Tag Archives: Berkeley in the 1950s

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)

WALTER BACK THEN

 

We have all heard someone comment, “You know, I never thought that kid would grow up to be famous.”

Several of my relatives began saying that to me in the 1980s when they started to run across news reports about one of my childhood friends from the 1950s.

In 1951, when I was eight years old, my mother, my father, my younger sister and I took up temporary residence with my mother’s parents and their three sons at my grandparents’ new home in the Berkeley Hills. My father was a hospital corpsman in the Navy at the time. He was serving on a ship stationed in San Francisco Bay and was awaiting notification to proceed north to his new duty station at the Navy base in Bremerton, Washington, where all of us would be going when the word came.

View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills
View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills

The house in the Berkeley Hills where we were staying was only around a year old at the time. It was located on one of the highest promontories in the area, on a large lot that my grandfather had purchased simply by paying the delinquent property taxes. My grandfather was an armed teller for the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. He had gone into this line of work in 1945 after serving as a gunnery officer in the Second World War. He used his financial knowledge to find the vacant lot. His oldest son, a decorator at a department store in Oakland, designed the house. A licensed architect put in the final details and then worked with a local contractor to complete the construction. The style of the house was daring, like so much of the architecture in postwar California. It was single-story, very horizontal, with numerous large windows of plate glass, exterior walls that combined white stucco and panels of redwood, and an interior that seemed to create almost no barriers between the living spaces and the front and back yards. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood were nondescript structures built in the 1920s. My uncle’s design seemed almost intrusive by comparison, and in this sense a fitting metaphor for my family’s situation.

Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills
Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills

The house put all of us in touch with a class of people we might never have known if my grandparents had bought property elsewhere. Given the highly desirable views and the cost of property, Berkeley in its hilly areas was an upper middle class neighborhood — and in some areas a very rich neighborhood. My grandparents were only able to enter by buying at a bargain rate and doing much of the property improvement with their own hands.

And so they found themselves next to new types of acquaintances: corporate executives, attorneys, members of major San Francisco accounting firms, doctors and dentists, professors from the University of California, and retired admirals and generals. All were white. All had black maids and Japanese-American gardeners. Nearly all had college degrees. Into this environment, we came: My Scotch-Irish grandfather, who had left school at age 13 to become a Navy gunner, was a short, stocky, hard swearing, muscular man who had once been the wrestling champion of the Pacific Fleet (or so he said). My grandmother, from a Portuguese Catholic family in Hawaii, had been educated at a convent school for girls. She had an olive complexion, dark eyes and short, shiny black hair; she seemed almost Arabic in appearance. Her defining trait was a lighthearted, entrancing laugh that could cheer up an entire roomful of people. My oldest uncle, the department store decorator, never planned on college and never went; he was not only visually talented but also a gifted singer who, because he disliked show business people, turned down offers in New York City to join Fred Waring’s choir. The next oldest uncle loved to hunt and fish, drove a beer truck after leaving high school and then joined the Air Force during the Korean War, and was talented in mathematics. He went to college because his fiancee, a teacher, insisted. My youngest uncle was a talented gymnast who hated his studies in school but was handsome and an amazing dancer. He knew cars well enough to steal them and get in trouble with the law. Then, after graduating from high school, he married, entered the car business himself and eventually owned a dealership. And there was the eldest child, my mother, who eloped to Reno to marry my father but always remained close to her family.

Some of the neighbors didn’t like us. We were never invited to certain homes. Other neighbors were fascinated and liked the change from routine we provided. Next door, for example, there was an accountant who had grown up in a stuffy family. He dropped by often. He loved it the night my youngest uncle, by then a car salesman, arrived at one a.m. with three cars full of friends and hangers on from an Oakland nightclub, accompanied by a five-piece Cuban dance combo that played as they walked up the path in our front yard.

One of our upper middle class neighbors was the Alvarez family. Luis Alvarez, the father, was a famous scientist. He had pursued Physics at the University of Chicago during the years when Enrico Fermi was conducting the experiments that led to the world’s first controlled atomic chain reaction. In Chicago he married into a family as wealthy as his. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to Berkeley at the invitation of Ernest O. Lawrence. In the Second World War, Dr. and Mrs. Alvarez moved to Los Alamos and helped to make the Atomic Bomb. They had two children: a daughter, Jean, and a son, Walter. After the War, the family returned to Berkeley and moved into a house just down the street from the one my grandparents owned.

Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961
Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961

We might never have come into contact with the Alvarez family, so great were the class barriers, if I had not become friends with Walter. I was 8 years old at the time. He was 12. One day, I think it was while playing army man with several of the neighborhood kids in a vacant lot near our house, I met Walter. He found me refreshing. He was brighter than the other kids and he could see that I was, too. He enjoyed jokes and pranks just as I did. In his case, the proclivity had been passed on from his father, who used puns and absurd mechanical toys to relieve the mental and emotional strain of his intellectually demanding profession. Walter especially appreciated my ability to tell funny stories, which came easily thanks to a great fondness for conversation and wisecracks on both sides of the family. A free-flowing, communal feeling trailed along with me from my working class relatives. It gave Walter a release from the propriety of his own home.

At Walter’s house, life was heavy with civilization. There were Middle Eastern carpets on the floor, serious paintings on the walls, bookshelves in every room, and models of New England sailing ships in large glass cases at the top of the stairs near the bedrooms. The living room was dark and had just one small window that did little to take advantage of the view from the hills. For dinner, in the formal dining room, Walter had to put on a clean white shirt. Before the meal, however, he was required to sit at the family’s grand piano and do his daily practice. The first time I heard him, I was entranced by the beauty of the sound. I had never heard classical music before and I asked Walter what “tune” he was playing. He explained that it was one of Chopin’s Polonaises.

When Walter came to my family’s house, there was as much culture as at his, but it was untutored. My uncle Buddy, home from work, might be singing in the shower. My grandfather Harry, in a Hawaian sport shirt, might be telling lies about his experiences at sea. My mother, Flo, might be asking Walter what he liked about school, surprising him with the intelligence and perceptiveness of her questions.

The largest contrast between the two homes was the light. Walter envied the way the view of the entire Bay Area seemed to come right through our living room window, just as I envied his pedigree and social position and his parents’ formal education.

Walter and I spent most of our time together roaming the neighborhood. We did the kinds of things two smart aleck boys would do. One day, for example, we got some soap powder and used it as imitation white paint to put a sign on the concrete of the street with the words “Caution, Apes Crossing.” Most cars stopped. In the front yard of a house down the hill, where a pretentious couple lived, we constructed a sign made from orange crate wood and nailed it to a post. The sign read, “A former burlesque queen lives here.”

We directed our most inspired impudence at the house where the crabbiest family lived. It happened to be right next door to my grandparents’ house, which was important because our prank involved heavy lifting. My two older uncles often gave parties for large groups of friends. There was lots of gin, whiskey, and beer.   After the parties, the empty bottles and cans ended up in our backyard in cardboard boxes, where they remained until the family made the next drive to the city dump. One evening after dark, Walter and I carried all the liquor bottles to the front yard next door and spread them in the shrubbery and all over the lawn. Next morning, all day long and into evening, pedestrians stopped, and passing cars slowed, to register their amazement that any family could be so besotted. Walter and I had to clean up the yard and each lost an allowance. I sometimes wonder if, today, a prank such as ours might cause a homeowner to phone the police. Times were different back then.

1940s_bourbon_whiskey_bottles

The thing that Berkeley has always been best known for is its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. That fact was hugely important in my life. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus — a zone, usually in a natural setting, where there were buildings and people devoted to advanced learning — occurred around that time at age 8 when I was living at my grandparents’ house. Walter asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.” Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the rest of the university.

UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left
UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left

We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the components of the world’s first linear accelerator, and that the odd object was one of the inventions that earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.

The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley
The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley

After my family left the Berkeley Hills and moved to Bremerton, I lost touch with Walter and did not hear anything about him for many years afterwards. Then, in the early 1980s, when I was back on a visit to the Bay Area, one of my uncles handed me a local newspaper and said, “Say, didn’t you used to play with a kid named Walter Alvarez? Well, he’s in the headlines.”

From that first newspaper article, and others that followed in later months, I learned that, after high school in Berkeley, Walter had attended Carleton College in Minnesota, obtained his Ph.D. in Geology at Princeton, and eventually joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he and his father Luis had developed a revolutionary theory that, 66 million years ago, because of the impact of a giant asteroid or comet on planet earth, a mass extinction had eliminated 75% of all species, due to ejection of large amounts of rock debris into the atmosphere, cutting off most access to light, lowering temperatures, and fouling the atmosphere. The result was elimination of all non-avian dinosaurs, with only smaller mammals and birds surviving. Walter and his father had propounded their theory before the 1980s and attracted worldwide attention because of it. The theory appeared to be confirmed in the 1980s by discovery of the largest impact crater on the planet, in the subsurface of the Yucatan Peninsula, dating precisely from the time of the extinction. Then in 2010 an international panel of distinguished scientists upheld the Alvarez findings.

Walter and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history
Walter (in beret) and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history

I have not had any contact with Walter since the early 1950s. But from time to time I read about his many discoveries and honors, and I remember the pleasure of having him as a friend and I imagine myself drinking a toast to him, using whatever whiskey might have remained in the bottles we scattered on that neighbor’s lawn many years ago.

For a fascinating memoir about Walter and his family, get a copy of the book by Luis Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987).

Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley
Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley