Telegraph Avenue rolled out of bed mid-morning. Sleepyheads, aging hippies and the homeless emerged about the same time—crusty eyed, lint balls, manic hair, begging for a cup of coffee. Retail shops and multicultural restaurants followed, opening their doors and bringing forth savory aromas as inviting as their unfurled awnings. I liked the Chinese food place in the middle of the block. I always ordered an egg roll with sweet and sour sauce on the side.
The little Asian hole-in-the-wall mostly served food to go, but it also had a couple of small tables for dine-in. Customers ordered at the counter. We didn’t have to wait but a few seconds for an egg roll to arrive on a paper plate. The deep-fried delicacy reminded me of a small yule log, only this one was stuffed with cabbage, minced vegetables and chicken fragments—a satisfying and affordable meal.
Just around the corner from the Chinese take-out, and across from the UC Berkeley campus was Tops N’ Things a clothing boutique for teens and young women. That’s where I worked as a salesperson. Besides the paycheck, I received fifty percent off everything in the store. In short order, I’d collected a pile of lay-a-ways in the back room—dreams beyond my budget. I wore the clothes inside my mind, new pretty outfits. Perhaps I had purchased one or two of the dozen items I’d sandbagged before Diane, the manager protested, “Either buy them all today or return them to inventory.”
In lieu of signing my paycheck over to the store, I placed the outfits back on hangers and brought them lovingly into the showroom where I helped them find good homes.
Kelly the assistant manager hired me. I’d bopped into the store one day looking for a job. I wore a kicky multi-tiered peplum dress, green with little white flowers. I felt pretty, a good day for my confidence level. I walked up to the counter and smiled at Kelly who could only be described as stunningly beautiful—exotic golden-brown eyes that slanted provocatively. Her petite perfect figure included an exaggerated derriere. I loved the way she looked, and talked, her mannerisms and the Christmas poem she shared. She said it had won an award. I believed it. Her words danced on paper, lyrical, rhythmical like jazz music.
I wasn’t used to the bustle of Berkeley, especially Telegraph Avenue with its chaotic traffic and the wild characters that roamed the street like a rowdy bunch of minstrels from a renaissance fair. The visual noise intermingled with college students in t-shirts and jeans, or wrinkled Khakis and Oxford button-downs. Every day was a parade engaged in copious abandon. The scene was a little frightening for me, a seventeen-year old who felt newly orphaned.
If I kept busy selling clothes, walking to and from work, and in my way praying, I could just about keep at bay the encroaching mental illness. The sideswiping panic attacks were my secret. I hoped that if I didn’t tell anyone about the mental turmoil, then the treacherous tremors would not become too disabling or permanent.
There were other’s like me on Telegraph Avenue. I bought a book of poetry from one of them. She walked with a limp, wore a red beret, and blew bubbles from a little plastic wand. She was well known on the street. People called greetings to her and she’d wave with a translucent popping bouquet. Her books cost a dollar. Some were bound, one collection was printed on unlined index cards and packaged in a small Manilla envelope.
I heard the poet had a seizure one day while in the Mediterranean Café on Telegraph. The almost Turkish, thick black coffee in the gigantic watering hole had sent me into a caffeine jitterbug once too, though someone said she was an epileptic. The next day, the poet with her overflowing leather satchel was walking the street again and blowing bubbles—the precarious pace of the boulevard didn’t miss a beat.
Down a few blocks from the Mediterranean Café on Telegraph Avenue was the Le Petit Bateau, a charming little coffee shop converted from a vintage Berkeley home. They offered a full breakfast or a simple croissant.
I wasn’t hungry that morning. I remember staring at the floor in the coffee shop while my on-again-off-again boyfriend ate heartily. Turmoil swirled inside me. Sylvia Plath called it a Bell Jar. I didn’t have a name for the soul wrenching isolation of being stuck inside your head, when the outside world seemed unreal.
The guy sitting across from me was annoyed. He wanted to finish his meal, in peace, then move onto a good day. He couldn’t wait to get rid of the anchor.
I didn’t blame him. He wasn’t someone trained to deal with my neediness. I wasn’t trained either.
I slipped out of the café without objection.
My feet felt like they’d gained weight as I lumbered back towards the University. I passed a telephone booth and wanted to call home, talk with family. I dialed the number. An automated voice asked for more change than I possessed so I hung up.
In the middle of the last block before the campus, the old familiar fragrance of the Chinese take-out came to me and suddenly I was hungry, ravenous. When my order was ready, I reached up and grasped the paper plate with my egg roll. The man behind the counter held onto the plate, didn’t release it. I paused and looked up. He smiled.
“Would you like a cup of green Tea? It’s on me.”
Karen Clay is a memoirist, poet and nonfiction writer. Her story, “Oh What a Lonely Boy”, won first place in the 2022 Gold Country Writers 100 Word Story Contest. She’s a repeat contributor (2/23), and a licensed Ham Radio operator, volunteers for the Tevis Cup (100 miles-One Day) an annual horse race from Lake Tahoe to Auburn.