Julia Vinograd was a poet, a pacifist, a revolutionary. She dressed in all black but lived in technicolor, a staple of the Telegraph Avenue street scene who used poetry to capture her vision of the rapidly changing world.
“I like writing about things as I see them…about what’s going on now,” she says in Berkeley U.S.A, a book of interviews with Berkeley street characters by Anne Moose. She wrote at least one poetry book a year from 1969 until her death in 2018, and sold them to people in Berkeley and around the Bay Area, or gave them away for free.
Julia is often described as the unofficial poet laureate of the Berkeley streets. In 2004, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates dubbed June 5 “Julia Vinograd Day.” She died in the winter of 2018 at the age of 75, but lives on in her poetry and in the minds of many locals who adore her. We hope this issue of Street Spirit helps capture Julia’s spirit and celebrate her life during the month of June—because of Julia Vinograd Day, but also because UC Berkeley could soon break ground on their hotly contested development plans on People’s Park (a fate that Julia opined in several of her poems).
Born in Berkeley, Julia lived in the hills before, as she put it, they were “discovered” and rich people moved in. Then her family moved to Los Angeles where she grew up, and over the course of her youth was diagnosed with epilepsy and polio. She moved back to Berkeley for college and—except for briefly moving to Iowa to get her MFA—never left.
People’s Park was central to Vinograd’s experience of moving back to Berkeley. The park, and the movement to build and protect it, helped define the person she would become. “The park was ours,” she said her interview with Moose. “We made it. Nobody was more startled than we were at making something. We didn’t want to let anybody take it away.”
The park captured her heart and her imagination. It also made her the Bubble Lady. One summer day in 1969, there was going to be a riot to protect the park. She knew she wouldn’t participate—her pacifism and her disabilities would keep her from doing so. But she wanted to do something, so she bought 25 bottles of soap bubbles.
Blowing bubbles was a playful act of resistance. She describes numerous moments of disarming police with bubbles. In one instance, she blew them in the direction of a cop who was harassing a group of protestors. The cop forgot about the protestors and used his night stick like a baseball bat to swing at the bubbles—in a flash, it seemed, transported back to childhood.
Blowing bubbles was also an expression of approval. She used them to taunt street evangelists and cheer for curbside musicians. “It could be something that would be both applause and heckle, which is the way the street feels about everything—the two combined,” she said.
She blew them for fun. To make children laugh. To make herself laugh. “I don’t smoke cigarettes,” she said, “I blow soap bubbles.”
Julia made her name by writing poetry, often about unhoused people and life on the street. She imbued honest depictions of homelessness with a certain kind of magic. Without romanticizing tragedy she brought to the surface its meaning, reminding readers that people on the street have stories to tell to those who will listen. She was able to write about the street in this way because she was part of it: never exactly homeless but living in poverty, surviving on SSI and staying at the Berkeley Inn for many years.
Julia helped define Berkeley during the 70s and beyond. She was a prolific poet and a voice of her generation. Reading her poems transports you back to a different era, but that’s not really what makes them so good. Her writing is accessible and full of life. It feels supremely human, playful and strange. It evokes joy and hope as an antidote to anger and pain—the feeling behind the events of her era; a pinpoint of humanity that transcends time.
Ken Paul Rosenthal, a local cinematographer, is in the process of creating a film about Julia. Rosenthal and his team have been steadily working on the film, and are currently fundraising to begin editing. You can read more about the film online at www.betweenspiritandstonethefilm.com.
The article on the facing page (online here) was written in 2015 after longtime Street Spirit contributor Lydia Gans sat down with Julia. It captures her voice and some of the defining moments of her life.
People’s Park, 1991
By Julia Vinograd
The university just built a volleyball court
on my youth. I watched.
The net was woven of my hair
when my hair was long enough to sit on.
The ball was my head
when my head bounced everywhere
and was never on my shoulders very long.
I know this happens to everyone.
Sometimes it’s a department store
on top of a table where a candlelight dinner
is still going on.
Or a parking garage with a ghost tree
growing thru it
and someone waiting beside the tree,
still breathing hard because he ran all the way
and just got there
as Toyotas drive thru his side
and leave no wound.
Why should my youth be different than any other,
just because it’s mine?
I can feel the slaps on my young face
when the volleyball players hit their ball,
she isn’t used to it.
Why are strangers beating on her?
She doesn’t have any money.
The police shot at her, but that’s different.
And then there’s a crowd
and the police are shooting at us
and the bullets didn’t get older.
James Rector is the same age
as when they killed him 20 years ago.
Broken window. Screams.
She can’t believe this is happening.
I’m ashamed that I can.
I can’t find anything to say to her,
not a single word.
This time there is no tear gas
to excuse my tears.
For the Young Men Who Died of AIDS
By Julia Vinograd
The dead lovers are almost as beautiful
as razor-edged spaces in the air where they used to walk.
Do you remember his hand lazily playing
with the rim of a glass, making the ghost of a bell sound
for his own ghost, and the talk didn’t even pause?
The glass is whole. Break it; break it now.
How can people go on buying toothpaste
and planning their summer vacations?
Vegetables would care more.
The potato has a thousand eyes all mourning for the lovers
who lived in their deaths like a country
foreign to everywhere for a long time before dying.
A long time watching people look away.
The potato only met them under the earth
after their deaths and it still wept. And we do not.
The ghost bell makes barely a sound forever.
The dead lovers are still in love, but no one else is.
He took his hand with him, a grave is as good
as a briefcase to keep the essentials in:
a smile, bones, a way of biting his lip
just before looking into your eyes.
Shoulder blades cutting into summer like butter.
All the commuters in a rush hour traffic jam
are cursing because the lovers are dying
faster than their cars.
The child sent to bed without dinner cries
for the lovers, also sent to bed early and without.
Unfair. Throw the dishes against the wall. Break them.
The dead lovers are almost as beautiful
as when they were alive.
You can hear the rim of a glass
tolling for the ghosts to come home.
Break the glass, break the ghosts. Pull down the sky.
Dance on the fragments. Scream their names.
Get splinters of ghosts under your skin
torn and bleeding because it hurts,
because it hurts so bad.
By Julia Vinograd
It’s not the wars or gangs or even families fighting
after hard work, and the food always tastes the same
while outside the summer window butterflies dance.
Everything dies, sooner or later.
Winning or losing, everything dies.
Birds splatter the heads of statues
and fly away. Children play hide and seek with the wind,
the wind always wins. Horizons swing like unfurling wings
Lie on your back on a weed-wild hill
and stare up looking for the sky pulsing behind the sky.
The game of pain plays and stays and repeats
that everything dies sooner or later.
But the sky behind the sky tells you its secret
close in your ear and warm against your lips:
Reach out and touch, bend and believe.
Everything lives, leaf, bird, blackberry.
The world is too big to lose.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.