Events happening thousands of miles away don’t register. All fires are local. I arrived in Berkeley in October 1991 knowing there were fires in the hills, but understanding little of what "fires in the hills" meant. Now a policeman was explaining, “I can’t let you into the Claremont sir, it is closed for the fires.” I am not from here, I explained in my most naïve Midwestern accent something hard for a boy from Texas / Connecticut. The policeman looked up to his partner standing on the historic front step of the inn’s portico. I saw a slight nod. “Alright sir I will let you drive up to where my partner is standing, do you see him,” an exhausted policeman said pointing his right hand to his now waving partner.
I drove the short distance from intersection to the front of one of my favorite hotels. “Sir the hotel has been closed for days,” the second policeman explained, “but there are several employees here now so if they are willing to take you it is fine with us.” I listened intently and asked, “are the fires a safe distance now?” “Seems so, at least that is what we are hearing. We are pulling out,” the 2nd policeman finished. With a quick tip of his head he turned and walked to his car. I drove to the Inn's door, parked my rental and moved from noisy intersection chaos to the quietest hotel lobby I’ve ever visited. “Hello,” I said waiting for an echo.
No response. I put my bag down and leaned on the front desk, picked up a paper and started to read. It was cover-to-cover fire coverage. “Yes, I heard from behind me.” “I have a reservation,” I said laughing a little. “We are closed,” a tall European man said with little room for misinterpretation – I was to leave and leave now was said just beneath the words he actually spoke. “I have a meeting with Dryers on College Avenue tomorrow and I understand it is impossible to find a room in Berkeley tonight, so I am sleeping here in the lobby, my car or a room,” I said removing my smile.
“Of course sir,” my new friend said smarting a little from my tone. “It has been a long week,” he said walking behind the front desk. “I saw it on the news but that is not the…”I said looking out to the congested intersection. A large Fire truck noisily drove away from the Claremont. It was only Wednesday and already a long week. “I’m not sure phone lines are back yet,” the man told me with his head down in a computer. I nodded but decided to stay quiet until asked for my company credit card. After about five minutes the man, Hans was his name I learned later, looked up, smiled and took my credit card. He made an imprint the old fashioned way with carbons. “You will be the only guest tonight Mr. Smith,” Hans said handing me a key with a lower room number than I ever saw before. “We won’t have any phones or food service and I would ask that you not leave your hall until tomorrow morning as, for the moment, I am the only one here,” Hans finished. I was so glad to not have to sleep in my car I readily agreed. “Of course, I appreciate your help and will not wander around,” I promised knowing it would be an irresistible temptation. I saw the Shining. Redrum, redrum. (Murder spelled backwards.)
Quiet is an understatement. I took the elevator up to the first floor. My room was a short walk from the elevator. Street noise inside the big C that is the Claremont is hushed. Weary police and firemen where packing up. Little traffic moved. Shut down and run was the order of the day for the last few days. Nothing was going to get back to normal for weeks. I couldn’t stay in my too silent and creepy room. I walked down to the lobby and waved to Hans heading out to find dinner.
Few businesses were open. I found a bar with a few people discussing the fires and drinking. A man came in calling hello to his friend the bartender. The new man sat down. The bartender had his drink half poured before he sat. The barman asked a silent question with his eyes and a slight upward tilt of his head. “It is all gone,” the man who had just sat down said. “The only thing I have are the clothes on my back,” he concluded. I admired the level way he said devastating words. He was too tired to get emotionally worked up again. He let his life and all its requirements and stuff just go. I could almost see his life float away like a slow moving erratic butterfly.
I felt strange and small. I’d flown from Chicago with a single purpose – have my monthly meeting with Dryers. Dryers used NutraSweet to make “sugar free” ice cream and “frozen novelties”. NutraSweet was the only food ingredient creating an Intel inside brand strategy, "ingredient inside" we named it. The strategy was born to retain business after NutraSweet’s patent expired. NutraSweet, a division of Monsanto, required customers to co-brand. One thing big consumer package companies don’t appreciate is being told what they have to do on their packaging. The strategy worked. NutraSweet survived patent expiration but “Ingredient inside” was moot the day after patent expiration and gone within months (as soon as the old packaging ran out I suspect). If you have an old pack of jello with the NutraSweet red dot logo keep it. It is a collector item.
1991 was years before patent expiration and this October night I was the only guest in Berkley’s “Overlook Hotel”. I ate dinner in silence as two friends hardly spoke. The enormity of personal and community loss lay on the bar like a wet towel. No one wanted to pick it up. I didn’t want to explain my hubris. I didn’t want to share how single minded I became when chasing a rabbit. My blinders were on. My mission was to get to Berkley and meet with Dryers. Anything not related to that goal I shut out. Now I was sitting with a half eaten dinner next to a man whose clothes were it, all he had in the world. Quietly I made the universal pen writing sign asking the bartender for my bill. When my $30 dinner tab came I wrote in a $100 tip asking quietly to pay for the bartender's friend's dinner and drinks. “Won’t this cause you some trouble,” the barman asked seeing the company card. “Probably,” I laughed heading out. I would fight that battle later and write a personal check if I couldn't convince my boss of why I bought a man dinner who couldn't buy a pound of NutraSweet much less the millions needed to get me on a plane. I hoped I could convince my boss since I remember being beyond broke in 1991.
I returned the the white whale of an Inn around ten. The Claremont’s main door was locked. I knocked. Hans came jogging up. “Mr. Smith I was waiting for you,” he said opening the door. “Thanks Hans I am off to bed,” I said heading to the elevator. “Good night Mr. Smith and thank you for understanding,” Hans said. I thanked Hans and remember thinking, “I didn’t understand at all until about an hour ago.” After dinner thoughts of exploring the rambling turn of the century hotel seemed childish and stupid. I went straight to my room. I opened the heavy soundproof curtains, no sounds tonight in the hotel or in Berkeley. I could see twinkling lights out in the bay. I thought about a man whose only possessions where clothes on his back, my "dog with a bone" determination and a growing suspicion the only thing I owned where the clothes on my back too. Before dropping off I saw an erratic butterfly float its way out toward the bay.