When The Radical Hits The Road: Dispatches From The People’s Republic Of Berkeley

August 6, 2009, 3:42 am

Every time I fly to the left coast and feel this disoriented I try to remember that getting from Shoreline to San Francisco back in 1848 took between six and eight months, depending on whether one went overland or took the water route. Of course I feel disoriented: I deserve to feel disoriented, since it is actually absurd to travel that far as fast as I did.

Where am I? Why am I here? Oh.

Well, I’m in Berkeley, where I have never been before, although I have visited San Francisco about four times, and every time I do I phone Mrs. Radical and say, “We’ve got to move here.” Actually, she made the same phone call to me a few months back. And while the part of Berkeley I am in (at least so far) doesn’t seem as spiffy as the parts of San Francisco I have been in, the short walk from the hostel where I am staying to Telegraph Avenue was a reminder that there are some places in the world that have not been homogenized and upgraded for the wealthy. I walked by People’s Park, which is still decorated with a home made sign, and where they have not fenced in the grass to keep people from hurting it by sitting down and reading a book. There seem to be a fair number of homeless people living there as well, something that is no longer allowed in Tompkins Square Park, a similarly radical and communal space on the Lower East Side of New York during the 1960s and 1970s.

The other thing they have on Telegraph Avenue is culture. I searched “Berkeley” at Indiebound before I left, and this place has nineteen independent bookstores. Nineteen. There are twenty-eight in New York (but that is counting all the Museum bookstores), and there is exactly one in Shoreline, home of a world-class university — pardon me, two, if you count the used book store operated by the Bryn Mawr College alumni association. And having only walked five blocks of Telegraph, already I have found two record stores. They sell actual vinyl, as well as CD’s. I have also located three head shops, which have in the window an impressive collection of bongs, a variety of products to clean the bong, and so on. I took a look around and I do not think finding something to smoke in the bong would really put a person out either.

Oh, yeah. And if there was any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore Toto, after eating a great Mexican dinner for peanuts at Mario’s La Fiesta, I walked into Moe’s Books and William Vollman was giving a reading from his new book Imperial.

Everything smells of patchouli. Decades of patchouli.

Anyway, back to business. I am here to do some research for the next three days, and then go to another history camp (a different history camp than the one I attended last summer.) So more about that later. But let me just say: if you are reading this, and you are a friend of mine, and you ever hear that I am considering buying a ticket on Southwest Airlines, please remind me that on the five hour flight from Big Regional Airport to Las Vegas, the chief of the flight attendants performed an ongoing stand-up comedy routine. I missed much of it, thanks to the Bose noise canceling headphones that I had buyer’s remorse about three weeks ago but now am thanking the Goddess and Dr. Amar G. Bose for. But the half hour at the beginning of the flight and the half hour at the end of the flight were agonizing, perhaps more so because the man next to me was working on his computer, and had his left elbow jammed in my side; and the (very large) man behind me had his enormous, bare foot up on my other armrest.

What is it about men and space?

Oh I know, my conservative critics will say that I want socialized this and socialized that, but that I have no taste for the volk. Well, I have to admit that my occasional distaste for The People does give me pause: the jolly camp counselor routine is not my bag, nor is the dirty foot in my face thing something I would endure again without delivering a carefully prepared speech to the offender. But I’ll tell you one thing: Southwest knows how to get people where they are going, and on time too. In fact, they might want to consider hiring Zenith grad Herb Kelleher to run national health care, because every time he tinkers with his business model it works better. For example, I still find it disconcerting not to have an assigned seat, and I have always hated standing in those lines. On the other hand, you have to queue for every airline. And because the lines to board Southwest planes are no longer free-form (everyone has an assigned place in line, which means seating is first-come, first-serve and people settle where it is easiest once the best seats are full) people become naturally more orderly and rational in how they board the plane. I have never seen planes loaded as efficiently as the two I was on today. It literally took about twenty minutes from the time they started to load to the moment the plane pushed off from the gate, and because they still allow you to check one bag free, there wasn’t the added hazard on each end of worrying about whether someone was going to drop a suitcase on your head. Furthermore, although other airlines allow you to pick a seat (aisle, please) it is simply the illusion of choice, unless you are in business class or first class, since more often than not your seat changes on the day of the flight and you end up sandwiched between two babies. So having an assigned seat is actually faux privilege; and certainly not a privilege worth fighting for if Southwest can get me in a seat, any seat, more efficiently and get me to my destination on time.

So that assigned seat is kind of analogous, if you think about it, to the increasingly fragile privilege having private health insurance. Maybe you get what you need, but because other people are being treated in the emergency room, your local hospital goes bankrupt. Or you pay through the nose to make sure you are protected from catastrophe, but then they deny coverage for this and that, and you just pay, and thank your lucky stars that you didn’t need an experimental brain transplant or something that would be really expensive and force you to live under a bridge.

I think some folks down on Telegraph Avenue may have already had uninsured brain transplants: I’m going to inquire into that tomorrow when I mosey down there for breakfast, but it sure looks like it.

And then off to the archives. Wish me luck.

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