Tom Dalzell has so many passions that he has to get up at 3:30 a.m. each day to attend to them all.
A highly regarded labor leader, a world expert on slang, and – in the last five years – the world’s strongest proponent of Berkeley’s quirk, Dalzell’s constellation of interests would exhaust a lesser man. But, at 65, Dalzell seems to be just gearing up.
His next act starts tonight, Monday, with the launch party for his new book, Quirky Berkeley, just published by Heyday.
The almost-pocket-sized tome is a compilation of how Dalzell has spent much of the past few years: walking around Berkeley, noticing the odd and interesting objects created by residents, and writing about them for his website, Quirky Berkeley, as well as for Berkeleyside. The $15 book, which seems destined to become an instant Berkeley classic, is full of colorful photos and probing insights into many of Berkeley’s most interesting quirks, including the Giant Orange House on Spruce Street, Buldan Seka’s large ceramic creations (also on Spruce), artist Mark Bullwinkle’s steel sculptures around town, Mark Olivier’s beach trash art, and Eni Green’s Doggie Diner head and other dachshund knickknacks on Harper Street. Dalzell also highlights the city’s many colorful mailboxes, benches, animal sculptures and sidewalk art.
Read Tom Dalzell’s Quirky Berkeley articles on Berkeleyside.
“I am struck every time I walk in Berkeley by the plenty of the quirk that I see,” Dalzell writes in his introduction. “We enjoy a special kind of freedom in Berkeley, unbound by convention or conventional thinking, unafraid of change or what others may think. The quirky stuff is an outward and physical manifestation of that inward freedom.”
The launch party for Quirky Berkeley starts at 7 p.m. at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, 1170 The Alameda. Many of the artists featured in the book will be there, including Traci Hui, who illustrated the book. There will also be an exhibit of some of the photos John Storey shot for the book. The celebration is open to the public.
Dalzell’s path to becoming a curator of Berkeley’s quirk was circuitous but makes sense in his mind. What links labor law, a love of slang and an obsession with odd objects is that they are all “expressions of the human spirit in action, words, and material culture,” he said one recent morning over breakfast at the Homemade Café on Sacramento Street.
Dalzell was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and first came to California in 1968 to volunteer for the United Farm Workers in Delano. It was the height of Cesar Chavez’s fight to get better working conditions, higher pay and union contracts for the men and women who picked California’s crops, and Dalzell was instantly hooked. He joined the movement in 1971 after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and became a devoted fighter for the cause, spending more than 300 days a year on the road organizing strikes and advising workers.
“I was in a hurry,” he said. “I had to save the world.”
Dalzell worked in the UFW’s legal division under the supervision of Jerry Cohen, a UC Berkeley Law school graduate who was famous for his fierce legal battles with judges, and who was instrumental in expanding farmworkers’ rights.
Working for the UFW convinced Dalzell he wanted to become a lawyer, but it didn’t make him want to go to law school. So Dalzell started to study law on his own and, in 1976, passed the California Bar. The Salinas Californian reported that Dalzell was the first person to have passed the bar without attending law school since World War II, he said.
“I thought it was easier because law school, the bar, and practicing law are three different skill sets and I just skipped one,” said Dalzell.
Dalzell was purged from the UFW in 1980, one of dozens of loyal union men and women kicked out by an increasingly paranoid Chavez, said Dalzell.
“I intended to work for the farmworkers all my life,” said Dalzell. “There were 18 lawyers (in the legal department) who worked well together. Our dream was shattered when we got purged.”
But Dalzell still believed in unions for their “ability to give workers control over their working lives.” In 1981, Dalzell became a staff attorney for the IBEW 1245, or International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, which represents 18,000 utility workers in northern California and Nevada. In 2006, Dalzell was elected as business manager of the union and serves as its leader. He has been honored for bringing young workers into the leadership of the union.
Shortly after he was expelled from the UFW, Dalzell began a novel that featured a Jerry Cohen-like character, as well as a character named Gabby. Dalzell wanted Gabby to talk in slang to show how smart he was and how enmeshed he was in popular culture. That inadvertently led to his next obsession: the study of slang. After collecting numerous books on the topic to inform his novel, Dalzell wrote a book about slang that the flappers in the 1920s used. Over the years he has written seven others: on Vietnam War slang, sex slang, vice slang, the slang of poker, and the slang used by oppressed people, among others. One of the highlights of his life, and an expression of how well regarded he is among academics who study slang, was that the book party for the 2,500-page Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, which he edited, was held in London at the house of Dr. Johnson, who published his A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.
An expert witness in an Evil Knievel case
In 2001, ESPN hired Dalzell as an expert witness when the daredevil Evil Knievel sued the network over a photo caption that identified him as a “pimp,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Knievel lost the case after Dalzell filed a report that said “young Americans define a pimp as ‘an alluring, charming ladies’ man,’ not ‘a procurer of prostitutes,’” according to the paper.
Dalzell first visited Berkeley in 1968 when he was working for the UFW and moved here permanently in 1984. He now lives in a craftsman house in North Berkeley with his partner, the actress Cathy MacNeal, who appeared in Woody Allen’s film, Blue Jasmine. They have two daughters, both originally from Cambodia, Rosalie, 20, and Charlotte, 15. Dalzell has two other children from an earlier relationship, Julia, 30, and Jake, 34, who are both lawyers.
Dalzell stumbled onto his third obsession almost by accident. In 2011, he developed
sepsis from a small scratch on his left elbow and almost died from renal and pulmonary failure. After he recovered, he slowed down and decided to appreciate life more fully. He started to walk the streets of Berkeley and soon was entranced by all the interesting things people had set up outside their homes. Dalzell then decided to walk every block of Berkeley (he’s almost finished) and record his observations in a blog named Quirky Berkeley. He established a few ground rules. He wasn’t interested in Christmas, Halloween or Thanksgiving decorations. All of the quirky stuff had to be visible from the street.
Dalzell’s work soon attracted local, and then national, notice. The walks he leads for Berkeley Path Wanderers Association quickly sell out. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker published articles on his work. And then Heyday decided to publish Quirky Berkeley.
The combination of union, slang and quirky work keeps Dalzell so busy that he now has to do his Quirky Berkeley walks on the weekends and use the early morning hours to write his blog posts, stories for Berkeleyside, articles for his union’s website, and pieces for the Huntington Post and other outlets. And he still thinks about slang.
Dalzell is no apparatchik (Macmillan Dictionary: someone who works in an organization, especially a political party or large corporation, but is considered to have no views or beliefs of their own). Neither is he a Bird Dog (Glossary of American Jobsite Slang: a foreman (or higher up) who stands around or tries to hide and watches you work.) But he is Boss (Urban Dictionary: noun, a person who is a leader, someone who runs shit in his/her hood or city).
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