Steven E.F. Brown
May 7, 2014
San Francisco Business Times
Coffee and cigarettes are vital for fomenting revolutionary ideas. Or at least they used to be.
Starting Jan. 1, 2014, it will be a little harder to spark those ideas on the campus at the University of California, Berkeley, where plenty of revolutions of one sort or another have started.
When I was a student there in the 1980s, I didn’t smoke and I didn’t even drink coffee, but then, I didn’t start any revolutions, either. My thinking was pretty mundane mostly, as my grades showed.
But the most interesting people I ever met smoked all the time and drank gallons of coffee. They went on to work at places like the World Bank or in fast finance or to start their own companies.
Campus was a lively place then, with hugemanifestations, as the French, who smoke all the time, would say, and riots over Apartheid. The people storming the barricades and coming back to the dorms to strip their sleeves and show their scars (or bruises from police truncheons, rather) all smoked — their pockets bulged with Marlboro Reds or Camels or more exotic brands like English Ovals. They had nifty nickel lighters and would talk to you while tapping their cigarette packs against a palm before opening them. Usually, they reversed one “lucky” cigarette in the pack as soon as they got it open.
They bought used clothing at Aardvark’s on Telegraph, and loved finding old, long coats with special cigarette pockets inside the lapels.
My professors smoked, too, though by 1984 or so they weren’t actually allowed to light up in class. One of my best, most furious-thinking English professors, Steven Justice (you can see him here, slightly grayer but still furiously thinking), had an ashtray big as a hubcap in his Wheeler Hall office, and as soon as he got done lecturing us about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, he would rush off, with suppliant students in tow, to seek the consolation of divine tobacco.
You didn’t even have to smoke back then to enjoy the stimulating effects of tobacco. Every café in Berkeley — we spent our hours at La Bottega on Telegraph, or Coffee Connection on Euclid, mostly — contained a thick miasma of cigarette smoke, which you breathed secondhand, thirdhand, fourthhand up to infininityhand.
Although coffee back then wasn’t 40 cents in a thick plastic foam cup, it wasn’t today’s frappuccinos and coffee milkshakes and whatever, either. While smoking, my intellectual friends drank cappuccino or “rocket fuel” (twice brewed coffee) or something called a Mit Schlag, which sounded exotic but, it turned out, just meant coffee with some sort of whipped milk in it.
Most of those curious cafés are now gone, replaced by chains like Starbucks or Peet’s, or by boring coffee places that look like cafeterias. And the smokeshops where folks bought their Dunhills or Camel straights are also gone, along with their stocks of interesting foreign newspapers.
Today, instead of a cigarette in hand, nearly every student strolling through Sproul Plaza or enjoying the sunshine in front of Dwinelle Hall has a cup of coffee. Could Cal ever ban caffeine? Seems impossible, but you never know.
If there’s anything I haven’t remembered to say, I’m sure John Waters has it covered.