I arrived on campus just before the autumn breezes. As I hauled boxes up stairwells and skimmed course books, sweat dampened my T-shirt and beaded across my nose.
It was my last time moving into a dorm, my first time moving into Berkeley. On those muggy September nights, I lay awake in my new bedroom, surrounded by half-unpacked boxes and a building full of strangers. Fall, with its relaxing temperatures and comforting routines, had yet to arrive.
In those final summer days, open casement windows jutted out from the rough granite dormitories overlooking Cross Campus. Evening carried the crickets’ voices and delivered cool relief to our bedrooms. For those of us on the highest floor, evening also brought the temptation to break the rules and step out into the gutters.
When I first tucked my legs and ducked my neck through a fourth-floor window, the temperature dropped several degrees and the stuffy, insistent lights were replaced by forgiving darkness. The stone of the two-foot-wide trench chilled my toes, and the shin-high Gothic parapets provided cover. Crouching down, I peered through the gaps in the battlement to spy on students in the opposite building.
These rocky hiding places used to be balconies. In the ’70s, my mother and her classmates ventured here to drink, smoke, and debate life’s mysteries. In the ’80s, delinquent students caused a stir when they hurled rocks at pedestrians below. But in 1999, amid worries of plugged drains, structural strains, and precariously balanced undergraduates, the Berkeley dormitories were remodeled and the balconies were turned into gutters. The original terracotta tiling was lost beneath poured concrete and the floor receded into a narrow channel with steeply canted sides. One design goal was to promote drainage; another was to keep students indoors by rendering the space uncomfortable and uninviting. The balconies are now off-limits. Administrators warm their warnings with jokes about “billy goat wannabes,” but their message is clear: Roof and gutter climbing are regarded as trespassing in “restricted areas.”
Guilty as I feel, I know I’m not the only curious goat. Graduates have smiled knowingly upon their mention. One late night, I watched silhouettes across the way pass a lawn-chair and a grill through their window like shadowy burglars.
For some, exploring upward is a way to redirect conventional onward momentum. Above the line of sight, deadlines and existential worries slip away like water through gutters. A cramped ledge becomes an escape from campus, and an explorer becomes an invisible observer of the scene below. Passers-by rarely look up; they look forward, always forward. Saturday night library-goers, drunken carousers, kissing couples, the lone traveler whizzing by on a bike: None gives a thought to the worlds above them. Once, for an entire year, an illicitly installed hot tub sat unnoticed on a Cross Campus roof. Vertical distance can be greater than horizontal distance.
The distance you feel when staring from the ledge above is only heightened by its prohibition. For that reason, a trip to the gutters is never prolonged — the length of a Lucky Strike as it smolders near pursed lips, or the span of a conversation between nestled lovers before they collect their thoughts and belongings and clamber inside.
As the seasons changed, I began to see my breath outside; I made new friends. The temptations of the gutters faded. But once in a while, I find myself needing space, so I crack my window and scramble out. When crouching above to watch passers-by below becomes uncomfortable and uninviting, I straighten my legs out, lie flat in the gutter, and stare up into the sky.