Life in Hell

I just came back from a trip to downtown Berkeley, an area where I rarely go. I wanted to buy something in a store on University Avenue. In retrospect, I wish I had procured it online.

What can I say: the area is a hell hole. I mean this literally. If you’d like a sneak preview of hell, come to downtown Berkeley — or, even better, Telegraph Avenue. Words can barely describe it, but I’ll do my best by detailing some of the sightings. (Keep in mind that I was only on the streets for about l0 minutes.)

First, there were numerous sirens blaring as fire engines, police cars, and ambulances raced up and down the streets. In your neck of the world, if there were a series of sirens, you’d stop and look up. But it’s so common here that no one peels himself away from his IPhone.

What else did I observe? I saw (and heard) a paranoid, psychotic man screaming at the top of his lungs at the demons in his head. No one reacted — why would they; it’s all business as usual.

I saw a number of transients, young and old, walking around with their life possessions on their backs or in shopping carts. One vagabond was particularly disturbing: a fresh faced young woman, around age 21, tattooed and pierced all over the place, pushing a cart with all of her stuff. In another time and place, she would be attending college or married and having babies. But here she was completely deranged and raging, screaming at a person that only she could see.

Next, I saw a huge pile of trash in the middle of the sidewalk: a filthy flea market of sorts consisting of old clothes, shoes, suitcases, chairs, etc. all splayed out on the concrete, like dead corpses.

Speaking of corpses, I saw on the corner what I call a “bicycle corpse” — also omnipresent around here. These bicycle corpses are locked up to poles all over Berkeley. Once they were someone’s bike, maybe their prized possession. But unfortunately, the person made the mistake of leaving it unattended for a short while. When they returned, the wheels, handle bars, and everything else were stripped, leaving only the skeleton. Happened to me more than once until I just stopped riding a bike.

But I’ve saved the worst sighting for last. The most horrifying spectacle was a 20 something young male, garbed in black, with multiple piercing of his face and an enraged, aggressive look. Now none of this was unusual. However, the male was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word: Deicide, with various demonic images.

For those of you who don’t know the word, Deicide means the killing of Jesus Christ — that is, the killing of God. Only Christians and Satanists believe that the murder of Jesus was deicide, because both groups know that Christ is God. You can decide which grouping this young male fits into.

Now keep in mind that my excursion wasn’t into one of the deepest, darkest ghetto areas of Berkeley, Oakland, or the like. Downtown Berkeley is a high rent district, where residences rent for several grand a month, and new, astronomically priced apartment complexes are springing up like wildflowers. Along with the creepy, the criminal, and the insane, there are tons of young techies, university students, and hipsters walking the streets. For some reason — God only knows why — they chose this God-forsaken area as their landing pad.

Oh wait! — didn’t I do the same thing decades ago, a decision I have lived to seriously regret. Out of all the possible (sane) places in the country to settle down, I chose this crazy one. Why? The temporary insanity of liberalism? Getting stuck and not knowing how to get out? Thinking that it was cool to live among the abnormal? Probably a combination of all of the above.

But, praise God, I woke up from the delusion a few years ago. It had to be God working inside of me, because it is only He who can give a person a new mind and a new heart. And when I came to my senses, I realized that this area is not paradise, but an earthly form of Hades. Now I often feel sorry for myself for being marooned out here and fantasize about how and when and where I can make my escape.

But there are other moments too: when there is meaning in being here; when I realize that I am a sort of missionary in one of the gloomiest places on earth. Missionaries have, for thousands of years, faced ugliness and danger and even worse to bring God’s message to a broken world. It is a great honor and privilege to serve God by being one of His grateful witnesses.

It reminds me of an apocryphal story that I once heard about a Catholic monk who was dying and unconscious. His fellow monks were praying around him that their brother would go to heaven to be with the Lord. Suddenly, the monk regained consciousness and heard their prayers. He said, “No; ask that I go to hell instead.” 

His fellow monks were horrified. One said, “Why would we pray that you go to hell? You are a holy and loving man.” The monk replied, “Where else is love more needed?”

Although I wouldn’t ask to be in hell — either in this life or after it — I do hope to be somewhat of a beacon of light in this dark area of the world. Most of the time, I do it badly. To remain hopeful in a hopeless area; loving, amidst the aggression and hatred; and patient when people around me are blowing their tops; has to be one of the hardest of missions.

I pray every day for help from God with this because I can do nothing without His help. And my prayers have been particularly strong today, after my descent into the bowels of Berkeley.


The next day:

So I had to drive through downtown again today to get to a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t get out of the car, but here’s a bird’s eye view of what I saw: Stopped at a light on Shattuck, I saw the lovely sight of a street woman getting dressed for the day. She probably had lodged on the concrete, and now was arising and putting on her clothes. Good news about her personal hygiene — changing from her bed clothes to her day clothes. But a gnarly sight to see at 9 am in the morning. (1)

Having finished up my medical appointment, I headed back down Shattuck, which was now blocked off by a myriad of police vehicles. I heard a host of helicopters whirling above my head. Those of us on the street were detoured to another part of downtown. I could see hundreds of young people walking in a line up one of the side streets.

My mind was filled with many possibilities: Was Berkeley High School (or Berkeley City College, both nearby) evacuated because of a bomb threat? Was there a school shooting? None of these would be impossible; one local high school had separate incidents of evacuations because of a bomb threat and a shooting just this year. (Later, I checked online and the high schoolers had walked out of school en masse because of some sort of racial epitaph towards African Americans.)

What else happened this week in my world? One of my friends had his car broken into near Telegraph this week, losing his computer, phone, briefcase for work, etc. Again, as common as snowflakes in Anchorage. And something else: I had plans for dinner with another friend on Monday but she cancelled because she was stuck in traffic on the major interstate freeway (I-80). It was shut down because of a shooting there.

That pretty much sums up my week. And it’s only Thursday.

And, yet, the Berkeleyites will exclaim that this is the greatest place ever. . .
as the delusion and debacle of the great progressive experiment, Berkeley, continues.


(1) Berkeley has more services for street people than anywhere else in the world. There are warm beds, lavish several course meals with desserts from fancy restaurants almost every day of the week, hot showers, compassionate counselors, free medical care, a special team of mental health professionals for emergencies, and everything else you can think of. So, while it is very sad that she was sleeping on the street, this was likely by choice since there are warm beds all over the place. (Or she may be too mentally ill to realize that she needs safe shelter, but given the laws out here, involuntary hospitalization is almost impossible.)

I volunteered for a while in a soup kitchen. The guests there ate better than most families in the US. Seriously, I never saw so many courses, appetizers, and desserts in my life. I stopped volunteering because so many of the guests became enraged if they didn’t get the type of cheese and baguettes and hot meal that they wanted. A dearth of gratitude and a surplus of entitlement. Maybe not where you are. . but sure is the case here.

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