“That’s so Berkeley”

I knew before I even moved here that Berkeley had a reputation, to say the least.  Or, as Steven Colbert put it, “that slow food, locavore, patchouli, super-fund granola dump site, hippie haven UC Berkeley.”

Or, according to Fox news, communist Berkeley!

This morning I was at Trader Joes.  It was early; I was hungry and interested in getting in and out before someone decided to go to work on my bike’s u-lock.  The cashier took my items and then asked me what I had been doing.  I’m not exactly at my wittiest at eight am on a sunday morning, so I replied “Uh, grocery shopping?”

He paused, looked me deep in the eyes and said “No, I mean, what have you been doing with your life?”

I talked with him about school (I was wearing my favorite baggy Cal shirt) and then asked him if he liked being a cashier.  He said that it was an awesome job because he got to meet and understand new people all day long.

After tossing my backpack over my shoulders and mounting my bike, I realized what a strange conversation we’d just had.  I couldn’t imagine the cashier at Shop-Rite in my suburban New Jersey hometown asking me anything other than if I wanted paper or plastic, let alone ask me what my life’s passion was.

I was walking with a friend after dinner last week when someone came up to us on the street and asked for his leftovers.  Earlier that same day I’d seen a shirtless man running down the street, periodically letting out loud, caveman-esque yells.  The day before a street preacher attracted a huge crowd, including this girl:

Things that reinforced the hippie cliche used to stand out in my memory.  Whenever I’m struggling to explain something that happened here to a friend, I usually wind up defaulting to just saying that it’s so “Berkeley”.  Yes, the bakery carries gluten-free cookies, and people say hello to you on the street, and it’s not uncommon to see a ukelele/flute duet playing for the hoards of students migrating down Telegraph.

But there’s also the amazing gardens.  Did you know that almost nobody here has a front lawn?  Everyone has a garden, and not just a garden but a GARDEN, a fabulous combination of japanese maple and lamb’s ear and succulents and jasmine and a gate covered in sweet-smelling wisteria.  If you don’t have cash for your morning coffee, the guy at the counter will tell you to forget about it with a smile.  Want to cross a busy road?  Just start walking into the crosswalk.  The cars won’t even honk, they’ll just calmly roll to a stop until you set foot on the other side.

I can’t decide if I like using “Berkeley” as an adjective.  It’s so all-encompassing and still doesn’t manage to cover exactly how I feel about why this town is different.  Calling it a “liberal, hippie haven” doesn’t even come close; I’ve never lived in a place more accepting of people’s individuality, more passionate, more emotional and caring.

So I’ll watch the news and smirk when Berkeley is used as an example of the extreme left, and keep my own definition of Berkeley in mind.

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