Left Coasting: Home Discomforts in Berkeley

Away from home among the homeless…

by David Haywood

The most boring event I’ve ever attended was a seminar given by an engineer from California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It should have been fascinating. The engineer had worked on a number of important space projects including Apollo, Voyager, and Viking. It transpired, however, that he preferred not to mention such quotidian topics in his seminars.

What he preferred to talk about—for nearly two hours—was the design of the New Zealand lavatory. To say that he was impressed by our lavatories (which are of the same type as used in Britain and Australia) would be an understatement akin to saying that Caligula liked his horse. As far as I could tell, the engineer would have {married} a New Zealand lavatory, if only bigamy were legal.

As his audience dozed, he expounded upon the genius of our privies from every conceivable angle. He compared the New Zealand unit with the siphon-type toilet used in California. He praised the numerous advantages of our design; and he dwelt lovingly on the water-saving features and hydro-dynamic elegance.

By the end of the seminar, the engineer had reached a state of enthusiasm that only Californians can truly attain. Words tumbled from his lips at break-neck speed—each sentence terminating with an infomercial-style exclamation mark: “Don’t you see? This means that your toilets are almost impossible to clog!” and “With your simple p-trap system, you can even have half a flush!” and “The volume of water in your cistern is less than that of the bowl—so it can’t overflow!”

After a decade or so, I finally managed to repress my memories of this seminar. But as my flight landed in California last month, the subject of lavatories was—by a curious co-incidence—firmly at the forefront of my mind. I had missed my chance for a last-minute visit to the facilities on the plane, and while queueing for customs, I began to experience considerable pressure in my bladder.

A colleague met me outside the arrivals gate, and I was immediately ushered into her car—for (what turned out to be) a long drive to my rented accommodation in Berkeley. She kindly offered to make a side-trip to a supermarket en route, so that I could pick up a few groceries. “Er… will there be a lavatory at the supermarket, do you think?” I asked.

“Bound to be,” she assured me. There wasn’t. By the time we eventually arrived at the apartment, I was grimacing in pain, and giving serious thought to the fate of astronomer Tycho Brahe—who, as we learnt at Sunday School, died of a burst bladder rather than excuse himself from the dining table of the Holy Roman Emperor*. Mr Brahe, it has always seemed to me, was a man who took politeness a step too far.

Fortunately, there were no banqueting members of royalty in my new apartment, and I was able to rush off and relieve myself without breaching etiquette. The relief was considerable—and, as a kind of lavatorial dessert, I blew my nose on some toilet paper to dispel the last vestiges of ‘aeroplane ear’, and threw the paper into the bowl. I would like to emphasize at this point that the quantity of paper would never have presented a problem to any New Zealand toilet.

It was only after I had pushed the flush button, that—with horrible clarity—the entire seminar on lavatories came suddenly rushing back to me. I watched helplessly as the contents of the toilet bowl dipped briefly, and then surged up towards me, cascading in a nightmarish yellow waterfall over the rim, and swamping the floor with vast quantities of liquid.

There are no doubt people in this world who would—even after a fourteen hour flight—find humour in such a situation. I can conclusively reveal that I am not one of these people. And, if anything, my sense of humour evaporated even further when I discovered that the apartment did not contain a mop (although, thankfully, it did have a toilet plunger). I used fifteen rolls of lavatory paper to soak the liquid from the floor, hand-wring it back into the toilet bowl, and clean everything down with disinfectant. I still don’t think it’s funny.

It took me the rest of the afternoon to recover from the trauma. At dinner-time I ventured out to explore my new neighbourhood.

In the 1960s, Berkeley was famous as the epicentre of the hippie movement, but today this has given way to a distinct tinge of the third world. On my way through campus, I was astonished to witness an elderly woman washing her clothes in a stream (she dried her garments by pegging them to the shopping trolley that contained her bedding). The footpaths of the high street were cluttered with beggars; and the local park was full of homeless people slumbering beneath ragged blankets.

One of the last expressions of Berkeley’s hippie past is Café Gratitude. My friends Lis and Alejandro were waiting outside the door. A waitress led us into the restaurant, and seated us beneath a gigantic motivational painting of a child amputee. Alejandro inspected the painting for several long seconds. “This is a truly terrible piece of art,” he said finally.

Café Gratitude is operated on a business model known as ‘Sacred Commerce’ in which, according to their mission statement, “an atmosphere of transformation is created in the work environment”. It sounds like an appalling concept :

A Sacred Commerce business is a safe container of unconditional love where transparency is encouraged and held as a courageous act . Employees partake in a ‘clearing’ process before each shift to distinguish how the habitual mind is creating separation from our experience of oneness. This way, employees choose to be present and engaged in sacred service with our customers.

And if that isn’t bad enough, each menu item is named after a positive emotional attribute. If you want a coffee milkshake then you’re supposed to order “I am Eternally Blessed”. If you fancy a Caesar salad then you have to specify “I am Dazzling”.

“What foods may I offer you this evening?” asked our waitress. I can confirm that she indeed intoned her words with the tranquil air of an employee “engaged in sacred service with her customers”. Or, to put it another way, in the manner of a brainwashed hippy.

“I’ll have the enchiladas, please,” said Lis.

“You are elated,” the waitress corrected her gently.

“Spring rolls for me,” said Alejandro.

“You are insightful,” breathed the waitress.

“I’ll try the pizza, thanks.”

“You are passionate.”

The waitress exuded unconditional love and transparency as she departed our table. “This restaurant is making me feel curmudgeonly,” said Lis.

The food was good, although extremely heavy on nuts. For hours afterwards, I had the strange bloated sensation that you have when you’ve eaten too many free peanuts at a pub.

On the way home, in the spirit of California’s DIY social welfare system, I gave money to a beggar with an amputated hand and foot. He was in a wheelchair—towing his belongings (a sleeping bag, some clothes, and piece of plastic sheeting) in a shopping trolley. A few blocks later, I gave a dollar to a blind beggar. It seemed a little crazy to be dishing out money to inhabitants of the richest country in the world, but clearly they needed it.

As I lay in bed that night, I wondered what it was like to be homeless and disabled. How do you find a safe corner to spend the night when you’re blind? How can you sleep rough in a wheelchair with two missing limbs?

Already Berkeley was reminding me of one of those crazy science fiction movies—where everyone is armed with swords, and yet drives around in a spaceship. It’s a unreal combination: leading university, numerous high tech industries, and Dickensian poverty all in the same geographical area.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the fact that different countries and places do things in different ways. I wouldn’t want everywhere to be the same; and I don’t mind a few odd foibles. Overflowing lavatories aren’t serious in the grand scheme of thing—certainly New Zealand’s collective phobia of home heating is a far more worrisome issue (and has unquestionably hastened some of our citizens into the grave).

But, I must say, running the social welfare system on—presumably—the same principle as your faulty toilets doesn’t seem like such a great idea. And having the sick, the mentally ill, and the maimed without a roof over their heads is beyond mere foible as far as I’m concerned.

Berkeley has a nice university, wonderful weather, and pleasant people—but the desperation of its poor makes it a difficult place for me to enjoy.

* Actually, this is complete myth—a modern autopsy has revealed that Brahe did not die of any such thing.


David Haywood is more commonly found in Christchurch. His book My First Stabbing and columns are available at www.publicaddressbooks.com and good bookshops.