by Lydia Gans
When a friendly person selling Street Spirit outside the Berkeley Bowl asked me to autograph an article I had written in the paper, I knew I had to write about this man. Ralph Perry has been selling Street Spirit at the Berkeley Bowl on and off for the last 12 years. He is 64 years old.
Watching him offer the paper to the shoppers as they come by the Berkeley Bowl, I can see he likes what he’s doing. He talks about the different reactions he gets from people passing by. Sometimes they’ll say something about the paper. Yet occasionally they can be hostile.
“But every day is a blessing,” Perry says. “God is good. And He brings me closer to more good people.”
Unlike many sellers who never bother, Perry tells me he actually reads the paper. “You find out when you read it that it’s very interesting,” he said. “I live in the street, I don’t have TV or radio. Gives me something to do at night. I walk a lot and I read the paper. I pray.”
He gave up the apartment he and his wife were living in when she had a stroke last December. It is a way to save money, but he still has to cover the cost of storing their belongings. His wife is in rehab now and he expects soon to be looking for an apartment. It might not be easy to find an affordable place nearby. And she will probably need help when she comes home.
They knew each other back when they were both students at Berkeley High, and they have been married for 12 years, going on 13.
Ralph grew up in Berkeley. “My childhood was good,” he tells me. “I have loving parents, loving brothers and sisters, 11 of us, so I never was lonely. I love my family, we love each other, we’re close-knitted.”
Yet, even in his early years, his life seemed to go in the wrong direction. He describes a continuous round of petty crimes, jail time, and periods of legitimate work. He started when he was 11 years old.
“Me and my brother found a stash of drugs, which were called crystals then, and we decided to learn how to shoot drugs,” Perry says. “That’s when I started.”
He tells of petty thefts and serving time in Santa Rita jail, and then getting married and working at Bay Meadows Race Track. At that point, he explains, “I ran with the wrong crowd again.”
The marriage didn’t last. He went back to dealing drugs, and spent a term in San Quentin. That was the pattern of his life up until 10 years ago. Seemingly, he could always find trouble when he was young.
“It was fun,” he says, recalling how he made a fool of himself when he was 16. While trying to rob a Winchell’s, he actually ran straight into the door trying to get out. Another time, he stole a package of hamburger meat from Safeway and got caught as soon as he rounded the corner.
But somewhere along the way, it stopped being fun. The acts and the consequences got more serious. He talked about being robbed, being shot at, about lucky escapes and being imprisoned.
Ultimately, Perry had to change. “I waited till 53 to grow up,” he admits.
I asked what made him finally stop. “I got tired. It was no longer fun — drugs, the people I’m with, any of it. I don’t need it. I just gave up. I’m tired.”
A cousin suggested he sell Street Spirit “to keep me out of trouble,” he says. It took a while, but it changed him.
“It was something new,” he says. “I had to interact with different people and I’ve always been kind of a withdrawn person. I stay by myself. I’m really not a talkative person. (When) I got out here doing this, I learned how to communicate. Here it’s about communicating with people. When they see I give my heart to it because I believe in God and God knows that I’m here, they see it.”
As he talks, he sees that I’m impressed by what he is saying. He assures me that he tells people they should read the paper. “Yes, you’re helping me but you’re also learning something that we did not know and that’s important, to learn something.”
We look at the lead article in the recent Street Spirit about Ground Zero’s campaign of nonviolent resistance to the nuclear arms race, which makes a powerful impression on both of us.
“This has really caught my interest,” he says. “I’d like to know a lot more about it. Now I want to investigate.”
He is facing some major challenges now. Social Security and government assistance won’t go far in providing food and shelter for him and his wife while she is disabled. Getting out to Berkeley Bowl with the Street Spirit every day will keep up his spirits and a roof over their heads.