Julia Vinograd died last night. She was Berkeley’s poet laureate and she was the Bubble Lady. Born in 1943, Vinograd got her BA at Cal and then earned an MA at the University of Iowa at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her studies focused on poetry. Literary and creative influences that she cited 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.” Vinograd returned to Berkeley in 1967 to find massive cultural and political changes in full swing. “Everyone had long hair, bare feet, bright clothes, and looked like they’d just stepped out of a tapestry.”
Telegraph Avenue was her stomping ground, her nation. She lived at the Berkeley Inn and spent her days at the Caffe Med, drinking coffee and watching the world pass by. She described 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 continued, honoring the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the abandoned, the wild and the free. She was called a street poet. I am not sure what that means unless it means that she wrote about the street in the figurative sense of the lower socioeconomic strata. I know this – she was for decades part of Berkeley’s cultural DNA. She wrote 50 volumes of poetry, much of which is about Berkeley. She probably could only have existed in Berkeley.
And then there was Julia Vinograd, the bubble lady. During the People’s Park uprising in May 1969, Vinograd was troubled by a sense of impending violence. She lived right on Telegraph Avenue, the artery that bled so profusely on May 15. In a moment that evoked Allen Ginsberg, Vinograd bought some bubble soap and went to Telegraph Avenue to blow bubbles. It set a tone. It helped defuse. And she did it for the rest of her life. She was known to generations of Cal students simply as The Bubble Lady.
Julia Vinograd lived 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. Julia Vinograd made real for us those who are wanting and lacking and forgotten and invisible. She did this with humor and verve and, as Herb Caen would say, brio. In her poem “On the Berkeley Inn, Where I lived for 15 Years, Being Torn Down,” she wrote: “Were we all crazy? Mostly we were friends / And with friends it’s not a pertinent question.” In 2004, Berkeley honored Vinograd with a lifetime achievement award. City Councilman Kriss Worthington presented the proclamation to her at the Berkeley Poetry Festival. (See video below). https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=281&v=KEL-k0RXC-k When Vinograd was diagnosed with cancer, her friends started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise funds for her medical care. Poets, writers and friends also came together on Nov. 11 at the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center to raise money to help her.
When Julia and her sister Debbie were girls, they sat by a Ming lamp in their 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. Debbie, came to Berkeley in 1973 to see her big sister Julia and stayed, painting as Julia wrote poetry. Debbie sat with Julia the night she died. Somewhere in that room were Ming and the five marbles.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. He also writes about important figures of Berkeley’s past, such as his 2017 Quirky Berkeley post and Berkeleyside post about Julia Vinograd. In 2019 Heyday Press will publish his The Battle for People’s Park: Berkeley, 1969, which includes a poem and reminisces by Julia.