Lunch In The Brennan’s Time Machine

Brennan’s Irish Pub, Berkeley, CA

I’m increasingly perplexed by the new Brennan’s. I realize this as I’m waiting in the food line for my sandwich. I’ve been here quite a few times since they moved but I’m alone today. Maybe I’m just feeling sentimental.

A young woman is slicing meat for my sandwich. She’s very pleasant but she moves slowly and carefully. She’s not one of the old guys. One of the old guys is working next to her. He used to be the young guy who didn’t know anything but now he handles the carving knife like a ninja — using both edges of the double-sided knife, slicing, skimming, dropping some meat to the plate then back to carve without missing a beat. He moves like the knife is an extension of his arm. The ninja has made three sandwiches in the time it’s taken the woman to make one. She smiles at me and hands me the plate. The old guys never smiled. They’d look at you quizzically to prompt you to order. They may ask if you wanted your roast beef rare or medium, or what type of bread you wanted. The old guys didn’t mince words. They made your plate and shoved it at you unceremoniously under the glass partition. I like the friendliness of the woman but I like the old guys too. I guess we’ve grown used to each other.

I slide down to the cashier who is taking money from the person in front of me. The customer wants the woman to validate her parking. Brennan’s used to be an island in a vast sea of parking places. People who had spent all afternoon sucking back Irish Coffees could clear their heads walking back to their cars. If necessary, they could take a little test drive around the parking lot. Maybe take a little nap. Now there are only a few spaces on the side of the building. There’s a two hour limit for those spots. No good for the regulars who spend hours inside talking to their friends. You can’t park on the street unless you want to shovel money into meters all afternoon. True, you could park down at Aquatic Park… if you could find a spot. Otherwise you’re banished to the Spenger’s lot where they accept validations. You sit in a line of traffic, watching the gate go up and down for the cars in front of you; become part of the stream of strangers who file across Fourth St. and push through Spenger’s double wooden doors. The customer in front of me is an older woman. She has probably lived in Berkeley for a long time. Now she’s a tourist getting validated.

I sit at one of the long rows of tables. They are arranged in the same way as they were in the old place, these long rows, family style. I may be alone, but it feels like others will soon join me. When they do, they don’t have to sit too close. I can talk to them from a few seats away. No need to invade a person’s space. We can be friendly, we don’t have to move in together.

Even in the daylight, the green paint on the walls isn’t quite right. They were trying to match the old paint. This shade is too blue. It’s a cozy place now, smaller. I like that. But I also miss the vast dining room, row upon row upon long row of tables. I miss the dingy expanse of linoleum under the tables and the echo of footsteps on the hard floor in the hushed dimness of late afternoon. It was so very much like a real Irish pub back then, very authentic. Not the fancy tourist pubs in Killarney. Neighborhood pubs where people brought their families. No intricately carved bar, no wall-to-wall oak, no stained glass windows. Just a place to sit, drink, eat and socialize. A place where the kids could run around.

I’m looking over at the southwest corner of the bar. There’s a little inglenook with several tables and a single television mounted on the wall. The prize bull at the Cow Palace, a photo from the old place, is mounted next to the TV. The TV is tuned to a cooking show. It’s always tuned to a cooking show. Why? Regulars at the old place fought over which games would be shown on the two big projection screens. There were heated arguments. Hockey vs. basketball. Baseball vs. football. A cooking show? Not a chance. Not unless it was a hockey guy and a football guy cooking together, then maybe. Who watches this television? The tables are empty. Who sits there? Maybe the cooks come out on their breaks and brush up on making a roux or tempering chocolate.

I study the walls. Pretty much like the old place with one exception. There’s a poster announcing that XBOX is available — fun for the whole family. XBOX? Do they project it on the TVs? It used to be that the kids that came in with their parents would watch sports or talk to their family. Read a book. Do homework. In some sad cases, they just sat idly while the old man get hammered. XBOX…

There are several suits sitting at the tables next to the windows on the west side of the room. The windows look out on the train platform. They must be from one of the startups that have recently moved into the area. But startup people don’t wear suits, do they? Maybe they sell wine. Or condos. Or pharmaceuticals. The only people you used to see during the week at this time of day were retirees, truck drivers, sailors, and hardcore alcoholics. Now we have guys in white shirts and suits, looking very starched and very serious. Drinking iced tea. They have briefcases for gods sake. Briefcases in Brennan’s — that might be worse than XBOX.

The seats at the bar are mostly unoccupied except for a few men huddled at one corner. They’re regulars. You can tell by the way they lean in to talk then erupt suddenly in laughter. They see each other here all the time. They call to the bartender. They know her too. The bartenders haven’t changed. This is the most amazing thing about Brennan’s — the help stays forever. I am comforted by the bartender’s presence. There is something about the way she laughs and talks to the men, the repartee that passes between them, that convinces me that it’s the same old, friendly neighborhood place that it’s always been. The paint may be off a bit, the trains may pass a little closer, the sun may shine in through big arched windows and XBOX may be available on demand, but it’s really the same, timeless place. Deep down. Under the skin.

I’m glad it’s still here.

Walking on the Wild Side: Covert Path

Approaching Covert path from it’s highest point on Keeler Ave., it’s easy to mistake it for a pleasant but not particularly wild path. Guarded and obscured by the outstretched branches of an old pine, Upper Covert sneaks along the side of a neighboring house and meanders along a gentle, grassy slope. Halfway down the 164 railroad tie steps, you’ll slip through some trees and into a more shaded area. The slope steepens as it descends down to Cragmont Ave. All very nice, you may say, but still very obviously in someone’s back yard.

Upper Covert is the older segment of the two-part path, finished in the spring of 2005. Lower Covert, the portion that connects Cragmont Ave. with Keith Ave., resisted development until the spring of 2009. Its steep slopes, heavily wooded knolls, and a twisting tributary of Codornices Creek offered a significant challenge to path builders. It is those same physical features that make Lower Covert such a welcoming refuge.

Descending from Cragmont Ave., Lower Covert begins routinely enough with a flight of 40 concrete steps. Once you’ve reached the bottom, the terrain quickly switches to a woodland trail, leading you into the heart of Lower Covert’s charms.

Following the trail, you’ll encounter more railroad tie steps twisted into a switchback and descending into a gorge. This part of the path is particularly beautiful in the morning as filtered sunshine dapples the creek bank and falls off into the darkened gorge.

Continue down into the gorge and cross the stone-lined creek bed. This is an excellent place to just hang out for awhile. The gorge is protected from most street sounds. You’ll normally hear only the many birds that frequent the area, the skittering of squirrels and the light rustling of redwood boughs blowing in the breeze.

Covert Path lies in the heart of some of the best walking country the Berkeley hills have to offer. Chart a course to include some of the other neighboring paths or, better yet, just wander and let your feet be your guide.

Berkeley: Filtered Permeability Pioneer?

Since the mid-1960s, when the first traffic diverters were installed to protect the area around San Pablo Park, residents and pundits alike have dissed the concrete bollards that dot many of Berkeley’s neighborhoods. Drivers who find themselves redirected in concentric circles around their intended destination question the sanity of the traffic engineers responsible for their deployment. Neighbors living near the bollards say they’re unsightly and detract from the beauty of the neighborhood. In the mid-1970s, opponents successfully placed two separate initiatives on the ballot to have the bollards removed. Both measures failed. Lawsuits were later filed to remove the bollards, alleging they didn’t conform to CalTrans standards. The state legislature subsequently legalized all such diversion techniques.

In reality, traffic diversion has been quite effective in many of the neighborhoods where the bollards have been installed. The Claremont neighborhood is a prime example of this success. Traffic that used to spill into the neighborhood during peak commuter hours is now unable to penetrate the interior. Children can safely walk from their homes to Monkey Island Park without encountering commuters slicing frantically through the back streets to get from Claremont Blvd. to Derby St. At the same time, cyclists and pedestrians are able to pass through the barriers and therefore have unrestricted access to any part of the neighborhood.

Admittedly, the bollards are ugly as sin. Efforts to beautify them have achieved only lipstick-on-a-pig success. Some of the configurations make no sense and serve no purpose. Yet Berkeley appears to have been very much a visionary city as new strategies proposed by leading New Urbanism and Smart Growth experts emerge. The difference? Berkeley attempted to retrofit a street network originally optimized for autos and the new strategies build pedestrians, cyclists and mass transportation into the cityscape design. As a result, more attractive means of filtering traffic can be used.

A recent article by British transportation expert Steve Melia examines a design strategy called filtered permeability that, not unlike the bollards, promotes walking and cycling by making those forms of transportation more efficient, and therefore more attractive, than less sustainable options. To paraphrase Melia, if a street is designed for equal access by all forms of travel, people will often choose the most convenient mode of transportation (i.e. autos). However, if part of that street is restricted to autos, it becomes more convenient to walk or ride a bike. So bikes and pedestrians have greater permeability than autos, hence the term.