Photo: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

On Leaving Berkeley

by Nikki Hodgson Apr 29, 2013

When I find out I’m moving, I walk home slowly. The temperate climate of Berkeley, its warm April sunshine stretching over green hills, crowds the sidewalks with flowers — an explosion of California poppies, mountain lilac, hummingbird sage, fawn lilies, and pink-flowering currant erupting from winter into hard, bright colors. I bend over a shaggy bush of Cecile Brunner roses, listening to the whir of a hummingbird as it hovers over the fuchsias, their brilliant pink and purple petals swaying softly.

Everyone has assured me that I will love Colorado, but still, a faint sadness hangs like the cobwebs in the corners of my boxed up apartment.

At San Pablo and Addison I look at my neighborhood as if I had already left, gazing over my shoulder at the mural painted along Mi Tierra market — the Indigenous woman with her arms extended high over her head, snapping a fence in her hands, the bold colors standing out against the muted Bay Area fog. Between Mi Ranchito Bayside Market and the Middle Eastern shop where I buy labneh and za’atar, an old woman sits in a hard plastic chair watching novelas at the local laundromat, her age-swollen hands folding faded t-shirts and jeans. On Monday evenings, my neighbors sit at the sidewalk tables in front of Luca Cucina, swirling wine in long-stemmed glasses. On Sunday mornings, I read the New York Times book review at Local 123, breathing in the scent of Four Barrel coffee against the brick walls of their backyard patio.

Everyone has assured me that I will love Colorado, but still, a faint sadness hangs like the cobwebs in the corners of my boxed up apartment. When I notice my neighbor’s wisteria, its blooms hanging over the porch and awning, shimmering in the sunlight like bunches of pale purple grapes, I think of Anne of Green Gables, leaving her island and setting out toward Kingsport. “Yes, I’m going,” said Anne. I’m very glad with my head…and very sorry with my heart.”

I’ve paged through field guides, trying to find familiar faces in the physical makeup of Colorado. I know I can expect the sturdy manzanita and the heavy scent of sage, but there will be no avocado or pomegranate trees. Coworkers will not drop heavy grocery bags full of Meyer lemons on the table, imploring everyone to take a few, a half dozen at the very least, and I might forget the scent of the California laurel, its oil lingering on my fingers as I brush my hands against the leaves. I will have to give up my California state residency, staring at a photo of myself pasted against the strange and unfamiliar Colorado driver’s license.

As I reluctantly drop off the last of the hundreds of books I have checked out over the years, I wonder what the Boulder library is like. My footsteps echo along the stairwells of the Berkeley library, bouncing into the high corners of its vaulted ceiling as I run my fingers along the fat spines of faded reference books.

When friends in Colorado ask if I’ll need any help settling into my new home, I stare at the swirling colors of my tie-dye library card and pick my way through my routines, stirring through the sediment of my life in Berkeley. All those afternoons reading in People’s Park, listening to the beat of drums, marveling at bodies twisting themselves and vaulting high as they practice capoeira, yoga, martial arts — always the pungent smell of weed hovering around groups of students sitting cross-legged against redwood trees. Years crowded with morning hikes in Tilden Park, chatting with the rangers at the environmental education center, scratching the forehead of a complacent dairy cow, the scent of non-native eucalyptus trees mixing with the dust.

Mostly these tourists look around with unimpressed expressions painted across their faces, as if trying to understand why anyone would choose this place over San Francisco.

A handful of Friday night concerts at Ashkenaz and Sunday morning brunch at the Buddhist monastery on Russell Street, sitting in a lotus flower position with a plate of vegetarian noodles and mango sticky rice, smiling at my best friend when we both pull out our own utensils so we don’t have to use the disposable ones. When I go into the Berkeley Bowl for what I know will be the last time, I nearly have a full-fledged panic attack, remembering that there is no grocery cooperative in Boulder. I’ll have to shop at Whole Foods. My disdain strikes me as comical, quintessentially Berkeley.

I stop taking the bus, leave my bike at home, and insist on walking everywhere, trying to memorize every corner, letting my eyes rest on all of the things I have loved and let fade into the background of routine and daily life. I wander down Telegraph, get a homemade ice cream sandwich at CREAM, and impulsively buy a “I hella heart Oakland” t-shirt.

The tourists that straggle into Berkeley end up on Telegraph and I watch them negotiate their way past Cal students, the jewelry tables set along the sidewalk, the grizzled drifters holding cardboard signs that say, “too ugly to prostitute” or “need money for beer.” Mostly these tourists look around with unimpressed expressions, as if trying to understand why anyone would choose this place over San Francisco. It’s easier to appreciate the Golden Gate arching its way to Marin, the quaint strings of cable cars clattering up Hyde and Mason, the rows of San Francisco homes stacked neatly together as the fog rolls over Pier 39 and the Ferry Building.

Berkeley, with its weirdness painted proudly across its naked chest, is harder to swallow on a day trip. Its charms work their way quietly, steadily, till one day on a trip to Utah, you are explaining Berkeley’s innovative school programs, the way Alice Waters has integrated sustainable agriculture and slow food into elementary school education, and your voice quivers with pride. When Obama wins the election in 2008, the city explodes onto the streets, neighbors are clinging to each other, dancing in front of their homes, but for all its energy and protest, there are quiet corners of refuge, spaces to walk slowly, reading the bronzed poems of the Addison Street Anthology stamped into the sidewalk. Cement squares gilded with the number of Berkeley Nobel laureates, Janis Joplin’s arrest in 1963. A whole city bursting at the seams with inspiration for change. Even Cafe Gratitude, with its ludicrous ordering system, has something like endearment clinging to the folds of its eccentricity.

When my best friend flies up from LA to help me drive out to Colorado, we spend our last day in San Francisco. He’s never walked across the Golden Gate and I am happy for the excuse to have dim sum at the Hong Kong Lounge in the Inner Richmond. Stuffed with fried taro and steamed rice rolls, I stand on the bridge, the wind pushing hard, shoving my goodbyes back against my chest. We had planned to have clam chowder on the Wharf, but I am anxious to return to the East Bay. My throat feels tight, my lungs compacted. We go to Revival on Shattuck, sitting at the bar, perusing the weekly cocktail menu. I stare out the window, watching as a couple walk past the door, stopping to gaze at the dinner menu with yoga mats rolled tightly under their arms. After dinner, I insist we walk the two miles home, breathing in the scent of roses and reaching out for the wisteria, its pale petals luminescent in the moonlight. The squares of cement under my feet are scrawled with the words of an Ohlone song. “See! I am dancing! On the rim of the world I am dancing!”

I don’t sleep that night, sitting in my empty room watching the shadows of the juniper tree stretch along my bare walls, I wonder how long it will take for the Rockies to feel like home and if I will replace memories of golden poppies with the Rocky Mountain columbine or if California will always be on the tip of my tongue, looking over my shoulder for the “nuclear-free zone” signs, the blue seams of the Pacific, and the people dancing on the rim of the world.

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