9/11 and T.S. Eliot

Six years ago, as the shock of 9/11 continued to set in on that day, I decided to go on a long bike ride in the Berkeley hills to clear my mind. Since the attacks happened early in the morning west coast time, most people like me stayed put and there was nothing else to do but devour CNN. At some point, that was too much and I had to get out of the house.

On my bike ride (it was a beautiful day in Berkeley, just as it had been in NYC before the attacks) through the strange magic of the brain, I thought of phrases in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — the “unreal city” and the “falling towers.” The throngs of people walking over the Queensborough Bridge to escape Manhattan reminded me of the “crowd [that] flowed over London Bridge” in Eliot’s poem. When I got to the top of Grizzly Peak, I could see the entire bay laid out before me, and San Francisco was safe and sound in the distance. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the tranquil city as much as I did that day. (Update: I took my camera with me that day. The photo below is SF on 9/11 as viewed from Grizzly Peak in Berkeley — click for the full-size version).

Below are the prescient passages from Eliot. In my mind, they will forever be associated with 9/11.

SF on 9/11

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.


What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London


Culture clash in Berkeley: Tennessee vs. Cal

It’s not that often that a ranked SEC power rolls into Berkeley to play a ranked California team — but that’s exactly what we’ve got in Berkeley this evening. I’m a lot less interested in the football game itself than I am in the idea of a bunch of football-loving Southerners showing up in Berkeley. A little while ago, I called my good friend and Berkeley neighbor Andrew (a Florida Gator) to discuss the juxtaposition of cultures. Andrew had just returned from a walk around downtown Berkeley, where he reported an older gentleman decked out in Tennessee Volunteer orange saying in a syrupy drawl, “I think I smell marijuana.” (I’m not betting on the game, but I would bet my life savings that he did in fact smell marijuana).

So, back to the culture clash. On the home team side, you’ve got Berkeley, perhaps the most liberal city in the United States. Wikipedia’s entry for Berkeley reports that the 2004 presidential election went like this: 90% for John Kerry (54,419 votes) versus only 6.7% for George W. Bush (4,010 votes). 6.7%? Shocking! I was thinking more like 2%. To bring the spirit of Berkeley a little closer to the present, the Cal-Tennessee game has surfaced a controversy with some tree-sitting protesters near the stadium, proving once again that in Berkeley that the real football is politics. The police have put a fence around the tree-sitters for the game, ostensibly to protect the tree-sitters from the football fans, and vice versa. On the one side, you’ve got the Berkeley tree sitting pacifists singing “We Shall Overcome” and on the other side, you’ve got rabid Tennessee fans singing “Rocky Top.” I think that the fence is an absolutely fine idea.

On to Knoxville, the home of the visiting Tennessee Volunteers, where the real football is actually football. The election returns for Knox County (where Knoxville is the county seat) went something like this: 62% Bush, 37% Kerry. The capacity of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville is just shy of 105,000 in a city that reported about 173,000 people in the 2000 census. The folks in Knoxville really care deeply about football. Other than with my buddy Andrew, I don’t think I’ve had a single conversation about football in my nine years of living in Berkeley.

I’m not criticizing Knoxville by any means. I grew up in North Carolina and spent a decent amount of time in Tennessee and have a lot of affection for the state. I think Berkeley would probably benefit from the kind of unity that a good sports team can bring to a community. I’m just saying that Knoxville and Berkeley are very different, and where different cultures collide, sometimes it’s fun to go get right in the middle of it. A little while ago, Nancy and I decided to go for a drive around Berkeley to see how things were shaping up pre-game. Just what I expected: blase Berkeley residents (there’s a football game today?) mixing it up with fired-up Tennessee fans in brilliant orange spilling out of every drinking establishment in downtown Berkeley, linked together only by mutual looks of puzzlement.

No fences between the Tennessee fans and the Berkeley residents there in downtown away from the stadium, but I got the feeling that both parties thought they were peering into an exhibit at the zoo. The only difference was which side of the invisible fence they thought they were on.