Looking Back at Berkeley
Mark is shopping on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. It has a large parking lot, which means he can drive there. The hippy revolution has not reached Shattuck yet. It looks like the downtown main street of any small city in America circa 1940’s or 50’s. Not far from the supermarket is a Walgreen’s, a Lane Bryant, and a tall men’s shop. In spite of Marks’ political leanings, he can’t forego Twinkies and Devil Dogs, traif to those religiously opposed to processed food, but a comfortable reminder of home. In recent years, despite the tension, bordering on animosity, between him and his father, home is still a good thing in his heart.
While, by the standards of Great Neck, Mark looks like a bum, he showers every day, and carefully brushes his teeth so that they remain pearly white. His hair is longish and scruffy. He cuts it himself with a hair-thinning scissor. He has a blonde mustache, and most days, a two-day growth. But by comparison, his unkempt appearance is hugely different from the Telegraph Avenue regulars. His Levis are worn thin and soiled, but not filthy. His wrinkled tee shirt is Tide detergent clean. He puts on a fresh one daily after a shower. Though successful in conveying he is not from the North Shore of Long Island he cannot hide the features he shares with CC, his handsomeness, which gets him looks even in Berkeley.
At the supermarket he picks up chopped meat, hot dogs, spaghetti, Heinz ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, Best Food mayonnaise (Hellman’s California brand), and all the accouterments he is used to at home. Although at restaurants he douses his salad in oil and vinegar, in his apartment he still prefers his wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with Russian dressing, a poor man’s simple combination of ketchup and mayonnaise in no particular ratio.
He has always been an adventurous eater. Like many college towns, Berkeley has a huge assortment of cheap, good, ethnic restaurants. Mexican, Indian, Indonesian, Spanish, Szechuan and Cantonese, Italian, Thai, Brazilian. He’s tried all of them. Fortunately he has an iron stomach. Not just for the restaurant food, without knowing what the ingredients are, a whiff of street food and he is an eager customer, afterwards licking his fingers to extract every last bit of flavor.
After putting his groceries away, Mark takes to the streets. One of the great things about his psychiatric medical internship at Herrick Hospital is that he is done with exams. He has a lot of on call hours but no exams. From 7th grade through medical school, a period of 13 years, for most of the life he has known, the freedom he now has, hasn’t been part of his experience. When he would try to have fun, contingencies snuck up and grabbed his attention, imminent exams and midterms, not to mention finals, a day of reckoning, vaguely posted in the future, which was never fully absent from his mind. Now vast amount of free time are his. He can kill an afternoon, an evening, a weekend, hour upon hour, waste them completely and no harm is done.
Unfortunately, the years of hard work have taken their toll. Despite the reality of his new freedom, he’s still a prisoner. All along he tried so hard for it not to possess him. Not wanting to present himself like most premeds, as a grind, he had always put on a decent show. He tried to give the impression that he didn’t study all that much. He envied the easy style of English majors, usually off beat preppies. He was more than willing to copy their persona. There was a certain conceit to presenting himself that way. With his terrific grades, emphasizing how little he studied implied he must be very smart. Plus, playing down his studying, served as an excuse if he did poorly on an exam.
But now, in different circumstances, nothing has changed. Persona is one thing. His premed uptight identity still controls his soul. In theory, in reality, he is free to do as he pleases. But the truth is the truth. In college, he may have reasonably succeeded in giving the impression that taking it easy, having a leisurely afternoon was more important than wasting it on biochemistry equations. But it was bullshit. Even then, he wasn’t able to fool himself. His spirit was owned by forces beyond his control. Sticky, like summer sweat, guilt has been his constant companion. Still is. He may have tried, he may have insisted to himself, that he relax, but without noticing exactly when and where, he had so ably turned off the mindless child in him, that it was now gone.
The image he cultivated in college was exactly that, an image. He was no different than the other pre meds, perpetually on the edge of panic, certain that one disastrous exam could ruin his life forever. He just was careful not to show it. Among the grinds, worried that they might not get grades in the 90’s, all nighters were the usual before an exam. He worried equally the night before, but he didn’t see the point. He knew the material. Yes a professor could ask a trick question. His son of a bitch chemistry professor, Dr. Reed was known for that. But staying up all night wouldn’t help with Dr. Reed’s sadism. Actually, the other premeds knew the material plenty well, as well as he did, but they imagined doom so often, that sleeping wasn’t a choice. Occasionally Mark feared they might be on to something. They understood their situation and automatically did what was necessary. They didn’t care about their nerd reputation. It was irrelevant.
Certainly, being admitted to medical school was every bit as important to Mark as it was to them. The desperation they so often felt, defined his existence every bit as much as it did theirs. The proof was his dreams, one vivid nightmare in particular:
An hour before an exam. He has run out of time to try to understand the material, which, so far, he hasn’t been able to get down. The dream is frantic. It has a racing pace which grabs him up into it.. Then suddenly, the racing is gone. He is lost. He doesn’t know where he is. Immediately relevant, he doesn’t know how he will get to the classroom to take his exam. Then the room appears. He throws open its doors. He sees his empty desk. The dream is racing again. It’s now seconds before he will open the exam booklet. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than that moment. The closest comparison is the time he almost drowned. He had gotten good at snorkeling, at least he thought. His confidence allowed him to go far from the shore with out a life jacket. He breathed in a bunch of water in his snorkel. Tried to blow it out, but couldn’t get back the rhythm. He was far, far deeper than he had ever been. He tried floating on his back, tried a gentle breast stroke. The waves kept coming. He kept breathing in water He couldn’t get any air His arms were getting tired. For a moment he thought that this was it. He overcame his embarrassment, feebly screamed “Help.” Which saved his life.
Staring at the exam, it is as if he is awake. His brain is frantically tearing through solutions trying to think of what he can do. He comes up with nothing. There is no way out.
He felt enormous relief when he awoke. He had escaped. It was only a dream. His mother used to tell him that. But then as now, he can’t snap out of his hell hole immediately. It takes him some time before he feels safe, until his emotions catch up with his awake reality.
But here’s the issue. School’s done. Exams are forever in the past. He still has that dream! It makes no sense. He’s been accepted at Mass General and Yale and Einstein for his residency. He was Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. He should be on top of the world. His vaunted Permanent Record, the one his high school principal held over him and his family when he got caught smoking pot, the key to his future, has been safely put in the past. The California sunshine is his to enjoy.
Why can’t he soak it up, absorb the warm rays, bathe in their tenderness. Why does taking it easy still elude him? The California natives simply wake up, eat their Wheaties and they are in that groove, relaxed. Why is the idea of California, the best he can do? Living is an entirely different animal than preparing for it, judging it sweetly, expecting the rewards. He can’t will his way there.
Where did it go? Until he was 12 or 13, he enjoyed himself without effort, without thinking about enjoying himself. When he did, it was simply on to the next thing and enjoying that. Or not enjoying that, but always immersed. Why can’t he have that back?
His guilt. His guilt. It shouldn’t be there but it is. Guilt about what? He was without sin that day and the day before. And the day before that. He is perpetually busy proclaiming or proving his innocence to himself. Why does it elude him? He can’t put his finger on it.
Probably not. For centuries Christians believed God had this huge book where he kept track of good deeds and sins. He must have had billions of books, one for every person. Or did he have an incredible memory? Catholics knew they were being watched. They felt the same way as Jews. So it is definitely not specifically a Jewish malady.
Perhaps his guilt explains why he is so passionate about causes on the left. His compassion for those having a hard time is automatic, as is his anger at those who can be blamed, those partying, who seem to have no conscience as they enjoy themselves. Except, he doesn’t always agree with politicos about who is to be blamed, the generalizations they make, the lies they so easily slip into their rhetoric. Anger is only satisfying when it is righteous, and truthful.
But that is an insignificant detail. His politics provide an outlet which he needs, at least pointing in a direction where something can be done to eliminate unfairness. Perhaps there are so many leftist Jews because they share his psychology. His guilt is the same as theirs.
None of this rings true. Catholics have just as much guilt. Or do they? They can go to confession and have a total brain cleansing. Jews don’t have that luxury. Their remedy doesn’t work. More than once he fasted on Yom Kippur. It didn’t do a thing. It had absolutely no effect on his guilt.
He has torn through D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, quoted them to anyone who would listen. Logically Zen is the answer. It’s what he needs. He wants to relearn how to lose himself in the moment. In Berkeley, as in the Village, Zen seemed to be on everyone’s mind, so it must not be just him. What was expected of them, the cherished answers of America in the 50’s. Everyone is pouncing on “stereotypes.” Trying to be free. Zen eliminates every expectation. There is just now.
Except Zen is harder to do than understanding its purpose. The moment can’t be occupied by deciding to live in it. It takes training.
But training isn’t an option. As enamored as Mark is by the prospect of diving into and remaining in the moment, he’s never given a moment’s thought to how he could bring it about. Going off to Japan and studying in a Zen monastery was out of the question, inconceivable. It was not even part of his fantasies. Life, as he had planned, waited for him. What was he going to do? Not go on to his residency, not become a psychiatrist? Living in the moment is the answer to the puzzle, to the pervasive angst that he lives in. But chucking his life, and taking off for Kyoto has never crossed his mind. Diving into the paradise of ordinary life, Paradise Now as a Broadway show is proclaiming, will have to wait. Besides it’s nothing more than a slogan. He has to take what he can get. Cherish, like jewels, his epiphanies, believe for that moment that his realization will wash over the rest of his life.
Except, it dissipates fairly quickly. As wonderful as the moment of recognition is, as hopeful as it makes him, as much as he believes that he has finally arrived, found the Holy Grail, the euphoria, that a great discovery brings him, rarely lasts more than a day. Sometimes it lasts 5 or 10 minutes. The belief and celebration that he has arrived, solved the mystery of his existence, is totally gone in two or three days. The best he can do, the closest he comes to loving the moment, and thus, love his life, comes easily, his awe when Tom Seaver is having an awesome day on the mound. His intellectual gymnastics, his Olympian effort, never got him anything close to that.
Mark has reached campus. Left, right, straight ahead, agita is everywhere. Villains have been identified. Their frustration is being mollified by their united anger. Joining them is very appealing to him. It entitles him to let loose against evil forces wherever they may be. Being angry like that brings the innocence of the accuser.
But Mark can join them when suffering is palpable. He is turned off when politicos make generalization that he knows are untrue. Yes if he can feel the pain he can join the shouting of student activists with his own mighty complaint. More often, however, they are furious and he isn’t. Driving by he has seen the suffering in Oakland, poor black people, decrepit old men, or 50 year-old men looking old, sitting on milk crates drowning their misery in booze. Unsupervised kids trying to defeat the misery all around them, taking charge, by getting into trouble. He’s seen it. It’s allreal. He has locked his car doors when driving through rough neighborhoods.
But, it hasn’t sunk in. How could it, growing up in Great Neck and busy at school? When he was going to law school at night, his father had climbed tenement stairways in Harlem, collecting unpaid bills for a furniture store owner, a neighbor in Kew Gardens Hills. His father sometimes talked about what he saw in the apartments. He had no reason to exaggerate. Mark is convinced the injustice is not fictional and something must be done. But what?
He feels coerced by politicos with an ax to grind. In Berkeley, that happens frequently. Whether they are right or wrong, his instinct is to hold back, to doubt what they report. He no longer challenges. They can so easily identify skeptics as disguised right wingers, or being cold hearted to black people, which is not true. He actually wishes that he could join in with their anger, feel cleansed by their passion, obliterate any possibility that he is not 120% pro black people in everyone else’s mind as well as his own. He wishes he could be left wing in his heart and not just in his head.
A hundred feet away, a crowd of students has gathered. From time to time they let out a cheer. He goes over to see what’s going on. One by one, students are taking out their draft cards, lighting their Bic lighters and throwing the flaming card into the air. One of the students throws his burning card down on the sidewalk and stomps on it. This gets an even bigger cheer. In succession, several of the students go the stomping route. Without a moment’s thought he joins the group nearest to him. He has to borrow someone’s lighter to do it, but the deed is done quickly, probably to not let his doubts veto his admirable intentions.
Then someone produces an American flag and puts his Bic lighter to it. At first it stubbornly resists the flame. The lighter keeps going out. But the student is persistent and finally he has a strong flame. Once again the crowd has become one large group. The burning flag has a higher priority than the draft cards. There are cheers, swoons. Not Mark. He silently watches the flag burn.
It makes him sad. He recalls, as a little boy, helping his father put the flag up on July 4th. He remembers the look on his father’s face, not too dissimilar to the look on his grandmother’s face when she bencht licht, when she lit the Friday night candles. A sacred moment of respect and appreciation. Marks’ grandparents said it often enough. How lucky they were to be in America. It was the same sentiment Lone Ranger fans shared with the grateful recipients of his heroics, those he had rescued. Who is that masked man? Hi-ho silver he proclaimed as he rode off into the sunset.
The sentiment went far beyond the Lone Ranger’s heroics. America had rescued millions. Not just his grandparents. Millions and millions bless America. He still has some of that left. He has no rituals that he practices, no sacred beliefs that he is sure of. Moving forward into his career has an almost sacred absoluteness, but that is utilitarian. His politics bring him to a higher level than being a work horse with no higher beliefs.
Burning the flag isn’t sitting right. Okay Kennedy and Johnson made a mistake about Viet Nam. But burning the flag.
He decides burning his draft card was an empty gesture. As he walks back to his apartment it worries him. Was he seen?
In medical school he arranged the teach-ins against the war. Called the speakers. He chartered the buses to bring them all to Washington for the Pentagon march. Attended by something like 800 people, Mark made the introduction to Ben Spock, the fatherly pediatricians that a generation of mothers revered. He had come out against the war and was speaking at meetings like this one. It went extremely well.
Spock had a remarkable persona. Marcus Welby, Goyisha innocence. That smile. The kindness in his eyes. His raison d’etre was clearly to be of help. So his antiwar fervor means a lot more than a bunch of bohemians sounding off. He resembles the person Mark sometimes wishes for himself in the future. You wouldn’t, for a moment think Dr. Spock had a secret trove of Playboys. His firm, and now his righteous angry voice, somehow seemed gentle and properly concerned about what matters. Human beings. Suffering. After welcoming the audience, before Mark introduced Spock, he had an announcement. He asked the hundreds of doctors present to see him after the talk, if they were willing to do “sympathetic” draft exams. Meaning they would help potential draftees to get a 4F, be medically disqualified from fighting in the war.
Afterwards, he wanted to kick himself for his stupidity. What if the FBI were there? What if they took down his name? Although he was chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he had steadfastly avoided SHO, the Student Health Organization, whose members he assumed were in touch with very radical organizations, the Weathermen, people like that. Most members of SHO were in their first and second year at Einstein. In contrast to Mark, they had been in college when campus activists had been radicalized, when most universities had classroom take-overs, sit-ins, when all of a sudden students were calling the shots, radical students. Mark had not seen that first hand, only seen it on the TV. He didn’t want to be a part of it
Mark isn’t a radical. Upon learning that he was on the libre-virgo cusp, Nancy, who he was crazy in love with for 4 weeks in ‘63, announced that the explanation for what he thought of as being truthful and balanced (although admittedly to an extreme) was that he was born between September 19 and the 25th. Nancy didn’t last long for precisely that reason. She was an air head.
But she got it right. Mark wasn’t a radical. Some people were proud to present themselves as radicals. Not him. He was positioned at the edge, in between. Some card carrying communists, lab workers at the medical school had originally chosen him to be chairman of MCHR. They asked him to arrange for the teach ins. They knew all the phone numbers he needed to contact speakers.
His anger at LBJ over Viet Nam was complete. But he had done nothing about it, so when he was asked to head MCHR, he was pleased to be able to actually do something. It was his chance to be a hero, a role that had been his obsession when he played baseball, but had essentially disappeared. Until now there hadn’t been a vehicle.
As a senior in medical school he had plenty of time. Having been given the position, he was obsessed with doing a great job as Chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He started a lead poisoning project, another program that tutored kids in the ghetto, and a health careers program.
The health career program was unusually successful. He got 70 people from the medical community to be counselors, 4 kids each. Together they could choose from 300 programs, volunteer meetings with people in the medical community at work. The kids could talk to physical therapists, inhalation therapists, lab technicians, to X ray technicians, to doctors and nurses about what their career was like and how they got there. The emphasis was on seeing them in action.
It could be dramatic. One group followed an operating room nurse into the operating room, while they were doing a gall bladder. Another time a surgeon brought them in to see an appendectomy. The operating room visits were good for a front page second section New York Times story. Doors were wide open for Mark and his program even before the Times story, but after that there were no barriers. Mark had gotten the NYC school system to allow the kids in his program to take time off from school. They provided buses to bring them to the medical school. He had gotten the Commissioner of Hospitals to provide free meals for them at Jacobi Hospital when they came. When he called any city commissioners in Lindsay’s administration, he saw them that day. When he dialed Aspira, the head of the program called back immediately. He seemed to be the real thing, a student activist who could get things done.
He didn’t give himself credit for being a capable administrator. He felt compelled to do something as the chairman of MCHR, so people wouldn’t think he was enjoying the prestige without earning it. But as for the doors open to him, everyone wanted to be part of Bronx Bio Careers. Even Republicans. The plan cost zero. No one got paid, no one asked for a thing. They just wanted to give. And during that year, for some reason, his ego was gone, his motivation uncomplicated. He just wanted to give.
So Mark was anything but a radical. He was very proud of everything he had started and seen through.. There were very few exams during his senior year at medical school. So why not? But now, in Berkeley, he didn’t know why he strove so hard to be a good person. He knew part of the reason he cared deeply about being a good person. He wanted to disprove his own suspicion that he is all talk, no action. It was all part of a piece.
He took pride that he did a lot of charitable things privately, proving to himself that his desire to perform good deeds wasn’t only driven by his need for the limelight. As a child, when he had a powerful belief in God (or, at least, a desire to believe) he was inspired by one of Rabbi Kirshblum’s sermons. Giving charity was most pure when nothing was expected in return, when no one knew about it (other than God).
So he wasn’t a radical. At the time he didn’t know that he was offered the MCHR chairmanship by actual communists, but that wouldn’t have mattered. He was flattered they thought of him. Only much later did it occur to him that his good looks and bohemian but still all American persona made him useful to them. Since he wasn’t a radical, being chosen by card carrying members of party seemed irrelevant. He was proud that he kept his objectivity.
All of his heroes had exclusively become committed left wing intellectuals, but there were a lot of people on the left that he couldn’t stand. How easy it had been when he first became political, believing that people on the left cared about the unfortunate, and those on the right didn’t. The good guys and the bad guys. It was as simple as that. He wanted his basic goodness to be known–at least by the FBI. Because at this point he vaguely believed that the FBI, now kept his Permanent Record. So for them to get it right was important. Rebellious, but basically harmless. If they made a notation in his record like that he would be relieved.
But what if his draft card burning that afternoon was taken too seriously. As for his comments about draft exams, before the 800 people. it was 8 months ago. Nothing ever came of it, or he would have heard about it by now. Or would he?
In frustration, that night as he lies in bed, Mark debates the flag burning. Back and forth– he is for it, then against it. For it, against it. He wonders if his uncertainty, his consistently moderate positions, which he considers the only way an honest person can resist the exaggerations and lies on either side of a controversy– he wonders if that moderation is in reality, a veil for cowardice. He decides it’s true. He is a chicken. Why else would he think so much about how the FBI viewed him. In his calculated self image, that negated his many years of good deeds.
He’s a phony. His positions are all an act to curry favor with…with…He can’t identify who would be impressed by the serious way he pursues objectivity. Most people aren’t that way at all. They want you to side with them. And that is it. So it is not them he is trying to impress, not most people. He decides the person he wants to curry favor with is himself. The standards that rule him is-they are, he half mutters it:
He’s immediately embarrassed that he has sunk so low. Talked to himself out loud.
That’s what the psychotic patients at Bronx State do.
Okay he isn’t a phony. In the end his internal standards matter, which means he is “self directed,” a good quality according to many articles he has read on self esteem. But why does he feel that he’s always putting on an act. Well he is, but everyone else is. Some say what others expect to hear but privately believe the opposite. He isn’t a hypocrite like them.
Or do they not believe something different from what they say? Do they make a point of not thinking privately at all, keeping distracted, watch TV, get on the phone and talk small talk. They want nothing to do with the kind of thinking he is doing now, meandering, zigzagging, doubting, leading nowhere.
Once, one of the few times he was successfully connecting to his father, his father called what he does the same thing everyone calls it, “studying your belly button.” Charitably, on one of the few occasions that he defended his father in his mind, he accepted that his father meant well. His father was simply giving good advice. “Move on.” But Mark can still hear the accusing tone in which his father spoke. It is his vanity. He overvalues his importance. Who cares what you find in your belly button? Why do you think what’s there is of any importance. It’s just lint.
His father meant to mock him. To humiliate him if he could. Just so he could remain better than him.
Why? For what reason? So he can score with Mom? She wasn’t there when he said it. He wanted to score with me. Why? Why does he want to win that much? Why does he have to win.
Finally Mark is able to be easier on himself with a generalization that’s true. Guys need to win. They may deny it, try to be better than that, but it’s what their life is about. Victory. Getting over defeat. They root for the Mets, the Jets, the Giants, the Yankees, with far more passion, far more deeply than they let on. They make believe their interest in sports goes no further than entertainment. Which is a lie. Mark mourned for a week, more than a week when Da Bums, the Dodgers were defeated in1952 and 53. Like the whole season had been wasted. All those triumphs, all those nail biters for naught. He said “wait til next year” like all the other Dodger fans, but even when he said it, as he proclaimed his faith in the future, he only half believed next year would be different.
The damn’ Yankees-five straight championships. Jay, his older brother, rubbed it in every October. Jay didn’t deserve to be all conceited about it, the pride he took in the pinstripes maintaining their throne. Anybody could pick the best team and stick with them. What kind of fan is that? What kind of satisfaction can you get from loyalty to those who are characterized as the pinstripes? It’s like rooting for the Rockefellers.
Nothing can compare to the Dodgers victory in 1955. Da Bums put an end to Yankee pinstripes, put an end to their tyranny. Certain moments still glow in Mark’s memory, Sandy Amoros’ catch. And the way he spun around, his throw from the outfield to get a double play. Johnny Padres. Johnny Padres.
Jay and the other Yankee fans can’t come close to the joy of Dodger fans when they finally won. Joy? When the Yankees won, the most they are capable of having is their expectations confirmed.
But maybe they don’t have to get excited? They are perfectly comfortable with complacency, the security that accompanies those who side with winners. Jay has always been like that, ass kissing the teachers he needed, palling up to the powerful. He’s probably doing the same thing with his boss now. It’s his M.O.
Mark never stoops that low. Why else is he in Berkeley? The heroic is being for the underdogs. Even if you don’t win. That’s what it’s all about– beating the pinstripes. That’s why Jay is where he is, happily commuting from Forest Hills.
The only real question is why his bosses don’t see Jay as an ass kisser?
Or is he? All those political fights Mark has had with his father– Jay always sided with his father. Because he controls the goodies? It’s cowardly, taking the easy way. But is it really that? Is he ass kissing?
Jay likes their father. He respects him. Right or wrong he’s on his side. Is it ass kissing when you want to do what your boss expects, when he knows you are on his side, when he thinks of you as his trusted lieutenant, when you respect and like your boss.
But what if your boss were to lose his power, what if he is on his way down, would you stick with him? It’s not a question Jay would ask himself. The rules of the game are you respect your master because he is the master. Not if he isn’t. Suddenly, he realizes that a fantasy he has always had, is based on the difference between Jay and himself. He will be close to his father, when he is sick, when he is dying. To him it has always meant that, unlike Jay, despite the frequent battles he’s had with his father, he’s the one who really cares. Which means he loves his father more than Jay. Because he will be there when his father is down.
Suddenly a saying from Muhammad Ali pops up in his mind:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
He opens his eyes, looks up at the ceiling, smiles.
If only he could do that. His father continued to call Ali, Cassius Clay. He was angry that he changed his name, angry he wouldn’t go to Viet Nam.
Just before his consciousness disappears into sleep, another Ali quote seizes his mind.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Mark’s convinced Ali’s right. Whenever he’s gone in that direction he’s come to that conclusion. The problem is he hasn’t always gone in that direction. His mind, his conclusions are fickle. He wonders if it is his courage.
He finally decides that he is in favor of burning the flag. It puts him on the side of the fearless, which is what he needs in order to turn off his mind.