City of Hall Monitors

Shortly after publishing my last post — about how well Berkeley is responding to coronavirus safe-at-home protocols — I had regrets about its tone. So boosterish: we’re Berkeley and we’re great because hardly anyone has died from COVID-19! I can see how that might put off readers who don’t live here. So let me make amends by outing Berkeley’s most mockable trait.

Burbled I in the last post, “one of the nice things about Berkeley is that a greater-good mentality is common.” I stand by that. But I also stand by the proposition that people’s greatest strength is often their greatest weakness. A frightening proportion of Berkeleyans use their otherwise admirable greater-good mentality as a cudgel to whack their neighbors. Minding each other’s business is what Berkeleyans do. The food writer-philosopher Michael Pollan, who lives and works here, once told the Los Angeles Times that “Berkeley is full of hall monitors.”

He spoke those words nearly twelve years ago, in reference to a fellow shopper’s disapproval of his cereal purchase at the Berkeley Bowl, one of the city’s gastronomic meccas. Nothing has changed. Not long ago, The Fabulous Wife and our neighbor went to the Bowl. The neighbor, who lives alone, bought a single-serving bag of potato chips — but not before the person behind her in the checkout line judgily asked, “couldn’t you have made a healthier choice?”

Nor is food the only trigger. I’m signed up at the North Berkeley Nextdoor website. A recent post started with this:

I set out at 6:45 a.m. doing my brisk, masked walk on the sidewalk when a runner came up from behind, unmasked, brushing against my right shoulder. I shouted, “run in the street,” and he shouted back, “you should walk in the street.” To which a cursing fest ensued that trailed off.

As a long-time runner — and a former risk manager mindful that whoever does the rear-ending is at fault — I agreed with the walker, even though I thought he or she over-reacted by complaining on social media. But the walker received such a hailstorm of check-your-privilege trolling that the thread was withdrawn before I could pull any colorful quotes from it.

In the course of my search, however, I found the quintessential Berkeley Nextdoor post:

I am outraged!
I just saw someone [insert offense]!! Can you believe it?! How dare they! Please stop doing [insert offensive activity]! You’re going to kill someone!! I also saw [insert business name to be shamed] doing [insert shameful activity]. Do not shop there! I’ve reported this behavior to the police and the mayor. Oh, and my cat is missing. Have you seen my cat?

I was tempted to respond, “That’s nothing! Did you see that [insert name of city councilperson] proposed to put the words [insert social justice jargon] on all the city’s entering/leaving signs? And that [insert name of another councilperson] said [insert dubiously racist phrase] in response? How can we sip our lattés while this goes unprotested? I’ve reported this to the mayor and the police. Oh, and your cat was run over by one of the gezillion mindless drivers menacing our streets. Have a nice day.”

Except the part about Berkeley’s border signs isn’t a joke. It kinda happened.

Just as in authoritarian societies, you must be careful who you laugh with over this stuff. If you’re insufficiently discreet, a fresh thread of minding your business may ensue. Which is why I post this on a semi-private blog instead of Nextdoor or someplace else that might draw the eyes — and ire — of fellow Berkeleyans.

Plus I long ago stopped buying Fruity Pebbles.

Telegraph Avenue circa 2005. (From Wiki Commons.)



Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.