tamai pearson stands in front of his booth selling goods on Telegraph Avenue
Tamai Pearson, 68, moved to Berkeley when he was 23 years old. Photo: Courtesy  Tamai Pearson Credit: Courtesy Tamai Pearson
Tamai Pearson, 68, moved to Berkeley when he was 23 years old. Photo: Courtesy  Tamai Pearson Credit: Courtesy Tamai Pearson

Tamai Pearson has been a staple of Telegraph Avenue for decades now, standing prominently at its Durant Avenue corner with his eight-foot-long dreads neatly wrapped up in a cap, ready to crack jokes and share his Batik-printed clothing and Rastafarian art with Berkeley.

Pearson has seen a steep drop in sales after COVID-19 struck the city, like many other vendors, but this sudden gap in income has aggravated years of his financial burdens to a point of near-desperation. His daughter, Jahrena Pearson, finally created a donation page last week to support the family.

“I pray that somehow, something, a miracle, could happen where I could get this monkey off my back. It’s not millions, but it feels like zillions to me.”

Pearson said it’s awkward and embarrassing to admit that he needs help, but he’s started waking up in the middle of the night worrying about money. He has also developed numerous stress-related health problems. Early this month, he had to return to the East Coast to bury his mother, his only parent throughout his life.

“I don’t look for any pity, or any special treatment, I just want to be, y’know? Time goes by quick, and we never know when the final call comes,” said Pearson, who hopes to be out of debt by the time he dies so that his children don’t have to bear his burden.

Telegraph has been good to Pearson, a fast-talking East Coast native who moved to Berkeley in 1975. He met his wife of 36 years on the street where Fat Slice pizza used to be and created meaningful relationships over the years with the vendors and regulars who set up shop in the district. Some of these people were the first to offer Pearson help when they heard about his situation, and he said a handful called him to give him $100 bills, and share blessings.

But even before COVID-19 struck the Bay Area, it was increasingly difficult for Pearson to make sales and find business. Now he rarely goes there. He’ll check out the block every few weeks now to see if it’s worth setting up shop, but said it’s a “ghost town.” He’s been surviving off of social security without the income from his stall and doesn’t currently receive unemployment benefits.

Pearson first arrived in Berkeley in a golden era for street vendors, which kicked off in the late 1960s when private businesses, like Cody’s Books at 2476 Telegraph Ave., began opening up space to crafters and artisans, circumventing strict “peddlers’ laws” in the city that required them to move every five minutes.

Street vendors who set up shop in front of Cody’s Books in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Street vendors who set up shop in front of Cody’s Books in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Advocates urged the city to change the restrictions, which it did. Street vending soon became a thriving enterprise, particularly on Telegraph Avenue, where political activists, artists, and hippies mingled.  Berkeley’s tourism agency, Visit Berkeley, now touts street vendors as one of the interesting things to do on Telegraph Avenue.

Telegraph Avenue is Berkeley’s melting pot,” reads an article on the site. “It’s where the city’s past, present and future come together in dynamic color. It’s where Berkeley’s vibrant academic scene blends with its eccentric 1960s heritage, where old school record shops meet chic clothing boutiques, where bright-eyed Cal students and quirky street vendors walk side by side.”

The number of vendors on the street has dwindled in recent years, Pearson said, partly due to planters and obstacles in areas where they used to set up, as well as a shift in culture from the ’60s and 70s which meant more and more people started casting strange looks at his booth and appearance. People typically don’t stop and get to know him, he said, and learn that he’s volunteered for the Special Olympics for years with his son who has autism, or that he earned his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University.

“They’re like, ‘Who the hell is this guy? Some crazy guy on Telegraph,’” he said. “Everyone has their judgments, that’s just life.”

The Telegraph Avenue district has considered several approaches to reinvent itself to draw more students and residents to the neighborhood, but the pandemic has exacerbated a problem of vacant storefronts and dwindling foot traffic. UC Berkeley has 5,000 fewer students than normal living in its dorms, too.

Pearson’s created, sold and performed with instruments from numerous cultures over the years, including shekeres, mbiras and shakuhachi flutes, and he recently came to focus more on Batik printed clothing and Rastafarian art. He’s tried to pivot to e-commerce over the years, including an eBay and Etsy shop, but very rarely makes a sale through the sites.

He sees it as a great irony that this lifestyle as a vendor allowed him the flexibility to take care of his elderly mother, his wife and children all these years, including some who have endured complicated medical procedures and disabilities, but it’s now also left him burnt out, and prevented them from leading a stable, stress-free life.

The family lives in a small, two-bedroom house that Pearson owns near the Richmond-El Cerrito border, but home equity loans his mother took out years ago amount to $82,000, in addition to $50,000 in inherited credit card debt. The little home is “everything” to them, and he dreads losing it every day.

“I pray that somehow, something, a miracle, could happen where I could get this monkey off my back,” Pearson said. “It’s not millions, but it feels like zillions to me.”

His GoFundMe has a goal of $100,000. So far people have donated around $4,000.

Alex Knox, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said he saw and shared the donation page for Pearson but hasn’t had a chance to meet him. He described the complexities of the various health orders that have come down during the pandemic and said his team has been working on sorting through some of the rules and encouraging vendors to return but understands why Telegraph may not be as packed as before the pandemic.

The organization is also working on creating a new festival this year – in line with local health orders – that could stand in for the Grateful Day Festival in October and bring more business to the area.

“Street vendors are a central element of Telegraph and the community,” said Knox, describing them as mindful and responsible during COVID-19. “It’s good to have them around during difficult times because they set a positive example, and I trust that they are approaching the work in a way that is helpful and safe.” 

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...