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Fifty Years

Teaching a new class of Freshman always presents me with problems. Nothing is forever-no course of study, no trick, no charm.
Flossie Lewis

Issue #25, March 1996

I lost my buddy of a lifetime a year and a half ago. My response to the loss has been normal; I have wanted to die, or, if that seems a little extreme, I have not wanted to live as exuberantly as I did when my Jerry was around. Everything has been second best or third. The poem by Conrad Aiken that begins "Music I heard with you was more than music/And bread I broke with you was more than bread" is terribly true. And I knew it would be when I first read the poem as a girl. I knew I would live to experience these lines. What has kept me from going bonkers is that in addition to carrying two lives around, I am curious about what other great and no doubt grief-stricken adventures await me, and since I do want to share these adventures with Jerry, I have to hang around myself. The other excuse for living is teaching. I still don't have the answers to teaching, let alone life, and the only way to find the answers is to keep asking. This sometimes goes by the name of philosophy. It keeps me afloat.

Teaching a new class of Freshman always presents me with problems. Nothing is forever-no course of study, no trick, no charm. I mean the last. No charm. My students of yesteryear enjoyed my caustic wit, my "joshin'" and cajoling them. Now they don't think I'm funny. They think I'm sarcastic. And I am, but sweetly. But they have done nothing to deserve my "edge". And they are right. They can't read the way I expect them to read, so they can't answer the questions I put to them, and they can't get the hang of a thesis. Why should they? What right have I to expect they should read the way I read, think the way I think, answer questions with a thesis instead of ranging all over the plains. Hell, isn't that the way I write my own dissertation? But this kind of complaint, this dialogue between myself and a new generation keeps me alive, as I say. It reminds me that as long as I can see myself learning, I can see myself living. It is in the spirit of this dialogue that I offer a recollection of Berkeley in the spring of '46, when I stepped off a Greyhound Bus at University and San Pablo Avenues and first saw the likes of Berkeley, the green hills of California.

"Berkeley was pastel..." So begins my first published short story, printed in 1968, although I wrote the story in '49. I was describing February. I had never seen flowers in bloom, not in February. I had never seen people in bloom. Everyone was blonde and blue-eyed too. Like the flowers. Like pastel. If you weren't blonde and blue eyed, you were dark and Red, or you had friends who were Reds, dark Reds. If you were pastel, you lived in a frat house or a sorority, and you drank beer at The Anchor Inn, where they served it steamed. And you got drunk toasting the football team. If you were dark and shifty-eyed and political and your best friends were Red, you scorned the team and the gang of pastels who sang, as if they were bleeding: "All Hail." Besides, you could afford only one beer, and in comradely fashion you shared your drink with your neighbor. You were very broke, even if you were on the GI Bill, because you were married, and the wife was expecting. You could be a woman on the same Bill, but no one supposed you were really a veteran. Maybe a camp follower because what respectable woman would join the Army? Maybe the Navy, but not the Army. If you were a GI Woman, you could get a job in administration or in physical education, but that didn't mean you had brains.

There were virtually no women academics. There was a very distinguished lady in Education and one in Psychology, a Dean yet. But our own English department sported only one woman, a young instructor, Josephine Miles. She gave me a B in Exposition, but she asked me if I planned to write one day. How could I know what that meant? I remember Professor Miles when she was still able to walk. I have a post card from her too, when short story five was published in the 70's. She read everything. Her mind went everywhere. But when I was in her class, I was so utterly green. I didn't know an avocado from a green orange. I thought Salt Lake City had a sub-tropical climate. And I thought I knew everything else. My profs at Brooklyn College had praised my writing, and so did Bertrand Evans, of UC Berkeley, fresh from the Ozarks himself, who read my compositions aloud in the English class and smacked his lips and gave me a C in the course because it was a course for teachers who wanted to get ready to teach high school students grammar, and who cared about grammar! I didn't.

I just wanted to get married. Every woman I knew, almost without exception, wanted to get married, or if they didn't, they were in therapy. Everyone was broke but in therapy. All except the profs. They were all men, as I have suggested, and had wives, young wives or senior girls, who adored them and whom they sometimes married. But carrying on love affairs was a painful thing. For a woman, even if she adored the prof or the formidable TA, it was a very painful thing. A girl was still supposed to be a virgin when she came to the marriage bed. If she lied about her virgin state, she was committing a mortal sin. Her husband would never forgive her, unless, of course, he was a Red. Then it was all right. If he married her, of course. But the guilt of not remaining a virgin. One had to experience this guilt. It was ugly. You were damaged merchandise. A friend of mine was in therapy for five years because she was not a virgin and she had lied to her husband, who was. I had another friend who wrote her husband and his parents a letter of apology, but they never forgave or trusted her. And her husband lived in fear that she would show the effects of tertiary syphilis, sooner or later, although the Wasserman had given her as well as him a clean bill of health.

But the campus was lovely.

It was always green. There was no drought. Smog didn't hit us until the 60's, when suddenly the air turned greasy, and there were days when the Blue and Gold seemed not to be our colors at all. But fifty years ago. Ah! There was no Student Union, just Moses Hall. There was no Dwinelle Hall. There was no undergraduate library. There was no graduate library either. If you were an English Grad., you occupied a chair and a shelf at the last table of the reference room at Doe Library. I am not kidding. The back table. You put your name on the shelf, where you kept your books. You weren't permitted to claim a seat. If you desired a book, you stood in line while the moles went searching in the mines. You could stand for hours waiting for the books to emerge from their mysterious hiding places. I do not recall having access to the stacks until much later, the 60's. I was busy acquiring a teaching credential and flunking out of English, tortured by Shaw's dictum that those who can do, but those that can't, teach.

There was no Tolman Hall, the School of Education, only Havilland Hall. We did our Stat. with adding machines. Or slide rules. There were no Evans Hall (the math building) or Latimer Hall (chemistry) or Earth Sciences. There were of course, Life Sciences Building and Giannini Hall and, the school where you got your eyes examined. There was Cowell Hospital. What was there? Temporary shacks. You have just witnessed the last of their traces. How sound was their structure! They lasted more than five score years. They must have been good. And the campus was green. The roofs on the temporaries were green. The view from the Campanile was sky and sea. Breath away. It took your breath away. And a strange little bird by the name of Iris Murdoch played the bells of the Campanile. She weighed eighty pounds with her shoes on, but she surely could shove the heavy metal around. She shoved everybody around. She was my first sight of a liberated soul. Forget woman.

There was no glass in the Campanile. That would come in the 60's when students began hurling themselves from the arches and landing on the rich loam below. The suicides heralded the Free Speech Movement even before the Vietnam war began. The university had grown large, and although students didn't sit in the corridors on their butts, they waited on chairs, endlessly, while the prof made out with a chick or chewed out or spewed out a paper which was not exactly to his taste. There was no touchy-feely. One hated and despised on both sides, but not openly. But there was no redress, if you were on the humble side. It was ombudsman for a long time, but it was nothing for a long, long time.

Where are the woes of yesteryear? The only time ordinary people saw the faculty in pain or dignity, if not heroism, was during the time of the loyalty oaths, the McCarthy Madness. Most of the faculty took the oath, but some stood straight and tall. Most cringed. Others trembled. Others cried Red. For most, as Josephine Miles put it, "Even the trees went underground." You could disagree violently with your leftist friends, but you didn't want them thrown out of jobs or humiliated by crooks and embezzlers, who would some of them end up in the same penitentiary they had sent the "Commies". These were lean and hungry years, after so much promise. The 60's would protest this caving in to red baiting and witch hunting and sending more troops around the Pacific to keep Asians free, and, what is more-freedom loving. But the wars in the Pacific brought two things to Berkeley in addition to the passion of good men like Mario Savio. It brought food and drugs.

sink In the late 40's there were no drugs, not out in the open. But some of the vets who had to clean up the concentration camps needed a little bit of help and they got it. Some of them became addicted to morphine or heroin or whatever the military was feeding them. I recall having to move from a very nice apartment house in San Francisco, with rent control yet, because the first floor garden apartment was dispensing drugs to weird looking characters and vets. The apartment was being rented by someone called Mary, and one night two vets got into a bloody brawl because they couldn't find Mary. The cops came. We thought we had a brothel in our house. But Mary was a man, and he was no pimp. Just a drug dealer. Nothing like the 60's when kids got high on acid and howled in the streets and later jumped from buildings. I lost two of the brightest boys I have ever taught to acid. In the 40's drugs were dirty and mean.

In the late 40's there was no food either. There was Larry Blake's, but nobody really ate there. One met over one of Blake's crouton salads and talked the night away. There was a place called The Black Sheep where you had lunch if you were being courted to teach at the university or a visiting relative wanted to give you a meal. All they had at The Black Sheep was refined, stuff like chicken salad and maybe stuffed avocado with chicken or tuna salad, maybe a lamb chop. There was Spengers. There was one Cantonese restaurant on Shattuck and University, and there was Berkeley Square that served shrimps and chow yuk and drinks, and where the nightingale will always sing for me because Jerry kissed me over a water chestnut. It had a fireplace. Mostly undergrads and grads ate at Jules or the Log Cabin. Jules was right outside Sather Gate. I mean it. You left the campus at the gate and walked into Jules, where you got a van shake or a choc shake for a quarter. The shake was as large as the containers that grind out smoothies. It was like drinking four helpings of smoothies. And you got a hamburger with chips or fries, and that was a quarter too, and you didn't have to eat for the rest of the day. The Log Cabin stayed open all night and served greasy snails which they fried on the grill, and terrible coffee. There was also King Pin Doughnut on Channing and Telegraph, where I was the sloppiest waitress in town.

Food came to Berkeley in the 60's. It began, oddly enough, on Solano Avenue with a place called King Tsin. Northern Chinese cooking caught Berkeley like a fire storm. There had never been anything like it. There was good Mexican food, but you had to go to West Oakland to get it. There was Jack London Square for sea food, but Solano Avenue was just around the corner, and the overflow from King Tsin brought a wonderful Japanese restaurant to town - Toraya; and then in reverse domino effect every shop in town became a restaurant, and the desire for adventures in eating came to be an obsession and spread West Gate, North Gate, all around the town. It spread from Telegraph Avenue and Shattuck Avenue and University Avenue to Spengers and across the freeway. We must not, however, neglect the impact which the kiosques had on our virgin tastes, They were tremendous, starting with the Asian gentleman who made the yummiest Bow in town but was outraged at the political and religious anarchy that reigned on campus in the 70's. And then came Miyashi's. Possibly Chez Panisse arrived earlier than Miyashi's. What? A kiosque and an institution in the same breath? The question is irrelevant. What is important is what food had come to mean to Berkeley.

Something had gone wrong. Something had gone out of sex. Sex, which had been so sweet in the 60's and so open to one and all under 25, even that sweet young sex-had turned mean and ugly. By the early 70's Patty Hearst had been kidnapped, and whether or not she should have survived while the house went up in smoke, the story of love in the abstract, especially for the little children, and hatred and cruelty for the pig middle-class, wasn't pretty. There was also venereal disease, although penicillin still worked. Then came herpes, hepatitis, and AIDS. Food, on the other hand, was safe and came in infinite variety, and everyone could master the art. One could indulge in orgies of a gastronomical nature, and one didn't have to be female to be bulimic. One could eat, one could cook, and one could watch Julia Child. We are still eating and still looking for new eating highs. And practicing safe sex, which is a lot more irritating than washing one's hands before touching food. But something is missing. There is no romance.

It used to be that one could walk in Berkeley at any hour of the day or night. I used to hitch hike from Fresno every weekend to visit Jerry, who hated to travel. Why did I do that? It was romance. Truck drivers bought me breakfast and cigarettes. They stopped off at the mortuary where I lived in Fresno and asked the mortician, C. Harry Palm, how I was doing. How am I defining romance? Always the hope, always the possibility of change, always a dream on the way. Always tomorrow. Oh, shades of Scarlet, for shame. But a war won, a GI Bill, a green and lovely campus. It was a romantic who cried out in anguish at Joe McCarthy: "Senator, have you no shame?" It was a romantic who came to the presidency in 1960 and gave us the 50 Mile Hike and the Peace Corps. It was a romantic who listened to the music of Camelot.

There is a photo of President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Mayor John Shelley of San Francisco standing beside a beautiful young woman whom they are honoring for her courage and heroism, She had rescued a buddy from being devoured by a shark. She could not save him from dying, but she had administered the last rites. It was over by Land's End. President Kennedy has just pinned a medal to her, and all the men are beaming. Even J. Edgar Hoover is in that picture. The photo hangs in the modest home of a modest family in San Francisco. The beautiful young woman is now a grandmother, but I do not weep for that. I weep for that moment in time when that picture was taken. I weep for the innocence of that moment, that trust, that faith. And that trust, that faith, that hope survived for a while the terrible November of 1963 and the possibility that in his name we could build a great society.

But there was so much dirt underneath and so much hurt. The romantic believed that desegregation of public schools meant integration. Just like that. The romantic believed that joining hands for a moment spelled love, and that drugs made it happen even better. The romantic believed. Who could guess that the Kennedy men exploited women shamelessly and that Martin Luther King Jr. followed but feebly in their footsteps, although somehow it was easier to forgive King than the men who had been treated like princes. Who could understand Jackie's running to the arms of Onassis and breaking Maria Callas' heart? And who could endure Lyndon's caving in to the generals? If Westy Westmoreland said we were winning in Viet Nam, then by God, we were. And Jerry Brown pontificating. By the time Mr. Reagan got to be governor, it was over. Watergate came as no surprise. Nixon's resigning did.

So? Am I shock proof? No. I was shocked to see how much the campus was divided by the O.J. Simpson verdict. I could understand, but I was shocked. I was delighted that the Soviet Union was no longer, but still a little bit surprised that the world blew up so fast. No, I am still green and hopeful, although I no longer believe in answers, just questions. Back to Gertrude Stein, who had it figured out a long time ago. Even as I insist that there are no answers, only questions, I know that we have to try out some answers, because that's life. Life asks us to take chances. Jerry's favorite "joke" was the story of the sage who always intoned that life is like a fountain. Until the day that a disgruntled disciple cornered the sage and "nudged" him to explain: "So how is life like a fountain? Tell me, why don't you?" And the disciple wouldn't let go. Finally, the sage who was deep in his devotions looked balefully at his former student and cried: "So it's not like a fountain." One could add, "Sue Me!" But you get the point. Fifty years at the university have supplied me with partial answers but good questions, and Jerry always liked questions. He was never happy with answers except they came from Bach. Of course I find it hard to listen to Bach these days, but I'm waiting, and I'm hoping.

Flossie Lewis is the oldest living Graduate Student Instructor. Congratulations may be directed to her mailbox in the UC-Berkeley English Department.

Copyright © 1996 by Flossie Lewis. All rights reserved.