Once Before CoVid in the Sovereign Union of Berkeley

Mary McBride

The music is a Beach Boys tune with the refrain, “Baby, baby, I’m onto something good.” At least, that’s what I think it says. Everyone in the pool is gyrating and twisting. What’s even more amazing is that they know the words and are singing them out with gusto.

I think I’m watching my parents dancing in the water to the Beach Boys. Even when I realize I’m the one in the water and at the age my parents were when I was dancing to the Beach Boys, I still can’t wrap my mind around this scenario. These people are old! Am I old? No.

The pool is abuzz because a local hero, Wavy Gravy, has been recognized with a nationally distributed documentary about his life and times. Wavy comes to our class frequently and is well-liked here. The debut screening was last night in one of those grand, lavish, old theaters that are almost defunct. Most of the folks at the pool went to see it. They think Wavy is the gravy on the potatoes.

I remember Wavy Gravy at Woodstock. He was part of a group of pranksters, the Merry Pranksters, a band of jokesters led by Ken Kesey dedicated to pricking the inflated bellies of big business and corporate government. The Pranksters kept us fed, along with the Diggers, an underground group whose sole aim was to dumpster dive and create savory and nutritious meals from produce thrown out by grocery chain stores. They fed the long hairs and homeless in San Francisco and Berkeley. At Woodstock they managed somehow to move through the maze and gridlock of automobile traffic and find grain for hot cereal and vegetables for curry. The Diggers and Pranksters kept our stomachs filled enough to keep us from rioting and Wavy directed the flow of talent from the stage, warned us about bad acid, and gave the illusion that somehow there was order.

But he tires me. Like all evangelicals do. He thinks interjecting levity into boardrooms and war rooms will make participants more creative and less uptight. Nothing makes me more uptight than having to be levitous (that’s a word I just made up). I think being forced to have levity, like being forced to be pious, eventually makes people feel and do the opposite.

A woman dressed as Bozo the Clown used to come to the intensive care unit where I worked in San Francisco. She was sure her goofy presence and funny antics would reduce the stress we were all experiencing. I didn’t experience stress until she came and we had to take care not to hurt her feelings when she got in our way.

The work in the unit was hard. We had to be sharp, use our heads, be alert in order to save lives, were often understaffed, but we knew the drill, had signed on for it. Having Bozo in our way threw our rhythm out of whack. She’s lucky that stupid flower that squirts water didn’t get jammed into her gaping, red-rimmed mouth or stuffed up her red ball nose. She annoyed me.

I can’t tell Roger that, however. He thinks the whole Wavy deal is just marvelous, as do most of his bevy of babes. It’s too soon for him to find out what a raving lunatic I can be when I think someone is trying to force feed me some brand of self-serving nonsense, no matter how well-intended.

“I didn’t see you at Wavy’s premier last night,” he says.

“I didn’t go,” I say. “Roger was looking for me?” I think to myself. “Oh, dear.” I console myself by remembering that he lives on a boat and I get lethally seasick. No temptation there.

After class I stop at a roach coach on my way home and order a turkey dog with everything on it except pickles and relish. A wave of rain gushed through just before I left the Y and another wave threatens to break as I walk home, licking and eating my dog. The clouds are low and heavy and wind careens through the trees that line my path.

I walk down Josephine, cross Cedar and turn left, turn right on Edith, then left on Vine. Halfway up the block I turn left. There’s Bob across the street, looking out his door. There’s Sandy and Gregg coming home from work. There’s Harry, and Billy Bell, and Rodney waiting for their supper. At the door I turn the key in the lock. Open the door. There I am. Home in Berkeley in a once upon a time before CoVid.