t bother trying to make some sort of compassionate-light eye-contact, to view him as a human being. It never worked. A collection of late-comers pass on their way to the free meal asking what’s being served. I buy coffee and maybe a day-old if there is any on the counter. I like Page Street better because it’s less prone to moments
of urban interference. There’s a library which doesn’t seem to attract the amount of idlers found downtown. People walk up to front doors and disappear inside without looking like rejects from a studio “indie” film’s open casting call. There’s an ambulance up ahead, paramedics haunched over a frail looking grey-hair. I pass without staring, thinking about how embarrassing it would be to wear her shoes today. A neighbor has called it in and is standing there trying to assure the woman that they know one another. Pass the school for rich kids with their own cross-walk that lights up, pass the stately homes, down the hill, past the grocery. Just watch your step because no one picks up after their dogs. Real dogs, mind you, none of those shivering rats you see on Haight Street. When these fucking people breed I hope their children get a little more rearing then what these show-dogs are forced to endure. No street kids, no trash, no puke, no piss you’d notice. One block down and you’re almost in Berkeley. Trees. Houses. Normal people. You’d guess. More normal than me, probably. One evening on Page after work I found myself behind a sharply-dressed couple walking silent and rigid. They were probably in their late twenties, which seemed like a good time to be an adult when I was sixteen but now… The impression was that I had just interrupted, or perhaps caught the end of, some marital argument which satisfied neither party. No holding hands, but they were too close to one another for anything serious. It was curious to me, something was off. They stopped suddenly and the male removed from his coat a stick which he handed to the female. She silently accepted the stick and, gravely, bent to a fresh patch of cement drying without supervision. I passed as she began her immortalization and I didn’t bother looking for any signs of life happening on the pavement.
Stencils, clever little bastards, crawl along the sidewalks throughout town. They’re rebellious in a Betty Crocker fashion. Technically vandalism but the odds of being caught or imperiled pale in comparison to spray-painting a wall. There’s a bit of fission around here, some perplexing cultural divide which accepts sidewalk stencils as intelligent and right, graffiti as stupid and immature. The most popular stencil messages are quips seemingly stolen from some maudlin indie-pop love song, manipulative one-liners that anyone breathing can find some connection to. Basically it’s the same effect as any successful marketing campaign or platinum pop single– the resonance appeals to our common ground. There’s no imagination behind them and no actual craft in their design. You’ll find other stencils on the ground with little pictures and slogans but they’re just billboards– in fact the guerilla art was so menacing even IBM, the granddaddy of white collar business, co-opted the principle. Perhaps this lack of menace is why the sidewalk stencil has been accepted as adult and acceptable while tagging has been snubbed as juvenile. Traces of life on every block. The puke and piss and shit get hosed off, bleached, scrubbed and run out into the gutter. The clever stencils, the mash notes carved in drying cement, remain slowly fading and losing their definition. Another weekend appears on the horizon to begin the cycle again and come Monday everyone takes their work clothes out of the closet and catches the bus downtown.