A Letter to the People I Don’t Know

March 2, 2023

A man in the red bomber jacket who sits by Sather Gate reading the news paper, a man who goes on little runs down College Ave every day at exactly 10 am, a woman who believes the sun is artificial, and a man who makes his own animal-inspired outfits and stands in the middle of Sproul. Just like The Breakfast Club, there are so many distinct beings that would not come together if it wasn’t for the welcoming and freeing nature of Berkeley, both as a campus and as a city. 

Over my past three and a half years in Berkeley, a lot has changed, but there have also been some consistencies that allow me to continue to call this home. Returning back after every break, I am joyously greeted by the characters and characteristics of the city – while those characters may not recognize me or even know that I exist, I observe and admire them constantly. Berkeley is a notoriously unique and rather goofy place, with constant reminders of its quirks as I go through my day. There are countless people, students and just regular everyday “characters” of Berkeley, as I lovingly call them, that I walk past as I wonder “what’s their story.” 

One day I decided to get the answer to the age-old question. 

His name is Billy. He came here 50-some years ago when his brother was drafted to the football team. His brother didn’t get along with the coach so he switched to rugby. His brother is no longer in Berkeley, but Billy has remained. He leaves from his house in downtown Berkeley everyday dressed in an outfit made of recycled plastic, often building the shape or image of some animal and heads to campus to greet students on their way to class. I never understood why until I sparked a conversation with him. He stands in the center of Sproul Plaza acting as a counterfeit dinosaur for suicide prevention. He strives to bring joy, to turn heads, to get people to think. He once told me that everyone is successful at something, at least one thing, even if they do not realize. While he identifies as a failure, he says he is successful at being a failure. He exists to inspire, and if no one else, he’s inspired me. I know that I am not the only one who enjoys his presence, and I am not the only student who “knows” him. Billy is a friendly face I can say hello to when I walk past with a guaranteed enthusiastic response to follow. I look forward to running into him on campus just as much as I do my best friends. 

There are countless people like Billy who are well-known amongst the campus community despite few people really stopping to talk to them. He is one of many characters that make me say “I love this city” as I go on with my day witnessing joyful moments that others may consider oddities. My time as a Cal student would not be the same if it weren’t for the other people that fill the campus – living independently of one another but all having the common bond of blue and gold that ties us together.

Amongst the crowd walking around campus who I don’t know or have any connection to, there are the people I recognize but perhaps don’t know well enough to say “hello” to – a girl from my orientation group who I never had the chance to talk to, people who lived on the floor above me freshman year, someone I had a zoom class with. I know who they are and I remember them, but I am unsure if they ever noticed me and have the same “they lived in my dorm” thought that I do as we walk past each other. There’s also the people whom I am mutuals with on social media despite having not seen each other since freshman year or having never actually met. When I see them walking around on campus and I am aware of them… but are they aware of me? Perception is a crazy phenomenon. 

I have always thought of myself as more observant than most, as I love to people watch and make note of my surroundings, as is probably evident from reading this. However, I once started a conversation with someone whilst walking down Durant Avenue and the first thing they said to me was “You’re in my class!” Someone who I had never met and who I did not recognize had recognized me and decided to let me know. I was flabbergasted. How was I perceived? What made me noticeable? Am I to others what some people are to me – a protagonist of sorts that exists in their own world while I exist in mine. This type of interaction, or one where someone tells me I look familiar, has happened on several occasions now, bringing me to the realization that just as I am always noting the people around me, others may be taking note of me as well. 

I will be thinking about many of these people long after I graduate and I am thankful to every one of them – those I know well and some that I don’t know at all – for their presence and the moments they shared with me, even if they are unaware of them.