Isabel is … Interning in Berkeley

Exploring the Bay

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Freshman year, I spent my Sunday afternoons meticulously pruning the basil plants which grew suspended from the ceiling of a warehouse off of Gilman Street. My first internship experience, with a family-run hydroponic farm called Local Greens, opened my eyes to a whole world of Berkeley outside of campus.

Before coming to college, I’d never held a regular job. For that reason, I was eager to start working: I wanted to earn some extra cash to have that much more independence.

My internship at Local Greens gave me my first working experience and enough basil to make pesto for an army. My first day on the job proved to be one of those days when it feels like the universe convenes to test you, and then, with a cup of tea, lets you know you’re in the right place.

I took the first bus ride of my life to get there. Luckily, as I would learn only later, the buses ran on time, and I arrived at the corner of 10th and Gilman streets, the address the manager of the farm had given.

There, looming large in the unfamiliar lot, stood Whole Foods. Around the grocery stood a maze of warehouses and no sign of a farm. Hydroponics, I’d yet to realize, leave very little environmental footprint, requiring only water and minerals to grow. No hoes or other traditional farming equipment would lead me to the site. Unsure, I started walking.

The gray sky loomed above me as the minutes ticked away, closer and closer to the time of my interview. There were hardly any people around, and the few that were knew where they were going.

At the corner of the street, I saw a small house with the door ajar. In the window a sign read “Blue Willow, Fine Teas.” Thinking that it might be something like a coffee shop, I knocked on the door and entered.

Inside, I found a small room, empty but for a profusion of boxes lining the walls. Some boxes were sealed, some stacked on top of one another, some bursting open with loose leaf teas. I clearly was not supposed to be there.

Before I could turn to leave a quiet woman’s voice from down the hallways called out, “Come on in.” A few minutes later the woman with the voice appeared, explaining, “I was just milling some Earl Grey fresh,” whisking me into the back room to show me her morning’s work. “It’s my least favorite kind of tea. Always find Earl Grey tastes soapy from the stores, but this — I certainly hope — won’t.”

We fell into an easy conversation, with my love for teas sparking question after question. The tea woman introduced herself as Ali, and patiently answered all of my questions while brewing rooibos for the both of us. She told me of her visits to tea farmers in China and Japan, of how teas are grown and made, of how she got lonely working in the shop. After we’d finished our tea, Ali directed me toward Local Greens loaded down with a sampling of her custom teas.

Today, Ali has revamped her storage space, running a proper tea shop called Blue Willow Teaspot at 1200 Tenth St. I brew her Earl Grey on the mornings that I’d rather not be present for.

I finally made it to the interview at Local Greens, and I got the job pruning basil in the warehouse. As I worked on the plants, the humid, warm temperatures that provide basil plants their optimal growing conditions also warmed my understanding of Berkeley, adding a sense of the tropics to Berkeley’s biting winter days. Calm could be found in a working environment, between the monotonous caressing of leaves into their packaging containers and the hum of humidifiers. I clipped away at the basil, speaking softly to the plants when no one was watching.

I probably won’t end up working on a farm with a major in art history. And while the practical job skills I garnered from my internship are not that extensive, I certainly did gain a new perspective. I learned where to buy tea, discovered that people can make a living out of growing basil and that a whole slew of restaurants line up on San Pablo for our benefit, if we just take a bus down the hill.

Blue Willow Tea Spot is open on 1200 10th St. Wednesday through Sunday, with tea ceremonies held on weekends. Local Greens produce is available in Whole Foods, Nugget Markets and other retailers in Berkeley.

Isabel writes the Thursday column on discovering Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. Contact her at [email protected].