Down on Virginia and La Loma

Cloyne Court co-op. Photo: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

Long walks and Counting Crows songs opened a door to a secret Berkeley not many people knew.

I’d just been dumped after eight intense, magical months of a friendship so passionate it had turned sexual. I was leaving home for the first time, leaving my terminally ill mother and the sanctuary of my teenage bedroom in rural Northern California. I felt like a raw nerve.

My new home was the Cloyne Court Hotel, one of the biggest houses in Cal’s student-run co-op housing system. It’s a wood-shingled, three-story building that takes up most of a city block in the hills north of campus, bordered by Ridge Road, Hearst Avenue, Le Roy Avenue and La Loma Avenue. Its massive brown face looms over Ridge Road, its many windows winking as residents turn their lights on and off. In the back, on the Hearst Avenue side, is a large courtyard big enough for Cloyne’s 151 residents to hang out, drink beers, sing Indigo Girls songs around a bonfire or watch bands like Green Day perform on a rickety stage.

Not counting my parents and brother, I’d never lived with other people. I was assigned a roommate who mostly studied long hours in the library, leaving me often alone to make sense of my new surroundings. Cloyne’s other residents were fun but often rowdy, but many of them were fond of being drunk, stoned or otherwise out of their heads. It made me uneasy, not knowing at any given moment whether they would be sober or wild.

The heartbreak and new surroundings made it difficult to feel comfortable. When I sat still my chest ached, as though a hole had been blown open inside me. It made me restless, as though if I moved my legs I could somehow get away from the feeling. I started taking long walks through the grassy Berkeley campus, or down to the flat sidewalks along Shattuck Avenue, savoring whiffs of roast chicken as I passed Chez Panisse and pizza near the Cheese Board. I climbed the hills to the terraced Berkeley Rose Garden, which I especially loved at night. In the dim moonlight, the scent of the flowers saturated every breath.

Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white.

Music is a mainstay in my life. Each era or experience comes with its own patchwork soundtrack. My shattered friendship had been saturated by music, particularly Laid by the British band James, and now I couldn’t listen to it without spiraling apart. On those walks around Berkeley, new albums took over, particularly Tori Amos’ Under the Pink and Counting Crows’ August and Everything After.

August came out in September of 1993, almost a year before I started at Cal. It had been written in the Berkeley hills I now wandered. The first single, “Mr. Jones,” had been all over commercial radio and MTV; it was catchy, but I didn’t especially love it — it was too jangly, too aggressively clever. For some reason I bought the cassette anyway, and it wound up with me in Berkeley. Maybe I hadn’t been ready for it before, but I was ready now.

I walk in the air between the rain, through myself and back again. Where? I don’t know.

In part, it was because the slower, more melancholy songs like ‘Round Here and Sullivan Street hummed at the same frequency as my sore heart. But I also think it’s because the album was part of the terrain that had taken me in. The songs felt like an emotional roadmap of the town. They sang of the drizzle and fog, the hills and the strangers. Through them, I found my own way around Berkeley.

The song that opens August, “‘Round Here,” settled in deep, making a home in my brain like a feral cat in the corner of a neglected shed. As he sings, Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz’s voice aches with melancholy and the guitars ring like bells. “The song begins with a guy walking out the front door of his house, and leaving behind this woman. But the more he begins to leave people behind in his life, the more he feels like he’s leaving himself behind as well. The less and less substantial he feels like he’s becoming to himself,” Duritz once said on VH1.

Counting Crows’ lyrics occasionally make overt references to Berkeley geography, like the line, “Down on Virginia and La Loma, I’ve got friends who care for me,” from “Perfect Blue Buildings.” One day, while sitting in my room at Cloyne, it occurred to me to look Duritz up in the Berkeley phone book. The one in our room was from 1992 or 1993, before Counting Crows made him a household name. I flipped through the translucent pages, running my fingertip down the columns of names until I came to it: Duritz, Adam. There was a phone number, and an address for a house just up the hill from me.

I clipped down the stairs and walked out the front door, up to the corner of Ridge and La Loma, where I turned left and kept climbing. Two blocks up La Loma, the hills are so steep that lanes of traffic are separated by concrete walls, and I found a gray staircase leading up. When I reached the top, across the narrow street was another short flight of steps leading to a small, secluded landing. It was surrounded on all sides by shivering green privet, thorny holly and clumps of ivy. Low concrete railings, punctuated by sturdy pillars, kept pedestrians from toppling off the landing as they climbed. I pulled myself up on top of a railing, which was wide enough to sit on, and closed my eyes as the wind shook the leaves around me.

At the intersection of Virginia Street and La Loma Avenue in Berkeley. Photo from Google street view.

From here, I had a narrow view down Virginia Street, all the way to the steely San Francisco Bay almost three miles away. And, if I turned the other way, I could see Duritz’s old house, just a few doors up on La Loma, a narrow brown-shingled building with archways framing the porch, and eaves that looked out across the city like watchtowers.

With his songs in my ears, I wondered what “friends” he found in this place. The trees and vines? The seclusion? Literal friends who came here to hang out? Or perhaps a drug dealer or the drugs themselves, something to bring on the oblivion he longs for in “Perfect Blue Buildings.”

The mystery left me free to find my own friends here. My ex and I had spent long hours in the woods near his house in Bodega, watching the sequoias and eucalyptus, sitting by the trickling creek, dozing in the field beyond the trees. I missed those lands. This streetcorner hideaway wasn’t the same, but it was still a patch of green I could nest in for a while. Already it felt like a companion, a hug, a place to be in the world and hide from the world at the same time.

It was never about stalking Duritz or hoping to catch sight of him. I figured he’d moved long ago, probably as soon as his record hit it big. But Counting Crows’ songs had opened a door to a secret Berkeley not many people knew.

I climbed up to that landing often, anytime I felt melancholy or overwhelmed. Once in a while I brought my pre-Berkeley friends along when they came to visit, but none of them understood its magic. And, as I made new friends at the school, I came up the hill less and less. I wandered Berkeley less often. Counting Crows gave way to other musical obsessions: Lisa Gerrard, Dar Williams, Leo Kottke, Dire Straits.

After I graduated from Cal, I returned to Sonoma County and tried to listen to August and Everything After, or the band’s newer records, like This Desert Life, which came out in 1996. But something in their structure would no longer let me in.

It didn’t hurt. I suppose it could have, but I could see how the mixture of that album, that neighborhood and my heartache had created the ideal conditions for me to love August for a while. But those conditions had changed, and the album was no longer the right companion for me.

It took a year or more, but eventually I recognized that my ex-friend wasn’t the right companion for me, either — if he ever was. Still, I’m glad I knew him when I did, and glad to know him now, now that we are completely different people, with separate lives and partners and children. And I’m grateful that, when it felt like I’d lost myself in a strange place, music was there to help me find my way back again.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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