The house on Regent Street was a big house, two stories high, stucco on the outside, flat roofed. Built in1920, it was close to the sidewalk, a low concrete wall with a tiny grass patch in front of the house. It must have been a house for a big family, 2,417 square feet, four bedrooms. Wide steps rose to a porch and the imposing door had glass panels on both sides. A short driveway along the north side led to a small garage attached to the house, and behind that was a basement with the water heater, the washing machine and a small workbench.
Regent Street was a quiet street, little travel, families and apartment dwellers, a quiet hospital zone. Nothing much happened on that street.
Inside the front door was a hallway. To the left of the hallway, stairs rose to the second floor, making a sharp turn halfway up.. Next to the stairs was a large coat closet and buried in an alcove was the door to the room that was the bedroom of our parents. If Paul or I came home late we were expected to go to that door and say that we were home, although I’m sure they heard the front door open and close. Sometimes it was hard to do, voice slurred from too much beer. Their room also opened into the dining room. To the right of the hallway were glass doors that opened into the living room, a formal room with windows onto the street, and facing the doors was the south wall, with a brick fireplace that dominated the room, and on ether side of the fireplace were glass-fronted bookshelves.
To the left was the dining room, reached through a wide opening that had pocket doors that were always open. There was the big dining table where Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were served,, and on the far east wall was a built-in set of china cabinets, a cut-out shelf in the middle where food might be set and a mirror above the shelf. An antique clock hung on the wall and once Paul and I set the alarm on that clock. It went off during the night, a hammer slamming into a bell, causing a racket that would have rivaled the arrival of a fire truck. Our father was not amused.
Off to the left was the kitchen, high ceilinged like the rest of the downstairs.
Next to the door was a small alcove with a table and benches, the spot where breakfast, lunch and occasionally dinner was eaten. Our father was the weekday cook, and he became expert at spaghetti, casseroles with tuna and mushroon soup and chicken cooked in the pressure cooker. I can still see his slender figure in his starched white shirt, creased gabardine trousers, standing at that old stove. I can see my slender, dignified mother setting dishes on the dining room table. Ronald lived his own life, and I rarely remember seeing him in that house.
There was a refrigerator, a stove, a sink on the far wall of the kitchen and just off the room was a tiny hallway to the back door. Next to that hallway was a half bathroom with a toilet and a small sink. It was small enough so that knees had to be drawn up when on the toilet. There were no-longer-used gas jet spigots on the floors, and in the bedrooms upstairs there were green enameled heaters, little fireplaces with ceramic inserts that glowed white-hot when the heater warmed up. Eventually we took them out and suddenly the headaches that Paul and I woke with in the winter disappeared. Those fireplaces ate the oxygen in the room.
Upstairs there were four bedrooms. The largest one on the back of the house had been converted into Aunt Laura’s apartment and had a small alcove with a sink and an old refrigerator that had a coil on top that wheezed when the refrigerator was on. If I stood on tiptoe I could look out the tiny window above that refrigerator and see a narrow slice of the bay. An outside door from her apartment led to a set of stairs that descended to the back garden and an ancient ivy vine snaked up the railing. Paul and I had the corner room next to her apartment, a plywood table that our father had sanded and lacquered to a polish in the corner where our beds butted against it. The windows ran along both outside walls, looking east toward May Anderson’s house on narrow Bateman Street and her garage where Paul built his roadster. Sometimes we opened those windows and used a BB gun to shoot cats that dared to climb the fence. Ronald had the small bedroom that was over the front entrance. It was off limits, and the door was always shut. When he got drafted into the army I was not concerned with his well-being. I was excited that, for the first time in my life, I would have a room of my own. Next to that was a large guest room. The only time I ever remember anyone sleeping in it was when our father’s brother, Howard, was home on leave from his job in Saudi Arabia. I still remember the loud snores from that room when he was there. He was a big man with a commanding presence and he towered over his brother. The upstairs hallway was carpeted, and the bathroom was tiled. A laundry chute with metal walls dropped dirty towels to the floor of the basement; there was an ancient freestanding sink.
In that upstairs hallway was a walk-in closet where Aunt Laura kept her clothes. I remember her standing in the open doorway selecting what she would wear to her job at Breuners Department Store. She had a fur coat, one of those coats that had the heads of stone foxes or minks with their jaws still intact and their glass eyes ominously alert, and at night when I passed that closet I shuddered.
Nearly across the street was Alta Bates maternity hospital, a three story building that dominated the block. It was a long walk on Regent Street to the University campus, but it was a straight path, six or eight long blocks.
Paul and I played catch with a baseball on the sidewalk in front of the house, and I parked my 1949 Ford coupe in the small driveway where I sanded it by hand and painted it with gray primer. Paul and I re-plastered the ceiling in the front hallway, tearing off the old plaster to reveal the lath, mixing plaster, slopping it into the lathwork, smoothing it out as best we could. It was a half-assed job, but it was the ceiling and the plaster was rough so it did the trick. Nobody noticed the amateurish effort.
We were in the Elmwood district, where the tiny Elmwood Theater stood, Botts ice cream store, and a shop with oriental rugs. When Uncle Howard brought a rug back from Saudi Arabia, the owner said it was full of sand. Why? he said. The sand could ruin it. Because, my father told him, it was bought from a man in the desert. My father shopped at a grocery store on College Avenue, made friends with the butcher and designed a house for him, built on a difficult lot in east Oakland. I took the bus to Berkeley High School from that house. Paul walked to Willard Junior High. I went to University at the end of Regent Street and lived in that house during my first year of teaching in San Lorenzo.
Eventually only my mother lived there, accompanied by a Danish couple, Inge and Dan Nielson who lived in Aunt Laura’s apartment, until she finally moved into Ronald’s house in Piedmont and the house was sold. The street has changed, Alta Bates growing to become a huge hospital, and Regent Street became one-way. But the house remains, a solid piece of Berkeley, as it passes its hundredth birthday.