The Berkeley I Left Behind
I returned to Berkeley looking for a man with a golden calf. His name was Zakatarious, and I’d met him on the steps of Sproul Plaza in 1973. I was a reporter for the Berkeley Barb then, the venerable underground newspaper that was an icon of the country’s counterculture as it morphed from the ‘60s rebellion into the human potential movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Zakatarious was a part of the story that I itched to tell.
The world was checkmated, he explained, because each of its inhabitants was trapped in a separate reality. With each believing their reality to be the one true reality, they were doomed to eternal conflict over whose single vision should prevail. His solution: become a pagan, worship the golden calf (albeit papier-mache) and usher in a new era of world peace by accepting all gods, be they religious, political or ideological.
Zakatarious was so convinced of this that he planned to mount his makeshift idol on a trailer, organize a caravan and embark on a pilgrimage across America ending on the White House lawn, where a converted President Richard M. Nixon himself would fall to his knees in awe.
The article I wrote for the Barb was decidedly sympathetic to that goal.
I later left Berkeley. Decades passed. I settled down, got married, had kids, built a career, acquired a mortgage, even voted Republican. But I never forgot Zakatarious, never entirely abandoned the memory of infinite possibilities he once had inspired. Three decades later, moved by the energizing e-mail of a wandering daughter the same age now as I was then, I’d come back to see if it could be rekindled. “I went on a three-day trek through bamboo forests and yellow rice fields,” 19-year-old Adina had written from a village in Thailand. And so I’d decided to brave the jungles of Berkeley.
The city takes a little getting used to when you’ve been away so long. Walking down Telegraph Avenue, my initial inclination was to tell street people to get haircuts and panhandlers to get jobs. On my first day in town I met an interesting pair: brothers from Texas who said they’d run away to become professional skateboarders. “You can’t skate in Texas like you can out here,” the older of the two, age 19, explained in earnest. Two weeks after arriving, however, he’d been grounded by a broken axle and now was begging for money to replace it. Next to him on the sidewalk, his little brother--also a wannabe professional at 12--sat begging too. “We live in a shelter,” the younger boy said. And their means of support? “Oh,” he assured me, “we get money from the state.”
Once I might have found this romantic. Now my first inclination was to call the cops.
Next I inadvertently wandered into a nearby protest march. Following the residual instincts of my previous life, I dumbly followed, wondering what was in store. The marchers stopped near the place I’d first seen Zakatarious, and there made their stand. They were angry, some proclaimed over a loudspeaker, at the state’s repeal of the bill allowing undocumented workers to get driver’s licenses. Thirty years ago, I might have grabbed the microphone and proclaimed my solidarity. Today I just shook my head and sauntered off, wishing that they’d lighten up on the guy I’d helped elect.
How had I strayed so far after leaving this town? It’s not easy, looking back on a life, to pinpoint the moment that everything changed. Perhaps because there never is such a moment, just a chain of tiny decisions that alter your path. I remembered the first time I wanted to own a house. It was during a dark night under the stars somewhere with a bunch of long-haired strangers. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I died that night, no one I loved would know where to look and, just like that, I turned some magic corner of the soul. Getting married seemed natural to me then. And having kids. And, eventually, finding gainful employment to support both choices.
It wasn’t until after Sept. 11, 2001, that my politics changed. Feeling angry and vulnerable, I embraced the conservatism I once had eschewed. I was happy, though. The mortgage got paid, usually on time. I had good work, love, and weekends were free. Rarely did I think of Zakatarious. Until the day I received that e-mail from my daughter.
“We ran into elephants in the wild and stopped at the occasional waterfall to shower,” she wrote. “I stayed with this crazy Thai family that runs a guesthouse. They sit around drinking and showing off magic tricks to each other; like making cigarettes move by themselves using static electricity, card tricks, metal puzzles, games that they’ve mathematically mastered to win every time, and they even taught me how to make fish out of water bottles...”
I had three reactions. The first was that it sounded like a John Irving novel. The second was that she had better be careful. And the third was a longing I hadn’t felt in years -- for the golden calf and all it entails.
For several days in Berkeley I didn’t think it could be found, then I ran into Julia Vinograd. She was a woman I recalled from my own time in this Peter Pan town--the people’s poet, someone who blew bubbles in your face and hawked words on the street. Now she was gray and walked with a stoop, but she still blew those bubbles.
“Tell me,” I asked, “do you remember a guy called Zakatarious?”
Of course, she recalled, he was one of the more memorable hecklers of the Jesus freaks. “I haven’t seen the golden calf in ages,” she said, “but it was an interesting idea.”
An idea which, for me, had come to represent the exuberance and unfettered optimism of youth. And then I realized another thing: that the golden calf changes form. And that, despite my newfound personal conservatism, mortgage, stock options and residence in a world decidedly inhospitable to calf-worshipping pagans, a bit of the glittering animal still resided within. Only it had little to do with how I voted or where I slept or even what I did every day. It had to do with how I felt. More specifically, what I remembered. And most important, the values I passed to my children.
Shuffling down Telegraph Avenue on my last night in town, I met someone who perhaps would be learning that soon. “Spare Change for Bus Ticket Home?” his sign read. “On My Way to Save the World (ask me how).”
“OK,” I said, “I’ll take the bait.”
He told me he was 25 and had left San Antonio six months before to find a solution to the world’s problems here among the street people of Northern California. Now he was on his way back to share what he’d learned, but I stopped him before he said more. “Good luck,” I offered, handing him a dollar. He smiled as only a young man can, and I knew instinctively that he would indeed make his way home. Just as everyone eventually does.