All posts by garymessinger

YEARBOOKS

Janis Joplin, high school year book photo, Texas, 1960
Janis Joplin, high school year book photo, Texas, 1960
Kurt Vonnegut, high school yearbook photo, indiana, 1940s
Kurt Vonnegut, high school yearbook photo, indiana, 1940s

With 2015 coming to an end, my thoughts have turned to an old American custom: the creation of yearbooks to commemorate shared experiences. I don’t know when the first yearbooks appeared. My guess is that they are traceable to the late nineteenth century, the ability by that time to print photographs, and the desires of graduates at colleges and private preparatory schools to have a way of remembering all they had gone through as classmates. By the early twentieth century, in any case, yearbooks were a part of the culture of American education.

Page from Blue and Gold yearbook, 1919
Page from Blue and Gold yearbook, 1919
Typical yearbook page, 1969
Typical yearbook page, 1969

In his wonderful history book, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (2009), Kevin Starr calls attention to the value of high school yearbooks as keys to the cultural values of the eras in which they are produced. As we view page after page of photographs of graduating seniors, basketball teams, performers in plays and musicals, proms, marching bands, students eating in cafeterias, and heads above books on desks in study halls, we begin to see patterns in the ways that the yearbooks present a shared experience. The high school campuses are orderly and well maintained, the students are almost always smiling, there is a feeling of great energy and enthusiasm, the range of after school activities is enormous, the faculty members are friendly, the janitors are included as part of the family, and, even at the schools in low-income neighborhoods, there is an appearance of material prosperity.

In addition, over time, there seem to be generational differences. For example, the students who appear in the pages of yearbooks for the period after World War II up until the mid-1960s seem more like adults than students of later periods, who seem more assertive in the ways they wear their styles of clothing and pursue activities chosen to mark them as different from their parents. Simultaneously, the yearbooks record categories of activity that span generations and can be found at almost any time, whether the year is 1935 or 1970, such as who is mostly likely to succeed, who is the cutest, who is the brightest, who are the cheerleaders, and who are the best dancers.

1919 yearbook page
1919 yearbook page

Today, with the world’s transition to digitization, yearbooks as we have known them may be on the way out. Paper is heavy and expensive. Binding is labor-intensive. Layout and page composition are easier to manage electronically than as part of a process of transferring ink to a printed page. If yearbooks survive, they may soon be creations of the online world exclusively.

I sometimes think that the mid-twentieth century, when I was a high school student, may someday appear to us to have been the heyday of yearbooks.

In 1960, when I was in the twelfth grade at Berkeley High School, I was the editor of our yearbook, and thus obtained an inside look at the process by which such a memento was created. Our high school yearbook was called the Olla Podrida, which meant “Spanish Stew.” More commonly, for short, we called it The Pod.

Downtown Berkeley, looking west, with view of high school campus in center to left of large office buildings
Downtown Berkeley, looking west, with view of high school campus in center to left of large office buildings

I fell into the job of serving as Pod Editor almost by accident. In the latter half of the eleventh grade, I enrolled in Journalism class, got very good grades, and was invited by our Journalism teacher to serve as apprentice editor of our school newspaper. I accepted with pleasure and threw myself into the assignment when it arrived. I received many compliments from teachers and fellow students for the issues of paper published under my editorship. A few weeks before the end of the semester, when our journalism teacher asked me to come by her office after school for a conversation, it seemed to me that an invitation to become editor in chief of the school paper for my upcoming senior year was now inevitable. I still remember my teacher’s gracious, approving smile as I sat down in the chair next to her large, newsprint covered desk.

“Gary,” she began, “we’ve been very pleased with your work.”
”Thank you,” I said expectantly.
”Gary, in light of your fine performance, I’d like to invite you to become editor in chief of our school yearbook.”
”The..the…yearbook?” I replied.
”Yes,” she answered. “It’s a lot of work, but we know you’ll enjoy the job and do it well.”
”But…I was hoping to be editor of newspaper.”
”Oh, quite impossible,” she said. Her tone was friendly and matter of fact.
”Haven’t I done well enough to run the paper?” I asked.
By now my teacher was noticing that I was distressed and perplexed. She stared at me to get a full reading of my emotions, then got a look on her face that said she was beginning to see a missing link.

“Gary,” she continued, “didn’t you know? We always pick the editor of the newspaper from the class that begins Journalism the semester before you began. The job is too large for someone who’s only in the second semester, even a student who’s as good as you are. I usually insist on the same standard for the yearbook, but I’m making an exception in your case. Running the Pod is a high honor. You should tell me yes.”

Berkeley High School main classroom building, with windows of Journalism classroom to right of doorway
Berkeley High School main classroom building, with windows of Journalism classroom to right of doorway

I sighed, thanked my teacher, and told her I needed a few days to think. A few days later, I accepted her offer to become editor of the yearbook.

One more surprise awaited me. About a week after the announcement that I would be the new yearbook editor, our teacher announced that she was retiring. I don’t know if the decision was sudden, or if it had been made many months previously but was only then being made public and had been kept from me for unspecified reasons of timing. In any case, the announcement added large unknowns to the contemplation of my future as a yearbook editor, and I did not need any more large unknowns, given the difficulties surrounding the yearbook that were already clear.

The student yearbook at Berkeley High School was in bad shape. There was a boring sameness to each issue, which consisted of page after page of fuzzy, stilted photographs of student groups and pompous text in hard to read, unattractive blocks of small typeface. All the photos were in black and white, and the cover, semester after semester, was unimaginative and boring. Not surprisingly, sales to students had been decreasing for several semesters, and there was a danger that the issue I would be editing would not attract enough customers to finance itself.

Whether because of vanity or a realistic belief in my journalistic abilities, I was not frightened by these problems and looked upon them as interesting challenges. I soon had several pages of ideas as to how I would improve the photos, layout, binding, and marketing of the Pod. One day, near the end of spring semester, during a break between classes, I happened to be describing my ideas, with great enthusiasm, to a friend, Bob Fidian, who was taking Print Shop. He listened to me patiently for a few minutes, all the while with an amused look, and then gently interrupted. “Gary, it won’t work. You’re talking about small changes, tinkering. I guess you’ve never seen the yearbooks the other high schools put out. The reason our Pod has its troubles is the outdated method of printing we use. It’s the system our teacher began with years and years ago, and she’s never changed. She’s done outstanding work, but you’re lucky she’s retiring. Maybe now we can do what should have been done a long time ago.”

The next day, Bob and I had lunch together and he taught me the difference between letterpress and lithography. In letterpress, each page of material to be printed is set up in a wooden or metal frame with movable type, and copper, electrostatic plates are used to produce pictures. An impression of the page is then melted onto a cylindrical, metal plate that is inserted onto the rotary press that produces the actual printed matter. In lithography, however, it is as if each page is a large photograph, and an initial step called paste up is the key to the process. Blocks of text are printed separately, then cut out and pasted onto a master page along with photographs and any desired artwork. An image of the entire page is then transferred onto rollers and the pages are printed, from this point on, in much the same manner as they would be if on a standard rotary press, although with more rollers and different consistencies of ink.

In the nineteen fifties, letterpress was still the preferred method of printing whenever maximum clarity of image was desired. But lithography was rapidly increasing in quality, offered much greater freedom in page layout, and was less expensive, leaving room in the budget to pay for features such as color printing and a more attractive book cover that were added expenses in letterpress.

At the end of our lunch, Bob explained his reasons for sharing his knowledge of lithography with me. He wanted his school to have a better yearbook, and he was hoping he could divert Berkeley High’s printing business to the firm, Brazelton and Hanscom, located only a few blocks from the high school, where he was apprenticing each day after school. He was not talking about improper influence, he emphasized, only open competition for the job.

I said I wanted to know more, and Bob offered to set up an appointment for me to meet his boss, Mr. Brazelton.

The next Saturday, I had a long session at their plant with Bob and Mr. Brazelton and got a chance to see the yearbooks the firm had been producing for area high schools in such places as Oakland, Richmond, and El Cerrito. The clarity of typeface and photographic image in all the Brazelton and Hanscom yearbooks was very nearly as good as that produced by letterpress in our Pod. And in all other respects the contrast was startling. For the same price as our Pod, the other schools were able to offer more pages, color trim on each page and in many cases color photos, great variety in layout and artwork, and deluxe, padded, simulated leather, embossed, two color covers.

The relative benefits were obvious. I told Mr. Brazelton I wanted to see if I could persuade the powers at Berkeley High to change printers, and I asked him if he would be willing to help me even though I could not guarantee an outcome in his favor.

He said he would help and gave me his word he would stick by me no matter how difficult things might become. For the next several weeks, I spent my Saturdays at Brazelton and Hanscom learning the potential of lithography and preparing mock layouts for the yearbook of my dreams.

With the arrival of summer vacation, there was a hiatus in work on the Pod. Then when September came I was back in Berkeley with a few weeks to spare before the start of school and the completion of my last year as a Senior. Over the summer I had been building ever-higher hopes for a radically improved yearbook. Now came the most critical moment of all. I had to persuade the powers at Berkeley High that we should shift to a new printer.

At first, our Principal would not hear of it. He was a kind, strong, but rather cautious, unimaginative man. So, one day, I made an appointment to talk with him for an entire hour, and I brought in samples of yearbooks produced at other high schools and used every bit of knowledge at my command to win him over. He responded by punting. If the other students in the Journalism class would agree with me, then he would give permission for us to switch printers and go to lithography. A week later, I gave the same presentation to my classmates that I had given to him. They were much easier to persuade, and the shift to lithography became official.

That left only the problem of marketing. Based on issues of recent years, the students of our high school were increasingly less confident that an investment of $2.50 to buy a Pod was worthwhile. Our student sales force didn’t buckle, however. Fifty students strong, they canvassed their classmates, wrote articles for the school newspaper, and paraded around the campus in silly costumes to remind students of the importance of having a record of their years in school. Thanks to them, we sold enough copies for The Pod to survive, and, at the end of the semester, it was received with great praise.

 

WORLD PEACE BACK THEN

 

Stanford University Inner Quadrangle Walkway
Stanford University Inner Quadrangle Walkway

A few weeks ago I was at Stanford University to attend my fiftieth reunion as a member of the Class of 1965. One of the classmates I re-connected with had been a member, along with me, of a Stanford student organization called the IIR. My friend gave me a copy he had saved for many years of a recruitment brochure he and I had produced in 1964 entitled “YOU AND THE IIR.” The old document brought back many memories. And, I can now see, it is an important expression of an attitude toward the possibility of achieving world peace that was widespread at the time but now seems problematic.

The IIR, or Institute of International Relations, was the official international relations organization of the Associated Students of Stanford. Every Stanford student was, in principle, a member, and student fees paid for its activities. Actually, about 400 Stanford students, both graduate and undergraduate, did most of the work, although their projects involved many hundreds more. The IIR had its own offices, provided by the university’s administration, in a loft in the Student Union building.

Stanford Campus
Stanford Campus

The IIR was founded in 1946 by returning veterans enrolled at Stanford who wanted to do whatever possible to prevent another terrible war, and who thought that mobilizing college students for projects promoting international understanding might be one way of working toward such a goal. The IIR organized and sponsored campus lectures, publications, overseas scholarship programs, dances, overseas travel groups, coffee hours, weekend hostels, TV programs, and many other activities. Whatever one could think of, the IIR had probably tried it at one time or another. With leads provided by the IIR, Stanford students secured summer internships at the United Nations. Prominent dignitaries of the era, like Averell Harriman, Harold Stassen, Christian Herter, Ralph Bunche, and Charles Bohlen spoke at well-attended campus conferences organized by the IIR. We sponsored an annual Model United Nations conference, sent thousands of books to the Philippines, helped to build a school house in Tijuana, and hosted a large campus reception each fall for new Stanford students from abroad.

Ralph Bunche, 1963
Ralph Bunche, 1963

Over the years, continually fine programs brought the IIR national honors. It was the only student group in the United States ever to receive the Freedoms Foundation medal, a distinction much coveted at the time. In the early 1960s the IIR became the only student group ever to receive three consecutive awards from the Association of International Relations Clubs as the best college student international relations club among the hundreds then in existence.

President Kennedy welcomes new Peace Corps volunteers to White House in 1961
President Kennedy welcomes new Peace Corps volunteers to White House in 1961

I was elected President of the IIR in 1964. My three predecessors all went on to become Rhodes Scholars. I went on to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in History. My successor obtained his doctorate in Political Science from Columbia and became internationally known in his field of Chinese studies. Our organization attracted talented people who not only wanted to be in a campus activity and make social contacts but who also had a sense of high purpose.

United Nations Building New York City
United Nations Building New York City

The IIR went of existence in the 1970s. Today the office space it once occupied at the student union building houses air conditioning equipment. The relatively sudden demise of the group was due to a change in American values and to certain activities of the IIR that were not publicized during its heyday but that became public in the late 1960s and proved to be embarrassing.

The thing that unified all the students who were members of the IIR over the decades was a shared belief that world peace could be brought closer to achievement through the power of face-to-face, personal contact, either in the literal sense or through informational programs that took participants a step nearer to mutual understanding.

This was and remains a powerful ideal. Our brochure, “You and the IIR,” reprinted a quotation from a book entitled The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith, a prominent historian and theologian of the era. Referring to the post-World-War-Two period, he declared: “We live in a fantastic century…. We hear on all sides that East and West are meeting but it is an understatement. They are being flung at one another, hurled with the force of atoms, the speed of jets, the restlessness of minds impatient to learn of ways that differ from their own. From the perspective of history this may prove to be the most important fact about the twentieth century. When historians look back upon our years they may remember them not for the release of nuclear power nor the spread of Communism but as the time in which all the peoples of the world first had to take one another seriously.”

These eloquent words continue to deserve our respect. But from the perspective of more recent decades they seem incomplete. Empathy and understanding across cultural bridges are indispensable ingredients for world peace. But today we are more aware that it is not possible for individuals and small groups to remain at peace with each other unless larger, structural problems are also addressed. By the 1970s, when the IIR went out of existence, the world was becoming ever more conscious of large obstacles to peace like wars in developing nations, wealth disparities between rich and poor, and environmental degradation. University students of the kind who might have joined the IIR in earlier years were now joining groups that pushed for large-scale readjustments in political structures, the economy, and control of cultural discourse.

That would have been enough to do the IIR in. But the organization was also brought down by information that became public suggesting that its seemingly benign activities were tied to American imperialism. After I became President of the IIR, and learned more about the full range of its work, I discovered that my two presidential predecessors, along with quite a few others in the IIR, were regularly in contact with U.S. and overseas student organizations funded in part by the CIA. I did not engage in such contacts, but I also did not oppose them. At the time, the Soviet Union was actively infiltrating student organizations in many countries around the world, in order to gain propagandistic leverage and to recruit young people who could be future supporters of world communism. The CIA maintained links with student international relations clubs around the U.S. to recruit students who would be well informed about such activities and equipped to counter them through their campus programs. By the early 1970s, American journalists had discovered these activities and were writing sensational news stories. The subterfuge in the CIA’s methods made the work of the IIR seem like American imperialism, not just Cold War rivalry, let alone an innocent attempt to foster face to face understanding.

I am very proud to have been a member of the IIR. It did wonderful things in its time. And, in the twenty-first century, when we are in danger of obsessing about the structural aspects of international relations, the IIR helps us to remember that personal connections are, if not the only step, still the first step to world peace.

CALIFORNIA, ONLY MORE SO

Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas (Credit: Serge Melke)
Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas (Credit: King of Hearts)

Several decades ago, in a remark that quickly became famous, the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner said that California is the West, only more so. California is the westernmost portion of the Continental United States. It offers the hope of being on a frontier, but also the reminder that you can’t keep moving west forever, that at some point you must make your peace with finiteness. Since the time of the Gold Rush, and in its abundance of land waiting to be developed, California has held out the prospect of sudden wealth mixed with the awareness that not every scheme will lead to riches. And ever since the Gold Rush, California has attracted wave after wave of migrants, along with frequently chaotic appearance of new construction and urban sprawl to serve their needs. In all of this, California has evidenced the same pattern of development one can see in every area of the United States west of the Mississippi River. But in California the process has been more intense and more haunting.

I have been thinking about Stegner’s remark for the last several weeks, and I believe I have a new way of applying it, as the result of a vacation trip I took with my wife and a family friend. Most of our travel took place in and around the Rocky Mountains, as we visited Denver, Salt Lake City, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. Then, to conclude the trip, we stayed briefly in Las Vegas. My wife and I had not been there before, and we thought we ought to see it at least once in our lives, especially when we needed only a few extra hours of driving to get there.

I had seen many images of Las Vegas and was familiar with the standard lore associated with America’s capital of gambling and sin, so I did not expect to be surprised. But I was in fact astonished, both by the artificiality and by the kaleidoscopic feeling of the place.

Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas
Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas

The artificiality is probably the easiest to see. The whole city feels like it doesn’t belong there. It just comes up out of the surrounding desert. Except for the gambling and the federal money pumped into the surrounding area for things like dams and military installations, Las Vegas would have no economic basis. The architecture possesses almost no originality. There is a large copy of the Eiffel Tower.

Bally's Hotel and Eiffel Tower of Paris Hotel - Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 4.10.2013
Bally’s Hotel and Eiffel Tower of Parisl – Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 4.10.2013

An enormous hotel calls itself the Bellagio, even though it doesn’t much resemble the town of Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy. At the Venetian Hotel, appropriately costumed gondoliers give you rides along an imitation Grand Canal filled with chlorinated water; and inside the hotel, there is a replica, the size of a shopping center, meant to capture the look and feel of St. Mark’s Square, complete with fancy sidewalk restaurants, guided tours, air conditioning and a fully enclosed, painted ceiling five stories above you.

Elvis impersonators
Elvis impersonators

And then there are the entertainers. I lost track of the number of lounge acts featuring Elvis impersonators. In front of one hotel I stopped and stared for several minutes at a very large wall poster inviting met to buy a ticket to their long-running show: a three-hour reprise of the songs of Frank Sinatra, all performed by the city’s most celebrated Sinatra imitator.

I was also struck by the way Las Vegas conveys disorganization and a feeling of impermanence. Most of the city didn’t exist before the 1920s and the economic bonanza provided by construction workers from nearby Hoover Dam. The history that is there today is very recent. Away from the new Strip there is the older strip, mostly a creation of the post World War II era, with the old casinos like Binyon’s and the Golden Horeshoe, although a lot of the famous spots from the Rat Pack era, like the original Sands and the Desert Inn, have been torn down. But the new Strip, dating from three decades ago, after the Mob was kicked out and the casino owners tried to become family friendly, looks so clean and sanitary and un-weathered that it seems to have been built just yesterday. And the enormous buildings have simply been plopped down wherever, with little regard for zoning or long term urban planning. Sidewalks come to an end for no apparent reason. The copy of the Eiffel Tower overlooks the huge ornamental fountain of the Bellagio. A large, outdoor electrical power grid, about four stories high, occupies an entire city block surrounded by big, tall hotels: a violation of who knows how many fire laws.

Confronted by this bizarre world, I was at first judgmental and haughty, thinking of myself as a visitor from a superior civilization. But then I realized I was no such thing. I was a visitor from California, and Las Vegas is California only more so.

Mission_Inn,_Riverside,_California_(61084)

You can get a lot of echoes of Las Vegas in California’s amusement zones, places like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, the piers at Santa Monica, and Disneyland. Like Las Vegas, they all have the flavor of a carnival midway: magical and exciting and a little bit unsettling at night, slightly disappointing in daytime when the illusion is less intense. California has numerous architectural follies that resemble Las Vegas, like the Cliff House in San Francisco, the crazy hodgepodge of pieces from European villas that is the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, the Coronado Inn near San Diego, the strange amalgam of Spanish motifs that is the old Mission Inn hotel in Riverside. California has thousands of examples of residential developments that were badly zoned. Many of the buildings of California lack a feeling of permanence. The writer Joan Didion once singled out the California beach house as the ultimate architectural symbol of the state’s impermanence. She saw the same characteristic in Hollywood, where copies of entire environments are thrown together in one week and taken down in the next. These things are not the whole of California, but, I realized, they are enough to remind me that California and Las Vegas are not as unlike each other as I first assumed.

Hearst Castle, San Simeon (Credit: Jim G)
Hearst Castle, San Simeon (Credit: Jim G)

TRAINS

Train leaving San Francisco in 1949
Train leaving San Francisco in 1949

Every now and then, when I see images of old trains, I ask myself whether there is much interest in that form of travel anymore. Millions of children eagerly watch the television adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, and some of them may see The Choo Choo Bob Show. On PBS, adults can view documentaries about iconic old routes like the Trans Siberian Express and the Durango narrow gauge mining network in Colorado. But the big excitement for most people relates to other forms of travel such as the space ships in the movie Star Wars, space capsules, and big airplanes like the Boeing 777. Even luxury cruise ships seem to attract more interest than trains.

But perhaps there are still people who appreciate old railroads. I hope so, because I want to talk about the role that trains have played in my life.

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1943. I believe that my love of trains began even before I was born. In 1942, my father, then twenty one years old, was in his second year of service in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, working as an Operating Room Technician at the military hospital in Providence. At the time my mother was still in the East Bay Area of California, where the two of them had grown up, met, and married shortly before the start of the Second World War. When my mother became pregnant, the Navy paid for her and a friend to travel across the United States by train so that I could be born in my father’s presence. I have no conscious memory of that trip, but I am convinced that it was the experience that first made me love to travel by rail.

My mother and I lived in Providence with my father until he was assigned to be the entire medical department on a Navy destroyer that was directed to make its way south through the Panama Canal and then perform combat duty in the Pacific. Then for a while my mother and I lived in New York in the Bronx, where her father, recalled into the Navy, was imparting his experience as a gunnery officer to new recruits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shortly thereafter, unaccompanied except by me, my mother made her way back to the East Bay Area. I remember nothing about the trip. But I was told several times while growing up that a passenger on our transcontinental train was Bing Crosby. Insisting on no special treatment, he traveled on crowded troop trains just as my mother and I were doing. At one point my mother happened to be sitting across from him and introduced me. “Pleased to meet you, Gary,” Crosby said. “You know,” he added, “this is a special pleasure. I have a son named Gary.”

My next encounter with travel by rail occurred when I was eight years old. My mother, my five-year-old sister, and I were living in the Bay Area and my father was at sea on a Navy transport serving in the Korean War. We got word that his ship would be anchored for the summer of 1951 in San Diego Harbor and that it would be possible for the four of us to live together in San Diego during that time. My father came up to the Bay Area from San Diego to accompany us on the train trip south.

The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946
The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946

We put some of our belongings in storage, packed the rest in suitcases, and were driven to the railway station in Oakland by my mother’s parents. They waved goodbye to us as we boarded an enormous, chugging Southern Pacific passenger train, The Lark, to take us south. It is my first conscious memory of riding overnight in a rail passenger car — the lights passing by us outside the window of our safe compartment, the sounds of whistles and of bells at crossings, the constant rocking motion, the buttons and doors and secret spaces inside the compartment, the smell of fresh bed linen, and the certainty, whenever the porter answered our buzzer, that we were royalty.

Bedroom compartment
Bedroom compartment

For my sister and me, the summer in San Diego was hot and boring. I did enjoy some fascinating visits to my father’s ship and the harbor area. But otherwise I was anxious to leave.

Finally at the end of the summer we received news that we would be returning to the Bay Area where my father would be stationed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Within the week, we were on our way north. This time we went by plane. I had never flown before. The experience was an adventure. I even had the good luck to be invited into the cockpit and sit in the pilot’s lap and pretend I was steering. You would not be allowed to do that today. We were on Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had been founded by a World War II pilot and was only a couple of years old at the time. The owner happened to be acting as the co-pilot that day. He was fond of children and also knew how to please customers. But the most interesting thing to me about the flight, looking back, is that it did not enchant me the way my first train trip had.

After a few months at Mare Island, we got word that my father was being assigned to go north by ship to the Navy base in Bremerton on the west side of Puget Sound, where he would be serving at the large naval hospital. My mother, my sister and I would take the train north and move into the base housing that was being arranged for our family.

My mother’s parents, by that time relocated to the East Bay, drove us to the Southern Pacific station in Oakland where my mother, my sister and I boarded a train that went all the way east to Salt Lake City. There we transferred to the Northern Pacific line and made the rest of the journey to Seattle. The Southern Pacific train was sleek and modern. The Northern Pacific train was in good condition but very old in its decor, most noticeably in the dining car which had walls of brown wood, brass lamps on each table and red, cut glass chandeliers. This was my first encounter with fingerbowls. When the waiter put them on our table I thought they were rose-flavored cups of water for us to drink and I was lucky that my mother explained them to me in time.

Northern Pacific dining car
Northern Pacific dining car

The last and final train trip of my early boyhood was the return journey from Seattle to the Bay Area after we had lived in Bremerton for about two and one half years. From that time on there was no need for long distance family travel because my father was able to get tours of duty at various Navy installations in San Francisco and Oakland.

My next train trip was therefore voluntary. In 1959, when I was in the tenth grade at Berkeley High School, my best friend Steve and I got jobs selling souvenir programs on Saturdays during the UC-Berkeley football season. We were good at it. So, when the news swept the Bay Area that Cal’s great football team would be going to the Rose Bowl, the supervisor of program sales invited Steve and me to be part of the small group of high school students who could hawk our wares in Pasadena.

Steve’s parents arranged for us to stay with friends of his family in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter we were on board a Southern Pacific train heading south. The trip took about twelve hours. It went down the Central Valley, stopping at numerous farm towns with names I found exotic, like Tipton, Tulare and Cucamonga. During a long, flat portion of the trip we went through the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley at speeds of ninety miles per hour. The track bed was old and seemed not to be in good repair. Our train vibrated precariously but gave us all a good adventure.

Vista Dome-style passenger cars
Vista Dome-style passenger cars

The train had a couple of Vista Dome cars, the kind that were always featured in ads in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines of the era. The cars provided the part of the trip that was the most fun. They were filled with UC Berkeley students and several young musicians. Most wore white wool sweaters decorated with blue and gold UC Berkeley insignia. Everybody sang the famous Cal drinking song: “California, California, the hills give off their cry, we’re out to do or die, California, California, we’ll win the game or know the reason why.” This is just a part of the lyrics. The whole song takes around ten minutes; longer if you are drunk. Many of the students drank beer as they sang. Steve and I ordered Coca Cola.

After the Rose Bowl and a few days with Steve’s family friends, it was time to take the train back to the Bay Area. This trip was quiet. Everybody was tired. I slept part of the way but also managed to catch up on reading for my high school World History class.

My next big train trip occurred in 1964. I spent the summer of that year in Washington DC as a college intern at The Pentagon, thanks to a wonderful, generous program called Stanford in Washington. At the end of the summer, I drove across the country to Mesa, Arizona, with a college friend who lived there, and then boarded a Santa Fe train to take me north to the East Bay. There was a flash flood in the desert along the way, adding three extra hours to our trip while the train proceeded slowly and cautiously at each large gulley. The high point of the journey was the conductor. He had taught himself the history of the area and told us fascinating stories as he stood at the front of the our car and pointed out sights.

My last experience with train travel as it used to be came in 1971, after I got my Ph.D. in History at Harvard and returned to the Bay Area to look for a job. Because I needed several months to find employment, I had a lot of spare time. I spent a great deal of it with a classmate from Stanford, Bill Moore, who was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Bill had grown up in Arizona and had numerous memories of old trains. He had flair and an amazing ability to attract groups of people for bizarre adventures. One of his favorite activities was to organize Bar Car Expeditions. We would board the southbound Southern Pacific train in Oakland, have many drinks and tell stories in the bar car, enjoys the views of the brown hills dotted with Live Oak trees, get off in Santa Barbara, wait twenty minutes, and then board the northbound SP train to take us back to Oakland. The scenery was gorgeous, the drinks were excellent, and the shared feeling of friendship was memorable.

That’s about it. After 1971, when I got my own car, there was little need to travel by train. And I didn’t really want to travel that way. The old passenger lines like the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Santa Fe went out of business and were replaced by AMTRAK. I do ride on AMTRAK from time to time and I feel a stubborn form of nostalgia whenever I do so. But it isn’t the same.

California Zephyr at Christening, 1949
California Zephyr at Christening, 1949

While he was a reporter at the Chronicle, and before he became Managing Editor of the Sacramento Bee, Bill Moore won a prize for an article he wrote about the last run of the famous Western Pacific train the California Zephyr. I never had the pleasure of riding on the Zephyr, but I sometimes encounter it in my dreams.

The California Zephyr in its later years
The California Zephyr in its later years

THE FUTURE IN 1850

TAYLOR1850_Eldorado_(California)

In our era we are familiar with examples of nations that have experienced impressive development because of sudden infusions of wealth from a single natural resource and then faced chaos and decline when the resource was exhausted and no other basis for stability was available. One thinks, for example, of Venezuela and Nigeria where prosperity was tied to petroleum and then slowed radically as oil reserves were depleted, because profits were not used to produced a diverse economy, a sound political infrastructure, and a treasury surplus to sustain the country during difficult periods. One can also think of counter-examples, such as Norway, where profits from petroleum have been invested in sovereign wealth funds designed to ensure balanced development and social equity over the long term.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, California had the potential to become a state based too much on one resource, but instead crafted a future that, while not without problems, was filled with great possibility because it was based on multiple sources of strength.

In 1848, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, California became a possession of the United States. That same year, extensive deposits of gold were discovered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the areas north and south of the Sacramento River and its tributaries. As news of the discoveries spread, huge numbers of wealth seekers made their way to California from Asia, Australia, Latin America, other parts of the United States, and Europe. Even though many people did not find gold, others did, and their stories produced a mania and a single-minded view of California as a place known for quick riches and nothing more.

There were, however, more farsighted people who suspected that the bonanza would not last forever; and they asked themselves whether it might be possible to create a more multifaceted California that would not disintegrate after the gold was gone.

Bayard Taylor
Bayard Taylor

One of the people who thought rigorously about California’s future at mid-century was Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), a talented journalist whose reporting continues to be a highly informative exploration of the identity of the Golden State.

Bayard Taylor grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His father was a wealthy farmer and his parents were Quakers. Possessed of great literary ability, Taylor made his way to New York City where he gained prominence as a poet, travel writer and journalist. During his lifetime he journeyed to and wrote widely read books and articles about many places, ranging from Hawaii to Egypt to Japan. In his last years he served as a U.S. diplomat in Germany, where he died.

In 1848, Taylor caught the eye of Horace Greeley, the founder and editor-in-chief of the New York Tribune, which was by the 1840s the most influential newspaper in America. Greeley commissioned Taylor to go west and write articles for East-Coast readers about the new mining regions. In June 1849, aged twenty-four, Taylor left New York by ship, made a hazardous journey across the Isthmus of Panama, and then sailed north, arriving in San Francisco after brief stops in Mexico. During the voyage to California and after arrival, Taylor regularly composed “letters” about the places and people he encountered, intending that each letter eventually be reprinted in the Tribune.

San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor's book Eldorado
San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor’s book Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado

Taylor’s letters duly reported on the Gold Rush. But he soon began to focus upon a story that he judged to be of more importance. With the shift in California from Mexican to American rule, an older society was waning in influence, and a new one was beginning to take shape. The challenge of adjustment was being intensified by the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants, and there was a possibility that Yankee California might be a house of cards if the gold ran out, the gold seekers left, and the area had no basis for any kind of life except the sleepy rancho society of the earlier Mexican period.

In pursuit of his curiosity about California’s future, Taylor wrote articles covering many aspects of the world he encountered. In San Francisco he described the phenomenally rapid physical growth of the city, the kaleidoscopic interplay of peoples as diverse as Hawaiians, Chinese, Chileans, Malays, and Kansans, the harbor crowded with ships, the juxtaposition of gambling dens and churches and the powerful energy one could feel at every turn. He journeyed by mule across the Central Valley and wrote vividly about mining camps in the Sierras. He traveled by schooner through the Delta to the new and rapidly expanding town of Sacramento. He explored deteriorating Spanish missions and visited ranchos still run by the original Mexican families. He walked from San Francisco to Monterey, stopping for numerous conversations along the way.

Sacramento, from Eldorado
Sacramento, from Eldorado

Two aspects of California’s future interested Taylor in particular: One was government, the other the role California might play in the larger world.

The first issue, government, was arising at a time when national political leaders in Washington DC were anxious to consolidate the United States into a transcontinental nation. Annexation of California in 1848, by means of the treaty that confirmed America’s victory in the U.S.-Mexican War, provided just such an opportunity. And eagerness to strengthen ties to California became even greater as the Gold Rush increased the area’s population, offered a new source of wealth for the Treasury, and provided secure locations for military and naval bases. The dominant concern of leaders in the East was speed in achieving these specific goals.

What interested Taylor was the way in which political leaders in California made enlightened use of Eastern eagerness. Rather than simply throwing together a hasty, slapdash proposal for statehood and sending it off to Washington DC, California’s leaders came together in a carefully deliberative convention in the temporary capital at Monterey and crafted a constitution that provided for growth that could be sustained even without a large supply of gold.

Taylor was impressed by the conscientious, thorough manner in which convention delegates addressed difficult issues that had long-term implications. For example, the delegates carefully discussed slavery (voting to prohibit it), where to put the eastern border of the new state (locating it along the eastern side of the Sierras), and how to regulate land ownership (approving a system that integrated older laws based on Spanish land grants and newer laws based on Eastern forms of property rights).

Monterey, from Eldorado
Monterey, from Eldorado

Taylor was also impressed by the inclusiveness of the convention. Many delegates were chosen to represent U.S. interests, including, for example, the military hero John C. Fremont, the prominent Monterey newspaper editor Walter Colton, and the landowner John Sutter whose properties near Sacramento had been the location of the earliest gold discoveries. But, Taylor noted, there were also delegates representing the earlier Mexican order, such as the powerful landowner Mariano Vallejo and Andres Pico, the military leader from southern California who had been defeated by Fremont and had signed the surrender documents. Broad representation of this kind would help to ensure an orderly political and economic future.

After the constitutional convention ended, Taylor prepared to leave California, return by ship to New York, and oversee final publication of his “letters” in Horace Greeley’s Tribune, followed by collection of the articles into a book with illustrations based on his journey. But before departure he penned some final reflections concerning the larger question of California’s ideal role in an expanding America. Taylor imagined a California connected to the entire Pacific region. With enthusiasm he wrote that “the new Highway to the Indies, forming the last link in that belt of civilized enterprise which now clasps the world, has been established under my country’s flag.” He envisioned that California, with its varied topography, mixture of cultures, and potential for many kinds of economic activity, might well become “the Italy of the West.” Such a comparison has since become commonplace, but Taylor was among the first to make it.

In his concluding observations, Taylor declared that San Francisco was the place in California that most impressed him. He believed it would someday be the “New-York-of-the-Pacific.” And in one of the most powerful of his “letters” he wrote: “Of all the marvelous phases of the history of the Present, the growth of San Francisco is the one which will most tax the belief of the Future. Its parallel was never known, and shall never be upheld again. I speak only of what I saw with my own eyes. When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses, with a show of frame buildings on one or two streets, and a population of about six thousand. Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity…. Like the magic seed of the Indian juggler, which grew, blossomed, and bore fruit before the eyes of his spectators, San Francisco seemed to have accomplished in a day the growth of half a century.”

If Taylor could have returned to California in later decades, he would have seen that the state in many ways did not live up to his hopes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, California was marred by racist violence directed at Native Americans and Asians, profligate exploitation of natural resources, political corruption, and consolidation of land ownership in too few hands. Nevertheless, and thanks in great part to visionaries like Taylor who were present at its birth, California did develop in multi-faceted ways that have laid the basis for relatively stable political and social order and a very large role in the life of the United States and the world.

Appletons'_Taylor_Bayard_-_Cedarcroft
Bayard Taylor’s ancestral home in Chester County, Pennsylvania

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire, based on Taylor’s reports in the New York Tribune, was first published in 1850. A modern, annotated edition was published in 2000 by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University.

A CALIFORNIAN AT HARVARD

Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Entrance to Stanford
Entrance to Stanford

Because the United States is so large, a shift from one region to another can be quite disorienting. Adjusting to Seattle is not easy after living in Miami. Pennsylvania is not Idaho. I realized this when, after growing up in California and completing my undergraduate years at Stanford, I moved to New England to begin a six-year stay at Harvard leading toward a Ph.D. in History. This story dates from 1965, and graduate school is an esoteric topic for many. But I suspect that the experience I want to describe will be very familiar to anyone making the transition from California to New England today.

In one of his books, Wallace Stegner talks about the way the air changes your perception of things as you move from the western United States to the east. In most parts of the west — assuming there is no rain or fog or smog — the air is clear. It has a transparency that makes you think distant objects are very close. As you move toward the Atlantic coast, however, the increasing humidity gives you the subconscious feeling that — as Stegner puts it — a layer of gauze has come between you and everything you see. That feeling may have been the first cause for the strangeness I felt in the east. The sight lines also took some getting used to. Along most of the Atlantic seaboard, the vistas are small and close by western standards. Unless you happen to be at the top of a mountain or at the seashore, there aren’t many of the unobstructed, hundred-mile views so common in the west. The east does offer opportunities for intimacy with the landscape — canoeing on a small, meandering river, for example — and an up-close, very interesting, tradition-dominated mixture of the human and the natural, as, for example, when you see a stone house at the bottom of a hollow. The east is also where the conservation movement began: Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, continues to be its most important point of reference. But there aren’t many visual experiences to satisfy an appetite for grandeur, largeness, or absence of limits. Things feel more compact. In the east, the horizon seemed very close and the sky felt right on top of me. I felt confined when I arrived in New England.

Harvard Yard, the center of the campus
Harvard Yard, the center of the campus

I also felt ill at ease culturally. Harvard today is slightly more relaxed than it was when I went there. But in 1965 it was still a rather formal place: admirably polite, but marked by Calvinistic reserve and extreme attention to the dignified maintenance, or in many cases the creation, of pedigree and status. One of my history professors at Stanford, a refugee from Harvard, cautioned me to avoid the “braying solemnity” of the place and asserted that, at Harvard “people think there is a necessary correlation between competence in one’s subject and gravity of demeanor.” There was also a vaguely astringent feel to the institution, as if Harvardians were intent on sucking the life out of any attempt to relax or have fun.

Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime
Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime

In the fall of 1965, when I arrived in Harvard’s home city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was intoxicated as I enjoyed the bright students, famous professors, historic buildings, extensive facilities and opportunity to get to know the east coast. But, as the months passed, and I experienced the eastern academic establishment up close, I saw drawbacks. The work was long and hard. There was little time for social life. And there was not much in the way of praise or encouragement. It occurred to me that, had I stayed in California, graduate school at Stanford or UC Berkeley or some other school in the state might have been just as demanding. But I suspected that Harvard placed a greater value on heaviness.

While I welcomed the intellectual rigor of the university, I tried through petty subterfuge to counterbalance all the sternness. I joked about surfing on the nearby Charles River, in response to which my professors adopted tolerant, prune-faced smiles. And my teachers and fellow students must have wondered why, when nearly all the other men in graduate school wore the tweed sport coat and tie which was the uniform of the day, I insisted on wearing Pendleton shirts even during the months when they were too drafty to protect against the New England winter. Most of my experiences of Harvard were associated with winter. The incredibly beautiful autumn seemed to last only a few weeks. Then, for a metallic six months, there were no leaves on the trees and Harvard Yard was gray, cloudy, and cold. The fresh, white snow quickly became dirty as steel gray sheets of ice imprisoned the vegetation.

Harvard Museum of Natural History
Harvard Museum of Natural History

Coming from Stanford, I found that my mind adhered obstinately to sun, not snow; to palm and redwood, not maple and laurel; to colonnades, Romanesque sandstone, and tile roofs; not brick walks, Georgian terraces, and gables; to campus dormitory names like Serra, Escondido, and Madera, not Eliot, Winthrop, and Quincy. To this extent, my ability to be a part of Harvard was diminished before I ever saw the place.

I did, however, greatly enjoy many features of the surrounding city. Like the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood that I knew so well next to the UC Berkeley campus, only more so, Cambridge instructively exposed one to a metropolis, yet retained an amazing intellectual integrity of its own. It was not only the perfect base of operations for getting to know Boston. It was also, for certain values uniquely derived from its academic situation, a crossroads with few equals in the world. First there were the tourist attractions: Harvard and M.I.T.; Longfellow’s House; the Burial Ground and the Common; fashionable shops; expensive restaurants; and the postcard views of the Charles River. Merging with these was the world of pop culture: Bogie flicks at the Brattle Theatre; astrology bookshops; rock concerts on the Common; the mystical rite of buying a Roast Beef Special at Elsie’s coffee shop. Finally there was underground Cambridge — or, rather, the unveiled evidence of all those movements which were less tolerated elsewhere in society: shops displaying water pipes and strobe lights; salesmen hawking the Black Panther News; orange-robed men chanting Hare Krishna; girls in dark capes arguing with passersby about the virtues of the Black Mass; and, at Christmastime, the spectacle of all these phenomena competing with that very respectable institution, the Salvation Army Band. Seeing all these things cheek by jowl, I realized that my years in Cambridge were a time of incredible intellectual freedom. “I’m selling shirts at the Harvard Coop,” a friend said, “because it’s one place that will hire bearded poets.” I realized that the beards were hired partly because they were quaint, and, like Cambridge in general, deemed acceptable to the rest of society as long as they did not walk out of the intellectual playpen. But the beards were also tolerated because the rest of society knew it needed them. Out of Cambridge, in any given year, came an important part of the literature, art, science, and political opinion that formed the mood of the rest of America. Nearly every famous figure came to the place sooner or later. Norman Mailer, Erik Erikson, and John Fairbank were among the faces I remember noticing within one short span of time. The result was chance contact of the most educational sort. “You would not believe it,” an Israeli friend told me, “this afternon I went into the Idler Coffee House and did not come out until four hours later. I met Vladimir Dedjejer, Tito’s aide in the Yugoslav Resistance. He still carries a bullet in his head. After he had been telling me war stories for ten minutes, the whole place stopped to listen to us.”

Memorial Hall, Harvard
Memorial Hall, Harvard

To gain perspective about the east coast, I kept in touch with friends at Stanford. I was surprised how much my letters to them talked not only about academic matters, such as descriptions of Harvard professors and the interesting books I was reading, but also about the possible connections between learning and landscape. I recall one instance in particular, when I wrote a letter to my good friend Dan Endsley, the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine, and for whom, during my junior year, I had written some articles. I asked him if he would be interested in having me write an article on Frederick Law Olmsted’s nineteenth-century plan for the Stanford campus, the poetic feelings prompted by the hills behind the University, and what I called, with some pomposity, “the ecology of learning.” Dan wrote back a long letter saying he liked the idea even though my terminology was infelicitous. But he couldn’t risk commissioning the piece. “Some years ago,” he explained, “I began an article called ‘What is Happening to the Stanford Lands?’ It almost cost me my job.” Dan’s comments helped me to remember that my undergraduate institution was not a perfect place, either.

Beyond Cambridge, of course, there was greater Boston. From Cambridge, the subway ride to downtown Boston (on the MTA, made famous by the Kingston Trio song) took only eight minutes. As a result, Boston, too, was an important part of my experience. Perhaps I can best convey its effects on a Californian by describing what became one of my favorite pastimes, wandering in the city.

I had come to Boston to study for a Ph.D. in History. Meandering is a congenital love of historians. Some walk through graveyards; others traverse old battlefields. Some hike along historic trails. Some go aboard old ships or visit castles and cathedrals, and go off into side rooms by themselves to search out the spirits in the spaces. In Boston, historians walk the city’s streets. I really could not count the number of times I walked around Boston. I saw the tourist sites such as Paul Revere’s House and Bunker Hill Monument. I spent entire days in the rain walking through warehouse districts. I walked along the Charles River, and past the brownstone houses on Commonwealth Avenue. I walked next to the Harbor. I walked over freeways ramps where there were not even any sidewalks. I went in and out of bars and corner stores around Boston Garden before Celtics basketball games. I observed pigeons on the windows of old buildings. Around Haymarket Square, I observed the old wagons that still delivered meat and vegetables, and I took in the fetid smells. I trudged through snow and stood and watched twilights. No matter where I walked, I usually went alone. I had my share of friends. But I had concluded long ago that most people did not enjoy wandering around a city as much as I did. Even when I knew the friends would enjoy the experience for an hour or two, I did not bring them along. Being alone with my fantasies and unsorted feelings gave more pleasure than acting as a tour guide.

Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)
Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)

I started out one particular wandering by taking the MTA downtown and walking up to Beacon Hill. I planned to hunt for silversmith shops. My sister and I – in touch by letter – had decided to buy my parents a set of sterling silver portrait frames for their wedding anniversary. I thought Beacon Hill, historically known for silversmith shops, would be a good place to look. I found two old shops, but only after a surprisingly difficult search. At both, the elderly owners told me that handmade silver was much harder to come by than in the past. The costs of labor made prices too high to justify regular production of new items. Most available pieces were antiques, out of my price range.

I left Beacon Hill and walked across the Common and the Public Garden, which were unspeakably beautiful in their fall colors. Wet piles of orange and brown leaves cushioned my feet on the brick sidewalks. The old statues, gray, and white, and green, sent my mind into the past. As I walked next to the historic graveyard in the Public Garden, a cold wind came up. I pulled my heavy tweed topcoat more tightly around me and tucked my brown plaid scarf more securely under my chin. I walked from the Garden across the street into the Tremont business district, and down a few blocks to Shreve’s jewelers, one of Boston’s oldest and most famous firms. Here, after explaining my problem to a sales clerk, I was finally able to find what I needed – a fine set of sterling silver frames, used but not antique, better made than modern items, at a price I could afford. I was momentarily jarred out of my venerable Bostonian mood when the clerk started telling me how much she admired Ronald Reagan. But I recovered, put my coat and scarf back on, and politely went on my way, package under my arm. I took some time to window shop along the streets around Shreve’s.

Then I came upon a bookshop in the basement of one of the old brownstones. I went in and browsed. Eventually my eye came upon a history book I had been looking for. I paid for the book and left the shop, delighted that my day had become so productive. Down the street I found a coffee shop on the ground floor of an old office building from the 1920s. I stayed there for about an hour, reading parts of the books I had just purchased. Then, when I had read enough, I put the book under my arm with the silver frames, made my way back to the MTA station, and returned to Cambridge pleased that, in this instance and a few others, I was a Californian quite delighted to be spending some time in New England.

Fall in New England
Fall in New England

SHOPS

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.

Berkeley looking west toward the Bay, with the tall buildings of the commercial shopping district in foreground
Berkeley looking west toward the Bay, with the tall buildings of the commercial shopping district in foreground

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.

Corder Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)
Corder Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)

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.

Expensive luggage, worth repairing if necessary (Credit: Tanner Krolle)
Expensive luggage, worth repairing if necessary (Credit: Tanner Krolle)

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.

Studio Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)
Studio Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)

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.

Beautiful fabrics: Mr. Kaufmann's store  had thousands of them (Credit: Credit: MissMessie)
Beautiful fabrics: Mr. Kaufmann’s store had thousands of them (Credit: Credit: MissMessie)

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.

University Avenue, where Mr. Kaufmann's shop was located, night view
University Avenue, where Mr. Kaufmann’s shop was located, night view

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.

Building of Tupper and Reed piano store, one of the shops active on Shattuck Avenue in the 1950s, now an espresso bar (Credit: Almonroth)
Building of Tupper and Reed piano store, one of the shops active on Shattuck Avenue in the 1950s, now an espresso bar (Credit: Almonroth)