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Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Initiation to UC Berkeley Circa 1966

By Celia Jones

In the fall of 1966, I found myself sitting on the bare mattress of my dorm room, anticipating my first year at the University of California, Berkeley, when a large, silky-winged creature flew past my bedroom door, did a U-turn at the end of the hall and came back past my room.

I pointed out the creature with the massive wingspan to another student struggling up the stairs with an old brown suitcase and a huge duffle bag. She dropped her bag in the middle of my room and said, “Oh, that’s Beowolf, the bat. He comes in during the summer. Don’t worry,” she assured me as I wrapped my hands around my head. “He’s harmless. We feed him grapes.”

I knew I was no longer in small-town Napa. Berkeley had a reputation for tolerance of the strange and different, and I’d better get used to the idea of sharing my residence with a bat or two. I reminded myself that very tolerance, academic standards and the colorful vitality of the place were what attracted me to this university.

My roommate introduced herself. This was Maureen’s second year at Berkeley. She was the new house manager of this all girls’ co-op dorm. (Co-op student houses were owned and operated by students, so rent was cheap.)

I liked Maureen immediately. She was attractive with large brown eyes, pale porcelain-like skin and cropped black hair. She was intelligent, friendly, helpful and also Jewish. I thought I had the perfect roommate until my nostrils were hit by a musky odour that she exuded.

Soon the odour permeated every inch of the small room. Just one hour of being cooped up in that tiny, stuffy room with Maureen drove me mad. I tried to ask her in a casual way, “Did you want to borrow my deodorant?”

She declined my offer with, “Deodorants, shaved legs and underarms are part of the fascist conspiracy to make us hate our natural bodily functions.:

I had to resign myself to keeping the window open and breathing through my nose.

From that very first day, the phone calls for Maureen as house manager were incessant. Her manner in handling all the trivial complaints was always professional unless the caller was her boyfriend from Yale. Then, her voice became mellifluous and her body language changed dramatically. She handled the receiver the way I imagined she would caress a particular part of “Mr. Dreamboat-from-Yale’s” anatomy.

However, her relationship with Mr. Yale didn’t interfere with her “friendships” with other men. She told me about one close friend Richard, who lived in a co-ed co-op house on the south side of the University.

He was apparently quite happy to meet any of Maureen’s physical needs. In fact, he was quite happy meeting several girls’ needs. His lair-like, single room generally saw a lot of action. “And, he has a penchant for Jewish girls,” Maureen said pointedly.

I met Richard that first week when he came to visit Maureen. When I went downstairs to check for any mail, I saw Maureen and Richard in the living room deeply involved in a discussion about the Vietnam War. I marveled at how articulate they both were. I rarely heard such intelligent conversation where I came from.

When Maureen looked up, she asked me to come in and meet Richard, whose small frame was hunched over in concentration, his aquiline nose outlined by a reddish moustache and beard and steel-blue eyes transfixed on his next argument.

He briefly said hello to me, but his mind was still on his heated discussion. Intermittently, he would groan in disgust and roll his eyes, making it obvious he thought that Maureen’s point was totally illogical. His voice took on a professorial, condescending tone when he said: “You’re so naive and simplistic. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

They kept up this sparring for ages until Maureen finally broke down and cried in frustration. Richard looked surprised by Maureen’s reaction, and there was a long pause during which Richard took her hand in what I thought was regret for the upset he caused. However, once Maureen composed herself, Richard’s back straightened, and he continued the argument with the same surgical coldness.

The first letter in my pigeon hole was from the administration, ordering me as a new student to have a mandatory physical examination at the university hospital. We lined up like Army recruits while they prodded and poked us. I was fairly complacent about it all until I felt a sharp pain in my arm. “What was that?” I yelled.

Holding up what looked and felt like a nail gun, the doctor said, “It’s for a TB test.” He grunted and moved me on. Not much individual freedom of choice there.

It didn’t take Maureen long to find out I was still intact - a virgin - at 18, a definitely “uncool” state in this Berkeley environment. Maureen was as shocked at my untouched state as I was by her promiscuity.

Orientation week bristled with parties, especially in the co-op houses, and the advent of the birth control pill created the “free love” age. My roommate saw it as her mission to help me get over my virginal state, and she took me along to one of the co-op house parties. The pressure to “make love not war” was immense, and my first possible mate was an engineering student, Sidney Creps, whom I’d met at one of those co-op house parties.

Engineering students were stereotyped by the humanities students as boring dorks, the butt of many jokes. (eg. “How can you tell if an engineer is extroverted? He looks at your shoes instead of his own.”)

Sidney was amiable enough, but I couldn’t get past the kissing bit with him. He had the narrowest lips I’d ever encountered and when he attempted to kiss me, he would close his mouth, stretch his lips and press them hard against mine. It felt like I was being attacked by a brass door hinge and we didn’t last the week out. Word of the kiss got around, and after that, the term “a Sidney kiss” became common slang for a poor kisser.

As a newcomer, I was assigned to the worst workshift of all - the co-op’s central kitchen where all the meals were cooked, then distributed to the individual co-op houses. It was a chore made more odious by the Filipino cook Andre who was fond of cornering young girls in the huge freezer and groping them with his sausage-sized hands. These were the same fingers that mixed the huge tub of mayonnaise, eggs and ketchup for the salad dressing.

I complained to Maureen about his blatant sexual harassment, but they hadn’t yet developed the infrastructure at that time to handle harassment claims. In the mid-60’s, they were barely giving lip service to cases of sexual harassment. Women who tried to obtain equal rights in jobs, education, etc. were stereotyped as “bra-burning, hairy, lesbian women’s libbers.”

One learned very quickly that the food from the co-op’s central kitchen was consistent - consistently unpalatable, cold, greasy, starchy and bland - but it filled a hole. The weekly menus were posted inside the seven individual houses and you could usually tell the day of the week by the meals, which sounded delicious - beef stroganoff, chicken mornay and roast pork. In reality, it all ended up as the same lukewarm, grayish, sloppy gruel.

After that, even my mother’s cooking looked good. The first goodies from home that I put in the dining room fridge had disappeared the next day. Maureen told me that every co-oper was relentlessly on the lookout for real food. I successfully managed to keep my goodies safe by labeling my Tupperware containers with, “This is a biochemical experiment. Do not eat as it may be toxic.”

A couple of days after settling in, I set off on what would become a familiar walk south from my dorm to the student union and Telegraph Avenue. Passing by a ferny creek, I gingerly descended the steep hill in front of the Earth Sciences building that housed the seismograph for measuring the anticipated “mother of all earthquakes” that would cause California to sink into the sea.

From there, I went down past the ivy-covered buildings, through the intricate iron lacework of Sather Gate and into Sproul Plaza. Telegraph Avenue was bristling with movement and sound and I was attracted to the bookshops, craft galleries and hippies dancing to the chanting Hari Krishnas in orange robes.

The coffee smells from the expresso cafes mingled with the musky aroma of incense and marijuana. God, it felt so good to be here where the action was. The energy and creativity was palpable, so different from the sleepy streets of Napa.

The University of California at Berkeley was a bastion of academic excellence, but was also fast gaining a reputation for being a Sodom and Gomorrah, a hot-bed of rebellion characterized as the place for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Timothy Leary, with his mantra to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” gave birth to the hippie movement and search for alternative lifestyles. To an 18-year-old like myself eager to escape the confines of a small northern California town, I thought these were excellent reasons for my making UC Berkeley my first choice.

Back in Sproul Plaza, I breathed in the heady atmosphere of the 1960’s mixture of students and people just hanging out. Finally, I was here in at UC Berkeley, the centre of it all - alternative lifestyles, anti-war demonstrations, free concerts on the steps of the administration building by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, poetry reading by Allan Ginsberg and inspiring speeches by political activists like Mario Savio and Angela Davis.

Looking forward to the start of the year, I headed off to the nearby student union to buy the books I needed. With my first cappuccino ever in one hand and a bag of books in the other, I came out of the student union and found a seat at the fountain in Sproul Plaza where I could take in the colorful diorama. Dogs were in and every other hippie seemed to have a part Alsatian dog with the requisite bandanna around his neck. Their owners had a sort of uniform as well - loose paisley cotton shirts, lots of beads, embroidered jackets and floral, bell-bottomed pants. Everyone tinkled and jangled as they moved.

With the warm sun on my face, I was lulled into almost a trance-like state by the trickling sounds of the fountain and rhythms of the large congo drums echoing from the new Zellerbach Theatre courtyard below.

I didn’t see the hippie dog making a beeline for my shopping bag until it was too late. Frozen to the spot, I watched as the dog lifted his leg and deftly aimed a yellow stream at my precious books! My real inclination was to kick the obnoxious mongrel, but I sensed everyone was watching me; some seemed to even think it was pretty funny.

I smiled and tried to convince myself that the dog just shared his hippie owner’s disdain of the “etablishment educational system.” Wiping the warm liquid off my package, I tried to look cool for my audience as I picked up the pungent, sodden bag and made my way back to the dorm.

It was obvious that it would take time to really get into the social ethos of Berkeley. As I trudged back home, north up the hill and past the Earth Sciences building, I wondered if they were feeding Beowolf his grapes.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

A great story, Celia! You brough back some good (and bad) college memories for me, and I as the recipient of way too many of those brass door hinge type kisses. Thank God those days are over.

Oh goodness.......take me back to the 60's in art school. Thank you so much for this....I do so hope you write more of your college years. I'd like to know what happens.

Hi, Kenju and Mage,
I'm glad the story evoked fond memories. I have continued the story and am editing them before submitting them.
Thank you for your comments.
Celia Jones

Wonderful story, Celia. It must have been an exciting time and you captured the events beautifully.

Hi Celia,
I was married and living in conservative Grants Pass, Oregon. I loved hearing about all the excitment in Berkeley! Thanks for bringing all back. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

I enjoyed your story so much, Celia. I was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and working part-time for a YWCA-sponsored elder meal site bus in 1973-74. I represented Reno's YWCA at a western women's conference held at UC Berkeley's YWCA. We slept in sleeping bags there in "the Y House" after long session days. But we ventured out in the evenings also, and I remember the vitality of the campus and the students. I had my first cappuccino in a coffee house near campus and bought a beautifully tooled blue leather belt from the hippie who made it nearby. I still have the belt!
I'll look forward to your continuing story.

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