“The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” ~ Kurt Cobain
I was waiting outside a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California while my husband had a brief business appointment nearby.
On the bench next to me sat a young man with a shaved head and slightly unshaved cheeks.
A sea of foot traffic was swarming by in front of us and I casually commented to him that “everybody comes to Telegraph to see the scene.”
“Hm,” he more or less articulated in a deep voice, somehow conveying with this one sound that he was saying “yes.” So, I went on:
“But there is no scene,” I added. “There are just the people who come looking for the scene.”
“Hm,” he said, yet again, and this time chimed in with his own thought adding that they didn’t come looking for the scene, “They came to buy the scene.”
“Oh my God, you’re right,” I exclaimed, finding his candor refreshing.
“Maybe thirty years ago there was a real scene,” he went on. “Now there are just people who want to buy it.”
“So, shopping is the scene?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Shopping is not only the scene, shopping is the (holding his fingers up in air quotes) ‘American way of life.’”
From inside the store we could hear the phone ringing, the cash register beeping, and people in line bustling and talking. He turned to face me on the bench and for a brief moment more or less looked me up and down from under his half-closed lids.
“In fact, I think it’s ultimately what we’re going to the Middle East to fight for,” he added, without batting a political eye.
It seemed to me that he had given the matter some thought.
“It’s sad,” he went on. “It wasn’t the original concept for our country. We started out with a great idea. But our founding fathers didn’t take into account how greed can corrupt things. You put greed and wealth and possessions into the same pot as capitalism, and this is what you get—shopping as a way of life.”
I listened closely to what he was saying, interested by hearing him use the old-fashioned term “founding fathers” and wondering where he was going—what options he would come up with as solutions to what he was positing.
“It used to be,” he went on, “people would work half the day and spend the other half, the night, with their families.” He put the fingertips of his big slender hands together to form the shape of a sphere. “There were tight units of people who lived and ate and slept together. But that’s not the norm anymore because that’s not what people value. In fact, people don’t value anything anymore. There are no values.”
He looked up and, waving his arms around him to indicate the crowds said, “There’s just this.”
“Think you can handle all ‘this’?” I asked. “I mean, for the future.”
“I will,” he said. “My generation will. Your generation handled what you had to handle. Mine will do the same.”
Turned out he wasn’t a student at Berkeley. He was a student at Stanford where he worked part-time and went to school full-time and, of all things, wasn’t studying computer science or computer technology, but was studying American History. Turned out that his mother taught grade school and his father taught high school history and that they both worked real hard and that history is what they talked about at dinner—“You know, American History.” Turned out he had a scholarship that paid a lot of his tuition ‘cause “lord knows his parents couldn’t pay for it and neither could he—a history major, are you kidding?”
He wasn’t sure he was going to teach, but he was sure he was going to do research and write a book—a book about capitalism and greed and corrupt values, and I was just about ready to really get into the topic with him when my husband came out of the store at the same time that the young man’s ride showed up.
We stood to leave and I put out my hand for a shake.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
I kept hold of his hand.
“How old are you?”
I looked directly into his deep, dark eyes and saw in them not only the kind of earnest, heartfelt desire you see in the body language of college basketball players, but saw kindness in them as well.
He looked back at me with an unwavering gaze and I had a strong feeling for him come over me.
Squeezing his hand I said, “My name is Carmelene, Chantaine, and I’m old enough to be your grandmother. The world is yours, to make of it what you will.”
He closed his eyes briefly, as if a puff of wind had blown into them, and bowed his head.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“You may not want to be as teacher, but I won’t forget what you taught me tonight about my generation handling our problems and yours handling yours.”
I got 10 feet down the sidewalk when my feelings rose up—feelings for the hopeful young man that Chantaine was, for the family that raised him, for the all too brief conversation we had and for the moment in which we clasped hands across the generations—all while we, two strangers, were sitting and talking on a bench in so unlikely a place—and yet, so perfect a place—as Telegraph Ave., in Berkeley, California.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: elephant archives