The Hovel on the Roof

Inside a UC Berkeley library

After a year of exile in Etna, California, with my lover, Max, we returned to the Bay Area in 1979. My plan was to continue delving into the history and customs of the ancient Middle East and eventually to write a book about the life of Jezebel, Queen of Israel. I should say that Max deserves credit for inspiring me, and giving me the confidence, to do that sort of research on my own.

Max and I always lived separately. We had taken separate apartments in Etna, and this time in Oakland was no different. Her new place was in north Oakland, west of Shattuck Avenue. I was farther south, in a rundown building on 25th Street off Telegraph Avenue. I can’t remember the name of the owner but he was a skinflint and sourpuss, quite the opposite of Shawn, his amiable on-site manager.

My digs were on the ground floor, which meant it didn’t get much natural light except in the kitchen. There was a Murphy bed in what might otherwise have been the living room, with a built-in box spring but no mattress. The rent was what I expected, just shy of $100/month. I had sworn I’d never pay a landlord more than that, nor work more than three days a week. I’d been living on the edge since 1969, when I quit my last full-time job, moved into the first of a series of slum apartments, and threw myself into a life of radical activism. I had convinced myself that I could go on living this way forever, that I’d always be able to put a tolerable roof over my head (no leaks, no rat infestations) within that $100 limit. Somehow I’d managed to forget or ignore what I’d known all my life about inflation—that, for instance, a ride on either a NYC or San Francisco trolley, only 5¢ when I was a child, now cost 50¢. And that wages never seemed to rise as fast as prices.

One neighbor down the hall was a sweet guy named Dave, who worked as a taxi driver and was very knowledgeable about wild herbs. He collected them for food and to treat his ailments, including a pretty bad case of gout, and showed me the lamb’s quarter growing in a vacant lot behind our apartments. The lot was part of the property belonging to the building, so I realized that I could park the old bug there and do oil changes and other repairs.

Not long after I moved in, Pat the mechanic told me the bug needed a valve job. She’d sold it to me four years before and taught me how to maintain it, and I took it to her shop when the job required tools or expertise that I didn’t have. This time I decided I could do most of the tasks at home. Dave was kind enough to help me jack up the rear and slide the engine out. It weighed somewhere between 200 and 250 pounds. Together we hauled it up the back steps and set it on my kitchen table. Pat had explained how to scrape the carbon deposits off the piston heads. I got to work.

Needless to say, the odor of petroleum products was less than appetizing. I found myself eating more frequently at the Chinese joint on the other side of Telegraph Avenue. On the positive side, however, that mass of reeking metal on the table and my limited mechanical skills impressed two feminists who had recently arrived from Israel, Marcia Freedman, former Knesset member, and her sometime lover, the physicist Amalia Bergman. After Dave, they were the first friends I made after returning to Oakland.

Meanwhile, I plowed ahead with the research for my book. Hardly anyone had home computers back then, and the internet wasn’t accessible or even known to the public, so I began to frequent the UC Berkeley library. Since I planned to visit Israel in addition to doing book research, I signed up for both biblical and modern Hebrew classes at the Beth Hillel center. Both my instructors were energetic and enthusiastic.

I don’t remember the biblical Hebrew teacher’s name, but I started hanging out after class with one of the modern Hebrew teachers, Ruth Litwin. An Israeli, she was studying for her PhD at UC Berkeley while her husband Yoram worked as an engineer. One February afternoon she invited me to their home in the Berkeley hills. By then my car was running again, and I drove up the winding roads to a tree-lined street just half a mile below Tilden Park. The house was lovely, three or four bedrooms I think, with a big deck outside. Ruth’s two older children were at school, and the six-month-old was in his high chair. I spooned baby food into him while we talked.

Max and I had continued to hike together in Tilden Park, but our relationship had gone stale and we both knew it. While on one of those hikes we agreed to break up. Shortly after that, in early April, Ruth and I became lovers. On another hike Max indicated that she’d changed her mind, but it was too late.

A month or so later Ruth left Yoram and moved into graduate student housing in the Albany flatlands, a short walk from the Bay. One of the two bedrooms was just large enough for the baby’s crib and a bunk bed for the older kids. The other was Ruth’s bedroom, which held a dresser and a mattress on the floor. The kitchenette opened into the living room, which we filled with a second-hand couch and a profusion of children’s toys.

Since I began spending most of my time at Ruth’s, keeping the 25th Street place seemed like an extravagance. I decided to sublet my ground-floor apartment and instead rent the penthouse, or more accurately the hovel on the roof—which was definitely illegal, but only half the price of the apartment. The landlord agreed to pay for a small stove and fridge and Shawn installed them. On the other hand, the one sink was in the bathroom and drained into a bucket. After washing the dishes you’d empty the bucket down the toilet. There was no shower or bath.

I put up an ad for a roommate/sublet at the Woman’s Place Bookstore. A woman in her late 20s answered. Debra DeBondt moved into the ground floor apartment, which now came with some of my furniture, kitchenware, and books. I went downstairs when I needed to use the bathtub. And now I had another new friend.

To be continued…


2 Responses to The Hovel on the Roof

  1. Connie O Byrne January 13, 2023 at 10:53 pm #

    your adventures never cease to amaze me…thanks for a peaceful end to my day

  2. whoiscall September 20, 2023 at 6:53 am #


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