Unexpected adventures sometimes lie close at hand. My first intention was to follow a good friend’s advice and check out the North Berkeley Senior Center. I had resisted crossing that threshold into senior-dom but circled the blocks north of UC Berkeley campus and found a parking spot, duly registered, and even ventured into the dining room filled with a couple hundred seniors waiting patiently for a nutritious, if not gourmet, lunch for the bargain price of $3. I headed for a table occupied by three more spritely-looking women only to discover that they were all speaking Turkish, having immigrated to the US in recent years. The one English speaker was kind enough to engage me in conversation and generously offered me the homemade Middle Eastern salad she had brought to share with her friends. These women knew how spice up life.
At 12:30 sharp, I headed upstairs to the Center’s library, stocked by a generation that knows good literature and history, to what was advertised as the “Mixed Poets” class. No one arrived. So instead, I selected a slim volume in French, deciding that I could improve my French with a bit of translating. But I needed to find a French-English dictionary (forgetting that my iPhone had a translating app). Where to go? I drove back over to campus and headed for the Bancroft Library reading room with its thousands of reference volumes at hand. Passing under Sather Gate, I was transported back to 1963 and my sophomore year of college. I passed Wheeler Hall where I had taken a French literature class. Actually, I had only stepped into the classroom one time but had dutifully read Madame Bovary and the other selections on my own. To my dismay I discovered that 50% of the final would be based on class lectures. So I had gone to the Bancroft library, grabbed the Encyclopedia Britannica volume on French literature, boned up and passed the class with a B+. I walked passed other buildings where classes had been missed, phony excuses for non-attendance made up, and last minute cramming had taken place. Once ensconced in the beautiful vaulted reading room, I spent a few minutes using my newly found dictionary to translate the opening pages of what appeared to be a mystery novel, but then remembered my iPhone and took the easier route.
But the most fascinating part of my L’Après–midi d’un étudiant de la vie came before I even reached campus. Trolling Telegraph Avenue for a pair of earrings, my eye caught the table of an elderly (of course, I, myself, am not elderly!) gentleman, named Robert, who instantly engaged me with his bright mind, congeniality, and Irish gift of gab. A fascinating half-hour conversation ensued. He gushed that I looked like an opera singer, hopefully based on my flow-y outfit and not those extra pounds I had gained in Hawaii. I said I was a poet and he regaled me with his adventure about hitchhiking with the help of a couple of long-haul truckers from New York to California to hear Susan Sontag, the radical American writer and filmmaker, teacher and political activist, read her poetry. Somehow Willie Brown got woven into the conversation. He talked about family, how only one granddaughter seems interested in his welfare, and where he lived and insisted I visit the next 2nd Friday Art Walk in Vallejo where he displays his wares.
Before our conversation ended, he insisted I take one of his authentic Gaelic bracelets as a gift. I thought of going to the ATM to get cash to pay him but then decided that only gracious acceptance was called for. The real gift was allowing myself an afternoon of being open to the small miracles that come our way when we keep our eyes, hearts, and minds open to what life offers. And, yes, I’ll return that French novel to the Senior Center library after I finish the translation. If I learn enough French, I’ll be able to understand what my three and five-year-old granddaughters are whispering about in the back seat of my car on the way to their French school.