The Strada Men

Dedicated to Evie Portier, the Only Other Whack Strada Fangirl I’ve Met to Date


Courtesy of C.Levin

I always say that Berkeley often comes off as a lonely space. With a student body sizing thirty thousand (give or take), you walk the campus hilly paths passing thousands of faces a day, not knowing any of them.

That strange proximity to an abundance of people all the while with an absence of familiarity, I would argue, is one of the heavier strains of a lonely feeling, far more so than mere solitude.

We all have our friend groups, and we certainly all have our multitude of acquaintances who we cross stares with and say a quick “Hey! Let’s grab lunch!” while we rush to our 10AMs (already backlogging the faux-plan proposal).


Hence why: I am at Strada every day – Strada being a café cozied on the Southside of UC Berkeley, situated at the crossing of Bancroft and University, a corner that transitions you from frat-housing to “public” academic grind.

As much as my wallet cries as the daily price of my inability to study in one of the campus’s umpteen libraries, I eagerly cede to the coffeeshop grind, my ass permanently seated at their terrasse when the NorCal weather allows it – luckily more often than not.

Beyond the overpriced matcha lattes that get me through the endless papers and exam cram sessions, I realize, in hindsight, that I go to this wooden-benched haven inhabited by a multitude of friendly strangers – a form of homely company that renders our everyday, lonely, in-between moments a little lighter.


The nature of the exchanges between these strangers (me being one of them) transition over the school year’s chronology, from September silence to November nods, later-on, January grins, and eventually the long-awaited exchange of names and conversation come the sunshine in the spring.

There’s Jay: presidential coiffure and bowed legs that carry him through his daily jog to campus and back (solid 20 meters round trip). If not indulging in his cardio quotidian, you will likely find Jay grooving with his portable keyboard and serenading all those in audible range.

Equally worth shouting him out for his eclectic snacks from the Indian market, beautifully spiced-delights he’s always eager to share whenever I ask what he’s munching on post-workout.


Courtesy C.Levin

Maruf, my guru! Impossible to miss with his red Beret and well-coiffed ‘stache. He moved to the Bay 30 years ago from India. I forget what he does exactly (something science-tech related, content that normally triggers me to space out) but I do know he assigned me with the sociological mission of consulting an expert on the statistical evidence of how banning burkinis tangibly empowers women (on-brand, it’s been on my to-do list since February). Maruf has marked me with his teachings about Sufism and the foundations of friendship – “love and respect, not to forget!”.

Then there’s Johnny with the headset – researching something evidently tech-intensive: big Bambi eyes, so timid that we only became acquainted on first-name basis my final week of classes.

I think the next is Carlos – greasiest hair you’ve ever seen (to each their aesthetic!), bold big-rimmed aviators straight out of a 70s music producer’s cigar-fume-filled office, somewhat hostile energy from a distance but he’ll break the ice eventually if you Strada-squat long enough (me being case and point). Seems he’s in the midst of getting a Master’s in something-micro-biology related at John Hopkins. He too chooses to pursue this chapter of his higher education amidst the tree-lined patio.


I also have the chessboard boys – all likely aged 70+. They claim the two top tables at the coffee order entry from 11am-till dusk. I admit, still in need of another semester to put a name to each distinct face.

Courtesy of C.Levin

There’s equally Ollie, one of the more striking of the Southside characters. He’s there every day, clearly having been seated long before my 10:00 AM arrival. Ollie is a little more difficult to spot as he’s quite peripatetic. Always switching tables hidden around corners, alternating spots where the creative inspiration reaches optimal service.

But fear not if, upon first glance, he doesn’t appear in sight. It’ll be only a matter of minutes before you blast the audio of your headphones so as to fade out Ollie’s very audibly shouting into some recording device (I take it those moments mean he’s grasping some mind-fucking revolutionary literary visions before they evaporate).


Voilà. But a few of the Strada men. Throughout the months since my arrival in the fall, each profile has undergone the same relational transformation, evolving from figures, to faces, to names, to stories worth sharing with whoever’s an earshot away, and willing to listen.

One among the bunch struck a particular allure, a persona who seemed/ continues to be intrinsic to the Strada ecosystem: beloved Angelo. It only took a couple of weeks of my Strad-squatting for Angelo to present himself to me after a moment of kind greetings. Always smiling, always happy to see you, even as a nameless stranger.

Angelo reminds me of Rob (Rob for context is my father). So eager to talk to you about his favorite authors and philosophers, music pieces, his travels, his encounters – his own spoken redemption of “In my Life”. Someone with boundless love in his heart and just passion for life, despite many curveballs that life has thrown his way. I won’t delve too far into the wordy description as the published portrait does him a better degree of justice.


These Strada Men I treat as the central cast to the grander Strada spectacle – the surrounding cameos rotating in and out come with a fresh turnover every day. From professors catching up on years passed, to the French folk having their tangent terrasse moment post tennis practice, to the sorority girls gossiping loudly enough to power over Oli’s revelation amidst their not-so-study-study session.

And somehow the auditory disruptions don’t make anyone bat an eyelash – except for the French kids and me. It doesn’t disrupt the social contract – because the Strada’s own Social Contract prevails!

Get there past 10:00AM and you’re absent a table, so you’re obliged to sit on the bench until a workspace opens up – you then dive in Darwinist manner to claim it in the 0.5 seconds of its disposition. A constant symphony of musical chairs as people come in and out, sit here and there, seek sun and shade until the seemingly non-existent closing hours.


In retrospect, the social contract fascinates me as essentially, beyond the seating arrangements and rearrangements (how I’d love to timelapse this).

I’m now realizing that compared to any standard café, anything goes.

Strada is easily one of the few coffee shops, where people at times bring their own food and coffee just to benefit from the outdoor workspace. You can turn around, ask the name of the person working next to you after they ask the language that you were speaking in when your roommate stopped by to chat, get into a conversation surrounding your cultural background; etc.


Voilà the Strada scene / spectacle/ sociologically sound social space. A place that radiates warmth and homeliness in a grander environment of over-achieving and performative suffering.

At the crossroads of the best and subjectively worst of the Berkeley madness, where you get to witness the passing by of all Bear-related walks of life – the jacked athletes, the balding Law students, the eager internationals, the pretentious French, the crackhead crazies, the CS all-nighters, the 8:00AM wake and bakers…

All this to explain why I befriended my Strada men buddies – amidst the chaotic Berkeley ecosystem, these are the exceptional main characters of my Berkeley day-to-day.

About the Article

Strada Caffé in Berkeley, California is a place, a community and a state of mind.  This article explores the various possibilities.

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