Updated: Feb 24, 2019
In February, when much of the world digs out from snow or splashes through dirty gray sludge, the Bay Area sparkles. On most mornings the sun dawns brightly, and a pungent sea breeze brings a freshness that permeates every sense. There is such an array of landscapes and geographies there, and each one benefits from crisp mornings – The hills seem greener, the buildings of San Francisco and Oakland gleam with an artificial cleanliness, and the Bay itself seems to dance. Mornings like this rise to opportunities rather than obligations.
On mornings such as this I can’t wait to get moving. When I am by the Bay, I stay in Berkeley in a guest house that is as comfortable, as quiet, as nurturing as any place could be. Roses bloom outside the kitchen window, and hosts of birds make sure that no morning begins without notice.
On most days I start by walking down the block and around the corner to Philz Coffee on Shattuck Street, at the tip of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Philz has the best coffee in the world. Each blend is hand crafted, and each cup is made to order. No lattes or cappuccinos – just coffee in its purest form, dressed maybe with a little cream or a dab of sugar, but nothing else. Phil is a purist, and he’s made me a believer.
At the top of the street before I turn the corner that takes me to Shattuck, I can feel the morning at its fullest. Behind me are the Berkeley hills, sloping upward and dotted by houses that I’ll never enter and could never afford. In front of me is a glimpse of the Bay, and I can see across it just enough to make out Sausalito and Tiburon in the distance. The street itself is remarkably clean. Often mothers or fathers are bustling their young children to school, or people are walking their well-behaved dogs. San Francisco’s fascination is off to the side. I cannot see it, but I can feel it on mornings like these. Alive, all of it, and thriving. I’m alive, too. My lungs fill with Berkeley air and my heart pumps new blood; a warming sun begins a fresh journey. I begin a fresh journey, too. Bring it on, whatever lies ahead. Just bring it on. I’m ready – for the morning, for the day, for the promise and the praise and the pretense of the rest of my life.
Inspiration comes in forms we sometimes do not recognize. Berkeley winter mornings can drive new hopes, new dreams, new possibilities. But they are not all there is. We live in complexities that we cannot fathom. And we can never really escape those complexities, no matter how much we can and cannot see…….
Outside my guest house early on a morning that would eventually dawn with its customary brilliance, well before sunrise, a homeless man was staggering about. He woke me first with his anger, a profane ranting that barked like a dog’s snarl. I couldn’t make out the particulars. All I heard was anger – vicious, violent and helpless. All he had were his words, whatever they meant and wherever they arose.
He kept at it for at least half an hour. I thought about peeking out the window to see where he was, and what he looked like. It’s easy to entertain a vision. So many homeless wander around Berkeley, and so many look disheveled beyond the point of all loss. I imagined a youngish man, perhaps in his twenties but nor older than 40, long hair, unkempt beard and clothes that fit inconsistently – perhaps a shirt too large or jeans with more than a few tatters.
I didn’t look, though. I didn’t need to justify a stereotype. Even this display deserved some dignity, and the shield of anonymity. He lives in his own private swirls and eddies. I had no call to invade them.
After a time his rantings changed. The anger faded, perhaps expunged, like a panting breath. What replaced it was a guttural moan that rose from deep within him, the bellow of a wounded animal. I cannot know what bore it, nor the precision of the agonies he roared out. A loss of time, of youth, of power, of relevance, of sanity…….Gone, and forever gone in his shredded psyche, his unstitched heart. He roared, and moaned, and cried from the throat.
At last, spent, he sobbed rhythmically, then softened his breathing in a regular pattern, and I heard in it a comfort, almost as if he were pleasuring himself, his hollow moans transformed into quick and definite breaths. His crying ceased, and with slow, audible steps, he moved on.
Over an hour I heard outside my window what I cannot feel. But I know it is human, and because it is human, it is shared. There is no fear in that. There is no peace, either…..
I slept no more that morning. I lay awake for a bit, then, with the first shards of daylight leaking through white curtains, I got out of bed, showered, and made my way to Philz. As I left the house, I looked around me for anything left behind, but there was no trace of the man or his cries. It was if he had never been there at all.