Monday, December 20, 2010

Rebirth in Berkeley

It's been raining here, finally. I love the rain, but it doesn't make for great shooting. Yesterday I decided I'd go out and shoot, regardless of the weather. C recently gave me a Sparta Ful-Vue for my birthday because I was coveting hers. How awesome is it that first she gave hers to V, who has been been making great pictures with it, and then bought TWO to assemble a working camera for me for my birthday! Anyway, I needed to shoot, and I needed to shoot with my new toy. So I headed to the Albany bulb to take some pictures of weird art and muddy dogs. I figured it would be quiet there, which was fine, and sloshy, which was also fine. I just needed to shoot.

If you're not from around here, or just haven't been to the Albany Bulb, it's a weird place. I've been struggling to find a good website about it, but I can't find one. The Albany Bulb used to be a landfill, and is now a weird sort of multi-use piece of land that juts into the Bay. People make art on it, and walk dogs on it. It's not as giant and popular as its neighboring park, Point Isabel, probably partly because of the transient people that tend to live on the Bulb, along with the rough terrain and the steep cliffs that fall right into the ocean (I've had some close calls). One of the blogs I follow has some cool photos of the bulb, and has written extensively about it, if you browse through.

The point is, the crowd there is a little odd. There's the folks who make the Bulb part of their home, the artsy fartsy types, the punky people who walk their awkward dogs who can handle off-leash stuff but can't handle the crowds and amateur hour of Point Isabel, and a bunch of other motley crew. It was perfect for my purposes of trying out my new toys. It's next to the almost-defunct racetrack, and not somewhere you just GO. It's a destination, but for a certain only-in-Berkeley-or-at-least-the-East-Bay crowd.

So I get there yesterday and there are very few people, as I expected. It was really icky out, by Bay Area standards. But I notice right away that there are a few nicely dressed people- by nicely I mean, upstanding. Clean-cut. More normal looking than me, and I'm more 'sheveled than the average person at the Bulb. There are some 8-10 year old kids playing. I notice this and keep moving. On my way back towards the beach area, I see more people gathering, maybe 30 in total. They are huddled in a little amphitheatre area and I hear some applause, see quite a few cameras. I think maybe they're gathered for a family portrait. Although it's cold and blustery, it's actually a great place for a picture- even with the bad weather, I could see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. I head to the beach area to take some more pictures, and the group also moves that way.

The group is made up of people dressed warmly, maybe for a hike. They're clean cut, REI or maybe Target type demographic, mostly white, a few Asian, and one or two black people mixed in. There are quite a few children. One man has his dog that is romping with the other dogs on the beach. The group gathers on the shoreline and I realize what is happening when the leader of the group emerges- a white guy maybe 35-40 years old walks into the bay with all of his clothes on up to about his waist. A younger woman of color follows him, in less clothes, but still clothed. He has her cross her arms in front of her, says a few words that sound like wedding vows, she answers that she does take Christ to be her savior, and he pushes her under the water. The crowd, including about 10 children about 10 years old cheers. This repeats twice, with a youngish black woman and a black man. The crowd then disperses. I take a few more pictures, including an attempt at the woman being shoved under the water baptized, and I also get moving. It was cold, I was hungry, and I had already shot two rolls of film, more than I ever do in one sitting, and I didn't even know if my new camera worked.

This was one of the oddest and unsettling things I have seen in a long time. People get baptized all the time, I suppose, but I've never seen it in person, only on TV or the movies, or in books. The juxtaposition of the scenery of the Bulb- the rough, overgrown foliage mixed with rusting out metal, remaindered outsider art, some piss-poor graffiti; the "regulars" at the Bulb- grey-haired-former-radicals, some people who live there, and people walking their scruffy rescue mutts- with this group of people who looked like they had taken a trip out to the Bulb from Antioch or San Ramon or Fairfield was bizarre enough. I had a feeling they had chosen Albany Bulb because no one would care what happened. The Bulb is a bit of a free-for-all. People watched, I even took pictures, but all 10 of us that happened to be at the Bulb that morning did just what we would do if we saw anything else strange going on there- shrugged and kept moving. It was 50ish degrees out there, and people were voluntarily walking into the sea, standing there, and then dunking. I didn't see anyone trying to get warm afterwards.

My friend keeps telling me I take things to far, but there was one further component of this that stayed with me. The group was largely white, but the three people baptized yesterday were people of color. Seeing the white man push them under water was disturbing in a way, as they didn't seem to have much agency in the act. I was driving out at the same time as the young black man who was baptized was, and he was being driven by a much older white man. Something felt almost like I was seeing missionaries in colonial Africa baptizing the happy natives. Taking things too far? Or watching happy white people feel self-righteous as their converts sacrifice a whole lot of creature comforts on a Sunday morning.

Again, I'm reading all of these things into this church group- I'm sure there are a million other explanations, but these were the impressions that I had. That this group had to come to a place where anything goes to practice their religion. That they'd do almost anything, including take a dip on a beach probably riddled with hypodermic needles in frigid temperatures to practice their religion. And that there were some racial overtones to Sunday morning baptism, as well as the unsettling enthusiasm of the small children cheering for a cold dunk.