Growing Old in Berkeley

I dunno, I think I was a sophomore in high school, so that would be 1964, or there about. I had spent the summer going without the monthly haircut. It wasn’t long by today’s standards but wow, it was long in Richmond.

That was okay, I saved the allowance and spent it on paperbacks. I was consuming paperbacks at a voracious rate.

Unfortunately my selection was determined by the library at “The Hole in the Wall” junk store.

I think the owner found most of the books in local dumpsters. I was buying books that had been thrown away. More importantly, I was reading books that had been thrown away.

I suppose science fiction was considered disposable then, because I found a lot of sci fi. This is how I found it useful to read everything by an author that I liked. Robert Heinlein was king.

Every now and then I would find something like “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts. Powerful stuff but I couldn’t find anything else by him. Then I found “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller.

Well now, banned in Boston and sexy as all get out. And sure enough, somebody threw out “Tropic of Capricorn”. I was on a roll.

One day I scored “Sexus”, “Plexus”, and “Nexus”. I had reading material for weeks. The books were no longer sexy but banned anyway. It seemed that all were published by Grove Press. I couldn’t find a local bookstore that carried Grove Press. A clerk mentioned the only store he knew was in Berkeley.

Berkeley was only fifteen miles south, but it might as well have been 400 to a non-driver who didn’t know how to transfer from a bus.

The junk store kept getting repeats of the thrown away books. I had to brave the bus lines to go to Berkeley. After looking at a map, I found a bus line that got me to University Ave. I could get off, and easily walk the two or three miles up to the business area where the bookstore was. Or I could get a transfer and take a second bus. I walked.

The bookstore was on Telegraph Ave., the center of the college student universe. I would buy a couple of books, then walk over to the campus to start reading.

There was a guy, a student leader, named Mario Savio, and some sort of “Free Speech” organization. They talked a lot to the crowd. I was intrigued.

For the next year or so, I went to buy books from Grove Press, read on campus, then protest on the edge of the crowd. I then got older.

At sixteen I was in the middle of the crowd, being pushed and clubbed, and tear-gassed. I got much older.

At some point I read a book by Henry Miller called, “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”. It was first published in 1945 and was about Henry Miller taking a cross country tour of the US, from an ex-patriot’s point of view. Let’s just say that Henry had a unique perspective, long before Jack Kerouac’s, “On the Road”.

I thought, I want to do that! Then my English teacher told me about the Beats, and Kerouac. I was back at Cody’s bookstore for more education. I didn’t go to UC Berkeley, but I would say that I had my education on the streets of Berkeley, and Cody’s Bookstore.

I came of age on Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes now I think I grew older too soon.

I’m in Berkeley today, not much left from those days. Bookstores are gone and replaced. Coffee shops are conquered by Starbucks and Peet’s. Change is afoot, proving that I am older and remember too much!

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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