Thursday, December 22, 2005

Memories of a Traveling Journalist

Yesterday I traveled from to . Physically I was mostly on a jam-packed Airbus, but mentally I was outside time, reading a novel about an advertising agency in the 1920s, then checking back in occasionally to notice the people around me, where our time was not the same as that of anyone, anywhere on terra firma. is a different kind of world, temporarily disconnected from this earthly society. Yet it is an occasion when I’m most likely to be interested in and contrasts. How things are done in a new way, compared to previous journeys. How people in California behave, compared to Torontonians. How Berkeley resembles or differs from the city where I spent twenty years.

The newness began at the airport in Toronto, where I obtained my own boarding pass from a machine. I had seen such machines before, but this was the first time everyone had been expected to manufacture their own .

The Berkeley-Toronto contrast appeared as soon as I landed and needed guidance in buying BART tickets. The manin the ticket booth helped surmount my errors in buying from the machine, then added some friendly extra advice. I was to change trains at the Balboa Park station by stepping off, waiting exactly there for the Richmond train, then stepping back on. Once aboard, I met two fellows who confirmed this advice and took charge of telling me when we were approaching Balboa Park. We got into a jovial conversation about the “Berzerkeley” of the 1960s. That would not have happened in Toronto.

I got off as instructed, but the Richmond train hadn’t come 45 minutes later, so I had to devise an alternative way to get to Berkeley. It went well. BART had not been built when I left the Bay Area, but people are extremely proud of it, though this was not the first time I’d experienced a long delay because of some breakdown in the system. Anyhow, the cars are carpeted. Toronto subways are more reliable, I think, but they will never have carpets.

Leaving the BART station in Berkeley was a challenge with my two suitcases. I got stuck in the exit turnstile, but a sweet older man rescued me with his keys and summoned an elevator to take me to the street, adding some advice of his own about how I should get to my destination. I had known exactly where I was going, but I appreciated his kindness. Pulling my two bags along, I sensed that Shattuck has come to resemble Avenue of the 1950s. Shattuck used to be a place for business people — townies, not students, but the line between them has blurred. There are more Indian, Vietnamese, and Mexican restaurants now, though there are still banks and regular stores too. When an old man asked for money I said I was sorry. He said, “No need to feel sorry. You have a wonderful day.”

This apartment building is a completely conventional 1930s construction occupied by Jim Leonhardt, an undergraduate student in cognitive science and his beautiful psychologist girlfriend Riana. They will be snowboarding during the vacation at his country place in Truckee. I remarked that there seemed to be some animosity between . He agreed, but said that snowboarding has revitalized the skiing world, which had become too elitist. The snowboarders include young rappers – a different culture that skiers disdain. Jim showed me some books and lecture notes by his professor, , with whom I also had studied while I was an undergraduate. Searle has to be as old as I am, but he’s apparently still going strong. I asked about this new field, “.” It came in when Artificial Intelligence came in. Jim has a graphic in the hallway showing the brain and some obscure findings about its functioning. He also has some pills in his medicine cabinet that purport to be good medicine for the brain. I assume that he knows what he’s talking about on that topic. He says it doesn’t pay to get a Ph.D. in cognitive science because there are few universities that offer it and hence there are few jobs. He is a philosopher personally, but I suppose mainly psychologists specialize in that area. I haven’t spent time with Searle’s two books yet, but I want to. This is another way in which Berkeley is more stimulating than Toronto. It’s just plain easier to get into conversations about new areas of research.

Berkeley’s the place for every kind of newness, not just research. When you cross the street here, the signal gives you a white pedestrian sign at the beginning, then starts counting down the number of seconds remaining for you to finish crossing before the light will change on you. Nice innovation.

Imagine eating a taco for lunch. It was easy to find. But across the street there was a McDonalds, and I stopped in there to read a newspaper and drink coffee. They haven’t got the Berkeley sensibility. A young male student was sitting across from me. The woman came to tell him that he had used up his fifteen minutes. They have a new rule: You can sit there no longer than fifteen minutes! We laughed about it, but he left pretty soon. There was a black family sitting nearby, listening to this and laughing too. “Don’t pay any attention to that,” they told me. I had really anticipated spending about an hour reading the paper. It must be a case of culture trumping Berkeley culture. Yet as I was about to leave, another woman – a hunchback bent over half double with some kind of infirmity, was cleaning off the tables. Unexpectedly, she wished me a happy holiday season, as if to show that she could maintain a kind heart in all kinds of unconducive places.

It is raining. I have stayed in most of the day, trying to master two technological challenges – my new computer and the new , which came without a manual.Eventually I sent out an SOS on the computer, asking advice from experienced cell phone users. Jonathan figured it out for me. He seems to live right by his computer, as I do. This is not a locally specific culture pattern.

But there are some academic culture patterns that seem locally specific. Jonathan sent me information about the peace studies program here. Riana had already mentioned that it’s extremely popular. They cap the enrollment and hold up higher standards than other majors. It’s hard to get in.

And I spoke with tonight. She’s going to teach an interdisciplinary course next term on globalization and in Africa. It will be large because it counts toward the breadth requirements. I don’t think Toronto offers many interdisciplinary courses on such cutting-edge topics.

The house next door has a poinsettia plant that probably qualifies as a tree. It reaches almost to the windows of the second floor. It’s in bloom, just as it should be in the Christmas season.

I went into the on Center Street to get a new ATM card. When I mentioned to the man that I had worked in that branch about 53 years ago, he was skeptical. The branch hadn’t been here that long, had it? It had been over on Addison Street. Yes, I said. It had been right here. I remember it well. I spent two years working there during the years. The managers had told us to stop discussing it because we got into too many fights. Right here. I think as I type now, my mental image of that old Bank, and even the people who worked there, is far more vivid than my memory of the new building where I spent twenty minutes this morning. Newness does not always trump oldness.

Sometimes it should, though. The Dorothy Sayers novel has been my companion in three restaurants today: McDonalds, the taco joint, and this evening an expensive bistro down the street where I had coq au vin while reading the mystery. Sayers’s advertising copywriters seemed just as alive as the people around me, who were talking tonight about how to improve the school system. Yet there was a shocking moment when the advertising people referred to .” I remember having come across anti-Semitism in Sayers long ago. They say she never recanted those views. Here she was, as devout a Christian as anyone could be, yet an unrepentant racist, even in her old age. In this respect, at least, the new culture has genuinely progressed. I am glad to be alive today, in this city that used to know so well.

And tonight, after I returned from walking along Berkeley Way, the street where Bob and I lived when we first married, Jonathan sent me another e-mail. Bob has bone cancer.

And so it goes.


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