The Happy Wanderer: Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue


HILLS NEWSPAPERS – September 18, 2009

In a recent survey of out-of-town guests, a surprising attraction came out on top. Berkeley ’s Telegraph Avenue was the number one choice for visitors staying at my house. As unofficial as this poll is – it highlights the fact that some of the best things in life are free. Odd – but free.

The four blocks of Telegraph between Dwight Way and Bancroft are a fascinating social experiment. Both bizarre and bazaar…the street is an open air market where people are as eclectic as the merchandise.

Incense and Peppermints… The perfumed smoke from thin sticks of incense fills the air as ancient hippies hock their wares. A woman in a long, flowing skirt sells braided hair ties. She has a dozen or more in her own shoulder-length grey locks. She shares the sidewalk with a Rasta man whose dreads tumble down his bare back to the butterflies embroidered on his jean pockets. A colorful collection of knit caps twists in the wind nearby.

Like the words to the ‘60’s song Alice’s Restaurant – you really can get anything you want.  Buttons and bongs, papers and pipes, tie dye and music and more. Karma and Dharma and Dogma and Tai – Telegraph Ave. is a candy shop of doctrines and disciplines.

Jesus is just alright with me… It’s dusk, and a small group of Born Agains have staked out their spot on the sidewalk now. They have bibles and a megaphone and are ready to spread the word. On the next corner are the Satanists – who have louder voices and use captivating symbols like pentagrams and devil’s horns. Both groups are vying for the smattering of lost souls who call this street home – the sallow-skinned, matted-haired loners who sit on the cement with their guitars and their dogs, sharing the occasional container of food or half-smoked cigarette.

Love the one you’re with… The Hari Krishna have arrived. You can hear the happy clatter of their little finger cymbals and see flashes of color as they dance and twirl. They stop, periodically, to embrace. Anyone can share in this love fest. A small donation is gratefully accepted.

War…what is it good for? The street is just one big political statement. Every curb has a chalk-written message. U.S. out of Berkeley ! UC out of People’s Park! Free Leonard Peltier! Posters are plastered on every window and street fixture, sounding the alarm about global warming.

It’s your thing, do what you want to do… The mood is mostly mellow, but every now and then a pack of skater dudes flies by. They rumble down the pitted streets, helmet-less and clue-less to the dangers of traffic and pedestrians. Urban urchins – riding when they should be home studying.

And then along comes Mary… And everything changes. The hippies and gypsies have packed up their wares and the preppies start coming – in waves – as if every frat house and dorm on Cal ’s campus has emptied. Streams of students pour into the streets – the boys in their blue and yellow polo shirts and girls in cute sun dresses with flip flops and pearls. They barely see the circus that surrounds them. Yet, they are part of it.

And this is the point. Berkeley ’s Telegraph Avenue is a circus, where everyone gets into the act. You’re looking at them – they’re looking at you – it’s a kaleidoscope of eye candy.

This is why my guests want to come here. It’s something they can’t get at home. And for an hour or two, a few times a year, I don’t mind being part of the show.

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