Back to School Berkeley

SUNDAY. It’s that special day of summer when the Fall Semester abruptly arrives at the doorstep of UC Berkeley. I get to the café at 9:15 am to find the longest line I’ve ever seen at the place, stretching clear out onto the sidewalk and showing no signs of abating anytime soon. Some sort of pan-sorority gala to kick off the new semester is occurring nearby, and a hundred or two of the sisters have decided to get their lattes on as I get my double espresso. Luckily for me, they won’t be staying, or I’d have no place to sit and type this.


The people in line are firing on all cylinders and chattering like magpies even before they’ve had their coffee, while I stand there like Dustin Hoffman at the grownups party in the Graduate, wearing last night’s clothes and waiting for it all to be over.


The theme of the gala appears to be a celebration of summer, and it’s the perfect day for it, with clear blue skies and temperatures nearing 80 even at this early hour. The Greeks are taking full advantage of the Arizona weather to dress up like ASU socialites, with low-cut white or floral print dresses and high-heeled sandals showing off carefully crafted summer tans. It’s probably the only time these particular pairs of shoes will come out of the closet in Berkeley until the final weekend of the spring semester, by which time the shoes might very well be too dated to be seen in.


The exotic footwear is already taking its toll on the tenderfeet. Two sorority sisters, Kate and Allie (I kid you not), have recused themselves from the coffee line and grabbed a table. Kate’s right sandal has been stripped off her foot and Allie is applying some kind of ointment before wrapping it in a bandage like an experienced field nurse.


The patch-up job is done quick, and Kate and Allie make their way back to the pack. But other women have peeled away and are sitting at tables with one or both sandals off, nursing their own sore feet.


And by 9:40, it’s all over. The line has disappeared. The café is silent.  Could it all just have been some sort of dream?


The distant sounds of girls’ voices cheering in unison from somewhere on campus lets me know it wasn’t just a dream, and I think I hear Kate and Allie among them.


I will see these young women again throughout the year, generally on Friday nights and in much cooler weather, when they will be dressed up formally for other sorority soirees, but still with exposed backs, legs, and arms, limping this time in stylishly black stilletos instead of open-toed sandals, and fighting to keep from shivering against the cold.

Meanwhile, their fraternity dates will have barely bothered to tuck in their shirts, and will walk in comfortable shoes and socks, with arms, legs and feet appropriately covered for the winter and barely a care in the world.


Although this year’s freshman class was born after Bill Clinton’s impeachment vote over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it seems that some customs are slow to change in society.


Meanwhile, at 10:30 AM, the drone of choppers begins to fill the sky, telling me that a day of alt-right protests and counter-protests is about to get underway at the other end of campus. But that kind of summer recreation is a universe away from the First World problems of the sisterhood of Kate and Allie, who have already endured the first tribulation of the new school year before classes have even started.

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