I started my short fiction writing workshop around the time I moved into my last rental in Berkeley. It was the sixth time I had moved in three years. Like the many doubles and triples I had lived in since I first started studying at UC Berkeley, this one greeted me with the familiar elements of a Berkeley apartment: dust, a broken thermostat, and the company of smart, unique housemates. There was that quirky collection of odd things left over from former residents—in this case, a hanging portrait of the household therapy cat, a Bob the Builder helmet filled with Keurig caps, and a flag with an unidentifiable coat of arms tacked to the living room wall. This apartment was situated in a quiet neighborhood and was home to an assortment of thriving houseplants. Nevertheless, when I set my bags down on the floor of my new apartment the summer of my first pandemic, I was not excited to be there.
Just a few months before this move, I had been sharing an old Haussmann apartment in Paris with a French fashion student and my pet mouse. When the pandemic was declared, I left that sanctuary for what I thought would be a brief visit to my California-based parents. As a global health crisis goes, I was not able to return to Europe. Since leaving France, the self I knew—the one that spoke French everyday and smiled often—had been replaced. This version of me was not so hopeful about the future. She didn’t cook or cultivate her own plants. She didn’t host amateur yoga classes in the living room. Worst of all, she did not enjoy writing and reading anymore.
Because I did not yet have a job in Berkeley, I could have easily spent my days staring at the unfamiliar walls of the apartment, waiting for the part of me I had left behind to make the 5,000 mile journey back to my body. Nevertheless, I had a fiction workshop to attend. I had read or at least heard of all of the authors on our assigned reading list: George Saunders, James Baldwin, Jennifer Egan, Rachel Kushner—all but Lucia Berlin.
To my surprise, Berlin’s story, “Let Me See You Smile” was set in an East Bay neighborhood. Unlike novice fiction writers (like myself) who often spend a little too much time delving into their protagonists’ psyches, Berlin wrote character-centered stories without sacrificing an exciting pace. “Let Me See You Smile” is about a lawyer caught up in the lives of his lovestruck clients, the young Jesse and the much older Maggie. Throughout the story’s multiperspectival narrative, the reader takes turns following each of them on gritty, boredom-inspired adventures throughout my Bay area neighborhood:
The dumbest dangerous thing we did was swim out to the island in Lake Merritt. We put all our gear—change of clothes, food, whiskey, cigarettes—in plastic and swam out to it. Farther than it looks. The water was really cold, stinking foul dirty, and we stank too, even when we changed clothes.
In this way, Berlin’s writing captured a sort of reckless joy I recalled from my time in Paris: living on that rugged edge between foolish risk-taking and worthwhile adventure. It had been a dumb and dangerous thing to fall in love with a city and the people in it when my stay was meant to be temporary, to seek mastery in a language where the locals almost always pick up on a foreign accent, where French circles seclude themselves from anglophone bubbles. I moved between the fringes of both communities, enjoying the tricky pursuit of belonging that made even the smallest victory—like catching myself using French slang or noticing my favorite fruit seller calling me by my name—worthwhile. There was something comforting in knowing why I was an outsider (the main reason being that I was American) and expressing myself in a different language and cultural context. Despite how disappointed I felt when I returned to Berkeley and realized I would no longer be living out the many versions of myself as I had in Paris, Berlin’s characters—many of whom move to San Francisco to become musicians, swim to the island in Lake Merritt, and trespass sailboats at the Berkeley Marina—reminded me that this movement and malleability of the self could happen in Berkeley, too.
In Berlin’s short story collection, Evening in Paradise, I caught many more familiar flavors of Berkeley: empty BART parking lots, men selling jewelry on Telegraph Avenue, and the “Pony Bar, Oakland,” which reminded me of the handful of karaoke nights I had spent at the White Horse. As I read, I got the sense that Berlin herself must have moved around a lot, too—her stories were not only set in the East Bay, but also took place in Santiago, at a Greyhound bus depot, in the Louvre. She found stories everywhere.
Berlin’s writing enlivened my curiosity for a place I thought I already knew and a community I thought I had outgrown. Like the lawyer trespassing on rooftops and docked boats with his clients in “Let Me See You Smile,” I decided to try my best to find adventure in a place I did not expect myself to. It also turned out my Berkeley friends were not as long lost as I anticipated. As I settled into my new apartment and into my quarantine pod, I decided to be like Berlin’s character, Jesse, who “had a compassionate curiosity about everyone.” I worked on getting out of my head fog so I, too, could notice the red-eyed couples at the San Francisco airport or the Chinese restaurant staffers eating pizza dinners after closing, and remember I was not alone.
Artists, even long after they’re gone, have a way of reaching people in serendipitous ways. It is for this reason that some fans of Elvis Presley believe The King of Rock and Roll lives on as an angel and visits them in dreams. I also have a handful of cultural figures whose work discovered me just in time for it to articulate what was on my mind—Van Gogh, Emily Dickenson, Kate Chopin. Berlin’s stories, especially those set in Berkeley and Oakland, found me just as I made my reluctant move back to the States. Now, I will always think of Lucia Berlin when I walk through the neighborhoods of Berkeley—the places we crossed paths, decades apart.
Lucia Berlin’s stories did not cure my depression, but they helped me gather the energy to open the apartment door, cross College Avenue, and end up in Willard Park. Often, as I laid on the summer grass and listened to the ecstatic hum of loud park goers conversing (well above the volume of what would be considered socially acceptable in France), I would stare up at the trunks of the tall redwoods. These quiet observers spent their whole lives here. They looked content—there was a whole world here to see.
— Cate Valinote, Fall 2020 Staff