How Berkeley Has Made Me a Worse Person

It was a classic case of road rage that I engaged in not that long ago. It happened when I was running late and en route to a doctor’s appointment at a nearby suburb.

I was in a rush; I was wrong. . and I was lucky. Had I been in Berkeley or Oakland, I may not be alive to tell the tale.

Details aren’t important (and way too embarrassing to recount). Let’s just say it involved lots of road rage on my part, such as, leaning on the horn and making various gestures. (Proof positive that you can take the woman out of Berkeley — but not the Berkeley out of the woman.)

After I arrived at my destiny and my tantrum dissipated, I found a parking space in the medical pavilion. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the driver of the car in front of me was also going to the same address and parked a close distance from me.

Legitimately angry, the suburbanite headed over to me. He chastised me and asked why I kept honking at him. I immediately said that I was sorry. Luckily, he accepted the apology and walked away. I felt appropriately embarrassed and contrite.

Many inspiring stories have been written by survivors of catastrophic diseases and other near-death experiences about how the event made them a better human being. I take my hat off to all of them. But from what I witnessed from me that day in civilized suburbia, Berkeley has made me a worse person.

Now it would be very unfair to blame my bad behavior completely on Berkeley. No one forced me to lean on the horn. But there is something contagious about all the anger and negativity a person is subjected to on an almost minute-by-minute basis.

It’s probably not a coincidence that before heading off to the civilized suburb, some crazed driver swore and honked at me — for no good reason. So I started out my trek in a bad mood. And not a day goes by that someone isn’t shouting and gesticulating madly at each other.

It’s not just driving that inflames the temper around here. People can become unhinged for the slightest reason. A line that takes too long; an appointment that isn’t at the desired time; someone (horrors!) trashing a plastic bottle; anything or anyone can make someone go off the deep end.

To me, Berkeley isn’t just one of the most dangerous areas of the country — it’s one of the saddest. While all of this insanity is taking place right before our very eyes, residents maintain that they live in a sane and safe. . no – a superior part of the world. At least the residents who have the misfortune to live in downtown Detroit are under no illusions that they are “lucky.”

It’s like the story of the Emperor with no clothes. Somehow most Berkeley-ites can look beyond the trash-filled streets, the continual street harassment, the astronomical crime rates, and the hellish schools to boast about their great fortune in living around here. I suppose the alternative is to have to accept that one’s utopian dreams and aspirations are all a figment of one’s imagination.

That day in the suburbs, I had a glimpse of how the other half lives — and a reminder that what is considered normal in Berkeley is not. It was startling and humbling to spend time in an area so different than Berkeley and its surroundings. People were polite — and even smiled. No one looked so tense and frustrated that they were seconds away from blowing a gasket.

On the line at the lab, in fact, several people even joked with each other and laughed. This was a complete culture clash for someone who has spent decades operating Berkeley-style: avoiding all eye contact and assuming the worst about the next stranger.

I realized that while negativity is contagious, so is positivity. From my time in the ‘burbs, I felt more relaxed for the rest of the day. I found myself smiling at people, and being a more considerate driver — even when I got home.

The good news about my bad behavior is that I had the sense to apologize to the other driver. And I experienced quite a bit of healthy guilt afterwards about my immature outburst. I’ve also made it a point since then to try not to be another enraged Berkeley resident. I’ve had my ups and downs on the way. . but I’m trying.

So maybe Berkeley hasn’t made me such a bad person after all.

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Parents, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Berkeleyites

There once was a popular Indian teacher named Papa G, who drew students from far and wide. People flocked to see him and hear his words of wisdom. One lucky man who was able to attend one of his retreats spoke to Papa G, with camera in hand. The visitor asked the guru what he’d like to say to the multitudes all around the world vying to come to India to see him. Papa G smiled an impish grin and said, “Stay home.”

Papa G’s words remind me a bit of Dorothy, who journeyed all around Oz, only to find that the best place of all was home. This isn’t to say that relocation isn’t sometimes in order. It may be better, at times, to move somewhere different, to see the world, if only to return, as Dorothy did, with a fresh set of eyes. But the point I want to make here is don’t, and I mean DON’T, come to Berkeley.

OK, if you want to do so for a day or two, maybe a week, come on by. Walk the mean, lean streets of Telegraph, Shattuck, and University Avenues. . hang out in SF (our “open psychiatric ward”). . .check out the drug-addled folks at People’s Park. . . and then you can judge for yourself. If you agree with me, don’t, I repeat, DON’T, let your kids or anyone else you care about move here.

I say this even if you have to practice the toughest love imaginable with your beloved progeny. If your son or daughter insists that they want to go to UC Berkeley or SF State, do a Nancy Reagan: Just Say No. I realize that, if they are over l8, they are free agents. But you still have power over the purse strings. If you won’t contribute a dime to their education, they may reconsider.

I don’t say this to be harsh; but to give you advice that may be some of the best you’ve ever heard. It comes from someone in the trenches, who came here and has since regretted it as one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I suppose I should have gotten a clue when the first moment I landed here, a straggly, homeless guy was clearly eyeing my backpack. It was only my New York City street smarts that prevented him from obtaining it.

Now, in my ripe older years, I may not be able to get out of here so easily, unless I win the lottery (which I suppose I’d have to actually play to win). But at least my time here wouldn’t have been wasted if I can warn a few people.

And if you are already here, go home! If you have a parent somewhere else, a distant cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter, go live with them for a while until you get situated. This is not a good place to settle down. In fact, it is one of the darkest places around.

Stay here long enough, and you may be mugged, maybe worse. Certainly you’ll have a close friend who will be. Rampant street crime is an ever present reality here, like the much heralded fog.

Or, if not outright bloodied, your car will be stolen or burglarized along with your phone and/or computer. (A recent study showed that the Bay Area boasted most of the cities with the highest car thefts; just another reason for the ordinary citizen to feel proud!) Perhaps even worse, you may become so psychically numb that when you see an old man with a black eye, or hear of a friend with a concussion, you’ll just pass that off as part and parcel of living in such a “wondrous” place.

There isn’t just street crime around here, as bad as that is: there’s violence so sinister that it’s pure, unadulterated evil. A teacher beat up by students in her own classroom. A high school girl gang raped and beaten unconscious by a gauntlet of boys. An elderly woman raped, beaten unconscious, and dumped amidst the pile of old tires at a car repair station (she died after being in a coma for a year).

All this crime has been covered up, by the way, by people who don’t want to see what they don’t want to see, and, therefore, have their balloon busted or (God forbid!) witness their real estate values plummet. This is nasty, vicious stuff that can only be explained by a dark force so powerful that it’s controlling much of the place.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the Church of Satan opened in SF in the 1960s (the “Hotel California,” was purportedly written about the “church.”). And Patty Hearst was kidnapped in Berkeley, around the same time that the city of Oakland was held hostage by the mayhem of the Black Panthers and other radicals. This area has a long history of extreme violence, much of it excused and tolerated. Not much has changed.

I don’t get the allure of this God-forsaken place. . .oh, wait, yes, I do! It drew me here decades ago. But one of the saddest sightings is a teenage, hippie couple sitting on the streets of the filthy downtown or Telegraph Avenue. They came here from a decent place like Minneapolis with high hopes of peace and love and flowers in one’s hair. Their haunted faces show what they found instead.

Your son or daughter or your beloved nephew may have heard the same hype, that the Bay Area is a truly happening place to be. As I said, reality is suppressed and reconstructed. But if your loved ones are California Dreaming, there are far saner locales. Check out the private colleges down south, as well as nicer public ones: UC Davis, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Diego, UCLA.

But there’s something menacing in the air around Berkeley, and it contaminates the whole place. Mark my words: if you child comes out here, he will change. Even if he doesn’t become part of the darkness, something inside of him will die. Perhaps it’s his spirit or his innocence; but the light inside of him will dim. It may revive if he has the wherewithal to get out of here before it’s too late. But he may never be the same.

So I say this, not simply as someone coveting all the nonexistent parking spaces. I speak out as a veteran of a war that no one seems to know is going on. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be Berkeleyites. Remember the immortal words of Papa G, “Stay home.”

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Sounds of Silence

July 2, 2013

Unless you’re a rich cat living high up in the Bay Area hills, most people around these parts hear the BART trains day and night. The sound may be background noise if you’re far from the tracks. If you’re close by, the noise can stop conversation and interrupt sleep. The sound of BART is just one of the many indignities that Bay Area residents face in their extraordinarily overpriced dwellings.

Yet, the other night, as I was quietly thinking and meditating before bed, I noticed that the air was thick with silence, and yet the reason escaped me. I am surrounded by very noisy neighbors. Had the whole crew of them gone away on a 4th of July sojourn? And then the realization hit me: the BART trains are on strike.

It was a strange feeling to realize this. .. an unsettling mixture of relief (finally, some blessed quiet!) and also fear, foreboding, a strange, almost apocalyptic, feeling. It was like the silence bellowed, “This is what it will be like at the end of the world.”

That type of penetrating silence can make a person wonder: How will this world end and when? No human being has any idea when, though some have tried (unsuccessfully) to predict it. I have no inside knowledge. However, things are so bad in this country, so insane and out of control, that one has to wonder when that final tipping point will be crossed.

I wonder what the sound will be like when this world system ends: will it be noisy, as in mass hysteria and chaos; or it will be like the eery and unsettling silence that I experienced the other night? So many people feel unsettled these days. I hear it from people all the time — something just doesn’t feel right, though they don’t know what it is; and then there are others with a pasted smile on their faces or a blank look, who would never admit it, but somewhere inside, in a place they only travel in their dreams, they know it too.

And, perhaps I’ve heard too many conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder if the whole thing is rigged, BART and everything else; if this subway strike, rather than being about money and pensions and other nickle-and-dime issues, is really about social control. Are we in the Bay Area, home to so many social experiments, being manipulated, like puppets on a string, to see just how much pummeling we can take? Are the endless traffic jams and the daily indignities of life in a major metropolis a daily way to remind us how insignificant we are and how significant they are?

And I think of the national push for public transportation; how people are cajoled to get out of their cars and hop on trains and buses. And yet ironically, tragically, those same obedient people who try to save the environment by enduring BART and our bus systems (with their unpredictable eruptions of the deranged; or the more routine leering and touching by the indecent) are being punished by not being able to get where they need to go.

And I envy people in other parts of the country, those saner locales, where people don’t depend on public transit — or insane highways — to get to where they need to go. Amazing to think of people simply getting into their cars, driving on clean, pothole-less roads and — voila! — in less than a 1/2 hour, they are at work, without getting into verbal or sometimes physical altercations with their fellow drivers.

Yet, here, it’s a full-time job to actually get to work, a form of twice-daily Mortal Combat, with Bay Area warriors battling traffic and other angry drivers, all suspended together in space in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s one of the many assaults on the spirit of dwelling in the Bay Area (A tax on paper bags? Really?) which most people cover over with a smiley, “But we’re so lucky to live here!”

This mindset has been called by many names before (“Groupthink,” “mass delusion,” “Stockholm Syndrome”), where people come to accept, even love, their oppressors. Perhaps it’s simply denial. Human beings are simple creatures; we don’t like to see what we don’t like to see.

Meanwhile, what I sense deep down in my bones is this: something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right, both in the SF Bay Area and all over this country. I’m not saying that it’s Apocalypse Now. I have no special knowledge or insight about such things. All I know is that a creepy silence has descended on this particular area, but not a comforting one as some silences may be. In fact, this one feels downright deadly.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

(From the song, Sounds of Silence)

____________

I hope this piece finds you well.

You may be wondering about my own sound of silence. I’m okay: stressed, but blessed. I’ve felt moved to write many times but. . .ultimately, what is there to say? Those who have ears will hear; those with eyes that can see, will see.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to post comments at this time.

Best to you and yours.

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