Julia Vinograd sat amid bright quilts and pillows on the bed in her home 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.” It was a perfect Berkeley moment.
Vinograd 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 1967, the Summer of Love, Berkeley Version.
“Everyone had long hair, bare feet, bright clothes, and looked like they’d just stepped out of a tapestry,” she says. “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. Whatever that means, she is and has been for decades part of Berkeley’s cultural DNA. She has written 50 volumes of poetry, much of which is about Berkeley. She probably could only exist in Berkeley.
For years, she was known as “The Bubble Lady.” 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’s best pacifist theater, Vinograd bought some bubbles and went to Telegraph to blow bubbles.
This post is not about her poetry or her bubbles, it is about 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. She has kept her vow.
This poster is behind her 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.”
There is stained glass throughout, lining the north-facing and west-facing windows.
There are paintings on every wall.
These are all her sister Debbie Vinograd’s 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).
What a perfect corner! Paintings, mask, books, prints, fabric. In the corner not the right wall is a 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.
Quite a wall, no? The circle of skulls, the painting of Julia by Vickie Ramos, beads and puppets and dolls, and a print of Sandro Boticelli’s 1486 “The Birth of Venus.”
There are macabre touches throughout her apartment, although probably none more macabre than the fact that Vinograd carries with her a bag of her late friend Gypsy Catano’s teeth.
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.
Lastly — the tools of her trade.
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.
Through her words, Vinograd 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.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.
For a fuller and more idiosyncratic version of this post, see Quirky Berkeley.