I once lived on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley between Channing and Haste streets, in “deep kimchee” as the officer in riot gear once told me when I was trying to return home during the People’s Park rallies (the ’80s version, not the ’60s tumult). I didn’t hold much neighborly kinship to the ‘hood. My loyalties were based on plain economics: A $286 rent-controlled studio apartment, bless those poverty-stricken days.
I still return to the avenue for commercial excursions. Between Parker and Bancroft avenues and Bowditch and Dana streets, the Telegraph Avenue area is the place for one-stop holiday shopping. It is the home of East Bay beat poetry, latts the size of kegs and corduroy-jacketed men muttering, “when I was your age, we opposed the hegemonic ideology implicit in the industrial-military complex.”
The avenue’s hallucinogenic aura, tie-dyed and heavy with incense, can be attributed more to nostalgia than true counterculturalism. Sleek chain stores have long sat next to so-called head shops, and the number of haircutting salons about equals that of bookstores. This is where you can find something for that cool nephew (polyester lounge lizard shirt with Chinese dragons), conservative aunt (hand-crafted silver jewelry) or literate co-worker (anything from Moe’s).
True, the streets may be a little dingier, the street squatters younger and nighttime walks less enticing, but Telegraph Avenue has to retain its derelict dignity somehow. After all, with a Gap and bath shop marking the avenue’s end, there’s a nonconformity balance that must be maintained.
Caf-fiendish cackles of glee: Berkeley, hometown of Peet’s Coffee & Tea, brews in gallon sizes. This city knows the meaning of “tall” and “grande, ” as the Seattle-ites like to say. There’s nary a coffee franchise to be found on Telegraph and that’s just fine because it leaves room for more interesting options. Cafe Mediterranean has the poetic history, Milano has the lemon meringue pies, Sufficient Grounds has the pun, and there’s a dozen more. Beware of midterms and finals, when students stake out their bit of wood veneer real estate.
Naked guy beneath my clothes: Remember the Naked Guy? He was my era, but I always saw him fully clothed at the campus judo club. Nudity is pass anyway, and lounge shirts at Wicked or pink boas at Futura are what’s in. Get Gap-ped, get pierced at Zebra’s, get suited at George J. Good, and wherever you may stumble lies a pot of blue and gold cotton.
Recycled lifestyles: Sure, it’s a chain, but Urban Outfitters on Bancroft Avenue understands how to manufacture nostalgia for a lifestyle most young adults never experienced. Desk accessories made out of those colored plastic lawn-chair materials; inflatable furniture; picture frames with the satisfying heft of steel, wood or braided wire; clothing; and other just plain cool stuff. Futura on Telegraph carries similar fun items. Forget revivalism; Annapurna epitomizes ’70s flashbacks in many ways.
Street-wise: On weekends, the street vendors come out with everything from jewelry to electric lights and the old tie-dyed reliables.
Beat poetry: Get the beat at Amoeba’s or Rasputin’s record stores, or go on Durant Avenue for Leopold’s. Get the poetry just about anywhere, from antiquarian Cartesian on Dwight Avenue to shining Cody’s to irascible Moe’s on Telegraph.
No-mad’s land: Nothing feels better than Kashmir. Nomad’s and Kathmandu Imports, just across the street from each other, cater to needs from outerwear to inner peace. If the goods inspire treks across the Himalayas, Young’s Backpack and Jang Gabang have the hauling equipment to oblige.
Cheap plenitude: Inflation may exact its price on the avenue, but the many food options still cater to the starving student budget. Coffee Source and Raleigh’s serve entire delicious plant kingdoms in crater-sized salad bowls. Vegetarians eat guilt-free French fries and other foods at Smart Alec’s. Le Petit Cheval on Bancroft and Bowditch avenues ladles up three delicious items and rice served cafeteria style for $4. Berkeley Thai House tucked away on Channing Avenue rarely falters in its tender garlic pepper pork. Past Dwight Avenue, the dishes never stop coming at tiny Koryo Barbecue. Fondue Fred in the same building offers cheese or chocolate fondues. On weekdays, the Bancroft Avenue stalls whip up surprisingly good smoothies, Japanese food and the like.
Getting there: Take the BART Richmond line to the Berkeley stop. Station steps lead to Shattuck Avenue, which parallels the university and Telegraph Avenue. Walking takes a few minutes, unless you get distracted by the many stores and restaurants in the immediate area.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times