Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Inward Empire

The Flaneur resumes his regular feuillton from the tree-lined boulevards, the noirish back alleys and the bald pedestrian bridges of Berkeley. He has relocated to a long-familiar section of town called in its storied history the McGee-Spaulding District.

It unfolds its deeply Berkeley character to me as I observe it's mostly peaceful streets at all hours of the day or night. Like many of us, its vegetation could use a trim and there is an artful recycling of vintage elements. Amid the inescapable chatter and beeping of 2010 a strain of 20th century hip style remains--as artfully applied as the patches on Neal Young's old bell-bottoms.

The borders of my new part of town are set as between Sacramento Street and Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard; and between Dwight Way and University Avenue. California Street is somehow it's center and on a traffic island at the intersection with Dwight, a sign marks its history.
It seems that in 1820, King of Spain granted the land to a Luis Peralta. His children sold it to a San Francisco businessman who in turn flipped it to an intrepid Irish immigrant named James McGee. On the land he ran a successful farm and he became one of the leading political voices around town. In an effort to promote his property values and his own prestige he funded the original St Joseph's Catholic church and proposed the area as town center. Newspapers ridiculed the idea of a City Hall built in the middle of a farm and before long the facts on the ground settled the issue as it stands today. City Hall landed not very far away from St Joseph the Worker as the church is now named and whose occasional bells toll a somewhat mournful sound in my solitude.
Fields of barley, orchards and livestock remained. Apparently the area stayed farmland through the 19th Century, long after the entire city was subdivided for housing. It was only after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1908 that real building took place, notably by 1912 when the Southern Pacific railroad ran a train down California street. A sort of grandness persists in the lay-out of very wide streets hosting rows venerable trees. There are some distinctive older houses and an occasional showy newer place but a rather humble middle-class architecture prevails.

And yet somehow in my perception the area retains a strangely rural flavor--an old fence, a raspberry bush, the noble, aged trees, the wild fauna and domestic gardens, the house cats strolling unmolested down the center of sidewalks.
I picture this central region of Berkeley as having an unexplained analogy to the Central Valley of California sometimes called the Inland Empire. In my solitude and contemplation I have come to regard my new neighborhood and my new abode as an inward empire. After my 30 year long habitation, after serious consideration of migrating elsewhere, in an outward direction, I had instead moved inward toward the heart of Berkeley. A less public nervous cerebral scary exciting happening dreadful crowded competitive part of town than university-side central Berkeley where I had been living for six years.
To digress perhaps on the Inland Empire... it has struck me for quite a long time that when seen from an aerial topographical map the San Joaquin Valley as defined by two long rather labial mountain ranges resembles the topography of a vulva. One can stretch the symbolism of this any number of ways, but in my own subjectivity the womb association extends from Inland Empire to my local Inward Empire. It has to do with the face I wore before I was born.

It is also a neighborhood that begins a more racially integrated Berkeley. Oddly, sort of a Mason-Dixon line can be detected after which, African-American owned homes begin to proliferate. There is still such a line discernible at Dwight Way and it determined what sort of activities took place south of it. The gun play has diminished as far as I can tell. I walk some of the blocks in that direction in tranquility. Most of the houses are attractive even if there is an occasional crime-watch tone, a grim suspiciousness, say a barred window. Even in the hot crack years, the action was outside the Spaulding-McGee district. This is not to imply that we don't see cops with flashing lights racing around the hood now and again. Berkeley is always ready to respond with profuse cops-in-cars, often just one cop per car. This policy is perhaps in inverse ratio to the idea of foot patrols as the most humanitarian and effective way to keep urban communities peaceful and safe.

So, bucolic, artisanal, educated yet working class, liberal, casual as the place is, there is still an edge. And in the general disappointment of the American dream, there is some anomie and friction among local residents as well, without doubt.
The trains sounding as they pass West of here are frequent and can seem loud. I happen to love the sound but there has been many over the years who object to the volume, frequency, and duration of the train whistles. In other words, they moved into West Berkeley alongside the tracks, presumably with knowledge of the situation, and then try to force the trains to "keep it down."
A similar disharmony exists between the newer not-in-my-back-yard residents and the older-style Berkeley residents over such Aquarian age hold-overs as People's Park and a free-box on Channing not far from my abode.
Thems-that-got never knew or have forgot what it's like to live and to have not. Some local home-owners are chagrined by the thought of having the needy falling by to look for sweaters or pants or children's clothes. They maintain that it's presence damages their property value. But many more residents bring their donations by the venerable old wooden box with a hinged top and some occasionally score something themselves from it. And many leave useful and interesting housewares in individual sidewalk free boxes as they move-out or merely decide the items are no longer needed. To me this represents an endearing folkway, one that I hope endures.

Recently, I have scored coffee mugs, an as-new audio cassette dubbing deck, a rocking chair, among other furnishings. My most astounding find of them all occurred only after I had rejected the idea of accepting any sort of donated mattress. I can't help but regard a second-hand mattress as the fossil record of other peoples effluvia, you dig? Yet I needed a replacement for the one I tossed-out as I left my last pad. I was dreading the hassle of shopping for a new one and then getting it home.
When, deus ex machina, the house two doors down put something out with the sidewalk shrubs-- a blindingly white oblong with a sign reading "free mattress." I stopped and looked it over. I fully expected to reject it only to decide it merited closer inspection. It has a pure cotton cover over firm foam layers, and overall can be folded once which I did to get inside under the lamp for examination. All the while blessed darkness obscured my ungainly task.
Incredibly, not only was it immaculate and seemingly never used it even had a quite recent date stamped on its tag. Brought home for guests, it may have been little-used and cumbersome to store. I had to accept it's suitability and to be grateful for the good fortune. It perfectly fits my deck bed with its subliminal drawers full of CDs and on it I have the peaceful slumber of the angels. In fact when I recline on it while watching a film on DVD, uncharacteristic for me, I fall soundly asleep.

My new situation is so quiet and dark at night after what I had been accustomed to, I no longer require earplugs and blindfolds. I sleep at any hour, the direct sunlight softened by the great shifting pepper tree; the lone streetlight absorbed by it at night. The burdensome strata of the care-worn years accumulated on my weary shoulders waft away in the billowing peace behind my eyes.