Berkeley...Michael...Cat Stevens

I moved to the Bay Area in ’81, from a small farming town, wanting to be grown-up, live in the “Big City” or as the natives said, “THE City”. After the first year, I finally got the hang of things. Lived in a cute studio apartment beside Lake Merritt in Oakland. I use to take the BART to the different places in the East Bay and the City.

On one of my earlier trips, I went to Macy’s and found the “perfect purse” just by accident. It didn’t have a famous name. The shape was a simple rectangle of black leather. The strap was thin and deceptively strong while being long enough to go over my head and shoulder and drape across my body without mussing up my clothes. It was big enough inside to hold my checkbook, credit cards, money and a paperback novel. There were “secret compartments” that I usually forgot to use that could hold more. I loved to have it on my “walk-abouts” because it freed my hands and shoulder from my off balanced load of “stuff”.

It was a beautiful clear day, breezy not windy, cool not cold. I decided to go to the “Kittridge” to see a film I had wanted to see for weeks. It was in downtown Berkeley a short distance from the BART station. Money was tight, but I had enough to take the subway, make the matinee, walk around the shops and markets and than have a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant I wanted to try.

I didn’t realize that I would have to go through a gauntlet of panhandlers and I being such a neophyte “big city” dweller found my pocketbook drained of my matinee & lunch money before I got to the theatre. I felt a little foolish, but decided to just go to the corner produce stand, get an apple & soda for lunch, and sit on a bench and enjoy the weather.

While I was there…two homeless men sat down at the end of the bench. They were relatively young, maybe a few years older than me. Their hair long and dirty, both needing a bath. The one closest to me started talking about something in the paper he was reading. I was surprised he wasn’t ranting and raving but actually responding to an article. He was well spoken, and well educated. I became more alert of my surroundings, holding my ” perfect purse” closer to me. Maybe it was the way I was raised, but I think I surprised him when I spoke back. He recovered with a growing smile. We continued talking. I found out that his name was Michael. He was once a student at the college. His father was a high-ranking officer in the military during the war. There was a falling out between them when he dropped out and became part of the “lost generation”.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other man approach. The hair at the back of my neck stood up…”Danger! Danger, Will Robinson”. Luckily, Michael stood up between us, had shared a few whispered words between his friend, then said rather apologetically, “Ellen…I’m sorry, but could you spare us some money for food?”

I felt so foolish and thoughtless…rambling on and on when they were so hungry. I rummaged through my purse, took out an apple and the money I had for the train. Michael took me by surprise and kissed my hand. When he looked back up at me, I glimpsed at what he must have looked like years ago. I saw a warmth and twinkle in his eyes, his humor as he kissed my hand dramatically like a stage actor in his prime. He then started to sing to me…Cat Stevens…he was rather good. Before Michael left, I wanted to give him something more…I rummaged through my purse again and pulled out my paperback. His eyes popped…we smiled and said good-bye.

I was still smiling when I reached the ATM for some money to get home. I hunted for the secret pocket of my purse and there along with my card was a beautiful Japanese maple leaf in full autumn glory. I realized that Michael and I were both hungry…for human contact…wherever and with whomever…aren’t we all hungry?