Sloop John Berkeley: A Cal Day experience

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When you decide to drive from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, your options for passage depend on your desires: the 5 or the 101, five hours or eight, business or leisure, almond groves or palm trees.

So when my friend Grier called me in the middle of an April night our senior year of high school and asked me if I wanted to come with him for a weekend trip up to Berkeley for Cal Day, I asked him if he knew what he wanted. Grier had been accepted to both UCLA and UC Berkeley, while I was 90% sure I was moving up north in the fall.

He said he didn’t know. That was the point of going to Cal Day.

Accompanying us on our trip was Andy, a mutual friend who had committed to San José State and would be attending Spartan Day, its admitted students day, while we toured Berkeley. I made it clear at the outset that I did not want Andy driving; his left wrist was fractured, effectively out-of-service for the month, following a skateboarding accident. But as the only one without a driver’s license, my protests were swatted away by Grier and Andy, who reassured me that with a functional right-hand and two deft knees, his driving would be unimpaired.

“I don’t trust you driving me, not with that arm,” I said.

“And I don’t trust you driving me with either of your arms,” he shot back.

So it was decided.

With time to kill during spring break, we chose the scenic route. Grier and Andy took shifts driving up stretches of the 101 while I kept them awake with back seat conversation. We talked about our love of fast food and planned on stopping at a Wendy’s on our way home. Our charades were often unprompted, almost organic, and we found the same things to be funny.  Besides contemplating stopping by flowery fields for photo shoots to mock the social media posts we collectively ridiculed, we also let our Beatles impersonations bubble out, often playing out scenes from the band’s disintegration, alternating between a passive-aggressive George Harrison and a patronizing Paul McCartney. 

Our charades were often unprompted, almost organic, and we found the same things to be funny.

“I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all, whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”

“I’m trying to help you, but I always hear myself annoying you.”

We enjoyed playing out a breakup.

— 

In Daly City, we were welcomed by our hosts, a polite Thai couple who were Grier’s family friends, to their old bungalow. Its exterior white paint chipped to reveal wood. We helped each other unpack and Grier volunteered to sleep on the floor, leaving the couches to Andy and me. We stayed up late, planning our Friday in San Francisco.

For our first time in the City, we blew through a checklist of tourist necessities: BARTing, window-shopping in Chinatown, having our cash turned down at a paperless cafe, gazing slack-jawed at the Financial District’s architecture, being crammed sardine-style in the bustling crowds at the Ferry Building. 

Grier and Andy wanted to ride Lime scooters down to Pier 39; I was afraid, having never learned to ride a scooter. My stomach tightened as they debated spending money on the scooters.

“We can walk if you want to.” But you don’t want to.

“No, no, you guys go on ahead, I’ll meet you there.” I’m a pansy, I know.

“Are you sure?” You’re only asking out of respect.

“Yeah. Don’t worry.”

Workman’s windbreaker zipped up to my throat, I quickly walked toward Pier 39 without interacting with anyone. The pier numbers increased, 34, 35, 36, 37. Noticing a group of men offering their free rap mixtapes, with tourists passing them without acknowledgement, I accepted one in support.

The rapper smiled in thanks and pulled out a Sharpie to sign his CD. As he did, he began to make conversation.

“What’s your name? Alex? Alex, you got a wife? No? A girlfriend? It’s all good, I like your shoes man. You can catch me on Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud. Alex, Alex, before you go, I would love a donation for the CD.”

So there it was. Rookie mistake. My subconscious mocked me, ringing a voice through my head, John Mulaney squealing about street smarts, only with all of its humor stripped. It wasn’t because of a lack of empathy that passersby didn’t stop. Street smarts! I was on my own.

As I pulled out my wallet, I saw him eye the higher denominations in its middle compartment. Without thinking, I quickly selected a $10 bill.

“Alex, no, Alex, I want the 20. Alex!”

The three other street artists joined in, calling out my name as if we were familiars. Each at least a foot taller than me, they began to shame me, and I backed away, apologized and hurried off to reconnect with Grier and Andy.

Having told them of the incident, I tried to laugh it off. They offered clam chowder, but food wasn’t appealing anymore. Something switched off inside of me, and I didn’t want to admit it to them or myself. It wasn’t the money. It was choosing to step into a room only to have the door close behind you while the walls closed in.

We carried on with our tour, visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Painted Ladies. But I was now reserved, and offered no more sarcastic comments or jokes. As much as I tried to enjoy the locations, my smiles felt as useful as slapping Scotch tape on a leaking pipe. Kites flew far away from their owners while the San Francisco winds ripped them around the cloudless sky. I held down my cap against what felt like a gale. 

Kites flew far away from their owners while the San Francisco winds ripped them around the cloudless sky. I held down my cap against what felt like a gale. 

That night, after we’d eaten dinner with our hosts — which featured a conversation about college destinations, in which Grier stated that he was considering UC Berkeley primarily because he was afraid UCLA would be too close to home — and after we’d made plans to split ways on Saturday for our admit-days, after they’d spent a couple hours playing video games, I woke up to glimpse the blue haziness of the TV still on, flickering in the dark, while the San Francisco winds continued to rattle the wind chimes and hound the windows. Angry winds don’t howl. They shriek.

Cal Day, like any other college’s admitted-student day, is a large advertising event that sells to prospective students, their parents and alumni the accomplishments, tradition and essence of UC Berkeley. Thousands of people milled around, some led by enthusiastic tour guides, others leading themselves to lectures, clothing sales or club booths. 

Grier had spent the day unfavorably comparing UC Berkeley to UCLA. The food, the dorms, the curriculum. For someone who claimed to be feeling uncertain, I wanted to tell him that he seemed more than decided on what college he’d chosen. But I never said that.

We were standing at the base of the Campanile, looking down at the crowded Cal Day itinerary on our phones.

“Do you want to split up?”

“No, do you want to split up?”

“Listen, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

He decided to go to an economics lecture, even after I suggested that he come meet another high school classmate of ours. Like the redwoods we drove by on the 101, we were unbending and stubborn, family that had been planted apart. We didn’t say it, but it was there, in the half-interested nod and “sure” he gave me after I suggested we meet up again.

I blamed his lack of enthusiasm for my own dulled reaction to the school. I said as much to my friend Jeremy, who was completely in love with UC Berkeley and excited at the thought of starting school as soon as possible. And I voiced my frustrations about being stuck with a buzzkill and not being as hyped as Jeremy with another mutual friend, Hamsani, as we sat in an empty courtyard.

I wanted so desperately to be certain that UC Berkeley was the right choice for me, but Hamsani was uncertain herself, confiding that the school “didn’t click” with her, and that she was leaning toward UC San Diego, which was also my other choice.

“What if you never find it though?”

“What?”

“A place that clicks. And how would you know?”

“I don’t know. It would just feel right.”

“…”

“…”

“Are you afraid of being too close to home?”

“Yes. Yeah. But my brother goes here, so —”

“It’ll be like living at home then. Too much Dev.”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Neither do I.”

When you are in a band apart, it’s not like the movies. There’s no fiery blow-up confrontation. No shouting matches. The smallest things take on significance, become endowed with meaning. A sigh. A nod. Silence becomes a fourth person, present and ready to replace language for expression.

Silence becomes a fourth person, present and ready to replace language for expression.

We had a final meal in the City, our tension not removed or forgotten about, but also not spoken of. Over Mexican food, we cracked jokes, had our photo taken by the waiter and talked about our friends and our teachers. Like normal. But playing the game as if nothing had been lost yielded superficial results. 

— 

On Sunday, we took the 5 home. It cuts right through the San Joaquin Valley’s dirt and dried grass and green. We all wanted the same thing, but nobody gave a voice to it. Nobody said anything out loud. But it was there. The answer stretched out on the asphalt, away from the long coastal route and twisting scenery of the 101. The 5 is a straight line, no surprises.

I queued a Beach Boys song. A flute note softly passed through the car. Then, the unmistakable sound of a glockenspiel, accompanied by a similarly unmistakable harmony. At the wheel, Grier turned to Andy, giving him a snarky look upon recognition.

“Let me go home … I wanna go home …”

The air in the old Volvo seemed to stiffen.

“Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

Grier shook his head, quietly chuckling to himself as if something he had long suspected was just confirmed.

I wanted to curse him out for reading something into nothing. But each time Brian Wilson’s voice repeated the chorus, his suspicions seemed to only become more valid.

“Let me go home … why don’t they let me go home?”

And in the coup de grâce: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

Then there was only the sound of the high winds whipping through the road.

Somewhere past Bakersfield, the car stopped. Wendy’s. They stuck their heads in the back and asked me if I wanted to come in but I had already closed my eyes and was trying hard to seem asleep. I let the pretense remain fixed all the way home, hoping they remembered how to find it.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexdaaang.

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