Traipsing Through Telegraph

 

I shielded the numerical keypad on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, or, as I like to call it, “Berkeley’s Alternative to Rent Troubles”) machine from onlookers by hunching my broad, full shoulders forward and typed in my four-digit PIN. Four dollars and five cents were withdrawn from my account, and out popped my beautiful scarlet debit card, as well as the objective of my transaction: a faithful blue ticket smaller than a standard index card. I placed my right foot forward on the escalator ,  and then my left, and observed myself moving slowly upwards towards the train platform. At one time, this used to be the most monotonous part of my walk to campus. But my second-semester walks to the bus stop closest to my off-campus apartment displaced that dreariness soon enough. My first semester of college was defined by BART and Amtrak train rides; I never counted AC Transit, since almost every Cal student’s life includes AC Transit rides, though it did — and still does — act as my bread and butter 99% of the time. I would be hopelessly clueless without those blissful buses.

As a commuter student at UC Berkeley, my weekly three-day class schedule unofficially began at 5.15 AM, with a heavy breakfast, enough to get me through the forty-five minute drive from Santa Clara to the Fremont BART Station, and officially started with a regular, mundane ticket purchase, a routine swipe-in to the train platform, and what seemed like an eternal wait for the train to actually arrive. Reaching school early was imperative for me: my preference for 8 AM classes was clear whenever I woke up with puffed up, though reluctantly circumspect, eyes. Back in those days, the sky was still pitch-black, perfectly lit for the stars to glister their brilliance; there was still time to figure out the illuminated constellations above the pithy, urban street lights of Silicon Valley, and — most fortunately, though all the more unlikely to fulfill — still time to sleep. While rubbernecking at the dozens of dusty vehicles down in the parking lot below, taking in the strong wintry scent that blanketed the mild breezes of the night — one that was presently transitioning to dawn — the well-known sound of railway tracks grating against fast-moving metal finally ensued. This reverberation was all too familiar to me now. In retrospect, if I were to repeat the entire semester over again, I would rather take a gap year, than endeavor to take on such a crucible once more.

I still remember the first time I dreamt about BART. It was one of my most atypical dreams, though the fact that something so ordinary as a mode of transportation could become important enough for my subconscious to actually dream about was not the reason why. The oddness had to do with the overall nature of the dream, not its subject. I had dreamt about other trains, airplanes, boats, cruises, and buses many-a-time long before. But around the time of Halloween, the standard, slender, gray worn-out shape of the train that I so readily recognized appeared in the form of a mild nightmare. In the dream, it was still seven in the morning; the sky was still shadowy and midnight blue and the birds had only just begun to chirrup their sweet dayspring tones. The only thing was, I was the only person on the entire platform. The train had already arrived, but I wasn’t expecting to go in; I didn’t want to, from what I saw. The doors of all the individual cars connecting the subway were open wide; in each car, there were children, ranging from young toddlers to innocent middle school children to confused teenagers, dressed in amusing Halloween costumes. The cars had no seats, so every child was standing, with blank expressions that screamed something between consternation and utter bewilderment. They were all staring at me, with eyes open enough to focus directly on me, but not enough to petrify me completely. Quite frankly, while in the dream, I thought I was looking at the adolescent version of Sesame Street.

My mother told me that the dream simply reflected some hidden desire of my subconscious. It made sense: I was longing to go trick-or-treating like I had for the past two years, but I doubted that any college student attending the University of California Berkeley would dare engage in such a childish activity again. Nevertheless, my BART dream, though quite amusing, did not affect the tedium of my walk from the Downtown Berkeley BART station to class. The walk barely lasted fifteen minutes, but it always felt like eons to me; maybe because I was an insanely slow walker, or because I started lamenting over the thought of lectures and impending midterms while walking, or because of both. Either way, my pessimism got the best of me while I made the stroll.

Typically, my walk incorporated fresh and enlivening zephyrs, since the sun had just risen and the day had just greeted my sunblock-laden visage. Traditional Berkeley traffic was still light and stable, and the campus was still free of that one man who protested something about politics and the Green Movement using a horrid loudspeaker. I adored how it was too early for me to satisfy my junk food cravings by purchasing a bagel from one of the dozens of small eateries and cafés that I passed by as I walked; most opened by 8 AM, and it was still half past seven. Of course, there was the usual aggravating queue at the Starbucks right by the cinnamon roll shop that never ceased to exude warmth and immense edible pleasure from within its doors. My tongue, however, naturally disapproved the taste of bitter icy coffee — coffee that cost so much mostly because of the fact that baristas possessed the uniquely trivial ability to successfully jot down individual customer names on coffee cups. At least that’s why I think that java is so exorbitantly popular — because of the sense of entitlement that comes along with the Venti demitasses. I had one once, and it cost me my entire gift card; I walked out of the store faster than I ordered my actual “drink.”

As I treaded along the granite pavements in my fluorescent orange Skechers®, my eyes darted precisely to what — over time — made me feel queasy the most: the sight of homeless vagrants. Nevertheless, I had grown used to seeing them now. There was always the one gentleman wearing an overly-inflated crimson red jacket that I mistakenly hoped to be a puffer jacket, but was not. There was the elderly man with an untamed white beard that seemed to have stopped growing, and then there was the hidden hooded figure who slept right in front of the shop entrance to a defunct café, huddling close to his virescent blanket, and his frighteningly frail dog. Edging my pupils away from these sorry sights became increasingly difficult with each commute, but over time — with great shame, I must admit — it became a numb vision for me. I had learned to make myself immune to their soft murmurs, their dry puckered lips, and their uncomfortable, queasy gazes. There was simply no other way for me to continue onwards, walk towards my institution of education unless I willed myself to ignore them completely.

What remained painfully constant was the robotic pushes of the streetlight buttons whenever I crossed the streets necessary to get to campus. Dreadful moans escaped me whenever I heard the same monotone male voice: “WAIT.” Of course, I was well aware that everyone walked exactly like this to campus, and encountered the same buzzing buttons and unexpressive tone while crossing the street, and yet, these walks were made so much more colorless through these minuscule nuances.

My walk along Sproul differed sometimes, and the route I chose out of the two options depended upon chance. Some Mondays, I chose to walk up the highly elevated hill along Strawberry Creek to reach Upper Sproul, adjacent to the Berkeley Art Studio, to feel an invigorating adrenaline rush from the sheer increase in altitude over the pavement; other Wednesdays, I chose to amble through Lower Sproul to get directly to the Telegraph street traffic. Either way, walking, in the sole context of walking towards school, provided a time of meditation for me — a time to ponder over irrelevant, non-academic stuff, despite the fact that I was heading towards a strictly academic setting for explicitly educational matters. This was the prime time to clear up my thoughts, reflect over the little minutiae that made living life whole. It was, what I call, my ‘contemplation window’, where I was free to inquire about the most useless of queries, and answer them if I wish, or leave them unanswered like important rhetorical questions (my ‘default’ response).

Je ne veux pas travailler…I do not want to work.

My walks were slightly different than the majority of students on-campus: As an FPF student, my classes met at a small abandoned church exactly across from People’s Park. My walk involved trekking along the Sheng Kee bakery along Telegraph, out along several bookstores that sold music records and intriguing encyclopedias, and across from Peet’s Coffee and People’s Park to the church seminary building. This meant that, along the way, I had encountered tempting aromas of freshly baked brioches, enticing shelves of captivating romance (and healthy cooking) books well worth swooning over, and several disconcerting gazes and bouquets of tobacco/other uncontrolled substances from troubled vagrants of People’s Park that possessed little other than the company of each other and their murderous cigarettes. The back of our sole lecture hall — exactly enough to house about one hundred and ten students, at most — was connected to the nursery of the Berkeley Rose School situated directly beneath us. Morning classes were thus aptly animated with glorious children’s chuckles, delightful toddler comments, and hilarious ‘guest appearances’ that I accepted as cameos.

I was not the urban spectator that French literature so often touted as the flâneur figures of leisure, investigation, and exploration; I was a passing participant of those who walked around me simply for the sake of walking. I was not the wealthy, fashionable socialite whose heart wandered through the tobacco-infested, heavily drugged streets of Berkeley for the sake of strolling; indeed, I was far from being a so-called boulevardier.

Often times, I felt like I was cheating myself — I was walking out of compulsion, due to lack of an alternative, because of sheer convenience; others did so because of leisure, want, and utter willpower. I envied them. I could not imagine walking for purposes of recreation or well-being — at least not yet. There was far too much to worry about; adding transportation issues to the molehill would only rub more salt into the situation.

While walking back and forth between BART platforms, Café Cars in Amtrak trains, AC Transit bus floors, and ominously wonted roads along Sproul, Strawberry Creek, and Shattuck, I gaped down at my sneakers and thought of how I wore them around like a trademarked article of clothing. They functioned to conceal my laziness. While most donned flip-flops with the utmost debonair, I used my shoes to veil the lifeless toes that lay beneath, not wanting to move forward. I was an idler, an explorer, walking in my own world of imagination on the streets of one of the most liberal, political and prestigious universities of this world, of this modern generation. I was grateful at times to be so and regretful at other times during my walks for the responsibilities I had voluntarily committed to; my gait reflected that, sometimes. It would usually mean I would stare down long and hard while traipsing my paths; it allowed me a chance to unfold within myself and realize what I truly held in the palm of my hands. Still - sadly so - there was more pain and remorse than there was joy and merriment. Perhaps I was a newly converted fatalist; Cal had christened me into such a person.

Merci, mon Dieux. Mais…je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work).

It was at those times that I looked back up again, increased my pace, smiled oddly without reason, and pretended that no one had noticed that the girl who was leaning against the street pole, waiting to cross the lane — smirking thoughtlessly, somewhat in pain, somewhat in slight suffering — was me.hc pic 2.jpg

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A taciturn, though trustworthy, Texas-born teenager with old-fashioned tastes, Aliza is a versatile current sophomore majoring in Economics in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California Berkeley, looking forward to all that life and HerCampus has to offer. She has studied in several different schools in over six diverse countries since birth, and has thus suffered several informal 'lawsuits' over fabricating a new response to every "Where are you from?" question every single time it is inquired; the answer differs, depending on the current location and, occasionally, the asker. She is highly interested in expanding her reach through diverse opportunities for personal and professional growth and making an impact in every opportunity offered. She holds extensive experience in writing and blogging, from college articles to research papers, and has traveled widely, to over four high schools throughout her high school career alone. Determined, self-motivated, and willing to learn new skills eagerly, Aliza has always enjoyed writing, particularly about romance genres and fictional topics in both poetry and prose, and has published a limerick in the fifth grade in a British Library anthology book, Young Writers'​ Sagas. Aliza, perhaps the only Millennial who loves broccoli and cauliflower (and lacks a desperately-needed driving license), enjoys watching romance movies (repeatedly), sleeping - but only during the daytime - with three different layers of clothing on (even in July), and laughing her socks off while binging on some good quality Bollywood comedy shows. Yes, it is also true that while writing poetry in her leisure time, Aliza also watches countless soap operas on her (often) dusty MacBook while dreaming of working in the Middle East upon graduation. Harboring an undeniable affinity for airports and travel, she also loves all things walnuts (except brownies).

If you have any business, finance or leadership opportunities, or simply wish to say hi, please feel free to connect with her via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alizasiddiqui/