Throughout my freshman year, I recall waiting for Berkeley to start feeling like home. I’m not quite sure when, but at some point amid the treks back to Clark Kerr, late nights at Moffitt and carefree afternoons on College Avenue, it happened. This city became a second home to me.
But what does home really mean? What I strived for last year was comfort. To have my people, my places, my routines. Now a sophomore, I definitely have my own perception of what this place means to me. But a recent incident became a reality check that I should engage with Berkeley on a more holistic level, beyond my bubble of familiarity.
It’s not that what happened was something I hadn’t seen before or felt completely naive to previously. But rather, I was involved in a more direct way that prompted me to evaluate how my experiences alone can only capture a narrower contour of Berkeley.
I spent about four hours at the Peet’s Coffee on Telegraph Avenue one Sunday afternoon. About 20 minutes into my work, someone opened the door and yelled about Jesus Christ. After a few sentences, he closed the door and continued down the street. It jarred us café customers, but it was nothing we hadn’t seen before.
It’s not that what happened was something I hadn’t seen before or felt completely naive to previously.
The same thing happened again, about an hour later. And in between, someone approached a couple having lunch next to me, asking for change. The two looked incredibly uncomfortable with the interruption.
For the most part, I remained fairly occupied with my work. With each incident, though, it became more difficult to keep my focus.
Then a man came through the door, not as casually as the other two did. I glanced up from my screen to see him coming toward me.
For a moment, whether it was for half a second or half a minute — I truly can’t recall — we made eye contact as he yelled. He then grabbed my phone, left the café, and started down Telegraph Avenue. I stood there, stunned. A man at the table behind me went after him and got my phone back. I thanked him graciously on autopilot and sat back down.
I kept telling myself to continue with my work. But I was just staring blankly at my screen. A woman nearby waiting for her coffee asked if she could “sit with me a moment.” Her name was Sarah.
She said to me, “I want you to process what just happened, so it doesn’t impact you later.”
I was initially perplexed by her suggestion, but a deeper part of me knew exactly what she meant and desperately welcomed the idea. My body became less tense and my eyes grew teary. It was as if I was physically reacting to something I hadn’t let myself emotionally think through.
We proceeded to talk for a good while. Perhaps 15 minutes or so.
I didn’t realize how badly I needed that space to reflect — not only on what had just happened to me specifically but more broadly on the feeling that had accumulated in me throughout the day of working and watching the afternoon’s events.
It was as if I was physically reacting to something I hadn’t let myself emotionally think through.
I had just been sitting there behind my laptop screen, existing as a barrier from a less pleasant reality. Was it from denial? Distraction? An effort to ignore? Hard to say. And I actually find it quite fitting that I was doing homework when this occurred. I disappoint myself when a day feels like a strained endeavor to tackle the never-ending to-do list and I become a more passive part of my surroundings — of which this instance was a prime example.
In the company of this compassionate stranger, I voiced my emotions. On what I observed. On the man who returned my phone. On how I felt making eye contact with the man who took it. On how I wasn’t angry with him.
So thank you, Sarah, for encouraging me to reflect on my tears and the sadness I felt.
She eventually left, and I managed to resume working. But soon after, a man entered my field of vision. He was struggling to stand still as he poured sugar in his coffee. He swayed back and forth, saying to himself over and over, “Just take the day like you take your sugar, one at a time … one at a time.”
The tears came back. On some impulse, I packed up and left.
It wasn’t that I felt unsafe in my own home. It wasn’t irritation toward what was happening around me. I was emotionally overwhelmed and tried to better understand why on my walk back.
I then returned home, to a space and to people I knew so well, and the afternoon stood out in sharp contrast. It feels strange to have been able to remove myself from the situation, or even write this.
I was aware of incidents such as these from the Nixle alerts I receive on my phone and what I see during some walks to class. But this happening to me personally made me confront that there is a reality to Berkeley I don’t recognize as part of what is more immediately familiar to me in my everyday life.
But this reality is just as much a part of Berkeley as I am. And I think that’s what upset me. Something being unfamiliar, yet also very real and present, was in tension with my claim to Berkeley as home. I didn’t like to think that my own impressions of Berkeley had perhaps deluded me.
I voiced my emotions. On what I observed. On the man who returned my phone. On how I felt making eye contact with the man who took it. On how I wasn’t angry with him.
I’m grateful for this experience. I now understand that making a home is an ongoing process, rather than a moment to wait for. I hesitate to say I understand Berkeley better after this experience. What I reflected on was only something I began to see. But now I’m left wondering what I am to do about it. There’s so much I don’t understand and cannot speak to, let alone propose a solution for. I’m glad, however, that I’ve taken the first step past the barrier of my laptop screen, to at least engage with the issue more actively.
What’s surprising and unfamiliar can often be what’s most real. And so, I want comfort and familiarity in home, but also a more complete view. To push myself into a more honest, and arguably healthier, understanding. I owe that to Berkeley, this place I call home and exist in as a part of.