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A Berkeley Love Story

Abruptly remembering their story after all these years, almost with apologies to the two young lovers for having forsaken them, it is as though I’d just suddenly awakened from a long unconscious languor, like Rip Van Winkle, or Hesse’s hero in Journey to the East. Coming towards me, their figures clinging to one another for warmth and comfort seemed to come out of the Berkeley mist that— after all these years— has now dissipated, leaving Berkeley a less romantic, more cynical town. I tell the story to start the remembering I need to do, for in those earlier days things were much different, or perhaps I was; perhaps I was more naive— or perhaps we all were in those days. Romance was tangible, and a palpable imagination populated the streets at night with the exhilarating rumor of infinite possibilities. Kennedy was still alive then, and we still believed in him.

I remember standing on the second floor balcony of the International House at the top of Bancroft Avenue, at three in the morning in the Winter rain of ‘62 with the Leslie who loved my poems but loved William more, though William loved the fine rare grand piano inside much more than her and played Rachmaninoff and other Russian composers for us for hours, the three of us locked for the night into that elegant drawing room by an understanding and discreet night clerk. The air was always fresh in those days, slightly damp, herbaceous, and clean. Clean as our dreams; I do not remember people burning incense in those days.

I remember the story as it was first told me by Max. It had already become a legend when he told it, long before he sold the Steppenwulf to start the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper that later drew international attention to our sleepy university town. In other nightspots along San Pablo Avenue, a mile from the campus (as law required in those days), there might be live music— folk singers at the Albatross and the Blind Lemon, jug bands at the Cabal, jazz groups at the Trois Couleurs— but Max seemed to want his guests left alone to their chess games and their reading in his wine bar, left alone to their earnest conversations about literature, philosophy, and, inevitably, politics. The story he told me from behind the fantastically wax-dripped bar was this:

Many years before, a young couple was deeply in love; but her parents did not approve of him, and he had no parents to care about what he did with her. She believed she understood his loneliness, for she knew within her family what he so sorely missed without a family, and left her home in the hills above the flatlands through the bedroom window to provide it for him.

She brought everything she could carry, filled her arms and her heart with everything she could think of to create a home for him in the empty darkness of the city, and he welcomed her youthful enthusiasm for him as the very necessary nutrient it was. It filled the day with color, which she stayed to help him see. He believed she could never understand that coming with her gifts was the greatest gift.

Max told the story like O. Henry, detailing the glorious poverty they established for themselves, playing house among the used bookstores and coffeeshops of the night city. And the citizens of their city were as kind as her parents were heartless, for they provided just enough food to feed their hunger, just enough clothing to cover their chill, and just enough room to shelter and nourish their fatigue. Still, purposefully enough, they barely made it.

Now, this was in those days of Berkeley before it became politic to beg, before the fogs dissipated from the hills in the heat of the expanding industry along the bayshore, and before the Bay Area become so well known as a magnet of social unrest in the later ‘60s. Yet it was understood something would have to be done, before the young lovers died of starvation and romantic disease.

She was one of those not-quite-old-enough-to-leave-her-parents’-home girls that wore black leotards in those days, a sort of body stocking, and sandals and bulky sweater with unshaven legs and arms, and armpits with an eastern European air, and long straight black hair. He was not much older but already established in the streets, with black denims, a black beret, and now old enough to grow more than a scruffy beard which he scrupulously shaved as often as he could.

They had never been known to argue. They were each usually silent, thoughtful. He would write in his journal, or read while she wrote in hers. She would weave scraps of material into clever fragments of art, using things she found in the street. He wrote parts of poems, fragments of literature, about things he found in the street.

How they had found each other was not known, for neither showed up at the gatherings in various homes where music was heard, wine was drunk, philosophies argued. They just simply began to be seen together, an afternoon here or there along the street or in a neighborhood park, reading in a bookstore, in coffeehouses, never hurried.

After they came together they never seemed to be apart long. If she was seen entering a cafe he was already at their small table at the top of the stair slightly hidden from view behind the great tinted glass menu board suspended from the ceiling. If he was buying tickets to a foreign film, she was out on the sidewalk crushing her cigarette after one last puff before entering to join him. It did not take her long to leave her parents’ home to be with him, and they were not long together.

Her hair was long and dark. She was slender as a wraith, thin, and usually trembling slightly in the damp cold of the streets. He was more solid, patient, workmanlike, had lived longer in the streets, had traveled up and down the coastal highways through small towns by thumb working a few jobs here and there. Jobs in bookstores were out of the question— everyone was on a waiting list to work in a few, if not many.

One day he found a lug-box of books discarded behind a bookstore, probably the one owned by the taciturn gentleman who had lost his arm in Spain, serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His shop was a block further down Telegraph Avenue than where the others were gathering, having been pushed down towards Oakland by the expanding campus. Creed's had moved a few blocks down, with scores of friendly students carrying boxes of old hardbound titles from the old address at Sather Gate to the new storefront across from Il Piccolo, and Cody brought his little paperback shop across campus from North Gate. All this was years before Moe opened his first used bookstore down on Shattuck, where he smoked cigars all day.

The books had been discarded as really of no value, but they were books after all, and no book in Berkeley in those days was really without value. He brought the lug-box of books with him into the coffeeshop where they would meet (because the owner would upon occasion feed them broken cakes and steaming cups of milk, flavored from time to time by anise or almond).

At first she was amused at his find, and then curious, as he unfolded his plan: he, they, would open their own little shop, just like all the other stores in Berkeley, and these books would be the start of their inventory. But where? she asked, and he reminded her of the abandoned service station behind the midblock bistro on Berkeley Way, between Oxford and Shattuck. Few knew it was there, placed in a back alley, made of bricks that had once been painted white.

As they carried the lug-box of books down Hearst Street towards the place that was to be their enterprise, they explained what they were doing to people they knew as they passed by. Some laughed, some smiled, some approvingly, some just amused at their naive love and confidence in providence.

When they pried the door open and settled themselves inside, placing the books in careful display, people began to arrive to see what the lovers had done. Some took books and left coins, and others brought more books, and other things to increase their display.

The lovers laughed and danced and hugged each other as people came and went over the next few weeks to their little shop, bringing items, taking items away, and leaving money for them to buy more things to show, and perhaps a little food to add to what they'd been given.

I don’t remember how it was Max told it, but I remember the sadness when they first discovered she was ill, and how her parents of course kept their distance and were not involved, and how everyone seemed to stand around uncomfortably inadequate despite their love for the lovers as she grew increasingly thin, and the year grew increasingly old.

She died in the Winter, and her lover walked away from the shop, disappearing from Max's story forever. The people gathered and dispersed, and the story sort of lost interest itself, but I had a hunch where the discarded service station was, and went there one day. I broke in through an unlatched window, and looked around the empty room, which seemed more industrial than commercial, and more abandoned than simply empty. In a corner I found a broken lug-box made of wood, and a few old books that were of no value— except in Berkeley, still, where no books were of no value.

This story was written in Sonoma in 1998.

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