On hot summer days when the pavement boils and sweat rolls down sticky skin, customers waiting in line for Berkeley Bowl Market vie for a spot in the shade. They linger under lampposts and scooch under trees, their preference for cover leaving large gaps in the line of shoppers that, since the pandemic struck in March, has most days wound halfway down the block. Today, however, is cool, the sun blocked out by smoke. Grey ash falling from the burnt sky rests on the branches of the tree beneath which Alando Williams sells newspapers.
For Alando, however, it’s business as usual. “I don’t trip about all that,” he says, a gruff wave of his hand encompassing the fires, the pandemic, all of it. “I’m blessed to wake up and share another beautiful day.”
Alando is a stoic, amiable figure on the corner of Shattuck and Oregon, gently calling out to passersby with a smile, or a “paper, today?” or a “how are you, dear?”
Alando, born and raised in Berkeley, has worn many hats over his 63 years: dice player, ball catcher, ticket scalper, paper vendor, father, brother, son.
As a kid, Alando was outgoing, a risk-taker. At 14 he walked past a dice game with 40 dollars in his pocket and, unphased by the group of men twice his age dominating the scene, stepped right up to bet. “They didn’t say nothing, they all just looked at me,” Alando remembers, smiling. “So, I got on the dice and I broke the game up. Everytime I came around they stopped letting me gamble because I kept on winning—my luck was just that good.”
Alando says his luck didn’t stop there. Always a sports lover, he got a spot on Berkeley High’s baseball team. When the unexpected departure of a teammate left the boys without a catcher, Alando stepped up to fill the role, despite never having put on a catcher’s glove a day in his life.
“Everybody was scared of the ball,” he recalls. “So I lied to the coach and said ‘Oh, I know how to do that.’” Alando proved to be a natural talent. “I got behind there and I caught that ball like I been catching,” he says. “People used to come from everywhere just to see me catch that ball.”
Soon enough a scout took notice of Alando’s talent and offered him a position on a farm team where he could hone his skills, prove himself against other young baseball players, and hopefully be scouted by the Oakland A’s. “You’ve got to make it there before you can go pro,” Alando says. “And I was doing really good.”
Alando, still in school, focused on his technique during the day and spent time with his mother—Ceola—and three baby brothers—Johnny, Rodney, and Alfred—in the evening. “I used to watch my mama while she cooked,” Alando says. “I watched while she cut up all the onions real fine, seasoned the meat real good.”
On these memories of youth, Alando doesn’t linger. “I try not to think about how it was when my mama was living,” he explains. “I try not to do that.”
When Alando was 17, Ceola was murdered by her husband of just one day. “I never liked him,” he says of his mother’s husband. “I used to hear him arguing with my moms through the wall, hear my mom crying.” After a while, Alando had had enough, and he told Ceola’s new boyfriend that if he ever laid a hand on her he’d get Alando’s hands in return. Ceola, when she found out, was furious, and gave Alando a beating. On a Friday morning soon after, Ceola and her boyfriend went to Reno and were wed. That night, Ceola’s new husband murdered her.
Alando’s life came to a screeching halt. “I had a nervous breakdown,” Alando says. “My brothers were still in pampers—I didn’t know what to do.” Alando and his brothers went to live with his mother’s parents, also in Berkeley. Alando stopped playing baseball. He started scalping tickets to make some extra money, and in his spare time played basketball with a team he’d brought together. He went to parties on the weekends.
“I started using drugs, and, one thing led to another, and I ended up going to prison.” Alando was 24 when he went to prison on 27 grand jury indictments. By the time he got out he was in his 50s.
“I was different this time around,” Alando says. “I started meditating on myself.”
Meditating on his life is something Alando does a lot of these days. Most days he goes to visit his grandmother, where he likes to sit in her garden and think. “Out of all her grandkids, I know I’m Granny’s favorite,” he says. Alando and his grandmother also have a weekly—some weeks, daily—ritual of visiting McDonalds, where his grandmother always buys herself two coffees with cream and splenda.
Around 12 years ago, Alando began selling Street Spirit. “I’m out here every other day,” he explains. “Some days I come out here and don’t make nothing. I just like conversating with people.” In 2018, local educator and activist Edyth Boone painted a mural on the corner of Ashby and Ellis telling the story of South Berkeley since the time of the Ohlone. Almost at the end of the mural’s 100 feet, passersby can find Alando, sitting back, thinking.
Alando loves the little corner of Berkeley where he sets up shop, and as the mural suggests, has become a welcomed staple of the community’s history. But relations aren’t always good with the grocery store. “They don’t like me up in there, in Berkeley Bowl,” he says. “They call the police: oh, he’s out here using hard drugs, shooting dope.”
But from his spot on the corner of Shattuck and Oregon, Alando has forged friendships over the years, and someone is usually there to come to his defense. “‘Don’t give him any trouble,’” Alando recalls one woman telling the store’s staff. “‘He’s been around Berkeley Bowl before it even opened up’.” Alando says that even the police have been known to come to his defense. “They come in and say ‘Oh no, not him—you got him mixed up with somebody else’.”
Despite these occasional complications, one thing is clear: Alando, ever on his crate, newspaper in hand, is always on the lookout to help those who need companionship and support. “I saw this guy the other day, and he remembered me, he was calling my name, and I was thinking who in the hell is this?”
When he realized he was looking at an old childhood friend, Alando nearly started crying. “He just gave up,” Alando recalls.
“He asked me why I was crying and I said, ‘Man, you know why I’m crying,’ Alando tells me. “He said ‘Why you crying, Skeet?’ and I was shaking my head and said, ‘You made me cry, man, you shouldn’t be like this’.”
Alando wants to help but doesn’t even know where to reach his friend. “I said ‘where you living at?’” Alando recalls. “He said: ‘anywhere’.” Alando shakes his head, now, and repeats this last part, quietly: “I said ‘where you living at?’ He said: ‘anywhere’.”
Alando is facing his own problems with housing. He currently lives with a roommate, but things aren’t going well. His roommate, who was just diagnosed with cancer, has started smearing feces on the wall and Alando is hoping to move to a more comfortable environment soon. He says he’s been asking around, and he sounds optimistic. “I’ve got a source of income. I’m out here every other day,” he reminds me. “I’mma find something.”
When he’s not selling papers or with his grandmother, Alando divides his time between his children and his girlfriend, catching up with his brothers, and cooking. “I cook every chance I can get,” Alando says, recounting a recent feast he made for his roommate and girlfriend, of slow-cooked ribs and potato salad. His mother was a chef at a restaurant downtown, and he learned a lot from his hours in the kitchen watching her cook.
Alando also sees his brothers often—all except Johnny, who died of a heart condition when he was 19. His children are also frequent companions. Kyomi works for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, an organization that works to help community members move into safe and affordable housing. “My youngest one, Danita, she’s still in school. She wants to be a teacher.”
As well as staying in touch with his kids and his brothers, Alando is focusing on maintaining his health. He has high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and while he used to see a doctor for check ups, he hasn’t been since his wallet and ID were stolen two months ago.
“Other than that, though, I’ve been doing well,” he says, then politely tells me that his blood sugar doesn’t feel so great, and we might need to wrap things up. Later, after I’ve joined the somber line of masked customers I look over to see Alando holding a phone to his friend’s face.
“I got your Mom on the phone,” he says to his friend. Alando sounds resigned, but patient. “Come on man, talk to your Mom.”
Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Katherine Blesie is a reporter and editor for the Daily Californian’s Weekender magazine.