Along Euclid, North Berkeley

Emma Drake/Staff

The business-district section of Euclid Avenue, with the kebab place and the burrito shop, with the tiny grocer’s and Zee Zee Copy and La Val’s Pizza adorned with the decrepit, overflowing neon beer stein is bustling on a Friday at lunchtime. Most of the other establishments along the sidewalk are cafés, many newly homogenized, with sparse black-red-and-steel decor, but there’s a golden few whose original charm is still largely, miraculously intact. All of them are filled with eaters and coffee-sippers and studiers absorbed in their work.

Crossing Ridge Road, the restaurants and stores fall away and are replaced by apartment buildings and small houses, pushed right up against the sidewalk. The apartments inside are tiny, I know, accommodating as many college-student residents as fire code permits. At 1727 Euclid Ave. is the mysterious, cheerful Yun Lin Temple: a narrow pathway brightly painted in green and yellow bisects the gated lawn with its row of colorful flags in front of a thick hedge that obscures the first-floor windows from the street.

WELCOME

Berkeley is a

crime watch

community

Against the wall on my left, a fire escape: a painted metal staircase designed to reach the sidewalk from the window but turned sideways, so that it’s parallel with the windowsill, two stories above ground, well out of reach.

Above me now there’s a foil balloon caught in a tree — a briefly lingering trace of a child’s birthday; here, a forgotten lunchbox, its peanut butter sandwich decaying slowly inside the hard pink plastic casing.

The apartment buildings turn into townhouses; one has a motorized chair for ascending the steep stairs that lead to the front door. It’s an aesthetically inconsistent but functionally critical amendment to the previously constructed home, installed perhaps by the daughter or son-in-law of the elderly woman who resides there.  The house’s original designers did not have her mobility in mind.

Here, a Little Free Library, stocked with Nancy Drews and Stephen Kings, unlocked, painted with the words HONOR SYSTEM in curling puff-paint letters.

Lawns grow wider and longer in front of the houses, creating greater and greater distances between the sidewalk and the front doors. The street is canopied with autumnal variety and the iron gates and fences bordering it grow taller and more ornate. One small driveway is decorated with an iron archway whose twirling, fairy tale letters read: VINE LANE. A young dad in short-shorts trundles past pushing a jogging stroller; a 60-something woman pulls a timid Portuguese water dog along on a leather leash.

To the left, a smaller street branches further uphill, a lane of quaint-yet-massive homes rising over the thick hedge that borders it. NOT A THROUGH STREET.

Is it reassuring, I wonder, for those who inhabit those houses to know that wanderers and passers-by are explicitly deterred from turning onto their street? Or does the sign’s callous declaration wear on them too, as they drive up their non-through-street every day to get home?

A lawn rife with dry and decaying greenery spills its debris onto the pavement, where leaves crunch and crackle underfoot. The abandoned attempt at beautification calls attention to itself in the pristine neighborhood — or rather, its disarray calls attention to the perfection of every other lawn in view.

The feats of landscaping become increasingly impressive as the road steepens and curves around to the right, the houses growing ever larger and more fortresslike, set back from the road at the expense of several tens of feet of lawn, groomed hedging and fencework. Large windows reveal — or display — untouched calf-hide couches, neat stacks of coffee table books; fingerprintless iMacs on long blond wooden tables.

Neighborhood

Crime Watch

we immediately

report all

suspicious

activities to our

police department

The serenity is interrupted here by the whine of a couple of leaf blowers, one brandished by an invisible man who pauses his blowing and steps ceremoniously out of my freshly cleared path as I pass him, and one blasting away behind a trimmed, opaque eight-foot bush, kicking a cloud of dust and noxious exhaust into the air. It is a strange task, unquestioned by its performer, who is paid a meager hourly wage, or by its solicitor, who is far away at the office across the bridge during its daily duration. Man armed with machine fights to overtake the tug of gravity on dried leaves from trees, endlessly, paradoxically, beautifying by polluting and polluting by beautifying. One day, he will eventually have blown every last leaf into a corner and swept it into the rotating compost, and then, finally, the neighborhood will be perfect.

Parked alongside the house with the leaf blower in the yard is his truck, the bed overflowing with lawn mowers and bins of plant trimmings and wooden planks and brooms and rakes, breaking up the otherwise consistent Lexus-Mercedes-Tesla alternation along the sidewalks and in the garages.

I used to drive a truck like that in high school, a hand-me-down from my grandfather who purchased it for wood-hauling and yard work in the ’80s. It was red, with peeling stripes of silver paint along the sides and a three-seater bench in the front seat. I loved that thing, loved coming into the parking lot after school to find my friends hanging out in the bed of it, loved the street cred I earned when I DD’ed in it for parties.

Once, we sat parked outside a friend’s house, lights off and sidled up alongside a hedge, waiting for his mom to leave for the movies so we could drink beer and smoke weed for a few hours in a parentless residence. We watched her get into her car and pull out of the driveway, and then ran inside and made ourselves comfortable on the couch. As soon as we’d sat down she came rushing back into the house, thinking the owners of the truck outside had been casing her house in preparation for a robbery. She was surprised and relieved to find that her teenaged son had simply invited a couple of young girls over for an illicit hangout.

Neighborhood Watch

program in Force

If I don’t call the police

my neighbor will

There, across the street, a woman sits on the sidewalk holding a cardboard box of cleaning supplies, waiting at one of the only bus stops in the neighborhood. The bus sweeps by every 30  minutes to whisk away the evidence of this woman who sweeps the houses, who has spent the morning scrubbing toilets and wiping counters and watching the family’s goldendoodle prance on the freshly mopped floors, folding clothes and tidying medicine cabinets and erasing evidence that the family of five ever creates spills or takes showers or exhales anything other than peach-scented air freshener. A check was left for her on the table beside the door because Mrs. Wilson would be out while she was working, wondering suspiciously to herself about the china bowl that seems to have disappeared — the bowl that Mr. Wilson uses as an ashtray when he smokes his secret cigarettes at night.

Once I was driving back and forth along a secluded road in my old neighborhood quite similar to this one, filming a video for a student government campaign. We were trying to get a shot of me approaching the camera in the truck, driving up the street from over a hill in the distance. After the third try, we realized someone had been yelling at us from behind a fence along the road: “Get out of here! We see you and we know what you’re doing and we don’t want you here!” The voice, an old woman’s, was croaky with exasperation and menace and also fear.

Angry myself with the biting indignation of a teenager admonished for doing nothing wrong, I marched up to her gate and knocked. She and her husband opened the gate a crack, peering at me warily, and then opened it fully, surprised, when they saw my small blonde self. I explained that I lived in the house on the hill around the corner and that I was filming a video for my ASB President campaign, and would they please be so kind as to allow us to finish filming the shot here on this public street.

Here, the hedges part to reveal a neatly trimmed baseball diamond, surrounded by copious oak and peppercorn trees and bunches of wildflowers. Another gardener is sculpting the bushes in the cultivated wildness, smoothing its gently curved side with a small chainsaw. Is he more alive if he exerts his impact on the place, on the bushes he hacks back with a scythe, on the toilet stains she scrubs away, than that of those who create the mess and then have all of it erased, smoothly, in their wake?

The lamppost here bears a plaque memorializing a prominent community figure who “devoted his life to achieving World Peace.” If you stand just beside it, peering through the gap between a pair of oak trees down at the Bay spread out at the feet of the hills, you can see the World Peace glistening on all the little sailboats dotting the water. It shines on the city skyline and the bridges and Marin Headlands and the lavender mountains beyond them, glittering like fool’s gold as far as the eye can see.

 

Contact Sonnet Phelps at [email protected].