The usual panhandlers and street people stood here and there along Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. One older man sat in half-lotus position; he wore an olive drab army jacket, had bare feet, and neither asked for money nor paid any attention to passers-by. A middle-aged man, self-contained and quiet, said, “Buy a newspaper to help the homeless?” One young man accosted passers-by in a loud and merry voice, saying, “Spare a quarter for a douche-bag?” No one gave him any money. From the sound of his voice, he thought living on the street was a big adventure.
This evening, I was browsing in a used bookstore. The man standing at the cash register was talking with two women. He had a ponytail and a beatific smile. I noticed one of the women wore a bright orange t-shirt. They were having a long conversation, and I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.
But then I happened to be browsing through the used sheet music, idly hoping to find Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” when I heard the woman with the orange t-shirt say, “Do you have any Bibles?”
“Right over here,” said the man, and walked over to show her the Bibles, which happened to be right behind me.
“Have you ever read the Bible?” she said.
“Oh, yes,” said the man. “Several times, in fact. But I don’t believe in it. I guess I’m more of a Hindu.”
“How come you don’t believe in the Bible?” said the woman innocently.
The man proceeded to rehash some of the old arguments of the Higher Criticism, getting one or two of them wrong. I made it a point to wander away to different part of the store. I felt tempted to involve myself in the discussion and make corrections, but I also felt that perhaps they were flirting a little bit and I didn’t want to interrupt them.
The man had to go back to the cash register to take care of a customer. When the customer had gone, the woman in the orange t-shirt went over and continued the discussion: “How come you don’t believe in the Bible? Don’t you worry about what will happen after you die? Because life is short, but what happens afterwards lasts much longer.”
“Well,” said the man, still smiling, “I can’t be a Christian because I can’t believe in a God that would damn people to hell. Either everyone goes to heaven after they die, or I can’t believe in God.”
He continued at great length, and I restrained myself from bursting into their conversation and saying, Ah ha, you are stating the case for classic Universalism as set forth by Hosea Ballou…. — as I say, I restrained myself, because by now I could sense that the woman was not as innocent as she appeared at first. She was determined to save this poor man’s soul, to bring him to Christ, or whatever phraseology might be used by her particular sect or denomination. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see from her body language how intent she was. I could also see from her body language that she was still flirting with him.
At last I couldn’t wait any longer; I wanted to buy a few books and move on. “Excuse me,” I said, walking up to the cash register. “I hate to interrupt your conversation, but…”
The man, still smiling beatifically, cheerfully took my money. The woman stood there, intent, silent. Her t-shirt was very orange.
I picked up my books, saying, “And now I’ll let you get back to your theological discussion.” By the time I had turned away, they were at it again.
I walked back out onto Telegraph Avenue, dodged the drunks, the addicts, and the homeless, wove my way through the well-dressed college students, the hippies, and a few middle-aged suburbanites, until I got to the next used bookstore.
It was hot today. The weather station at San Francisco Airport recorded a high of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’d bet it hit 95 degrees at our house. About the middle of the afternoon I saw one of our downstairs neighbors. We both agreed it was hot. She said it was so hot she was having a hard time staying focused on doing housework. I admitted that the heat had gotten to me and I had given up on housework.
Since I wasn’t getting any housework done, I decided I wouldn’t stay around the house. I got on the train, transferred to BART at the Millbrae station, and headed over to Berkeley. I walked up to Telegraph Ave., then threaded my way through the street-chaos generated by the resident freaks, weirdos, and college students of Telegraph Ave., making my way down to Moe’s and Shakespeare & Co., the two bookstores remaining on the avenue.
I turned into Shakespeare & Co., with its narrow aisles and mis-matched bookcases. As I turned towards the mysteries, a small bearded man stepped backwards and ran into me; I apologized, but he didn’t notice me at all, and continued asking the clerk, “Are these the only chess books you have?” The clerk said, “Yes, they’re all on that shelf.” The small man said, “But what about these here?” The clerk said, “Yes, those there, yes they continue down to that shelf.” I wandered from the mysteries towards the science fiction books. A young woman and her guitar blocked one end of the science fiction aisle. She answered her cell phone: “Hello? … Oh, hi! … I’m here in Shakespeare & Co, you know that used bookstore? … Yeah. I’m looking for something new to read. I was trying to read Kafka, but I didn’t like it, which is strange, because it’s this really well-written book, so now I’m trying to find something else….” I turned the corner into the pocket fiction aisle, and there was a small handwritten sign saying, “Hey, kid, don’t look up here, this is where the adult books are.” Sure enough, in shelves about seven feet off the ground, there were some forgettable mass-market porno paperbacks, back from the days when there was no Internet porn, including an old copy of Emmanuelle that smelled moldy. I eavesdropped on a conversation that the clerk was having with one of the customers; actually, it was more of a monologue, where the clerk analyzed the motivations of the 9/11 bombers, speculated that Osama bin Laden is probably dead by now, or at least in very poor health, and in his pleasing tenor voice gave details of the Jayce Lee Dugard case, including the fact that the alleged abductor, Philip Garrido, had been spouting some kind of crazed religious nonsense on the Berkeley campus when he was confronted by two campus police officers, and that was what led to the discovery of Dugard. This conversation motivated me to move on to the Political Science section, and then to glance through the titles on the True Crime shelves. I heard the customer say to the clerk, “At least she [meaning Dugard] will have a normal life now,” and the clerk responded, “Well, relatively normal, considering what she’s been through. Apparently she considered the guy as some kind of god. And she had two children with him.” I kept browsing for a while longer, but in the end all I bought was a collection of Chinese poetry in translations by David Hinton.
I walked across the street to Moe’s bookstore. The book selection was less entertaining. The people-watching was far less interesting. The only conversation I overheard had to do with Ackermann functions, and frankly I did not understand what the two guys were talking about. But I wound up buying more books, probably because I wasn’t distracted.
Bookstore score card for the day:
— Three bookstores in three cities (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco).
— Three books (Chuang Tzu, Ch’ing dynasty memoir, 19th C. English novel).
— One bumpersticker reading “HOWL if you [heart] City Lights Books”.
What a great vacation.
Yesterday I was driving to the health food store — dark, cold drizzle, damp and raw — and I had a sudden flash of incredibly vivid memory:
…driving from our house on Manila Avenue in Oakland, up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, shaded by palm trees, past the bright open buildings, early morning sun washing everything with that characteristic pellucid northern California glow…
I shook my head and said to myself: Why did I think of that? I rarely took that route to work; I usually drove up through the Berkeley hills. And why remember a fairly trivial part of my commute at all?
I tried to remember the rest of that drive up Telegraph Avenue, but my thoughts moved on before I could… I guess it was just one tiny fragment of memory dropping into awareness at an odd moment.
One of the great things about being an interim minister is that you get to move around the country. In the past three years, we have had the luck to live near three of the great cities of the United States. Last year we were near Berkeley, California; the year before that, we lived outside Boston; and this year we’re living near Chicago. I define a great city as one that has lots of independent bookstores.
I just spent the afternoon and evening in Chicago, where of course I spent hours in a bookstore. I was up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, and stopped in one of those used bookstores with books piled everywhere. “Should I check my backpack?” I asked the owner. “No,” he said, “but be careful going around corners. You don’t want to start an avalanche.” He wasn’t kidding.
You learn a lot about a city by its bookstores. I always zero in on the religion section. In Chicago bookstores, you always seem to find lots of historical criticism of the Bible and general hardcore theology books, which I attribute to the influence of the University of Chicago, and there always seems to be a smattering of “Christian inspirational” books. In Berkeley bookstores, you’ll find tons of books about eastern religions and east-west studies, partly due to the influence of the university, but also because Berkeley is a Pacific Rim city that looks west more than east. In the religion sections of Boston (and Cambridge) bookstores, you find lots of scholarly books about Western religious traditions, but also a surprising number of books on Confucianism because Harvard has become a center for neo-Confucian studies.
Each of the great bookstores of each city tell you a little more about the character of the city. Berkeley has Eastwind Books, specializing in East Asian writers, and where I first got books by Lu Xun, an amazing Chinese writer of the early 20th C. The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Hyde Park in Chicago is quite simply the best academic bookstore I’ve ever seen. And the Mass Bible Society in downtown Boston carries an excellent selection of books on liberation theology and liberatory theologies, as well as good story books for children. (On their Web site, click on the “Bookstores” link, and then on the link “The Bible and Homosexuality” — yup, they’re liberal Christians.)
Trivialobservations, I suppose. But I do find it interesting that different places address different religious questions. And what I’ve seen in the bookstores plays out in the UU congregations I’ve served in each of these three places. Trivial, perhaps, but fascinating.