Time it was
And what a time it was
It was . . .
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
-(All lyrics from Old Friends/Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel)
Anyone who lived in Berkeley decades ago remembers the Waving Man. His name was Joseph Charles.
Mr. Charles stood on the corner, outside of his house, on Grove Way (later renamed: Martin Luther King Blvd.) And all day, he would enthusiastically bellow, “Have a nice day!!”
Mr. Charles would stand there, happily waving and smiling. For some reason, he always wore a white glove while merrily waving his hand. Drivers would honk back happily in greeting, which makes me wonder how the neighbors tolerated this for so many years.
As I understand it, Mr. Charles was a retired government worker. Rather than devote his retirement to golfing or going to the senior center, instead his thing was standing there, waving. I’m sure many people thought that he was deranged.
But many more of us thoroughly enjoyed his sheer happiness, which emanated through his daily greetings. Rain, heat, cold fog. . nothing deterred him.. . that is, until he passed away a number of years ago at age 91.
Mr. Charles and his ebullient hobby personifies the Berkeley that once was. Yes, it was filled to the brim with criminal types and aggressive panhandlers. But we also had our harmless kooks, who added a certain bright, bohemian flavor to the local scene.
But this quirkiness is pretty much absent from this area, circa 2017. Many of the benign but way-out types, such as Mr. Charles, have died. Some of the eccentric folks have relocated to quieter, more peaceful locales up north.
What remains, sadly, is the Berkeley that we now know. It’s heavy on crime, with an epidemic of people living all over the streets. We’ve got a massive number of newcomers, mostly immigrants clogging the streets and turning the traffic into a nightmare, day and night. Almost everyone is frustrated and angry — and for good reason.
But there once was a time that was different. When I think of Mr. Charles’ contagious joy, it makes me smile a little, remembering a time that felt happier and brighter, partly because I was a different person then too.
Sat on their park bench
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends
Another memorable Berkeley character was “Cloud Guy.” For some reason, he adorned himself from head to toe in sky-blue clouds. He must have had a number of outfits made especially for him.
“Cloud” would hang out every single day at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus, looking resplendent in his bright, cloud-emblazoned garments. But his zaniness went way beyond his outfits.
“Cloud” would actually lay down on the cement for much of the day. Yes, you read that correctly. He just laid there on his back. I have no idea why, or what the man was thinking. I also don’t know how he managed to stay alive, given the busy pedestrian traffic around Sproul.
But somehow he lived through the day because he returned there, Monday through Sunday. And he would drive there and park his car nearby. The reason that I know this is because I once saw his parked car. I knew that it was Cloud because it was painted all over with his trademark insignia — clouds.
I haven’t seen Cloud Guy for many years now. I don’t know what happened to him. And I wonder how he would react to all the violence and rioting up on campus. Would he be deterred from his daily vocation of lying there, all cloud-like?
It must be
I have a photograph
When I first arrived in Berkeley, in the 80s, I was quite startled to see a few naked people walking around the streets. There was naked dude. . . and then, separately, there were two naked women.
Naked Dude was a young, very buff man in his 20s. He wore a fanny pack that hid “the family jewels” — though his back was wide open for all to see. Again, I haven’t a clue about why Naked Dude would walk around in his “birthday suit.” But somehow, back in the day, he was able to get away with doing this.
Perhaps even more shockingly, there were two naked women who walked around together as well, independent of the Naked Dude. While Naked Dude was a looker, these were plain-looking women. As a gesture towards modesty, they also wore fanny packs covering their privates. But the rest was there for all the world to see.
The ladies would walk around with their arms locked together. I never got the sense that they were lesbians, though. They actually had a bit of fear in their eyes; I wondered if they clung to each other to help ensure their safety.
I don’t know whatever happened to the naked women. One day, they just sort of disappeared. But what happened to Naked Dude is a story in and of itself.
One day, Naked Dude was arrested. It wasn’t because of the nudity. As I recall, he was publicly under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol — there may have been (probably) some mental illness as well.
In a holding cell, Naked Dude hung himself. The guards found him shortly thereafter. I remember reading an article about this in the local paper, with a photograph of him (from the neck up).
And that was the end of the short, very odd, and very sad life of the young, handsome Naked Dude.
The sounds of the city
Sifting through trees
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends
Back in the 80s and 90s, Berkeley had its fair share of cults. Most of them were religious, though there were political ones, too, such as the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army. Members of the group kidnapped, tortured, and brainwashed Patty Hearst into becoming the revolutionary, Tanya.
Each day, there was plenty of cult action. It wasn’t unusual to have traffic blocked by the Hare Krishnas. The Hare’s would dance around in their gold-plated costumes, while chanting Hare Hare repeatedly.
It was a time in our nation’s history when there was a definite agenda to untether young people from their religion, mostly from Christianity. The plan was to redirect the young towards Eastern religion, where they could be more easily controlled and corrupted.
Thus, it is no coincidence that, at the Concert for Bangladesh, George Harrison sang over and over again, “My Sweet Lord,” until he switched the lyrics to: “Hare Hare, Hare Krishna.” By doing this, he helped a generation of young adults to associate the “Lord” with “Krishna,” and other Eastern figures.
The Hare’s were just one of a multitude of Eastern religions out here at that time. Of course, by unanchoring people from the true, Almighty God, many young people (and some older ones) were easily swayed into following gurus.
I know people who were so mesmerized by the groups that they left their spouses to join one. Some even abandoned their own children.
One of the most popular gurus at that time was Bhagwan Rajneesh (aka Osho). The many followers around here were always decked out in pink and red. Rajneesh was a notorious cult leader whose closest assistants apparently tried to poison the people of Oregon, where the guru was based.
Rajneesh was known for his advocacy of “free sex,” which allowed him easy access to the many young people who flocked to live with him in Oregon. Rajneesh was also known as the Rolls Royce guru. Because his followers showered him with money, he purchased a bunch of Rolls, amassing dozens of vehicles at one point.
Eventually Rajneesh was deported from the US and, since most other countries refused him entry, he returned to India. His death at age 58 is shrouded in mystery — some say heart failure, but some of his followers believed that he was poisoned.
Thanks be to God, I never got involved with the Hare Krishnas or Rajneesh’s or any of the other notable cults around here. For many years, though, I practiced Buddhism, with a little bit of Hinduism and Sufism thrown in.
I was super into that scene for many years — until, suddenly, I lost interest. There wasn’t any particular reason why; but meditation and reading about Buddhism just became vacuous, stale. I went through a few years of real darkness because something that I had cherished so much and built my life around had ended.
But looking back now, I understand why I had suddenly lost my zeal for Eastern religions. I see that God was preparing me for something else, for something infinitely better — for Him. And now that I am the most unworthy recipient of His grace, my life has changed in ways that absolutely no guru, no meditation teacher, or anything else could ever come close to touching.
Then and Now
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you
The past is gone. Berkeley is a different place than it was back in the day. And I am a different woman.
Strangely enough, although I have done a l80 degree turnabout in my life, I am the same in so many ways. I have the same sense of humor, personality and temperament of bygone days. And I have similar neuroses to my younger self.
But something inside of me has changed forever. Things have been lost — but what is much more important — God — has been found.
These days, I still walk the familiar streets of Berkeley. But now I see nothing that relates to my present life. Berkeley has changed; I have changed. As Dylan Thomas wrote, you can’t go home again.
Time has passed — for me, for you, for all of us. Now, being older and wiser, we can simply try to preserve our memories. . . cherish the good times and let go of the rest.
And at the same time, embrace this amazing, precious, magical moment that will never come again.