A year ago I made a return visit to Berkeley to attend a friend’s wedding. Having grown up in the city, I felt a rush of memories, including ones prompted by the stroll I took through Berkeley’s commercial center in the area of University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. Walking there today you find a preponderance of boutiques and foreign restaurants and coffee bars catering to students from the nearby University of California campus. Most of these establishments have moved into storefronts that made up a very active business district when I was in high school in Berkeley in the 1950s. My walk through Berkeley’s commercial center as it is today brought back a flood of memories of the kind that, I’m sure, many Californians experience when they revisit neighborhoods that have undergone their version of the radical, continuing change that is so much a part of the state.
To have a full social life as a teenager in the 1950s usually required access to a car. That fact, in an indirect way, led me to become much better acquainted with downtown Berkeley. During the winter when I was sixteen years old and in the eleventh grade at Berkeley High School, I took the driver training course offered at the school and obtained my driver’s license. But I needed money to pay for personal liability insurance. My parents didn’t have enough to cover the full amount. My father offered to assume part of the cost if I could find a way to pay the remainder. I thought I might be able to earn what I needed by finding a job for the holiday shopping season in one of the stores in downtown Berkeley. Looking back, I find it interesting that I never considered searching anywhere else. For example, I could have looked for work at a factory or a lumberyard in the industrial area of Berkeley, down by the shore of the Bay, or I might have hunted in Albany along San Pablo Avenue, at one of the grocery stores or at the bowling alley. I must have concentrated on downtown Berkeley as a way to make more connections with the city I regarded as my community.
The search for work enlarged my understanding of cities. Each time that I went into a place of business and asked the first employee I met if there were any job openings, I was told to go to the back of the building and introduce myself to the manager. This was the first time I ever thought much about the fact that a store was not only its sales area but also the storage rooms in the rear, the Spartan room where the employees ate their lunch, the shabby hallway with the coat hooks and the thumping gray metal machine that punched the time cards, the semi clean bathrooms, the accountant’s offices where a pale skinned man sat at a desk covered with receipts, and the office where the manager presided at his desk, talking on the phone and gesturing to you that he’d be off the line in a moment. I went in and out of many stores: department stores, stationery stores, drug stores, insurance offices, music stores, men’s clothing stores, movie theatres, grocery stores, hardware stores, candy shops. Finally I found a job as stock boy at Taylor’s Leather Goods. This was the ultimate back room experience. Out in front, the store was spacious, brightly lit, festively decorated for the holidays, and filled with the pleasant chatter of prosperous customers who could afford to buy the shiny leather briefcases and finely tooled luggage that the establishment had been offering for seventy-five years. But where I worked, in the rear of the store, the space had a different character. The stock area consisted mostly of shelves where the inventory was kept. In the middle was a wooden table, lit by a few bare, hanging bulbs, where I was stationed. I unpacked items wanted for the floor, packed recently sold items for shipping, did gift wrapping, went out onto the floor from time to time to sweep and dust, and occasionally left the shop to run errands and make deliveries. At first I worked after school. Then during Christmas vacation I worked all day, sometimes twelve hours. As one day followed another, I noticed that, in contrast to the quiet of my area, sounds out on the sales floor became louder and louder, like an ocean roar, as the number of customers in the store increased and shopping season intensified. The holiday break from school began to feel like immersion in a machine. I had never viewed it in this way before.
Although I was in the back, I felt a strong sense of community at the store. I got to chat with interesting customers when I carried their packages to their cars. High school friends dropped in to say hello or join me for lunch. The salespeople enjoyed having me and asked me about myself and told me riotously funny stories about the customers. The owner, though brusque, was a courteous and fair man who took time to teach me things like how to work a cash register and how to monitor inventory. I also had the good fortune of being next to a full time companion. Near me, at another dimly lit table, surrounded by boxes and shelves, was the luggage repair area. This was a major source of income for the store, thanks to the skill and reputation of an odd character who proved to be a counterpoint to my search for ways to belong. He was known to everyone as Herman, the Trunk Man. That was how he introduced himself to me, my first day at work, as he suddenly emerged from behind a row of shelves and sat down on the stool at his worktable. He was about five and a half feet tall, with a stocky build. His hair was white and he was bald on the top. He wore rimless gold glasses and had a round, shiny face. He seemed like a slightly threatening version of Santa Claus. He wore a solid colored, blue gray sport shirt and old brown slacks. He seemed to be about fifty years old and he spoke in a tenor voice with a German accent. He picked up some tools from his worktable and began repairing one of the pieces of luggage that was in front of him. As he worked, with his eyes nearly always focused on the job, he struck up a conversation — the first of many we had during that holiday season.
On certain topics, Herman never volunteered information. I never quite knew where he came from, or what his family life had been, or exactly where he had learned how to repair luggage. I guessed that he was from the Midwest – maybe Chicago or Milwaukee – and had been brought up there by German-American immigrants. He seemed to have been married and then to have moved west after the death of his wife or a divorce. His major topics of conversation were gambling, drinking, smoking, sex, and gossip. It was the world of one of the magazines, the Police Gazette, that I peeked at from time to time at newsstands. He liked to smoke small cigars while he did his repair work. On one of the shelves near his table he kept a leather-covered flask of whiskey. From time to time he offered me a sip, which I accepted once or twice, although I didn’t like the taste. When he asked about me, he usually wanted to hear stories about the girls my friends and I knew. He was always looking for racy stories and was usually disappointed by the ones I came up with. But he did enjoy the dirty jokes I told him. High school students usually have a rich supply as a substitute for the sex they seldom experience. Herman also liked to talk about gorgeous movie stars. I concentrated on the ones that interested me, like Anita Ekberg and Gina Lollobrigida. Herman preferred the stars of earlier generations, like Claire Trevor and Joan Crawford. The one he kept coming back to was Clara Bow. He seemed to have been to every movie she ever made. Probably his sexual awakening had taken place during the early era of sound movies when she became famous. “She was known as the ‘it’ girl,” Herman advised me again and again, “and let me tell you, my boy, she did have ‘it.’” In his focus upon Clara Bow, Herman seemed to me to be trying to capture something – perhaps to achieve a higher degree of sexual adventure than he had attained, perhaps to recapture a relationship with some beautiful young girl who had disappeared long ago, perhaps to have lived a life filled with more big-city adventure than he had the courage or the unscrupulousness to make possible. I could tell that he wanted to wander but also knew that, for some reason, the best strategy was to stay put, spending most of his hours planted firmly on a stool in the back of a shop in the sedate downtown of a medium sized city.
Taylor’s Leather Goods was the place where I first worked in downtown Berkeley. My second downtown job came about a year later. It also presented me with a life story that was an indirect comment on my desire to belong. With my father away on his final tour of Navy sea duty, I thought I might be able, if I could get a job, to help my mother financially and get a head start on paying for college. I went back to downtown Berkeley and again walked the streets until I found work – for the second time — as a stock boy. This time I worked at Kaufmann’s Draperies. The owner, Julius Kaufmann, was a Jewish refugee. In the early 1930’s, he had owned a prosperous drapery shop in Vienna. When Hitler annexed Austria, Mr. Kaufmann took what he could of his personal fortune and fled with his wife to Cuba. In Havana, he opened a new shop and steered it to prosperity. In the process, he caught the eye of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s evil dictator. One day, as Mr. Kaufmann later related to me, Batista summoned Mr. Kaufmann to his palace and demanded all of his money. Batista gave Kaufmann a choice: Turn over the money willingly, making it easier for Batista to get to it, or die, along with his wife and new baby boy, in which case Batista would, after some inconvenience, find the money anyhow. Batista told Kaufmann that, if he cooperated, he would be allowed to fly with his family to the United States, where the U.S. authorities would, no doubt, take pity and allow him permanent residence.
Mr. Kaufmann and his family arrived in America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They were accepted and relocated to California, where, it was thought, they would find employment in the postwar economic boom. At first, however, Mr. Kaufmann could not get a job. No one wanted to hire a person with a German accent. Finally, the owner of a fabric store in Oakland gave him a chance. Mr. Kaufmann quickly became the top salesman. Then, with the help of friends, he obtained the financing to open his own establishment in Berkeley. By 1961, when I began working there, Kaufmann’s Draperies was the largest fabric and drapery store in Northern California.
Mr. Kaufmann was a complex man. He was highly intelligent and farsighted. He was a strong leader but also democratic in the sense that he would take off his suit coat and perform any job in the store when necessary. He was not averse to sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store or taking his turn at one of the big workbenches in the back, measuring out and cutting and sewing a large length of cloth. He was compassionate, as, for example, in making no-interest loans to employees in distress and allowing extra time off for emergencies. He was also a good father in some ways. His son, Walter, was a graduate of Boalt Law School at the University of California. But against all this Mr. Kaufmann had many weaknesses. His store was his domain. In his mannerisms, he was an Austrian martinet. He considered it his right to yell at employees, to berate them, to humiliate them in front of others, and to make cutting remarks. He did not encourage dialogue or tolerate disagreement.
I learned all of these things about Mr. Kaufmann gradually, and from my vantage point. As a high school student, not yet eighteen years old, with college still ahead of me, I did not have the training or the vocabulary to put what I was seeing into any theoretical framework. But I did know, from common sense and my high school history classes, that I was getting a very detailed picture of the life and sentiments of a man who had been driven out of the world he loved, and who needed very much to carry a part of that world, the world of Old Europe, with him.
To maintain that sense of connection, Mr. Kaufmann observed a variety of rituals. Even on the hottest of days, he came to work in a three-piece wool suit. He was very formal with every employee, addressing almost everyone as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. Several times a month, he sent me across the street to the local tobacco shop to pick up the small German cigars he loved to smoke. He talked thoughtfully about the articles he read in the papers and about books. He and Mrs. Kaufmann regularly took in plays and concerts in Berkeley and San Francisco. He donated generously to charity and was an active member of local service clubs. He sought to be admired not only for his success in business, but also for the place he held culturally and socially in his city.
The most nervous I ever saw Mr. Kaufmann act was during the two weeks before the scheduled visit by members of the family who owned the largest department store in West Berlin. Mr. Kaufmann spoke with each of us individually to emphasize his concern that the visit would take place without incident. He ordered us to undertake a special cleaning and decoration of his entire store. He told us to be especially polite and diplomatic if any of the visiting Berliners happened to speak to us. The day the guests arrived, Mr. Kaufmann was wearing his best suit, silk tie, and cuff links. There was, however, something a bit sad about the actual visit. All four of the Berliners – two men and two women – had svelte bodies and wore the latest, rather colorful fashions from Europe. There was a modern, almost Italian look to them. Mr. Kaufmann, with his short, stocky body and his dark suit with the old fashioned cut, looked like he was having difficulty keeping up. And the visitors carried their bodies haughtily, as if to remind Mr. Kaufmann that they owned a vast department store while he was merely the keeper of a big shop. As I watched Mr. Kaufmann’s guests go through his store that afternoon, I hated them. Mr. Kaufmann may have been an autocrat, but he was also a decent and incredibly brave man who had suffered too much. He deserved more respect than his guests were giving him. And I was confident that, after he was gone from the world, many, many people would remember him with gratitude and admiration.