Wondrous, Fragile, Tedious Berkeley

At Berkeley

a film directed by Frederick Wiseman
Zipporah Films
The University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, in a scene from Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley


In the summer of 1967 I drove across the country from Boston to the West Coast with my friend Burt Fishman. Neither of us had much money, but gas was 33 cents a gallon, cheap motels and simple food cost next to nothing, and life was good. I had never been west before, at least never west of the Berkshires. What I saw amazed me. Parts of the country seemed almost unimaginably uninhabited—in recent decades I have seen something like it only in the Kalahari and the Australian Outback. We drove for hours on end without seeing another soul. To amuse ourselves, we sang at the top of our lungs. We must have been bopping up and down in time with the music, for on some godforsaken highway in Utah a cop in a helicopter spotted us and signaled ahead to have us stopped to see if we were drunk.

Our giddiness only grew as we crossed the Sierras and descended toward San Francisco. No city has every looked more magical, all the more so in that era when, since engineers hadn’t yet figured out how to build high-rises on the treacherous geological plate, Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill was still the tallest building in town. In Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle I saw a free concert by Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles. At the concert’s end, an ecstatic and seemingly crazed Hendrix, wearing a drum major’s coat covered with gold brocade, smashed his guitar to smithereens. My ears ringing, I joined the crowd in howling my delight.

I returned to graduate school with a sense that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in New Haven, Connecticut. Not long afterward I finished my Ph.D. and was offered a job at the University of California, Berkeley. The university, which had been convulsed by the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, was once again in the news, with protests that eventually escalated into the bloody riots around People’s Park. But though I had neglected to visit the campus on my trip out west and had only the vaguest idea of what the university was actually like, what I had seen in San Francisco that summer was lure enough, and I gleefully accepted the offer. Many of my Yale professors, including Bart Giamatti, shook their heads and told me that I was making a terrible mistake.

I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1969 and stayed until 1997. It was love at first sight. There was a magical lightness about it all that amazed me after the neo-Gothic heaviness of Yale, a sense of youth and freshness and infinite possibility. Here was a state whose citizens had decided that higher education was its most important priority and that…

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