The Caffe Med is Dead. Long Live the Caffe Med!
A love letter to the cafe that offered shelter to the misfits
In poet John Oliver Simon’s dream, all of Berkeley was burning, but the Caffe Mediterraneum still stood there at the center of the earth: “The same bearded regulars from forty years ago were still chewing the fat over the same cappuccino in the same corner (biographies in genetic wreckage of those marble tables, chipped, kissed, burned and lost and never to be deciphered).”
I’m sitting in the Caffe Med now, and sure enough as I write this an old pair of folks saddles in to the marble table in the corner of the cafe right next to me, the one in The Graduate with the view towards Telegraph and Moe’s Books, where 45 years ago the streets were lined and the air thick with tear gas as young people fought for People’s Park.
One of the old regulars, stooped over with crooked back, shuffles up to the young Cal students at the table to the right of me. “Do you guys know Cherise? She comes here sometimes, she uh…” and his voice gets soft, the kids are confused and shake their heads no, and as he shuffles on outside they exchange glances with cruel smiles like, “Ah man, yet another crazy old Telegraph fucker, eh?”
I’ve been coming here every day for the last week or so now. It’s not quite that I don’t know where else to go, it’s just that there’s no place I’d rather be at the moment.
And when I say no place I’d rather be, I don’t mean like things are good and things are hunky dory. I’ve got 200 dollars to my name. Lost my job two weeks ago. All about my mind’s eye are alarms ringing, that what-now anxiety, dwelling on the failures of the past, frightened by prospects of the future.
Julia Vinograd, the poet laureate of the Berkeley streets, limps in with copies of a red book with her face on it called Cannibal Cafe. She wears a hat with a tassel on it and a pin that says “Weird & Proud.” She approaches the young students at the table next to me. “A new book of poetry,” she says, offering the book to them. They say no, they are not interested. She turns, sees me, and walks over. “Yes,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Take a look at it. Trade price is $5.”
She joins the old regulars next to me at the table by the window. I give her the $5 and thank her.
“Hello, I’ve got a new one!” she offers to another student who walks in the cafe. The student ignores her.
I look outside at all the students that walk by. I wonder how many of them are hip to the history of this scene. On a block ostensibly geared towards student life, few entities seem more out of place here than the students.
Two of them come in, young guy and girl decked out in Cal gear, and take their spot near where the old folks are.
“Ugh, Megan is ‘hey-texting’ me again.”
“What’s that?” the guy asks.
“You know, where all you say is just ‘hey.’ We talked with her about this but she still does it.”
“Oh man, yeah that sucks,” says the guy.
A beat as they stare down at their phones.
“Aw damn I’m upset, I had accidentally typed things but I just sent it to her like, unfinished.”
“Oh my god, I hate it when that happens.”
My first experience of mania happened to coincide with the release of the iPhone in 2007, and nothing’s really ever been the same since. Sometimes it feels like I never quite came down.
It gets overwhelming. All this information.
One of the street kids outside in a meth fit throws a coin at the old folks in the cafe and it clangs against the window. One of them goes out and confronts him and he goes away.
A girl in a black sweater with multicolored shapes leans her elbow on the green compost bin outside the Caffe Med, looking bored as a police officer takes down her partner’s information.
“Small coffee!” the barista calls out.
They say Allen Ginsberg wrote a lot of Howl here, so I come by every so often when I try and shake off the cobwebs of a writer’s block three years running now, like maybe I can channel some of the ol’ Ginsbergian mystical visions and cosmic vibrations. Not sure if I believe the Howl story though. I mean, I know he hung out here and wrote a little something from time to time. They also say the Caffe Latte was invented here, but the origins story hanging above the bar is wanting in specifics.
Always tough to say at the Med. There’s an obstinate character to this place that makes it feel like it’s the last holdout of something that for all intents and purposes left this area a long time ago.
Two street kids smoke a bowl in plain view outside the Med in the spot where the cop just was. A cute girl in glasses and fancy clothes with short hair with part shaved off like it’s hip to do nowadays walks by and stops to chat with them for a minute. She is asking them for something that they don’t have. She walks on, and one of the kids sneaks a quick look at her rear before she walks out of view. His eyes meet mine, paranoid-like—not on account of me having caught him peeking but like he’s looking out for folks spotting him and his friend smoking the bowl. I get that way sometimes, all guns blazing when I spark up but timid and shaky as a deer once the blaze hits. Doesn’t take more than a minute.
The old man begins this day like any other, picking thru the trash bins at People’s Park for food. He’s old, late seventies now at least. He moves nimbly from trash can to trash can, wearing black mittens with the fingers cut out, and a nice hat. He cuts a Whitman-esque appearance , and he’s got that twinkle in his eye like he’s in on some special secret.
A black car stops at the stop sign on Bowditch and Dwight. The passenger window’s rolled down and you can see it’s full of four or five Cal girls.
“Hey Hate Man!” one of them screams at the old man.
Picking through the trash, the old man raises his head.
“FUCK YOU HATE MAN. I FUCKING HATE YOU.” She screams at the top of her lungs. Her friends join in.
“FUCK YOU HATE MAN, YOU FUCKING LOSER OLD MAN. WHY DON’T YOU FUCKING DIE, I HATE YOU!!!”
He flips them the bird and offers a hearty FUCK YOUUUUU in reply.
And then: he smiles and waves at them.
I’ve never approached Hate Man, but living by the 2400 block of Telegraph Avenue, you get to know the regulars.
Hate Man is something of a legend in Berkeley. He left his gig as a reporter at the New York Times in the late sixties to “go outside,” and he’s been there ever since. He takes no help from the various services offered to the homeless, and is something of a wayward philosopher. He is known for Oppositionality, the idea that you should be honest and up front about the rage you’ve got in your heart, and that by expressing it to people, a space opens up where authentic being is possible.
He does a thing called pushing, where you brace yourself up against him and push as hard as you possibly can, while he pushes as hard as he can, everybody getting the hate out and up front.
You push good enough, he offers you a cigarette. It is my belief the younger street kids take advantage of this.
I’m walking across People’s Park to try to play some basketball at the court. I say try because it doesn’t take long shooting, warming up, getting going, that some down-and-outer from the park comes to play or grab the ball or try and mess with you somehow.
I set my things down. And like clockwork, a drifter walks up.
“Hey man, can you let me shoot the ball? It’s been such a long time since I got to shoot a basketball.”
“Yeah sure man.”
I toss a chest pass his way. He holds the ball in his hands for a moment and smiles before bouncing it. He looks up at the hoop, assumes a decent shooting form, all things considered, and heaves. I don’t notice whether he makes the shot or not cause the sound of shattered glass on pavement rings out, and not like a drinking glass glass but like, a bowl for smoking herb. Looking at the court floor and that’s what happened. His glass pipe busted into a million pieces, some larger than others with resin from the cannabis gleaming.
“Aw man, but what a shot!” the dude says, kneeling and picking up the pieces.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Ehh it’s all good, at least I can scrape the resin out of it now.”
I find his attitude refreshing.
“Is it gonna be hard to get another piece?”
“Aw man, I don’t know. I had this one for a long time. Long time. It got a chip near the mouth when I was up at Venice Beach but it did good still.”
“Yo, I got a spare. I live around here and I’ll be back in five minutes. Just hang around here, around the court, alright?”
“Seriously? Thanks dude.”
I take the basketball with me but stop. “Here,” I pass it his way.
“Cool man, I’ll take care of it while you’re gone.”
I return later with the pipe, and I see that another court regular’s there with him. This one’s a real piece of work, like he talks fairly incoherent most of the time and has bloodshot eyes, and kinda crusty all over. Meth, man. Yesterday I couldn’t make out a single word. But today he’s a little more lucid, and is aiming to coach me. I let him. It’s a fun game to play. It’s clear that this guy, who could be 20, could be 40, used to ball back in the day. And it makes me wonder at the past lives of all these folks and the identities they tossed to the side of the road when they decided to go outside.
A hooded man sits at the Med, taking out his things from a backpack in a deliberate manner. He places a Snapple bottle to his right, then one to his left. He places two plastic cups of water, one to his right, one to his left. I see that he’s got two books in front of him. Can only make out the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He removes another book that was clothed in a purple cloth, and another. One is the Quran. He removes some pens. I see he’s got a sort of flow-y Tibetan orange pants thing going, like a sarong almost. He rocks back and forth like a shuckling Jew.
The owner of the Med, Craig Becker, hops up the stairs past me and opens the bookshelf directly in front of me, revealing a hidden passageway. A rendition of the jazz song “It Never Entered My Mind” is playing on the speakers, but it isn’t the one I like.
I see the guy’s got the Quran open. No doubt plumbing the texts for the secret shared message of all the faiths, going all irresponsible syncretic-like cause we’re all one, god is love, everything is connected, etc, etc.
The messianic trip is a tough one. It’s a hard one to come down from.
I walk into the Med and it’s a little less full than it’s been the last couple of days. Virtually no students on the bottom floor, just the regular old folks. Maybe it’s the time, 3:10pm. My favorite barista’s there. We haven’t talked at all except for ordering, but he’s a handsome young man, maybe 21, maybe 23, with long black hair, a beanie, and a Caffe Med shirt and skinny jeans. I like him because of how he treats the customers, especially the down and out.
His colleague gets behind the counter, grabbing the last of his things to switch shifts. “All that I ask you is you make the team proud,” he tells him. Long-haired barista smiles and nods.
This reminds me that the Caffe Med is up for sale, a fact that bums me out to no end. I talked with the owner, Craig, a couple months ago, asking him about it because I saw it on a Facebook post or something and didn’t believe it.
“Yep,” he said.
Came down to needing maintenance, needing to bring the kitchen, which is in the back of the establishment, closer to the cafe. He seemed fairly convinced nothing would change in terms of the spirit of the place. That was a couple months ago.
I go up to the counter and order a hefeweizen from the long-haired kid and pay the extra 25 cents cause I don’t have cash.
“Any updates on the Med up for sale?”
“No. Why, you looking to buy it?”
His tone is mean.
“Naw man, I just don’t want the shit to change!”
His face relaxes. “Me either man. Me either.”
We begin to talk about the Med as a cultural institution of the city of Berkeley (“It IS a fucking institution,” he says).
“As far as I know, the owner’s selling it with the stipulation that it has to be called the Med, and that it still keeps the vibe.”
“I just don’t see how nothing can change.”
“Me either. And I worry that someone’s gonna come along with enough money that’s gonna change Craig’s mind.”
A part of me wants to trust Craig cause I mean, what the hell do I know about it, right? And there’s no doubt the man cares about the Med more than I do. I think it somehow came to him cause of the crowd he was hanging with or something, in the late 80s it was bequeathed to him. Maybe that’s wrong. Either way, guy got my respect after chasing down three teenagers who tried to steal the tips around midnight last year. Ran after them, got in a fight, then he got beat up by the three of them. Wasn’t even a bunch of tips, they say. “It’s the idea of somebody coming in and thinking they can rob something from the shop,” he said at the time. I liked that.
“I think,” the barista continued, “that to a fresh set of eyes, many things that go on here would appear to be problems. It’s not good for business, but it’s good for people. And I care about the people more than the business. Man, if I owned this place, I wouldn’t even care about making a profit, if I broke even at the end of the month, that would be enough.”
160 bucks to my name. Today at the court it was a guy named Sam who came up. There were cops there today, which I don’t see often. I think it was cause they found what looked like a fake gun. Or maybe it was real, I don’t know. All I know’s there were five cops and an SUV by the court, gathered round an older guy, with one of them holding the offending gun by the corner edge of the butt with thumb and forefinger like it was a soiled piece of tissue paper.
I’m taking my reps, five one handed shots with the right hand by the hoop, switch to left handed, transition to a nice little game of around the world, when a drifter I haven’t seen before comes up and he’s wearing baggy jeans, a cap, a sweatshirt. Built like a tank. Young, maybe early thirties.
“Yo can I shoot it?”
He makes his first few shots, just like the other guy yesterday who I suspected was tripping at the time. Swish after swish after swish shrugging his shoulders Jordan-style like he wasn’t doing it but it was doing him. He does that trick dribble where you bounce it real quick off the knee, the sort of thing that lets another player know that you’ve got some street skills.
“Yeah man, I haven’t played in forever. They let us play some in prison man, but it wasn’t like this.”
He opens his arms wide at the glorious sunshine dappled thru the leaves of the trees around People’s Park on what is a quintessentially numinous Berkeley day.
“So nice to be out here in the sun man.”
It occurs to me that prison may not have been that long ago for him.
We start playing horse. We can’t hit the backside of a barn. Naturally, we start blaming natural forces.
“It’s way sunny man. Can’t see for shit.”
“And windy, too.”
I start to get into a groove and begin to roll him with an array of trick shots and easy ones. But it’s clear he doesn’t care about the game, and I have to constantly remind him the score. He’s got other things on his mind.
“When’d you get out?” I finally ask.
“Last night,” he says.
“Oh wow man, congrats!” I say to him with what I hope sounds like earnest enthusiasm as the bourgeois parts of my nature start ringing their alarm bells in my head like THIS GUY COULD BE DANGEROUS THIS GUY COULD BE DANGEROUS WATCH YOURSELF WATCH YOUR THINGS DON’T SAY ANYTHING STUPID.
“Yeah man, feels so good to be free, 11 months in jail and I ain’t got no probation, no one to report to.”
“No drug tests,” I offer.
“Hell yeah man, no tests! And I’m going to the union tomorrow, gonna get my construction job, then I’ma get my kids and their baby momma to move out here.”
I go for a three and brick it.
“Where are your kids now?”
We commune over our shared history as former Texas residents.
“Yeah man, I love Texas, I’m a Texas boy don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But I want my kids to move to Cali, you know? Like, I want them to. I don’t know, like, be exposed to the culture here, I think it’ll be good for them.”
“Yeah man, not a bad place to raise a kid.”
“Yeah,” he says hesitantly. “It can be kinda a mixed bag, right? Like there’s so much going on here that a part of me worries, you know? Like that they could fall into the wrong crowd and shit.”
“Like those fucking kids on Telegraph.”
So were I to venture a stream of consciousness streeaaaaaam as I come up on LSD in the Caffe Med, what would I say? To say the obvious things feels almost like, tired, feels trite, feels like well duh, to speak of the ineffable ways and paths this gives access to, like duhhhhh! It’s like John Lennon said in Baby You’re a Rich Man: “Now that you’ve found another key, what are you going to play?” Now that I have access to this consciousness, what now? My back doesn’t hurt, or at least I don’t mind the pain. Indeed, that seems to be a valuable reminder: NOTHING IN THIS WORLD CAN TOUCH YOU, in that by being willing to be aware of all, all is. And you don’t mind the slings and arrows so much — the awareness is not defiled in any way by what happens to the body, to the mind. And that seems totally clear to me in this headspace — awareness permeates through it all, yet I need not feel any anxiety or feel hung up about future, past.
And as soon as I write this I start thinking about things, and my breath grows shallow, thinking about well how am I going to make money, thinking that I’m on a bad path, thinking that I’m in such a fragile place, so fragile to be taking acid at a time when there’s virtually zero moneyyyyy zero jobbbbb oh mannnn! Can I rest easy in this space, rest comfortably in the uncertainty of what’s to come, unbeholden to what’s come before, to sit still, to simply be?
Tea was a good choice. So much of this stuff is oral fixation, that desperate desire to feel that suckling feeling of safety when breast fed…that’s what my coffee fix is….wait wait wait wait until something happens that makes me react like ahhh resistance and then I take a swig from the coffee, I nurse the cigarette, I check my phone, I suck from the pipe…
Ah but to not have that unfulfilled thing….to let it be…by not having the unfulfilled thing we are free from it.
Julia Vinograd tries to sell me the same book of poetry again. I get so nervous, so apprehensive when someone comes up to me. Why? Because, I worry that I’ll give away that…what? That I’m tripping? That I don’t always know what to say? It’s in that uncertain place where all the magic happens.
Welp, she sold me another copy of the same book. Hard to put up much resistance in this consciousness. Mayhaps I shall gift it to someone. Do you write? she asks me.
“A while ago I did. I’m trying to get back.”
“Well if I can do it, anybody can,” she says.
Aw man! I look around, high on acid at the Caffe Med, I think about all the regulars, all the old folks, all the freaks, all the homeless kids, all the Julia Vinograds, and I wonder what will happen to them and where they will go if this scene changes.
I open the book of poems to the final page for to read her bio but my eye is caught by the poem on the opposite page, a poem she wrote about a picture she drew of home when she was a child. The last lines read:
That’s my picture of home.
I still have it up on the wall opposite my bed
held by scotch tape.
I drew it in colored pencils when I was 7
biting my tongue a little in concentration
I’m still looking.
Gazing up around me at the Caffe Med, I know that I am, too. But shelter ain’t so bad.