I got to spend a couple of days last month in Berkeley, the first sustained visit since I was a student there. It had been over forty years since I first arrived, and I used at least a little of my time to try to gauge what had changed.
Me, for one thing. I’d changed in a lot of very big ways. I’d gotten to Berkeley as the Nixon presidency unraveled, just after Patricia Hearst had been kidnapped from her college apartment a few blocks up the street and just before police surrounded a house in south-central Los Angeles where her compatriots from the Symbionese Liberation Army were holed up. These were exciting times!
Even with all the craziness there, my Berkeley life was pretty mundane. I spent virtually every weeknight in the library reading and studying, explored the lay of the land by riding the bus and taking BART, seemed to have as much fun as I could handle on virtually no money. I remember that if I was very careful for the whole week, I could stop at a place called Kip’s Upstairs at 11 pm on the way home from the library Thursday night and have a draft beer. It must have cost 50 cents then.
I seemed to have a lot of friends in Berkeley (many of whom are still close friends today even though none of us remained in Berkeley). I never lacked for things to do. Every day was an adventure.
So what would it be like to stroll those streets again, to see the sights through middle-aged eyes that I first saw with a young man’s eyes?
It was, amazingly, much the same. Except it wasn’t.
There were things I could easily remember, like the first Berkeley apartment I lived in, and things I couldn’t—like which was the window to my room? And did I live upstairs or down? What was the apartment like? How was it laid out? I remember having a desk and a bed, but I don’t remember a living room. There certainly wasn’t a TV. I kept up with much of the Watergate drama each day by going across the street to the dormitory and watching the news in the common room there. I saw the SLA shootout on a neighbor’s small black-and-white portable TV.
In the Fall of 1974, I spent quite a bit of time with my friend Tom. We’d gone to high school together, and he moved to Berkeley and got a room in a frat house a few doors down from my first apartment.
Tom thought he might want to join the fraternity, but then decided against it. However, the state of Greek life in the mid-70s was such that there were a lot of vacant rooms. Tom paid the rent, and enjoyed the amenities—like the pool table. Ultimately, he opted out of the house and moved down the street a few blocks to a studio apartment. He said it was a lot quieter.
The Hotel Durant was an imposing institution. The whole time I attended UC Berkeley, wherever I lived, I had to walk by it on the way to class and on the way home from class. It had something in those days you couldn’t find anywhere else in the area—a full-service bar. But I didn’t have the cash to saunter in and ask for a Cutty Sark rocks. That probably cost $2, which was also enough to get lunch. I had to opt for the lunch then.
I didn’t have much of a view last month from my room at The Durant. I faced away from the Campanile and the campus. The room was small and quaint. It was comfortable. That it was exponentially more comfortable than anywhere I lived in college probably says more about where I lived then than it does about the hotel now. And that bar? Still there, but I didn’t even go in. I figured the drinks weren’t $2 anymore.