Julia Vinograd sat amidst bright quilts and pillows on the bed in her apartment at the California Apartments on University, wearing her trademark long skirt and black and yellow hat, surrounded by photographs and paintings and stained glass and beads and skulls, reading out loud from her 2006 Cannibals and Casseroles. She read “On the Berkeley Inn, Where I Lived for 15 Years, Being Torn Down.” As she read, Charlie the desk clerk who could fix anything except his wife ran off with a cop so he became a Stalinist and Guy the deaf desk clerk who mis-heard everything as an insult, shouting “You can’t call me that!” as he grabbed a nightstick – came to life, right in the room, in her voice. I was experiencing an absolutely completely purely entirely Perfect Berkeley Moment.
Vinograd paid $60 a month for her room in the Berkeley Inn when she moved in, $100 a month by the time she left. It has long fascinated me, and the hole in the ground on the northeast corner of Haste and Telegraph since the building was razed in 1990 has only served to remind of the down-and-out, Desolation Row glory of the Berkeley Inn. I have written about it here, describing it as “a shabby crossroads of chaos and art and desperation.”
This poster is behind Vinograd’s bed.
The poster advertises Richard Misrach’s hard-and-costly-to-find Telegraph 3 A.M. The photo was taken in the early 1970s, as Vinograd was turning 30.
At the time, Telegraph Avenue was her stomping ground, her nation. She lived at the Berkeley Inn and spent her days at the Med, drinking coffee and watching the world pass by. “Poems walked by and I wrote them.” She occasionally ate at the One World Family restaurant, first known as The Mustard Seed and then simply as One World Family. The food and coffee were terrible, she says.
On June 10th, I posted about painter Debbie Vinograd, Julia’s younger sister. Today – Julia.
Vinograd was born in 1943 in West Virginia. With her parents she moved to England and then Berkeley, and then southern California. In England she caught polio, which to this day affects her legs. She got her BA at Berkeley and her MFA at Iowa where she was part of the Iowa Writers Workshop. And then it was back to Berkeley.
In Berkeley, Vinograd established two identities – street poet and bubble lady.
Let’s start with street poet. Her academic studies focused on poetry. Literary and creative influences that she cites include: William Butler Yeats, Elinor Wylie, Federico Garcia Lorca (in English), Leonard Cohen (as a poet), and Yehuda Amichai. While at Cal, she was taught and inspired by Thom Gunn, Gary Snyder, and Josephine Miles. At Iowa, Vinograd says Paul Carroll “blew the lid off all my safety boxes.”
She cites other creative influences.
This is Grandpa Ben. He was a reading resource for Julia, or at least it can be said that his glass-doored bookcase was. “My grandfather had some very strange books. The complete works of Arthur Machen. De Quincey for God’s sake. de Sade. Tolkien: Combine Winnie the Pooh and the Wagner Ring Trilogy.”
Her father, Jerome Vinograd, worked as a biochemist for Shell Oil and then taught biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, where he taught biochemistry. He specialized in density gradient ultracentrifugation and DNA supercoiling. Vinograd sees him as a strong creative influence, simply one who manifested his creativity in biochemistry.
Vinograd returned to Berkeley in 1967 to find the Big Changes were in full swing. “Everyone had long hair, bare feet, bright clothes, and looked like they’d just stepped out of a tapestry.”
She describes the first years of writing in Berkeley: “I decided Telegraph was Desolation Row, and I liked it that way. I was in total culture shock. I scuttled around with my mouth and my notebook both open, staring at what I saw and trying to write everything down at once. I forgot about writing styles and just wrote. I didn’t want any of it to get away.”
The poetry has continued, honoring the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the abandoned, the wild and the free. June 5, 2004 was named Julia Vinograd Day by the Berkeley City Council.
She is called a street poet. I am not sure what that means, unless it means that she writes about the street in the figurative sense of the lower socioeconomic strata. I know this – she is and has been for decades part of Berkeley’s cultural DNA. I know this too – she has written 50 volumes of poetry, much of which is about Berkeley. Some of her books are available here. I know this too – she probably could only exist in Berkeley.
But this post isn’t about her poetry. As Arlo said – “But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.”
Here is the bubble story.
During the People’s Park uprising, Vinograd was troubled by the sense of impending violence. She lived right on Telegraph, the artery that bled so profusely in May, 1969. In a moment that evokes Allen Ginsberg, Vinograd bought some bubbles and went to Telegraph to blow bubbles. What a brilliant pacifist move!
She describes two rookie cops who asked her what she was doing. She explained and gave them each a soap bubble bottle and they started blowing bubbles. It became a contest for them – whose bubble was bigger, whose bubble had more motion, etc.
A senior cop came by and asked them what they were doing. In response to the scolding, Julia offered the senior cop a soap bubble bottle. He declined and walked away. One of the rookies said, “He didn’t want because his would be too small to see.”
And the bubbles continued for many years.
But this post is not about the bubbles. As Arlo said again, “But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.”
So – though – what I am here to tell you about is the visual world that Vinograd has built. Her creativity is clearly not limited to the written and spoken word.
She speaks of a suburban childhood with polka dot wallpaper in her room, and a vow she made to herself that once she had her own place it would not be boring.
Mission accomplished indeed. There is no chance of getting bored here. None at all.
One thing in this photograph is misleading. The screen is a television, not a computer screen. Vinograd is not online. She doesn’t own a computer.
Here is how the poetry is written – handwritten in notebook and then typed on the Smith Corona when she goes to a reading because her handwriting presents challenges for reading.
There is stained glass throughout, lining the north-facing and west-facing windows.
This is Buddy the Frog Prince. Every girl should have a frog prince!
There are paintings on every wall.
These are all Debbie Vinograd paintings. On the bottom left is Joan Baez. On the upper right is a portrait of Julia. On the upper left is biker poet Paladin – born Martin Rosenberg in 1943, died as Paladin in 1988. He was published in Bitch, Butch, Black and Bad (1977). Here are some words about Paladin by Arnold Snyder, a Las Vegas writer who claims “I’ll write just about anything if you pay me.”
What a perfect corner! Paintings, mask, books, prints, fabric.
This Debbie Vinograd painting is of Ming. When Julia and Debbie were girls, they sat by a Ming lamp in her grandfather’s house. The girls thought that the lamp’s name was Ming. Julia made up stories about Ming’s life. There were five green marbles. Julia told Debbie stories about the marbles. I’ll bet that these were marvelous stories. Neither Julia nor Debbie can remember any of the stories. Too bad.
Quite a wall, no? The circle of skulls, the painting of Julia, beads and puppets and dolls, and a print of Sandro Boticelli’s 1486 “The Birth of Venus.”
Vickie Ramos made this portrait of Vinograd. Talent!
Vinograd, like her sister’s partner the late Tom Tuthill, has an affinity for the macabre. She speaks with joy of watching monster movies with Tuthill, whose greatest joy was spotting the zipper on the monster’s suit.
There are macabre touches throughout her apartment.
Most of the room doesn’t fit into a pigeonhole of painting/stained glass/macabre -it is just whimsical colorful things that make you smile.
Last stop for photographs is Vinograd’s bathroom. Invasion of privacy you say? Indelicate, you say? Well, I’ve devoted an entire post to quirky bathrooms. This one goes into the collection.
Although Julia doesn’t get around as well as she once did, she is one of us, she is part of us, she is the best of us. She has lived life to the fullest, on her own terms, celebrating in poetry the least of our brethren, She doesn’t show up at City Council meetings with neatly printed signs advocating affordable housing. What she does do – she makes real for us those who are wanting and lacking and forgotten and invisible.
And she does this with humor and verve and, as Herb Caen would say, brio. In the poem she read me out loud she writes this:
Were we all crazy? Mostly we were friends / And with friends it’s not a pertinent question.
Poet, bubble lady, and a woman with a strong, creative visual sense. She lives her life with Dylan’s “Desolation Row” as the soundtrack, Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue of the last 50 years swirling around her, saints and angels and martyrs and holy men – writing and living in a room with stained glass twinkling and paintings and beads and puppets and masks and skulls.
I say in a figurative sense that Julia Vinograd is in Berkeley’s DNA. An important property of DNA is that it can replicate itself. I hope for that, that those who know Vinograd and her poetry will replicate her and carry her into the brave new Berkeley. We can. We must.
My friend was in awe of the photographs. His current Danish modern motif is a little spare. I can sense that sometimes he yearns for the type of overload that Vinograd has created.
What about the post overall?