T.R. Wonderful and the Sinking of the SS Milvia

th-1Yesterday my buddy Cinda and I took the train over to the Bay Area Book Festival.  It was a nice day. A little smoggy but nice. I hadn’t been to downtown Berkeley in several years but some things never change; college kids still fly up and out of BART like locusts, hopping over those of us with squeaky knees. The homeless still camp where they want. Restaurants still have signs in their windows reading “Bathrooms for customers only.” There’s still a whiff of pot in the air.

Hotel

Shattuck Hotel and BART Station from Bing images

We were there to attend (among other things) a session at the iconic Shattuck Hotel on writing memoirs. Having worked in that neighborhood for many years, the hotel itself brought back many memories. The lobby had been remodeled since my last visit but the upstairs meeting rooms were the same.

As the memoirists discussed their process, I flashed back to one particular day in 1995. I believe it was in the fall, not long after the lean, fast-paced company I worked for had been swallowed by its parent, a whale full of corporate babble and blubber called TRW.

th-3If you’ve ever worked for a monster company you know the first thing that happens in these instances is reprogramming. Shortly after the “we have taken over but don’t worry” announcement we were signed up for a session in “corporate expectations” at the Shattuck and ordered to attend, regardless of our work loads or even what we did. Facility manager, receptionist, janitor – it didn’t matter. Of course, we all knew the end was coming. Reprogramming is usually either proceeded or followed by “corporate restructuring.”  And sure enough, as we sat in Shattuck, our new lords and masters laid off friends who’d been excused from the reprogramming so they could be fired, a brain-dead effort to appear kind that back-fired. I don’t know what they were thinking because at lunch the news flashed through the Shattuck, causing several members of my “class” to storm out of the session, middle-fingers raised in salute to our instructor who was just some poor rah-rah from Cleveland where TRW was called T.R. Wonderful.

The temp

Me, on the first floor of the SS Milvia.

We were all friends then, just a happy tribe of musicians, artist and writers who supported each other while working our day jobs.  Email was in its infancy and required keystrokes, thus it was the medium through which we could bare our souls without upsetting the purveyors of corporate values.

IMG_1900

The SS Milvia, once the home of pirates and outlaws, now modernized.

The SS Milvia where we all worked and played is still moored about a block away from the Shattuck. After the class in memoirs I wandered past it which was a mistake.  Someone’s modernized the facade; they’ve probably also replaced those sabotaged toilets that flooded the lab the day we were uprooted to Oakland. And fixed the elevator that froze between floors every time the big guys got rowdy. I’m sure the foosball table is gone. I’m sure it’s no longer a shoes-optional building.  And I’m sure no one working there uses email to start a flaming debate about abortion or the death penalty. Those times have passed.

I stood and looked at the SS Milvia until the memories whispered good-bye, its time to move on.

Have you ever wandered past a place once held dear and wished you hadn’t?

34 thoughts on “T.R. Wonderful and the Sinking of the SS Milvia

  1. A couple of years ago when I did a bunch of rough writing on my national park experiences, I read about how badly Hurricane Katrina had destroyed much of Flamingo, Florida. That was the location I worked at in 1998 and 1999. All of the details so set in my memory don’t exist any more, but little by little, improvements are being made to the area, but it will never be like the place I remember.

    • Sorry to hear that – I went on a swamp tour near there about 15 years ago and got to see the “world’s largest alligator” or so Swamp Billie claimed.

  2. Jan, this is a great piece. I love both the writing and the pictures.

    My first year out of college, I worked at MassPIRG, which had its office on Temple Place near Downtown Crossing. I loved working there so much. The office was the scene of so many important moments in my young life–I met my first “real love” there, got my first job promotion, gained self confidence, felt like part of something real–and for a while couldn’t imagine ever leaving. Ha! After a year, I quit in favor of more gainful employment. But now, whenever I go down there–usually every couple of months–I walk down Temple Place and try to feel the ghosts of the past. But I never do. It’s just an old, shady street with lots of little offices and businesses. As far as I know, the MassPIRG office is still in the same building, but I never see people coming or going. It always makes me feel sad and empty, and yet, I can’t resist walking by.

    • Walking by a place with so many happy memories is something I think most people can’t resist doing. Until you realize you can’t really go back.

  3. Hearkens back to an earlier blog, Jan.

    It’s the 1950s, Visalia, California, Mooney’s Grove. On the 105-degree days (this is before air conditioning in the typical household), every Visalia child hoped for an afternoon at the plunge or Mooney’s Grove, which was filled with giant, cooling oak trees and peacocks, a tiny lake with plenty of crawdads (“ewww, don’t eat them”), and – you know it, Jan, a magical carousel, the wooden kind, with rich organ music. Some of the animals looked all het up and showed their teeth, but my very own horse, white with a golden saddle and red reins, moved up and down the pole looking happy. We rarely got to go for a second ride – actually, the only times were when my grandfather had taken us.

    A few years ago I went to Mooney’s Grove to see how the carousel and the crawdads had fared. Well, you know the ending. Mooney’s Grove is there, but no carousel, no crawdads, not even any peacocks. Sigh. The oak trees are bigger and thriving.

    • Ah, so sorry about Mooney’s Grove! I half expected to see that the Milvia Building had been torn down – it had so many issues. But, someone renovated it.

  4. Travelling back in time has its risks, we never seem to be able to see things as we once did. large corporations have a habit of attempting to strip its employees of any vestiges of individuality. It does make one wonder where it will all lead.

    • You’re right about large corporations – they want you to be loyal employees but the loyalty only goes one direction in most cases.

  5. What a lovely evocation of a moment in time. My primary school in the 60s is now a housing estate and I’ve stop on the road and tried to remember the Victorian red brick school building and the narrow corridor to the boys cloakroom but I can’t call it to mind. The smells the sounds can come but not the picture. Bugs the pants off me.

    • Smells will often take me back to an event or place as well. Old Spice always puts me back in my grandparent’s bathroom! Gasoline always reminds me a car accident.

      • With me it’s the smell of Great Uncle Sam’s cherry blend tobacco. When I catch a whiff I’m transported back to childhood and find myself following the smell like Pavlov’s dog!

  6. You covered a lot of ground in this post. Very nicely done. I’ve tried to revisit a lot of places from my past. Most have been good visits. The only sad one was an old school that had been torn down.

    • Thank you. We spend a lot of time in schools so they do store a lot of memories. My junior HS (in a lovely Victorian) was torn down for a Circus Circus parking lot which I always thought a travesty!

  7. ‘Have you ever wandered past a place once held dear and wished you hadn’t?’ Yes very often, but the worst is the home that was in our family for over sixty years that was sold a few years ago . Still there but different , inaccessible it hurts. Memories a plenty …………….

  8. Lovely piece Jan – sad, biting and even lyrical in many of its evocations. And there’s something seemingly effortless about this crisp observation: ” … not long after the lean, fast-paced company I worked for had been swallowed by its parent, a whale full of corporate babble and blubber called TRW.”

    It was a pleasure to read this post.

  9. Nice to reminisce, Jan. You made me think of two places that held special memories for me that would be impossible to revisit – they went up in smoke. 😦 I still have the memories though and the man who shared them with me). One was a tiny wooden shack on the top of a cliff that belonged to his parents. I’d like to say it was our passion that caused the spark but alas, it was vandals. The other place was a fabulous hotel where I went to my first ‘dinner dance’ as we called them at the time,(with the same boyfriend/husband). That burned down some years later. Is it me, leaving a trail of destruction – come to think of it, I set my kitchen on fire, too. Oh, I’ve just thought of another place! It’s no wonder one of my daughters married a fire fighter. Sorry, got to run – supper’s burning. 😮

  10. Such a lovely post! Bitter-sweet, as a memory is supposed to be 🙂 I went to see our old house in the woods near the lake once, and there were no more woods.

  11. They do say “never look back” don’t they, but I can’t help doing so. So long as the good memories outweigh the bad ones, then I don’t think there’s any need to stop looking back. I’ve been in your situation and usually move on very quickly.

  12. It’s always tricky to go back, but there is a cathartic effect too, in revisiting old haunts. Reminds us to keep moving forward. I really enjoyed your post, Jan, and the photos and reminiscences. Your humor is always a joy.

  13. Such a wonderful, heartfelt piece. The last time I was in my hometown, I wandered by the house I grew up in and was startled to find it remodeled–bearing little to no resemblance to the original. There were not many happy memories of growing up there, but still…for better or worse it represented my childhood. The good part about the change is it allowed me to let it go.

  14. Thank you Kate. A few years ago the owner of the house we now live in died and her daughter came by to see the house. Of course, we’ve remodeled but I did manage to save her a stained glass window insert one of her brothers had done and I think she was happy about that.

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