Berkeley nights

posted in: San Francisco Bay Area | 0

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Writing by Daniel Karlin; Photography by Simon J. Lau

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The list of things that I have forgotten from college is endless and still expanding. Once there was a time where I could speak Italian, contrast Shintoism and Buddhism, analyze a piece of architecture, or recite the Krebs cycle in excruciating detail. But now those parts of my mind have faded, bleached pale from sitting far out in the sun for far too long. Facts and figures escape me now, but what has never left me, in all these years, are the memories of Berkeley nights.

I attended Berkeley from 2003 to 2007, during a time that felt like the quietest in Berkeley’s history. Behind us, the Free Speech Movement, and after we left, riots on Telegraph Ave, but for our time, we just floated along. Now that we approach the ten year mark, ask any of the newly minted physicians of America that were pre-med at Berkeley what life was like, and they will speak of competition and classes and grades and onwards, but not of the campus itself. As freshmen we slept through our days, eyes glassy in the massive auditoriums of our introductory chemistry classes as an unstoppable torrent of information rained down upon us. Sophomore year found us peeking up from the grindstone, just for a moment, as we saw bits and pieces of the world out there: Flashes of street life on the south side of campus, the slightly self-conscious opulence of the north end of Shattuck. But these were not yet earned, not yet ours, and so we returned back to the incessant grind.

And then something shifts. Maybe we found our sense of balance, our sense of self, that allowed us to break out from the academic constraints and expectations we placed on ourselves, and to see the beauty of the campus we inhabited. Somewhere in the maturity process, something clicked, and our eyes opened to the world around us. As true as this probably is, I like to think that it’s the reverse.

Take a walk through Berkeley at night, and let the buildings surround you. Neoclassical architecture permeates the landscape (alright, maybe some things were still retained). Wheeler splays out, squat and tucked into the slight incline that separates each level of its entry stairs. The amber glow of the lights is inviting, warm despite being empty for hours. Inside is the cool touch of cold marble worn down by millions of students over the years. Some stray students float through the halls, their footsteps barely audible in the silence that fills the place. You remain alone with your thoughts, walking through the hallways, past tack boards festooned with all manner of neon-colored flyers.

You emerge on the other side, in the narrow canyon between Wheeler and Doe Library, facing up the incline towards Sather Tower. Campus tour guides typically joke that in the event of “The Big One”, Sather Tower will topple over and slide westward down the slope, sailing past the Valley Life Science Building towards the Bay. For the moment, though, it remains steadfast and tall, surrounded by plane trees. Clear white lights shine up the side. Built in 1914 and styled after the Campanile of Venice, it remains silent now during the night, save for its occasional tolling at the hour. Inside it are the relics and detritus of any academic institution: book collections tucked away either to preserve for posterity or to intentionally forget, fossils of ancient beasts with neither names nor context. During the winter, the surrounding esplanade seethes with pine needles and dried fallen leaves, crunching about your feet.


Turning back westward, the lights of Doe Library peek out from around the corner. Stepping into the wash of light painted over Memorial Glade, the expanse of Doe Library stretches past the edge of your vision. Formed from multiple buildings stitched together in later years, Doe’s seams are apparent in the passages between large reading rooms. Lampposts that should be fixed to an external wall are somehow inside, flanked by concrete walls of obviously different ages, off by decades. But that doesn’t diminish the presence of the building in the slightest. The green luster of the roof beyond the field of view, but the intricate ceilings of the reading rooms are obvious.

As you walk along this path the thoughts filter your head. They may be about life, purpose, relationships, destiny, meaning, your weekend plans, love, integrity, the class you may be failing but aren’t sure how to improve your grade in, hope, beauty, that person that you met at a party last week but didn’t get their number so now you just have this vague wanting sensation, homesickness, philosophy, the future, your future, no seriously you’re graduating next year so you better start thinking about your future, equality, boredom, old wounds to nurse, the GSI you can’t stand, your plans, your dreams.

And in no single one of the walks do any of these thoughts illuminate it all. Nowhere is this bright flash of light of an epiphany. It’s the steady course—walking past these buildings, through this campus, alone, night after night, after parties and after study sessions, after late night conversations and after late night Asian food, after solitary walks to burn off this restless energy and after walks of indelible sadness that can’t be shaken off. And slowly, bit by bit, surrounded by these monuments of Berkeley, you end up becoming yourself.