Berkeley thinks too much of itself. Within the small world of the Bay Area the recent riots on Telegraph Avenue are still news. 3,000 miles away in the Capital of the South we are worried about whether it will snow next week. Inger had a room at the Hotel Carlton that weekend. She had one of the better rooms with its own bathroom. It didn’t prevent her from finding a nigh comatose heroin addict collapsed just at the top of the stairs as she headed to her room from Blondie’s Pizza.
Long before the protest made the news, Inger was hitching her way to Berkeley because she’d gotten out of rehab, hadn’t really found a place to live or a job, and heard that there was going to be a protest in the Bay Area. When she shipped her purse home with her clothes she kept her id and one of her high limit credit cards. She wanted to be disconnected from her parents and the life set before her. Roughing it is fun for a few days but it doesn’t take Inger long to be a little homesick and wish for hotel towels and a hot shower.
Inger is all about social justice. She very much wants world peas and an end to all the miseries white wealthy are accused of fomenting. All that helicopter parenting did not instill in her a desire for a quiet, Stepford Wife ride to the shores of the Styx. It left her with an appetite for Lucifer’s buffet. She was at core, an obedient daughter. The heat of living on the uglier side of the railroad tracks has been a siren call since middle school. It has felt more authentic to her than the sterile world of Staten Island. Berkeley was her Mecca, her place to pilgrimage where she could find sage hippies and a thrill that ran down her leg.
Eugene Lefkowitz is a fictional Berkeley eccentric often found in People’s Park. He is variously deluded and believes he is the Emperor of the People’s United Democratic Free Republic of Berkeley or in more centered moods, an acolyte of Gurumayi. Gene was off his meds, had left the ashram to find some of his old friends from his Taxi Unlimited days, hoping to quiet some of the voices in his head and find the camaraderie he remembered from the 1980’s squatting under the house behind the cab office. Gene had some money, always did, and was driving an old Dodge Dart still painted with scenes from the Sistine Chapel by another of the Taxi Unlimited collective members. Gene was headed back to Berkeley, stopped at Einstein Brother’s for breakfast in Farmville, VA where Inger had parked herself outside with a sign and a cup.
Rehab didn’t take for Inger. She was supposed to do six months, did three weeks and signed herself out. She had her ID and one of her credit cards so she could have run a tab and gone full first world. First world is what set all this off so like, no fucking way, seriously. No, she was miserable on the sidewalk in front of an Einstein’s Bagels in Farmville, VA determined to beg and hitch her way as far from the old life as she could.
Not everyone comes out of Bishop Eustace ready to major in MRS and settle in to kids and an expensive divorce by age 29. Some, like Inger, just can’t get rid of the feeling that all this privilege and setting up for success is bullshit. There has to be more and it isn’t catechism, Women’s League and all the rest. The Baptists just seemed to want to do friends with benefits with the preacher. She’d seen enough of the Reformed tradition that she thought they were pussies for hiding in the Bible and not taking on all of what it meant to be Catholic.
Inger was on pace until that coworker smiled at her. In the short span of time it took to reach the guard desk she’d decided to opt out. Gene knew none of this. He just wanted a Lox bagel and cream cheese as he stepped past her into the chain store version of Noah’s Bagels.
Most of us see people like Inger with their sign and cup as a sad part of our landscape. We want there to be an answer to this public challenge to our well-intended practice of checkbook missions. There doesn’t seem to be so we walk by and have a quick, conflicted conversation with God about whether to give a quarter or not. Mostly, we don’t.
Gene stopped, “Hi. Are you hungry?” The implicit social contract in this is that beggar gets money from beggee. It’s way off script to greet the beggar and offer a meal. Gene does very little on script.
What Inger should do is refuse and counter with an ask for money, reinforcing the implied social contract, “yeah, kind of.”
“Come on inside. Order what you want. I got you.”
Inger looked him over. He was a big dude, kind of hill billy looking, with a chrome dome then a salt & pepper ponytail half down his back and an unkempt beard. But his boots were not cheap and his leather jacket was at least designer if not tailored, “why should I trust you?”
“Because you are way out of your comfort zone in a place that arrests people like you just because you look like you do. I give you an hour before the cops show up and encourage you to leave.”
Inger had picked out her idea of grunge fashion while shopping in Richmond’s Fan district. Hello Kitty t-shirt, jeans, Doc Martin’s, Real Tree camo jacket, “Like I care. I been to jail. I just got out of rehab. Whatever. You got a dollar?”
“Come on. Eat. After that? Up to you.”
“Where are you from?” She thought upstate New York, maybe Finger Lakes. There was a bit of biker to him.
“Born in Syracuse. But I travel a fair bit.”
Inger stood up, gathered her things, dumped the cardboard sign and empty plastic cup in the trash, and walked inside Einstein’s. Gene followed.
She ordered an Americano with soy and a chicken cuban. It’d been a couple days since she’d been able to order anything not on the dollar menu. Gene added a Chipotle Turkey wrap to his bagel order so she would have a late lunch, “why are you doing that?”
“Being generous. Old guy dropping cash on young girl. Makes a girl wonder.”
“First, I am gender fluid. Lately I’ve been celibate. You are attractive but I’m not into sex these days.”
“Yep. Still want the turkey wrap?”
Inger just stared back, “Wait, what? You in a dress?”
They went through the line after placing their orders. Gene paid cash, “Sometimes.”
“Eew. Don’t.” Inger picked up her Chicken Cuban and soy Americano, “so, are you like, a biker?”
“No. Never really kept a job. Didn’t want one. The universe provides for me.”
“So, are you rich?”
“I have enough.”
“What are you?”
” A citizen of the universe and Emperor of the People’s Free Democratic Republic of Berkeley.”
“You are scary.”
“I’m safe, you needn’t fear me.”
“I don’t know. Wears a dress, thinks he’s an emperor of some Berkeley thing, sounds sort of scary. You are a scary hippy?”
“Was a hippie. Not scary. All the real hippies either died or got married, had kids and settled down.”
“What about you?”
“I travel. I never liked being in one place long enough to keep a woman or a job. Both are needed to have kids.”
I interrupt the start of this narrative, sorry, right about when these two are going to talk about something other than trifles and food. As I write I realize this is probably 13,000 words rather than 1300. It’ll have to be serialized, sorry. I never got to the reason I started talking about Gene and Inger. You’ll have to follow the blog to find out.