Monday, February 20, 2017

Ophelia

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Image result for uc berkeley campanileOphelia



I had to hurry with my job in the kitchen dish room, but suddenly there was a loud tearing metal sound. I sighed, knowing exactly what had happened.  A huge garbage disposal was in front of me. It’s opening was 2 feet in diameter and the machine was overflowing with garbage.  I knew there was a piece of silverware down beneath the pile of partially eaten food from the cafeteria.  I pressed the big red button to stop the machine.

“You do it” my work partner yelled.
“No you do it”, I replied. 

Since I was in a hurry, I pushed my arm deep into the disposal and grabbed the  fork jammed in the blades.  Whenever I had to do this, I was a bit terrorized with the voice of my mother saying:
Never put your hand in the garbage disposal, it will grab hold and tear off your fingers.”

 I usually heard my mom’s words at such moments.

But I needed to get the machine running. I got paid 1.75/hour which was above minimum wage somewhat because the job was bit filthy.  I did this every single day.

I took off my heavy rubber apron and switched to my standard green sweatshirt and jeans.  It was a perfect Spring day in Berkeley as I rushed through the hills to the Stadium. Along my path to the stadium, pink cherry blossoms  were blowing everywhere. I loved those trees. The Carillon of the University Campanile was playing. Crowds were on every street.


I passed a knot of demonstrators outside the stadium.  They had the usual signs on sticks. I didn’t read the words carefully. They said something about an Unamerican Activities Committee.  What were they protesting, I thought? This was Berkeley, I but do they have to protest today?  Our President was coming. OUR president, John Kennedy.  My heart was pounding from the hills, as I pushed passed the demonstrators and their signs.  Because of work, I missed many events, but I was not going to miss this event.

By the time I arrived, the UC Stadium was packed to it’s 70,000 person capacity.  I was late.  At the rim of the stadium there was a low stone wall where I perched.

President Kennedy was just entering from the North Tunnel of the Stadium. The CAL band  played ruffles and flourishes.  As the crowd saw John Kennedy, I could see a wave pass through the crowd as they stood and began a prolonged cheer. Electricity is simply the only correct word for what I felt.  The crowd was of a single mind. It was joyous.
I vainly looked around for anyone that I knew, but I was alone in the crowd. But today I was among friends.  The future was going to be grand!



After working at UC Berkeley’s food service for two years, I was promoted.  I was now a waiter/bartender for the University Catering service. Today was a luncheon for a Committee of the Board of Regents. 
I often worked at such functions.

I came in the back door near the kitchen of University House, which in fact was a real house. It was a grand two-story home right on Campus.  Nobody lived there, but it was used for social functions. I always was a bit awed by the ornate decorations, polished wood wall panels, some of which opened to reveal stored crystal, china and sliver. To me, it was a mansion.

 I put on my stiff white jacket with cloth-covered buttons. I tried to tuck in my shirt.  Ophelia the cook was already at work. Laughing, she spun me around to check me.

“Silly boy, you can’t let your shirt tails show.”

She pushed and adjusted me and my coat until she was satisfied.  We both laughed.

About 7 months earlier, John Kennedy had had lunch here at University House.  I was not cleared by security to work that day. None of the students were allowed to work.  But, Ophelia, a long term full time employee did work.  She was so proud and talked about the President’s visit with radiant pride.    She had told me that the President had come into the kitchen to speak with her and thank her for the fine food.

Ophelia was a short but very round woman. In her starched white uniform she was totally in command in the kitchen. She had a tiny transistor radio playing a talk show as, I went out into the dinning room to set-up the bar for cocktails before the lunch.  There was no wine. There was an array of hard liquor.  For this group, I knew to make up a pitcher of martini’s. 

“Mike, come back in 5 minutes for the hot hor d’doevres,” Ophelia whispered as I head into the adjacent dinning room.  The guests were already arriving early for the 11:00 a.m. brunch.

I was the lone server and typically I would fix drinks and then pass appetizers.

I knew a few of the Regents by sight and by name. Some of them were periodically in the news. There was Ralph Edwards, a TV personality with the  “This Is Your Life” show.  There were various high level university officials and of course, there was Mrs. Hearst.  ---She of the Willam Randolph Hearst family.  Various buildings on campus bore the family name. She was appointed by the Governor. She was a Regent but  she was most noteworthy just by her name. 

Although I was a very quiet  19 year old, I somehow summoned the strength to plunge into the cluster of well dressed, wealthy and powerful people in the room. I had done it before. It was not very difficult because no one ever spoke to me except as a servant. I knew the drill and so did they.

As was common, I hadn’t finished setting up the little bar when orders began:

“I’d like a Martini. I’ll watch you make it because I want it very dry.”
“I’ll have a scotch, but put some milk in it.  Here, I brought a little container of milk”

“Go downstairs and get the good stuff. I know you have better scotch.”

I shuttled back and forth to the kitchen. Ophelia had the radio on but it was turned up louder.

As I came into the kitchen, Ophelia was holding on to the counter and crying.

A radio announcer:  “This is a bulletin from Dallas Texas. Three shots were fired …”

“What’s wrong Ophelia, I asked
 “Are you ok?”
Ophelia gestured to the radio. 

“I’ll repeat that. President Kennedy and Governor John Connely have been cut down by 3 assassins bullets.”

A few of the guests stood near the kitchen door listening.

Ophelia wept: “I just hope it’s not a black man.”
My mind raced as I imagined my mother saying “I hope he is not a Jew.”

The news bulletins continued. The announcers voice was slow and deliberate.

I stood in the kitchen unsure and unsteady. Ophelia and I joined in an awkward embrace as I tried to stoop and  she pulled me close to her. She cried. 
“He was just here in my kitchen.”
“They brought his rocking chair for the living room on a plane.”
“He was so kind.”

My jacket was still wet with her tears as I re-entered the cocktail party and I spoke aloud, “The President has been shot.”   The group briefly quieted. Somehow I thought those words would stop everyone, but after only a few seconds they continued their conversations.

I heard the crowd began to babble.  But I noticed they did not all seem stricken. Several were very light hearted.  They asked that the radio be turned louder.

A man confided to a fellow-regent, “Well, we may be rid of Kennedy”  There was some quiet laughter.


I returned to the kitchen where Ophelia and I tried to figure out what had happened.  It was just nearing 11 a.m. when; “

The radio announced: “Excuse me Chet, but here is a  bulletin from the Associated Press: Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds”


At the party, Mrs. Hearst dropped a canapé on the floor. She called me over by gesture and pointed down to the floor. I knelt to retrieve it.  At that moment, I felt the vast distance between us. I the servant and she the wealthy, powerful woman.  No words were exchanged.

Of course, I was listening intently to the chatter of the group.  One of the cheery members of the group hoisted his drink above his head and loudly proclaimed: “The king is dead! Long live the king.”  There was loud laughter.  Uncharacteristically Someone spoke to me:

“Oh, you are a student.  You study civics. If the vice president is also dead, who comes next. Who comes next.”  It was all very merry.  I was so horrified by the scene, for a moment I could not speak.  No matter, someone in the crowd answered the question  for me and they moved on to other topics.

Somehow, Ophelia and I set-up the brunch and the group gathered around the huge polished  dining table.  As a brunch rather than a formal dinner, we didn’t have the usual pile of crystal and silver, but a more modest array was set out for the diners.

I returned to the kitchen. Ophelia was now quiet but still tearful. We still did not know who had shot the president.   We  didn’t talk about the assassination. We were working and went into full robot mode.  We had done this many times before and the brunch  would proceed.

The reason for the luncheon was to plan some Homecoming events. It was November and Homecoming at Berkeley was a major event.  Alumni and donors would travel great distances to attend. In and around Berkeley there would be many parties.  A major football game was part of the festivities.  This was a fund raising opportunity.

AT THE dining  table :

“I just heard that the student council wants to cancel Homecoming!”

“Oh no, why would they do that.” “They can’t do that.”

“Surely we can still have Homecoming. Maybe the band could do something special at half-time.” Laughter.

I felt I was in some foreign place. In the kitchen, Ophelia and I were grieving and perhaps 10 feet away there was a party going on.  


The Regents departed to their busy day.

Ophelia and I cleaned up. We both took off our uniforms and left through the kitchen door. I would return to my dorm room and she would take the next bus to the South part of Berkeley. We would see each other the next morning as we prepared to do our work.  Our world had changed.