Allison and I were trudging through the flats south of the Berkeley campus looking for a place to live. The sidewalks reflected an enervating heat, and most students were gone. The charmless modern stucco apartment buildings that catered to them were all too expensive—over $220 a month. As we worked our way up Haste Street, we reached a slightly older building with a summer sublet–furnished one-bedroom with 2 murphy beds for only $180. We jumped on it.
Telegraph Avenue. Wonderful! Full of cheap eats, head shops, bookstores, hippies and students and life.
When we exited the building with lease in hand, we turned left and discovered that we were steps away from the next cross street—Telegraph Avenue. Wonderful! Full of cheap eats, head shops, bookstores, hippies and students and life. When I told my friend Barbara, at whose parents’ house I had been crashing up in the Berkeley Hills, she was less enthusiastic. I hope you don’t mind tear gas, she said. That was the epicenter of the People’s Park protests, including the fatal shooting of James Rector by police the previous year.
Undeterred, we moved in. Allison and I had known each other since we were in grade school and had coincidentally both left college after our sophomore years. Neither had a plan, but it was 1970, everything was in flux and we had run off to California. We also didn’t have much money, so we scrimped by on the $2-a-week food conspiracy box and became very creative with potatoes. We needed jobs.
Our apartment building included the La Fiesta restaurant right on the corner of Telegraph—smelled wonderful but was too expensive for me. Next to that was the Garden Spot mom and pop grocery–also referred to as the Garbage Spot for being so unkempt. And next to that was Tijuana Taco. The new manager there was a young guy named Mike, who hired me for $1.65 an hour to run the cash register and counter, make tacos and burritos, bus tables and share duties with a few other staff. Mike came in early to cook up the pinto beans in the pressure cooker and oversee the food prep for the day. The work wasn’t too hard, and it was only busy around lunch hour. We got to know some of the regular customers, who might ask for extra beans on their tortillas or just a little more filling; I always obliged. There were a few young men hanging around the grocery who sometimes bought a burrito, and we got to recognize them too. Little Mike (not to be confused with my boss) was often being chased away by the Garbage Spot owners.
Telegraph was a great street for people-watching. There were a few students, lots of young people with long hair and varied political persuasions, and a variety of sketchy characters of the drug world. It was easy to meet people and we did, from all those categories. Diagonally across from us on Haste, people were working on a mural telling the story of People’s Park and invited passers-by to help out, so we did that too. Fall came and we managed to cough up another $15 a month so we could stay on in our apartment.
We became a loose part of the haphazard little community living near Haste and Telegraph, vaguely united by youth and dislike of authority. People came and went at our place. I had a boyfriend. Mike lived in the apartment building next to ours and would sometimes invite staff there to share a joint with him after work. Maybe on break. People used to hang out on the stoop of the house next to that, a young woman in hippie garb offering Tarot readings. I think mine came up with the prince of cups, and she told me I would never want for money. That seemed unlikely.
One day I was behind the counter at Tijuana Taco and Little Mike came running in. We recognized each other as denizens of the block. He didn’t want a burrito. He breathlessly looked me in the eye and implored—Can you take this? I’ll be back!–and then ran out of the store. For a moment, I looked at the envelope that had been thrust on the counter, then quietly slipped it behind the cash register as a favor to the street.