Students and psychics in Berkley


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Category: Travel Date: 19 Aug 99

Driving on a fast lane can get you to from LA to San Francisco in a little over six hours if you make your coffee stops short.


We drive in the hours surrounding a sunset. Trailers overflowing with sun-ripened strawberries, tomatoes, cherries, and artichokes wheeze alongside us, reflecting the warm glow of the afternoon, reminding us that California is the fruit basket of America. We stopped when it was pitch dark and checked into one of those inns along the highway. A bleak and isolated place, with only the persistent sounds of traffic and the inky outline of sparse bushes.


An exhausted-looking male trucker clocked in after us. A sour butch female trucker clocked out around the same time and disappeared after a retch of her trailer into the dark. It could, if you do that kind of all-night dreary driving for a job, be starkly depressing, but for a traveller the sense of being in the middle of nowhere is exhilarating. It is a state of transience, suspension of not knowing what is to come next. It’s the definition of a traveller.


The next morning we were in Berkley in an hour. Something about Berkley stirred youthful memories of being the cliche rebel student, of carefree days of tatty jeans and lank hair, of a time when it didn’t matter what you owned but who you were inside. (Those days never last.)


I was keen to see if this university student city managed to maintain its anti-establishment idealism, rage and fire of the ‘60s into the age of the cell phone. To my delight, our first sight as we drove into the city was a group of angry, chanting, fist-raising, demonstrating university students telling cars to “toot” their horns for some cause or the other.


It didn’t matter what the cause was (US hypocrisy regarding nuclear missiles? Police brutality towards non-whites? Support for single mothers, the elderly, the handicapped?), I reached over and tooted the horn several times. “Hippie,” said the driver, laughing.


It was good to see young people being passionate and taking a stand on an issue that was not directly related to them, that had to do with an essential humanity. It was an effort to fight powerful capitalist establishments on ethical grounds. (You say I sound like a naive student? I answer, better to be naive than jaded.)


Berkley is a campus town, with its activist politics and bizarre street life where Nobel Laureates mingle with the dregs. The energy of its 30,000 students overflows onto the pavement, onto the rows of book and record shops, eateries, museums, cinemas, second-hand clothes shops, onto street markets. A backpack or a reading student is always in view.


It is also home to aging students who never grew out of their politics of justice, but their experiments with ideas extended to drugs to which they are now slaves. They lie there, once strong young men with potential and now wasted middle-aged men, peddling books and slogans they no longer believe in, on the streets. We see them everywhere - the homeless, the hungry, the lost souls.


I wander innocently into a pipe shop where the array of exquisitely carved pipes, in transparent colours and artistic texture of the ‘60s, is displayed to the sound of rock music. Admiringly, I hold one up the wrong way and stupidly I ask: “What do you smoke in these?” Two stoned shop assistants look at me incredulously. I buy one out of sheer embarrassment.


“Psychic fair”, I read. I wanted to go. We wandered into this hall where a lot of dazed looking people gave out pamphlets on karma, and past lives. Along a long corridor a row of people sat opposite a tranced psychic. You could pick any topic out of 20 topics:  relationships, career, children, etc, for US$10. They were not that dazed. This was clever marketing. Who wouldn’t pay $10 to see into the future? But before that, we were subjected to a “free” healing where all negative energies are taken away from you.

“Should I close my eyes?” I asked.

“No!” said my healer adamantly. “If you do, your spirit might leave us.”

I sit up bolt upright, wide-eyed. She circles around me, and chants. In-between she interrupts to the call of her four-year-old son. And then continues.

It was time for the reading. I chose “career”. I sit opposite the yawning psychic, trying to ignore my laughing partner.

“I see children,” she says.

“Oh yes?” I reply.

“Yes, are you a Montessori teacher?”

“Not exactly,” I say, trying to keep a straight face.

“A nurse then?”

“No,” I say.

“Training to be a doctor?”


She saw trains, she saw matriarchal figures keeping me back, she saw much emotion. In short, she saw a lot of rot. I walked out into the sunlight astonished at the Americans’ ability to market everything from God-given water to spirituality.


Next week: New York and Trinidad.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur