On a mossy, low, cement wall a tiny doll stands on a flat spot. She’s an inch high and has feet the size of ants. Her hands are folded in front of her bright red knee length dress. She is painted white; face, hands and lower legs. Her long hair and tiny feet are painted black. A middle-class lady from the 50’s, Doris Day or Mrs. Cleaver. Below her, graffiti in wide white letters, each letter five times her height, says:
punctuated with a little heart. Which came first? Which one was a comment on the other?
The street ahead is wet and empty. The sidewalks are dark, it rained during the night and the colors are intensified by the water. A car goes by making that hissing noise you only hear when a car goes by after the rain. Not the deep splashy hiss when the rain is falling but the lighter one, when the water has had an hour or so to drain away. I remember the feeling of joy and excitement I felt on a rainy night when I was in college. Many people moved swiftly along the paths, some laughter floated across the quad. Light pooled at the foot of lamp poles and reflected on puddles and the yellow light made the bright green of the grass glow in the darkness. I was going to class and looking forward to it. I was looking forward to change.
In front of the Live Oak Recreation building there is a tot lot. There is a play tower, very high, that looks like a castle because of the conical roof over a round tower. It is made of thick plastic. An orange tube, like a sewer pipe, curves from the top to the ground; a slide for short people. It’s a weird thing, as if assembled from leftovers, the scraps of construction materials. Its ugly, as much children’s architecture is, made to last, then to attract the eye of someone who likes shiny bright things. Bubble gum colors, huge fun to play on when you are three. At the gate someone taped up a sign telling the older children to stay out so that the little kids will be safe. I saw that sign when I went to vote at the center last November. I wonder if it is still there.
A flock of small children, herded by three adults comes hopping up the path from the creek in the park. They are wearing various colors of rain gear. Some walk happily, others with purpose, some are examining the ground in front of them very carefully as they try to keep up with the mob. One tall girl is wearing a single piece rainsuit. It fits her very well, the cuffs at her wrists and ankles are the perfect length. She walks confidently, head up, giving a little skip every few steps. She is the age where she will wear that red suit until it either shreds off her or she has grown so tall she can’t get it over her shoulders. It looks durable so my bet is on the outgrowing.
I want to take a picture of the picnic area set in a flat spot near the creek, but the trees and shrubs are so chaotic I can’t see anything but leaves and stems. I know the shot will be a mass of confusing greens and yellows and black. Nothing one can focus on with a camera. I know what it should look like but I can’t capture it. Besides part of why I want to take the picture is that I think about the fire pit downt there and if it would really make sense to have the Christmas tree burning down there. There are often homeless people camped out in that glen, too. I would feel like I was invading their space. I like the idea of burning the Christmas trees. It is so dramatic and a little frightening how fast they go up in flames. But the smoke is a problem. My lungs don’t like it and it isn’t good for the environment. Much better to chip the trees and then put them in the compost. Everytime I pass this spot on my way to Jeanna’s I think about this non-party I won’t be having.
As I pass the Berkeley Art Center and approach Oxford street there is a graying wood fence along the path. A perfect place for graffiti:
in baby fat letters. When I was growing up Nerd was one of the worst insults. A Nerd was someone who did their math homework in five minutes and then wanted more homework because the problems were interesting. They were not sports, they were not romantic or cute or handsome. They were intelligent and inventive but if they had lived in another time they would have been ostrasized for their extreme shyness and inability to deal with people. When I was young, they were tolerated, but just barely. Being a nerd was not cool. They were smartass, not just smart. Since the computer age was created by Nerds, the word has changed its meaning. There might be a little resentment in it, but it is the kind of ambivalence that the poor have for the rich; An example of this reasoning: “I want to be rich, but it is the assholes who are rich.” Which leads to this kind of resonaing, “I wish I could be a creative genius, I would like to be one of the Nerds who created video games and iPhones. But they are not exactly human, they are Nerds. I would rather play the game than learn how to make the game.” To the Nerd making the game IS the game.
I love only one thing about the Fall, in our semi-arid Berkeley the rains bring a Spring of sorts. By the end of summer, drought has burned and flattened all the color out of the plant life. Everything is dusty and flaking apart. After the first rains, all the moss and baby grasses sprout. There is baby blue. Why isn’t there a baby green. It’s the color of multitudes of new grass covering a hillside. Pale and vulnerable green. Baby green. A green that is tender and edible. The black and brown mulch of dried summer grass and leaves is covered with baby green grass.
Raindrops are arranged in a neat line as they hang from the pipe railing of the handicap ramp that goes up to Oxford Street. Each drop a perfect lens for the sky and land. Bright moss grows between the thin slats of the steel ramp.
Codornices Creek is rushing down below. It makes a hissing sound but it is nothing like the hissing of the cars on the wet street. It’s only the word ‘hissing’ that they have in common. I always wonder about the section of the creek that goes underground on the north side of the Temple grounds. A million years ago, when city permits and liability insurance didn’t hamper land owners (make them behave responsibly), this land owner laid a cement pipe to guide the creek under Spruce Street and covered it with fill. There isn’t any superstructure for the pipe or the fill, eventually the creek will win and cut away enough of its tunnel walls that it will collapse. Then Spruce Street will be a dam and the people who live upstream will get flooded. Hopefully there is enough of a dip in the street at that point that nothing drastic will happen. Worst case though is that a lake builds up. If the Spruce street ‘dam’ breaks, that will be a catastrophe downstream, especially when it hits houses on the west side of Live Oak Park and the drains under the Madeline and Sutter and Milvia Streets.
Someone has locked a huge u-shaped bike lock on a branch of a shrub. The shrub is not trying to escape. Nothing is locked to the tree. Just an abandoned lock, locked to a tree.
On Spruce a tree has huge Christmas stars, the diameter of basketballs, hanging over the sidewalk.
Further up the hill, a Ginkgo has still more bright yellow leaves to drop and decorate the sidewalk.
As I pass a wire fence, a large white lab barks at me and rushes at me from inside. When he is almost to the sidewalk it’s as if he recognises me and he turns sheepishly away, wagging his tail, and trots back to his hiding place under the steps of a porch. Job done. A red and white sign announces that the property is protected by SENTRY ALERT. Funny name for a dog.
Someone has paved the three foot space between the sidewalk and the curb with square bricks. The spaces between them are filled with bright green moss and the bricks are uneven in shape and color. They are mostly brick red but some are pinkish and others almost brown. They have shifted so they look like a crazy quilt.
I am completely winded by the time I reach the intersection of Spruce and Eunice so I stop to rest. Cars politely wait for me to cross. I wave them on but they keep stopping for me. Finally I turn my back on the intersection and refuse to make eye contact with any drivers. Then they progress through the intersection without waiting for me. It takes me a minute to catch my breath.
A white stucco house across the street has been shot through by a foot high wooden I-beam. The ends stick out of gashes in the stucco. They must be bracing it for a new foundation. The house looks wounded, perhaps fatally.
Many houses have strands of lights wound around trees and hanging from their eves. It is too bright out for them to be lit, it must be fine at night.
I was riding the bus through Alameda after dark last week. Hundreds of houses were all lit up with Christmas lights. It was very cheering. It made me think of the small communities we lived in when I was a child. Places where the kids ran around after dark, playing tricks on each other, waiting for the first parent to call out and break the spell of evening.
A pink magnolia tree is in full bloom across the street. I always think about how lucky I am to live in a place where there are trees coming into bloom in December. My imagination takes me momentarily to NY which is covered in snow and misery this time of year.
An abandoned garage, covered with ivy transports me to the South, where everything is coated in ivy and moss and damp heat.
An old grey stucco house is covered in dead ivy but some attention has been paid. There is a small espaliered tree. It might be a fruit tree but the leaves haven’t fallen, yet. A lemon? It is cut into a disk about a foot thick, held up by the trunk of the tree. A barstool or a cafe table chest high. Except one branch has been allowed to escape. It stands alone above the rest of the tree, twisted and bare until it sprouts a tuft of leaves 3 feet above the table top, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. The whole ensemble is decorated with large plastic ornaments, the size of navel oranges but the usual Christmassy red, silver and gold. Even the scraggly branch is decorated with a turban shaped ornament. It is red and white with gold trim. It is the nicest ornament in the tree. It’s almost as if one staid person decorated the base and another, more fanciful, person, the person who likes the Charlie Brown branch, got to go all out with the one ornament.
A car, parked in someone’s graveled yard, seems to be hiding behind a bush, it is dressed in a grey burka and is very shy about strangers.
A bright red Bottle Brush flower leans way over into the pathway. It demands that I take it’s picture. There don’t seem to be any other Bottle Brush flowers in the vicinity.
Between Arch Street and Keith there is a house built up on the hillside. The garage is right on the sidewalk. The owners have installed a bench and a small drinking fountain that drains into a dog dish. It is such a complete statement of welcome that I always take a sip of the water, just to let the owners know that their effort is appreciated. When the water dribbles into the dog dish it makes a ring of small bubbles in the water and stirs small black flakes of leaves. Every time I pass here there is water in the dog dish.
I pass a very modern yard. A high cement retaining wall shows off the rough edges of the planks used to make the forms. You can see the knots and rough grain of the wood embossed in the cement. The ground below it is neatly covered in magenta river stones or pebbles, the size and texture of eggs. They are partially dry after the rain this morning so they are pale and dusty looking, but where they curve down and touch each other they are still dark and wet, kind of a raw liver color. Three evenly spaced faded green and yellow beach grasses pace down thru the pebbles. It is clearly the home of an architect or someone with enough money to hire a landscape gardener with a mean streak of geometry in his genes.
The rain has left water ornaments on some of the bushes along the path. The ones with fuzzy leaves are the best at cultivating glistening, glittering drops.
I turn up Pam’s street. In the summer the pollarded trees form a canopy over the street, making it feel sheltered and intimate. In the winter with the leaves gone the trees look mutated and ugly. The bulbous stumps where they are cut back every couple of years are scabby. The thin branches that grow out of them are reaching out through the power lines but the pollarded main branches are cut awkwardly around the lines. I’ve never liked pollarded trees, it makes me think about docking dogs tails, declawing cats, foot binding.
The uphill side of the street has garages built into the hill and cement steps leading way up to the houses. One decrepit stair way is bulging with cracks as the earth has moved under the cement. Ferns and ivy are hanging over the pathway making it look like it is a trail into the Secret Garden. At a bend in the stairs there is a small green glazed statue holding a vase on its shoulder. It’s one of those androgynous baby sculptures, cupid or some Greek virginal nymph. It is looking askance at the blue tarp that covers the roof of the garage.
Pam’s gate is wrought iron. It has nice curves and loops and amazingly for a gate, the latch lines up with the catch precisely. When I close it the latch snaps locked in a very satisfying way. A machined efficiency. Her property is very neat and tidy. Her garden has some spectacular Aloes with thick pale leaves a color somewhere between baby blue and baby green. They splay out in graceful curves extending three feet from the center where the new ones are still wrapped around the tall spike in the middle.
I need to catch my breath before tackling her stairs so I take pictures of her house from the street, then of the plants next to the steps as I slowly climb. The stair treads are decorated with white, yellow and cobalt blue Mexican tiles. There is a silver-leafed plant still covered in rain drops. A different plant with a pink flower shaped like a clover flower peeks out from the surrounding silver. A Fuschia-like plant has orangey red flowers hanging from curving stems and a potted orchid is on the landing in front of her rental unit.
Before I knock on the door, I look out over the city. It is covered by fog. Nearby houses are blue in the pale light and beyond there is nothing. Empty, but empty like a view that will be filled when the fog lifts or a day that is beginning or a plate at the beginning of a buffet.