When I was growing up, I was the black sheep of the family. My parents never failed to remind me of this. “How could I have a child like you?” my mother would wonder out loud. Even my parents’ friends would get into the act: “I don’t know how you can be the daughter of [name of my mother]. You’re nothing like her.”
My brother used my stranger-in-a-strange-land status to torment me; he swore that I was left on our doorstep one day and adopted. While my parents and my brother were like peas in a pod, not me. No one, including me, had any idea where I came from.
I was highly sensitive in a family that abhorred sensitivity; emotional, where emotions were viewed as weakness; serious when everyone else was always joking around. I was dreamy and pensive where thinking too much was ridiculed. With no one in my family like me, I was the odd man out.
So it’s not surprising that I ended up in my 20s in Berkeley, an area populated by a lot of people who also don’t fit in from where they came. And as soon as I got here, I felt at home for the first time. Berkeley, SF, etc. are strange areas inhabited by even stranger people. Being different is embraced and celebrated. A popular bumper sticker says it all, “Why Be Normal?” (1)
In fact, if a person is conventional, “vanilla,” normal, they may be regarded contemptuously. Around here, people often compete to be the most outrageous. For years, there was even a parade down University Avenue called, “How Berkeley Can You Get?” where residents showed off their weirdest float or outfit.
Now, as you can imagine, it creates a vast array of problems to live where people have fled (or been forced out of) their childhood homes. It certainly is an odd dynamic to live among so many residents who did not fit in from whence they came.
Not surprisingly, you see a lot of asocial, if not outright antisocial, behavior. Perhaps it is frowned upon where you live for you and your children to race down the sidewalk on your bikes or skateboards, thereby endangering the public. But out here? If it feels good, do it.
Berkeley’s reputation as Berzerkeley is going to attract some people and repel others. Let’s face it, Berkeley doesn’t attract graduates from West Point and Notre Dame. If someone just finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Berkeley is not their number 1 destination post-Army. But there are going to be a lot of folks just released from prison or rehab or who are gender confused or simply dazed and confused.
Therefore, this area has a disproportionate number of misfits, high functioning autistics, personality disorders, and disordered and disorderly people. Not everyone, of course. There are nice, helpful people too among the under-socialized. But the strangeness sucks the life out of the place. Even those sweet people can grow cold and callous after repeated harassment, rejections, and insults.
What’s particularly challenging about living here is trying to establish committed, loyal, and trusting relationships. A common complaint is that people can be superficially friendly but MIA when need arises. The distress call put out to friends during serious illness can lead to few comers. Having a birthday party could end up with fewer than expected guests, as friends cancel because they need their own personal space.
It’s no wonder: if so many people are escaping from family commitments, you’ve got a lot of people who don’t know how to be in relationship — or don’t value deep ones. The gals complain about the dearth of loyal men. And the guys complain about the lack of devoted females. People who have moved hundreds or even thousands of miles from loved ones may be ambivalent about creating new ones.
Ironically enough, my life journey has come full circle in some unexpected ways. I started life as a misfit until I made my way to Berkeley, where I finally fit in. But fast forward several decades, and look at me now: a conventional, vanilla person in an area that detests normalcy. I started out the black sheep, and here I am again, many years later, the same. My life hasn’t just done a l80, but a 360 degrees. And how weird is that?
1. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that there’s a lot less outrageousness and a lot more creepiness. There was a good deal of both in the past. But much of the weirdness has taken a dark, disturbing tone, from what I have observed.