Editor’s note: This story will be published in Street Spirit’s January edition.
Jeremy Caughlan — the beloved Street Spirit vendor who sold the newspaper on the corner of College Avenue and Russell Street nearly every day for 10 years — died on Dec. 2. He was 85 years old.
“It’s been kind of remarkable, the impact he had on all of us,” said Kara Hammond, the owner of Baker & Commons, the cafe on the corner of College and Russell where Caughlan sold Street Spirit. “We are a busy cafe, with 300 people coming in and out per day on the weekend. Even if people didn’t talk to him, he was always there, his presence was there. They saw him, and maybe quietly observed his condition, what was going on with him. In that way you can feel the loss in the community, in the fact that that person was always there and now he’s gone.”
According to his friends and patrons, Caughlan grew up in Seattle in a radical, leftist family. His father was a member of the Communist Party and worked as a labor rights attorney, his grandfather was a Methodist minister, and his great-grandfather was a colonel in the Union Army, recruiting fellow Missourians to fight for the North. Around the age of 10 he worked as a paperboy, delivering newspapers to the forested outskirts of Seattle, and developed a love for the greenery and animal life in the area. As a teenager he spent several summers working at a salmon cannery in Bristol Bay, off the coast of Alaska. He did the first year of his undergraduate study at Reed College before transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he studied biology and zoology, and then pursued a Ph.D. in biology.
As a socialist and a graduate student assistant in the 1950s, he often found himself appalled by the political views of his peers. He ultimately quit his studies and became involved with Trotskyist party politics and then the Spartacist League — which, inspired by Marx and Engels, pledged itself to “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” believing that workers should control the means of production. In the ‘60s he traveled to Chicago for a Spartacist rally. Afterward, several of his rally companions were continuing on to Berkeley, and he decided to go with them. He arrived in the late ‘60s and stayed for the rest of his life.
“He was just so cool. I just loved talking with him,” said Sadie Radinsky, a junior at UC Berkeley and a patron of Baker & Commons who became close to Caughlan, often buying him groceries and bringing him food. Radinsky spent hours standing and talking with Caughlan after class, discussing the subjects she was studying, current events, and world politics. He had an encyclopedic memory, and could speak in depth, she said, on just about any subject. He always remembered her class schedule and would check in about how certain courses were going. When she was studying the Haitian revolution, he shared his thoughts, having taught himself Creole for fun as a young man by checking tapes out of the library. “He was always educating himself, and I think that curiosity and desire to keep learning is what formed his politics,” Radinsky said. “I swear to god, I learned more about things from him than my classes.”
Caughlan started selling Street Spirit on Sept. 26, 2012. During his 10 years on the corner of College and Russell he became a staple of the Elmwood neighborhood, befriending patrons of Baker & Commons and quietly observing life on the corner each day. He was dedicated to his post, as if he took it upon himself to contribute to the neighborhood.
“He would say ‘I’m sorry I’m late today,’ almost like we had a professional relationship,” Kara Hammond remembers. “He always called it his work, like, he was having a busy day at work. We would often compare notes, and ask each other, ‘Has it been busy for you? No it’s not busy for us either, where is everybody?!’”
Many have described Caughlan as calm, curious, intelligent and kind. In the early days, he tutored Cal students in the cafe. He loved to talk to those who stopped to chat, but did not force his presence — except for in moments of injustice. In 2017, he was sitting in his spot when a disheveled man appeared out of nowhere and began shouting homophobic slurs at a lesbian couple standing in line at the cafe. Caughlan got in front of the man and interrupted him by yelling “Hey,” according to a story in Berkeleyside. The man hit him in the face, knocking Caughlan to the ground and running away. Afterward the family bought Caughlan lunch, and the cafe gave him a free hot chocolate.
“I felt like he was breaking down preconceived notions and judgments in his very existence because he was so kind,” Radinsky said. “He offered a little window into the hearts [of unhoused people]. He reminded us that just because someone is hanging out on the street, doesn’t mean anything about the person. We can talk, and they can become part of our community more. I think he gave that to so many people.”
Caughlan was not unhoused, but he lived below the poverty line, and often worried about whether or not he would be able to pay rent in his subsidized Berkeley apartment. He collected disability for injuries he sustained during his time at the salmon cannery, and sold Street Spirit to make ends meet. During the final years of his life, he feared that he would not be able to remain housed after the COVID eviction moratorium ended, a scenario he did not face before he died. He was buoyed by the generosity of his customers — the coffee and biscuit with butter he got every day from the staff at Baker & Commons, the groceries purchased for him by people like Radinsky, and the meals that others would share with him — buying him lunch and sitting down together to eat. In return, he gave back in his own way, with his calm demeanor, the twinkle in his eye and the sense of community he brought to the corner each day.
Since his death, there has been an outpouring of appreciation for Caughlan on the corner of College and Russell. A bouquet of flowers adorns a chair in the chair where he used to sit, and Radinsky wrote a short obituary on a watercolor poster board. One patron brought a succulent into the cafe in memory of him and many have stopped by to talk about Caughlan and why they will miss him. One afternoon, Radinsky watched two young boys approach the memorial plaque and quietly place a quarter on the crate where he used to stack his newspapers before bowing and walking away.
Caughlan had a big heart and often despaired about events in the news, such as the war in Ukraine, the oppression of poor people and Black Americans in particular, and the dominance of American capitalism around the world. He was distraught over the creeping sensation that history is repeating itself, and that the atrocities he witnessed when he was young — such as racism, oppression and war — are coming around again. But his big heart and his fierce sense of justice illuminated his street corner, making the world a little brighter for those he met and those who simply passed by him, day after day.
“It will be so different here, I think it will feel empty,” Radinsky said. “I spend so much time on this street and I love the community energy. I feel like he was a huge part of that.”