The Hallowed Homes of Berkeley

It was once known as “the spook house,” reflecting the Charles Addams like qualities not neighborhood demographics.

When I was a slave to the corporate lifestyle I was lucky to have four hours of freedom a day. The last thing I wanted was to spend the bulk of that time commuting to see friends. I formed a mental block about travelling to Berkeley because it was soooo far away.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered it’s only a 20 minute Bart ride and 10 minute walk to Chez Panisse Cafe. Who knew? After an absence of years, I’ve lunched there twice in the last three weeks. Alice is considering a restraining order.

The one exception to the Berkeley blockade was any invitation to Carl and Ellen’s. They have been friends since 1980 and have a beautiful home on Carleton Street.

My favorite aspect: the arch that looks onto Ellen’s landscaping from the front porch.

It’s an Italianate Victorian farmhouse with a suave gray patina stucco. It came with original farm buildings and implements in the yard. The first owner herded her cow to the Sacramento Street common pasture every morning then fetched her at sundown. The maligned bovine was beaten with a stick and subjected to a barrage of German expletives every step, both ways.

After Bossie’s day the neighborhood built up around the house. No significant changes were made until Carl and Ellen tore down the chicken coop, moved the shed/guesthouse to the neighbors, and landscaped the yard. They added a wing and deck overlooking the landscaping. The new kitchen and dinning area were topped by exposed trusses and a sky light. The original Garland stove was hauled up from the basement.

The base from which the mighty rises.

The house’s most prominent feature is the lonesome palm tree. The area’s tallest, it is surrounded by vegetation that forms a lush bush at its base. From there it soars above the Berkeley Flatlands like a proud erection.

Which may have been Capability Brown’s inspiration when he planted the tree. Previous owners were notorious for their wild orgies in the 1970’s. It was at one of those parties that Cape made his name.

The Cape-meister

Today’s owners have had a few raucous parties though none like the Swinging 70’s. That I was invited to anyway.

But I have been to a myriad of superb dinners there. Ellen’s culinary influence extends from Chez Panisse, where her daughter is Chef and General Manager, to my Winter Palace in Indiana. When my Mother and I designed her new kitchen we used several ideas from Ellen’s book, Great Kitchens: At Home with America’s Top Chefs.

In the early 1980’s, David inherited a house at the Russian River. We forced ourselves to use it as a weekend retreat though we never quite fit into the flannel shirt,  “We are Fam-i-ly” milieu. On Sundays we’d dash back to the City to get to the Midnight Sun or friends’ dinner parties just for a dose of civilization.

This was the case one Labor Day weekend. Traveling back from the River, our thirst for the urbane landed us at a Carl on Carleton Clambake. It was quenched by the presence of many friends, the free-flowing wine and the rapier wits that burnished with abandon.

Our host’s mind that evening seemed to be more on the flagon than the flame as he overcooked the shellfish. The yield was significantly reduced.

Ellen is often skeptical of my genuineness. I’ve spent decades trying to convince her of my sincerity. It did not help my cause at that barbecue pretending to be delighted, then sated by the clams I was served.  Their meats were the size of pin heads.

Locals call it “the rhino house” for the James Durney sculpture in the front.

From a Berkeley house I know well to one I just met is Eric’s Castle. He was the summer intern at the law firm who googled me then sent the anecdote about open mike night in the library.

After 35 years we finally reunited over lunch at Chez Panisse.  Afterwards he took me up to the Berkeley Hills to see his house.

The exterior of irregular brick is charming enough but you enter into a manor hall that is straight out of Ivanhoe. Astounding.

The exterior brick is the same facade for interior walls that are three stories high. There’s a chimney above the hearth that is equally as high; a gargoyle that flies down the middle of the room; and a floor to ceiling picture window with a view of the bay.

The house was once owned by futurist Don Fabun who had Timothy Leary as a frequent guest. Later it was owned by the manager of Janis Joplin’s group, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Eric first saw the house at a party in 1987. He wanted it on the spot and told the owner he had to sell it to him. The guy said fat chance until,  six months later, he needed money for a deal. The house was Eric’s.

After his internship with me,  Eric finished law school and practiced in  California. My reference desk mentoring played a critical role in his success.

In the 90’s he owned a Goth club, Thunder Bay, in the Berkeley Marina. He was in the vanguard of that movement and his business model, like any bar, was to make money off liquor. But the Goth kids arrived tripping on ecstasy wanting nothing to do with cocktails. Revenues suffered, the place closed, and Eric ended up with a ton of excellent art.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Eric’s printer.

His preoccupation today is 3D ceramic printing.  So few people do it because that type of machinery doesn’t exist. You have to make it yourself, which Eric did.

Removing the heaters that melt plastic in a quotidian 3D printer,  he rewrote the program and hooked up an air compressor to force clay through the jets.  He mentioned nonchalantly the  canisters have exploded a few times covering the entire room in a grayish ejaculate.

There’s a mad scientist quality to it all except Eric isn’t mad. And it’s oddly fascinating to spend time with someone you know but whose life you know nothing about.

American Gothic vis a vis The Bean. As the Wise Men entered the manger, one stubbed his toe and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” Mary turned to Joseph, “you know, I think I like that better than Ralph. “

In the same category as the Affable Scientist is my friend Elaine, who I’m currently visiting in Evanston. We were high school friends but lost touch in the 80’s. A chance online encounter in September and a mutual desire to reconnect had me stop by on my trip home. We’ve laughed as hard the past few days as we did telling Jesus jokes back at Elmhurst High.

October has proven that experiencing guilt for losing contact with people is overrated. Friendship isn’t necessarily measured in frequency or quantity. If you can pick up where you left off the next time you see each other, all is well. Even after 35 years. And that’s a comfortable feeling.

Eric’s Castle