In high school, I was a shy, bookish, awkward child. I didn't do much besides go to school and study. My entire world was contained within the couple of miles between my home and my small Christian private school, in the sleepy suburb of Pleasanton in Northern California.
A pivotal moment that broadened my vision every so slightly came from, of all places, catechism classes at my Catholic church. I was taking a series of classes preparing me for the sacrament of confirmation. In my cohort was this girl Nancy Vargas, who I had a major crush on. Sigh.
Nancy was tall, had long brown curly hair, spoke her mind, and drove a gigantic grey van. One evening, after catechism class, she asked if I wanted to head to Berkeley to get some pizza. She might as well have asked me if I wanted to fly to Mars. Go to Berkeley? On our own? It seemed preposterous. But I wasn't about to say no.
Soon enough, we were on the road, headed toward the wilds of Berkeley. It seemed so far and so different from our suburban town. Everyone dressed funny. White guys with dreads sold incense on the street. Street musicians busked for Cal students in blue hoodies and sweat pants.
We headed for Blondies Pizza on Telegraph and got a couple of slices, which were terrible, but probably tasted good at the time because of the company and the new-ness of it all. Then we headed for a vintage shop and browsed the racks. I don't remember if Nancy bought anything, but I ended up with a white sleeveless dress shirt that probably looked ridiculous on my skinny frame.
It was a blissful van ride home together. I think we might have hugged at the end?
It took me nearly 30 years to realize that this was my first date.
Now I live just a few minutes bike ride from the same neighborhood. Biking there today, I see wide-eyed freshmen walking around marvelling at the funky hippy-ness that still pervades Berkeley. I still remember how deep an impact it had on me. And I still get a strange thrill from going into the musty vintage shops there.