Richard Schwartz unearths Berkeley’s colorful characters.
Stroll down what’s left of Telegraph Avenue and you would be hard-pressed not to surmise that the cast of colorful characters you have to sidestep either arrived with the counterculture sometime in the mid-1960s, or are their descendants. You imagine that before the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley was just another tranquil little college town full of virginal freshmen and malt shops. Alas, your assumptions would be inaccurate. As Berkeley historian Richard Schwartz has discovered, the city has been a magnet for weirdos since its birth in the late 1880s. As his new book, Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley (RSB Books), reveals, Berkeley’s past is chock-full o’ nuts like Professor Joseph Voyle who got a lot of people to believe that an ancient city existed beneath Berkeley. I rang Schwartz recently to get him to spin some more tales of Berkeley, past and present.
Paul Kilduff: Hey Richard. You’ll be perfect for this column.
Richard Schwartz: How do you know that?
PK: Even if the interview sucks, just the subject matter will redeem it. Is geographic determinism at work here, as far as Berkeley’s proclivity for attracting nutcases—is it something in the water?
RS: Well, certainly it seems to be a safety valve. It’s like people talk about going west as the safety valve of American society until there was no place west to go and maybe Berkeley was the safety valve for people in San Francisco, too.
PK: Gold-miners who decided OK, this getting-filthy-rich thing isn’t working out; here’s a calm place I can lay my hat. Yeah. I get it.
RS: And it was so much more rural at the time than San Francisco. Even though it’s just across the Bay, this was like wilderness whereas San Francisco was just gangs and wooden houses burning and smoke and commerce and gambling and all that stuff. It was very different over here.
PK: So there really were “farms in Berkeley” as the old radio commercial once asked?
RS: Plenty of ’em. Lot of Irish immigrants.
PK: Whenever an area has an artsy feel to it—for instance the Niles district of Fremont—invariably it will be referred to as the “Berkeley” of that area. Wassup widdat?
RS: When I first came out here to live in ’73, I was astounded at how everybody here seemed to be working part-time and following some artistic dream. It was just like heaven on earth. And I just thought it was the most amazing place because of that. Now, of course, over the years all the communal households and all the people kind of got a little older and got married and got their own houses and Berkeley’s taken on the complexion of a place that’s a lot more run by money than art at this point.
PK: But is that just symptomatic of the fact that the average person who wants to pursue some sort of Bohemian, artistic lifestyle can’t really live in Berkeley, in maybe the way you could have in the ’60s or the ’70s without being homeless or a tree sitter?
RS: I paid $65 a month for a basement.
PK: OK. Case closed. I mean, they talk about the Summer of Free Love? I always call it the Summer of Cheap Rent. I think that applies to Berkeley as well. Twenty years ago I had a place off of Telegraph the size of cracker box for $200 a month. You don’t find those kinds of deals anywhere in any urban centers of American. What does that do to artistic and creative types?
RS: It’s interesting I can remember like 15 years ago my friends and I talking about how it seems like the kids at Cal are much more business-oriented now. And I think part of it is just what you’re talking about. It’s that there’s no opportunity to get out of the flow of commerce now. It’s almost like you have to survive and the pressures are much greater. I just remember when I first came out here and I had my father send my set of drums via Greyhound bus and I picked them up on San Pablo in Oakland and I used to take drum lessons from this incredible drummer in San Francisco and I was taking on gigs. I think about those days and I think anybody who attempts to do that I admire tremendously. I don’t know how anyone could these days with rent being what it is, and that is really sobering. And you just read about all the pressure on the artists in West Berkeley getting squeezed out by development. It’s like this massive wheel that’s turning. And Berkeley attracts some really incredible artists from all over the world. The artists are not in control of the direction of the economy in the culture and they’re kind of at the mercy of the bigger forces. The bigger forces seem to be set by city governments and developers, and they’re at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
PK: So who were these Berkeley characters from way back? What about the frequently inebriated John E. Boyd—the Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley? Today would this delivery man/writer be considered the town drunk?
RS: It’s interesting you say that, and my answer to that is that you can’t take these people out of their time. Working-class people in general drank a whole lot more back then than they do now and you just can’t compare now to then.
PK: Yeah. Wasn’t there just a whole lot of drinking going on at the turn of the last century?
RS: Well here’s the thing. West Berkeley was a lot of immigrants. Immigrant culture back then in general drank a hell of lot more than we imagine now. The rum ration in the Civil War for the average infantryman was one quart per day. To those immigrants, that was normal. But interestingly enough, to the people of east Berkeley that was horrible and there’s always been this huge battle between the temperance people and the working- class people. And the temperance people, many of them drank, but they drank in the privacy of their own home. They just felt that public drinking was a disgrace and caused social problems. And the working people complained, “All we can afford is a couple of shots after work so we have to drink publicly so leave us alone.”
PK: But even today, would the Boss man’s behavior be more acceptable in West Berkeley than in the east?
RS: Well, you make a point. West Berkeley is certainly more of a working-class place to this day. It’s still where the industry is and that’s kind of by the design that was set up so long ago. The houses were smaller. In those days people lived near where they worked because it wasn’t as easy to get around. And people congregate with those of their same class because they like to do the same things and they feel most comfortable with their own. So I think people just tended to congregate down there. And the retired military men and professors and higher-end merchants, well, they liked congregating near the University.
PK: What about this character in your book, Bill “Hot Dog” Henderson. Why did he keep coming back to Berkeley to reopen his hot dog stand?
RS: Well, that’s the $64 dollar question. See, he started out cooking food for a circus and he heard all these animals and, being the crazy guy that he was, he would start imitating them. That’s how he got his kicks. He was always singing and chopping his food in rhythm with his knife. He’d hand you coffee and do sleight of hand and make you think his thumb’s in the coffee. He’d say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not hot enough to burn me.” He had signs up like, “Eat Here, Die at Home” and “Ice Water Is Free: That’s Why We Don’t Have It.” He just loved razzing people and the people loved it, too.
PK: You’ve got to love the guy as well for blowing his fortune on the ill-conceived idea of being a theatrical producer.
RS: He’s really just wanting attention and he’s a performer. He had it at the hot dog stand but when this guy comes and lights the fire about the stage you could just see he was so vulnerable to that, because that’s what he really wanted. He wanted an audience and he felt, “Wow, this is way bigger than what I’ve had.” He took a shot, stupid as it was . . . . These people had a perseverance and stubbornness of who they were. And with that, I think, they for the most part had more social skills –even though they might have been really out there in some ways—in many ways they had heightened social skills. But I think the main thing was they stubbornly held on to who they really were and they weren’t about to change.
PK: One of the key Memorial Stadium oak tree-sitters is Berkeley mayoral candidate Zachary “Running Wolf” Brown. Will we reading about him in 100 years?
RS: He’s up there because I made some statement about there being burial grounds up there I found in an old newspaper stated by a professor shortly after the stadium was built. See, one of the things I do is I find Indian sites. I’ve recorded maybe 160 previously unknown Indian sites around here. When he said that I was kind of floored. You’ve got to respect a guy who spends 300 days of his life [up there]. He put his money where his mouth is. One of the reasons I wanted to get this book out as fast as I could is because there’s a chapter in there called the hanging tree. And what that chapter reveals is this same exact issue came up in the 1890s through 1908 between people wanting to preserve a famous oak tree and developers who wanted to cut it down. And you go, “Holy cow, the same thing played out 100 years ago.” It really gives you a perspective that you wouldn’t have without that knowledge. What’s clear is this place is a cauldron of creativity and new ideas more than most places. And why? It certainly started that way. The University started that way. These people were in the midst of people absolutely crazed and drunk with getting gold in the Gold Rush. Here shows up some of these calm, religious people who want to [give] an education to everybody, and that’s what they cared about, when everybody around them was grabbing up as much wealth as they could. That was the culture at that point. And here you had these people with this amazing vision and they basically start east Berkeley and the University with this radical vision of education for everybody . . . . There has been a tradition in Berkeley of vision. But I tend to think the eccentrics back then were—it’s like of like one of my favorite eccentrics since I’ve been here was this guy we used to call Zippy. And he used to just sit on campus and do silly things. Quiet guy. I don’t think he ever talked. And then there was that guy with the beard.
PK: The cross-dressing guy with the beard?
RS: Oh yeah, there was him, too. But this other guy, he had food in his beard a lot and he was brilliant and he used to give talks out in Sproul Plaza, but he was really out of it. And I do think in our day the eccentrics that we see do have an element of illness to them, mental illness. Whereas these people back then, I think they had this stubbornness and they had these skills. It’s like they had a greater gift in some way than most people would have and they were different, therefore they became eccentrics. But they were quite capable. It’s almost like they were eccentrics because they were capable in an odd way.
PK: What would the baggage guy have done in today’s world?
RS: I could almost see him selling health bars or something in his wagon, going around town. Part of him was how much he loved people and how much he loved interacting. He was not an easy guy. I think he was amazing because number one, he was lovable in spite of being a very difficult character. I mean he did a lot of fighting and arguing and he was a cantankerous guy. But what really blew me away was, you know, I’ve gone through every newspaper from like the first one in Berkeley in 1877 all the way through after the turn of the century so I went looking for every article on this guy. And what I found, what he endured in his life, was mind-boggling. The loss of so many children. His wife’s total alcoholism. Abusing the kids. Being unfaithful to him. His own injuries. His own foibles. It’s almost like he wrote to speak to his better angels. And it was through writing that he kept himself together and kept himself on the right track, kind of tapped this elixir inside him that everybody benefited from. Because he could have very easily just turned into what you just said, the town drunk, but he didn’t. Instead he became an incredible resource to the town and he wound up being very creative. Definitely he was a working-class guy which is one of the reasons I loved the guy, because, you know, I crawl underneath houses for a living.
PK: So, you’re a contractor and a historian. Why? Aren’t you tired at the end of the day?
RS: Well, it’s getting more and more as I get older and older. But don’t write that. I’m an American. We don’t talk about that.
PK: We don’t get old.
RS: That’s right.
PK: I used to work for the Forest Service. Just one season I fought forest fires, but it changed my life and I would go back up to the district I worked in with my dog and we’d go looking for arrowheads and that’s where I kind of learned where to find things. And I was interested in Native American history but I wasn’t interested in American history. One day in 1996 I went to the Berkeley Historical Society on the day they were about to throw away a foot and half of 100-year-old newspapers. When I heard they were going to put them in the Dumpster, I just wanted to save them. So I took them home and opened them up on the dining room table. I thought I would just put them in the shelf in the stairway and just store ’em there, but I made the mistake of opening them up on the dining room table, and two or three days later I was staggered. I called them and said, “You have to take these back. These are way too important. These are phenomenal.” And they said, “No, we’re not taking ’em back.” I was absolutely mesmerized by these things and I would read them all night and I put Post-its on the ones that really rang a bell for me.
Age: 55 | Astrological sign: Taurus. Couldn’t you tell, man? Come on.
Favorite pizza topping: Oregano and plenty of it.
Mideast peace plan: I think if it happens it will happen— like the Berlin Wall coming down—out of left field; it’ll be forces beyond our seeing and knowing . . . I think it’s going to be much larger than anybody’s peace plan.