Thursday, August 29, 2013
A section from My Dilemma.
“You’re out of your mind, Mags,” Newby chuckled.
My burly bear of a friend playfully hung his fuzzy arm over my shoulders to gesture the lightheartedness of his warnings.
“You’re know it’s cold as balls up there, right?”
“No shit, Newby,” I laughed. “It’s fucking Alaska.”
This was the reaction of every one of my classmates when I dished on my post grad plans. Most of them, including Newby, were children of southern California. The 6-hour crossover from So-Cal to Nor-Cal was their definition of a culture shock.
By my twenties, I’d become quite adaptable. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee I knew chilly winters, blistering heat, and downpours that erupted a clear day suddenly enough to convince the most practical person that Mother Nature was off her Bipolar meds. In San Diego post high school and Long Beach post Navy enlistment, I never lost sight of the So-Cal climate’s freakish perfection.
“We’re so spoiled,” I’d tell my mom, Annie, in Chattanooga. “There was literally a flash flood warning for one inch of rain!”
My friends and I poked fun at the way southern Californians grocery and bottle water stocked for the very occasional showers the way others would for blizzards and hurricanes. It only took a blanket of fog or a frigid 60-degree morning to smother UC Berkeley’s So-Cal natives in leggings under jeans, parkas, trendy fingerless gloves, wildly patterned rain boots, and colorful ruffled scarves.
With graduation approaching, the pressures for adulthood game plans were on. Most would scurry south to Los Angeles or take an 8-mile hop west to San Francisco. Unless we were tightly niched with family connections, the jobs weren’t throwing themselves at us. But we kept cool.
“We’re Berkeley graduates,” we said out loud, more to ourselves than each other. “Did you know that we ranked third in the world?” we’d boast. “Right under Harvard and Stanford.”
“Fuck Stanford and their shitty tree mascot,” Newby, a college football junkie, would usually snort at our long time rival. “The highlight of my education was pissing on their campus lawn.”
Stanford and Berkeley were always competing in sports and reputations as the west coast’s academic elite.
“But we’re still above Yale, Princeton, and MIT. I mean, third in the world. That’s huge,” we’d banter.
I still remember reading my acceptance letter with my heart nearly exploding from glorious triumph. I thought I’d truly made it.
“I’ll never have to do this shit again,” I thought, as I wiped Famous Dave’s maple saturated Sweet n Sassy sauce from my t-shirt on my last waitressing shift.
Although I thought the same thing 5 years earlier on my last waitressing shift before boot camp, I believed that my prestigious university was my true mark of accomplishment. Everyone else did too.
“I can’t believe I know someone who is going to Berkeley!” my friends and relatives back home exclaimed at my news.
“The day you set foot on that campus,” administrators announced during our introductory meetings, “Your social status escalates. No matter your race, income, age, ethnicity or background, you have all climbed a level of society’s ladder. Congratulations!”
During our years safely nestled in academia, that was easy to believe.
The UC Berkeley class of 2011 was an eclectic bundle of Asian, Latino, black, white, French, Middle Eastern, Indian, southern, northern, Californian, suburban, middle, lower class, veteran, reasonably rich, obscenely rich, sheltered, traveled, young, and old. A few were the heirs of international billionaires pursuing a pretty named degree to support the illusion that they somehow earned the hefty funds they would be handed. Others were the determined offspring of absent fathers and coupon cutting, food stamping single mothers, trading prom for the 4.4 GPA’s they’d leave high school with. Some were lazy geniuses, accepted after a fluke sprint of motivation. Others were like me, with slightly above average intelligence levels but with determined work ethic, wit, and writing talents. At times, I secretly believed I bull shitted my way to the Berkeley name I’d only known though movies and hearsay of a friend’s third cousin’s Einstein brother attending.
Tucked in the middle of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Walnut Creek, entering Berkeley grounds feels like a stumble into an alternate universe. Just east of pricey, urban professional, north of the impoverished remnants of the Black Panther party, and south east of middle class suburbia, the college town strongly maintains its role as the progressive, furiously youthful attention whore saturated with its fight for individuality.
Berkeley is a well-read rebel. The campus itself is a vision of classic, European modeled architecture atop a lush, green hill that faces a wide-ranged view of the San Francisco skyline and glistening bay that folds in front of it like a welcome mat. Its pathways are shaded by enormous, bellowing redwoods and shrubbery that leads to fountains, a library that emulates Ancient Rome’s prime, a 307 foot tall 1914 Campanile that chimes daily, and grassy fields littered with students recovering from the brain molestations of their morning classes.
An initial glance at UC Berkeley would categorize its historic beauty with fellow fancy universities like Princeton and Notre Dame. Then, biblical propaganda and predictions of the world’s end booming from the throat of a scruff man resembling Santa Clause after a 500-mile hitchhike would interrupt its serenity. Disheveled Vietnam veterans, barefoot vagabonds, and tattered outsiders preaching every angle of the world’s corruptions trickle on school grounds as a reminder that Berkeley is merely an island in a pool of Bezerkeley.
The steps off campus transport pedestrians to a chaotic mix of corporate retailers like Urban Outfitters, Yogurtland, American Apparel and independent record shops, markets, and eateries of every ethnicity smothered in flee-market style tables neck-to-neck along the sidewalk. The streets buzz with skinny jeaned hipsters, tweed wearing faculty, a series of Navy blue Cal Bear hoodies covering 20-year-olds of every size, shape, and shade, and homeless drifters as diverse as the students lounging on every corner. Sorority girls wearing pattered tights under shorts meander towards school, grazing their fingers along the various feathered earrings, tie-dyed blankets, and home made wind chimes hustled by vendors.
Emerging from palaces, gutters, local, or far away lands, UC Berkeley leveled all of us to one flat foundation. For a period in time, the debt the poor would graduate with would be forgotten. The hefty salaried figurehead gigs the trust fund babies would inherit were shoveled into a mental, “I’ll think about it later” compartment. Together, we were all cramped inside our dorms and box studios, sweating out our daily brain dissections. We were equals inside the Bezerkeley galaxy. Our strongest bond was our hope.
We’d worked hard to get in. With about a 25% admission rate, we were there because we’d wanted it badly. We’d wanted it badly because a college education was our path to success. A college education from one of the best universities in the world guaranteed it.
“America is the land of opportunity.”
We’d heard the term so often from our grandparents, parents, presidential speeches, and movies of poor immigrants building empires with blood, sweat, and tears that the term was cliché. But knowing the hoops jumped for admission, I’m pretty sure my peers bought into it as much as I did.
“Work hard,” we were advised by all authoritative figures. “Study. Go to college- a good one. Get your education. Get your work experience. That is how you become somebody. This isn’t Mexico, Ethiopia, or Iraq,” they said. “You didn’t grow up barefoot on the streets eating from a garbage can. You’re blessed. You’re lucky. You’re American. Be grateful. Love your country. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
I can’t decide whether we were sheltered or exposed. Our professors did not hide the flaws of America. They lectured them.
I learned about the world at Berkeley. I studied the rise and fall of societies and how my country profited through war mongering, enslaving, and exploiting. I was trained in spotting the racism and sexism in the media, writing essays on commercial clips and breaking down how each one catered to the white male perspective that still dominated my world.
“This is how we know that racism exists,” Professor Goldblum, one of my favorites, explained.
He was young, in his mid thirties with messy brown hair, a goatee, and dark rimmed glasses around the hazel eyes that always seemed on fire when he lectured. I’d harbored a mild crush on him and always sat on the edge of my seat, in awe of his public speaking charisma.
“How many drug busts do we hear about in Oakland?” he scowled. “Plenty, right? But are the police ever rummaging through those fraternity houses a few blocks away? Because God knows they’re laced with gobs of cocaine. Oddly enough crack has a minimum 5-year jail sentence for possession,” he continued. “Which is strange because it’s basically a watered down version of cocaine. But who’s usually snorting cocaine?” he asked the class.
“The rich,” a heavyset woman with an Afro and beaded necklace answered.
“And who smokes crack?”
“The poor,” we all answered in unison.
We didn’t have to attend class to hear about the world’s ugliness.
It seemed like Berkeley was always buzzing with protests and demonstrations. One day, a few dozen students would be lined at the gates dressed in black with their face painted to match. A few leaders with a megaphone would rant on racism with crime, rape, or poverty statistics to support their points. The next day would be rainbows, glittered, bikini clad boys in rollerblades, and same sex couples sucking tongues for Facebook photo opts to document their bold stand. Other demonstrations screamed louder, with nearly every student and faculty member packed tightly around Sproul Hall with signs on budget cuts, unfair pay, greed, and corrupt leadership.
WHAT DO WE WANT?
WHAT DO WE WANT?
WHAT DO WE WANT?
WANT TO WE WANT!
OUR VOICES HEARD!
My ears were buzzing with student so much activism that I eventually drowned out the noise.
“Are you going to the protest tomorrow?” I’d ask one of my classmates.
“Na. Last month’s protest took up way too much of my time. Are you?”
“No. I mean, I support what they’re doing, but if I put my energy into every protest we had, I’d flunk out of all of my classes.”
I admired my bold, freethinking peers, but there were times that I saw hypocrisy in it all. Were they really speaking out against corruption or had it just become cool to speak out against corruption? Were they breaking grounds or following trends? Protest was Berkeley’s greatest legacy. By senior year I was rolling my eyes at the sight of a megaphone and got angry when break-ins, vandalism, and arrests occurred.
“I can see the reason for the riots in the 60s,” I’d bitch to my friends.
A good bit of them shared my mentality.
“Yeah, like I get the Vietnam, Civil Rights and Free Speech riots- all of that,” we’d chatter. “But sometimes I think that they just want something to protest about.”
Our downfall wasn’t isolation. Berkeley wasn’t a barricaded fortress of fluff, lies, and brainwash. We knew our economy was hurting, but didn’t brace for the pain. As we spent our days analyzing the racism and sexism of advertising and the social construct of gender, we floated in a fog of intellectual arrogance. Our educators did not tell us that America’s work industry had flip-flopped. We didn’t know that so many once promising career paths had become dead ends, while the blue-collar positions we once considered ourselves superior to were suddenly the safer routes.
We still believed that our precious Berkeley brand was the stamp on our passport to prosperity. Sure, we would sip sangria out of red solo cups in togas and banter about politics between keg stands. But we expected to remain in the cozy spot above the world falling apart. We’d read, write, and talk about it. But we’d never be its victims. After all, we’d gone to Berkeley.