By Greg Fuson
Nostalgia, like politics and real estate, is local.
Which helps explain how a 40-something man returns to the Berkeley California School for the Deaf and Blind (Clark Kerr Campus, as you know it today) and becomes the 11-year-old boy of his childhood.
I spent the better part of two years at that school, daydreaming in its classrooms, kicking a football across its playing fields, climbing its rooftops when adventure or mischief (or both) swelled up in me, but mostly just wandering its hallways in idle search of who knows what.
I confess: I broke some things. Windows. Drywall. Light fixtures. Toilet paper dispensers.
No teachers ever told me to stop. How could they?
The place was abandoned.
We moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1980. My mom was an art student at Cal, and she and I lived in family housing adjacent to the Deaf and Blind school, which by then had relocated to its new campus in Fremont.
Longtime Berkeley residents will recall the legal and political battles that ensued over what should become of the site, a contentious land-use tug of war among the city, the university and the community. But for the purposes of this story, all that really matters is that the 50-acre campus — all of its buildings and facilities — sat vacant for the next two years. And it was mine to explore.
My mom’s parenting was lax even by the latchkey standards of that time, and I was free to roam unsupervised until sunset — eventually drawn home not by her edict, but by darkness and hunger. For hours on end I would venture into this mysterious, irresistible ghost town, sometimes with a pack of friends, but more often in solitude. It was quieter on your own, eerier, more surreal. And, for an introvert like me, more gratifying.
The buildings, illuminated only by diffuse sunlight, were dim labyrinths to navigate and plunder. Windowless rooms — or even, if you had the balls for it, basements — were tests of resolve, daring you to enter, flushing your body with adrenaline, excitement and fear. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me — or to consider what kinds of sketchy people I might encounter there.
1981 delivered two of my generation’s cult films, “The Road Warrior” and “Escape From New York,” and I channeled them to imagine my own post-apocalyptic world of struggle and survival, of hunting and being hunted. Was it juvenile escapism? Of course. But with each step farther removed from my “real” life — a life of divorced parents, emotionally absent mom, physically absent dad; of preadolescent hormones and awkwardness and insecurity — I felt more and more like the young man I would become.
That place is a part of me, even well into adulthood, and I suspect it always will be. I smoked my first cigarette there — Kool menthol, hawked from my mom’s purse — enjoying the nicotine buzz before vomiting into the bushes. In a literal sense, too, I still bear its scars. On my thumb, gashed while climbing through a broken window. On my hip, from a nasty skateboarding abrasion. On my ankle, when I stepped through a glass skylight (and nearly fell ten feet onto the desks and chairs below).
It wasn’t a wholesome, Boy Scout, nature-and-woodworking sort of upbringing, and I cringe at the thought of my own children being (quite) so reckless and brazen. But it was formative, and it was — I only now realize — what I desperately needed: a real-life Dangerous Book for Boys experience that built my courage, curiosity and imagination in ways I never would have gotten at home.
I moved away in 1983, the same year that Clark Kerr Campus opened its first residential units. I started high school and became consumed by sports and the pursuit of girls. Then college. A job that grew into a career. Marriage. Mortgage. Kids.
Now, almost three decades later, I return to visit the old Deaf and Blind school (it will never be anything else to me). It’s winter break for Cal students, and, other than a few maintenance workers, the place is empty.
Squint your eyes a little, filter out the repairs and fresh paint, and nothing’s changed. I’m a child again, retracing familiar corridors, of the campus, of my memory.
I don’t break anything this time around, or even smoke a cigarette.
But it’s oddly tempting.
Greg Fuson is a freelance writer, blogger and conference organizer. He and his wife live in Sacramento with their two young children. And, while he hasn’t turned them loose on any abandoned buildings, he actively resists the parental instinct to over-shelter them.