In Search of Lost Cream

June 9, 2015 • Featured, Literary Wanderings

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

WHEN I HEAR “TELEGRAPH AVENUE,” I think Berkeley. Specifically, I envision the northernmost point of the avenue’s arc through the East Bay, where transient hippies camping out in front of student-themed stores meet the UC campus proper. The avenue recalls Berkeley’s rebellious past, a vision of students fighting for the Free Speech Movement and protesting the Vietnam War beneath Sather Gate. “Telegraph Avenue” evokes these visions even more than my own, more immediate undergrad memories of the area.

So I was surprised to find that Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is far more invested in the lesser-known Oakland stretches of the street, never approaching the Campanile or aging hippies. Especially given just how many things are touched on in this sprawling novel: friendship, fatherhood, race, vinyl, Quentin Tarantino, midwifery, Blaxploitation, blimps, muscle cars, martial arts, Black Panthers, litigation, death, pregnancy, adultery, Ethiopian restaurants, adultery in Ethiopian restaurants, and even a cameo from Barack Obama. Chabon grasps well beyond one avenue in telling his story.


For all the ground Chabon covers, though, the novel remains largely rooted to a relatively small swath of Telegraph, on the southern end of Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. Though the novel is set in the near-recent past (2004) and was published in the even-more-recent past (2012), one of the first things you notice walking through that particular neighborhood is how different it seems from Chabon’s portrayal, a visceral reminder of the changes still underway in the Bay Area.

But it was also, surprisingly, a reminder of the community’s resilience. Often, where one establishment had faltered, a similar one had risen, phoenix-like, to take its place. It’s a bit naïve to assume that since the new businesses have so much in common with the previous ones, nothing was lost in the shift. But for a city so constantly in flux, and an avenue that is slowly beginning to resemble its northern points throughout its southern stretches, it was comforting to see such commercial consistency.

Brokeland Records (Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon)

“Brokeland Records” (Photo by the author)

I began by looking for Brokeland Records, naturally. Though Telegraph Avenue is a bit hazy on the exact location of the fictional record store around which so much of the novel’s action and angst swirls, the marketing team at HarperCollins didn’t let that stop them from bringing Brokeland Records to life, at least for a week. In a bougie area of Oakland that’s already dabbled with engendering Chabon’s fictional creations—there’s an “Escapist”-themed comic store nearby—local bookstore Diesel teamed up with HarperCollins and the nonprofit 926 Valencia to become Brokeland Records for Telegraph Avenue’s release. Though I was approximately 3 years too late to get a gander at that scene, there’s still a bit of Telegraph Avenue memorabilia floating around the store.

Groove Yard Records, Oakland

Groove Yard Records, Oakland (Photo by the author)

That all-revealing, even-toned East Bay light, keen and forgiving, always ready to tell you the truth about a record’s condition. (Though Nat Jaffe claimed it was not the light but the window, a big solid plate of Pittsburgh glass vaccinated against all forms of bullshit during the period of sixty-odd years when the space currently housing Brokeland Records had been known as Spencer’s Barbershop.)

Just a few blocks away from Diesel is a record store that was, in an earlier incarnation, the apparent inspiration for Brokeland. Berigan’s Jazz, I’m sorry to say, has gone the way of (spoiler alert) Brokeland by the novel’s end—which is to say, out of business. Happily, though, the store in its place is no massive Dogpile-esque retailer, nor a swanky coffee shop, but yet another tiny and charmingly disorganized used record store. The store’s name, Groove Yard Records, even bears some titular resemblance to Brokeland.

A selection from Groove Yard Records, Oakland

A selection from Groove Yard Records, Oakland (Photo by the author)

While I spent 20 minutes or so rifling through the records—which ran the gamut from kitschy relics of bygone tastes to invaluable first presses—I was not, I admit, particularly struck by the lighting. I did notice the dynamic that existed between the shop’s owner and its clientele, though. There were maybe 5 or 6 people who shuffled in and out of varying ages and backgrounds, but they all seemed to have an easy familiarity with the shop’s purveyor, comfortably launching into the banter of aficionados. It was, as is so frequently said diegetically of Brokeland Records, a community.

A Taste of Denmark, Oakland

A Taste of Denmark, Oakland (Photo by the author)

He entered the bakery, with its curvy display cases and its pallid eighties palette of gray and pink. He breathed very deep, and the smell of the place, the olfactory ghosts of Pine-Sol and caramel and long-vanished dreams of cream, filled him with a sense of loss so powerful it almost knocked him down. The cakes and cookies at Neldam’s were not first-rate, but they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy… “I need a Dream of Cream,” he told the woman working the counter.

Though this scene has little significance to the plot, I found it one of the most viscerally memorable moments in the novel. Archy’s Dream of Cream is his own version of Proust’s madeleine, simultaneously flooring him with nostalgia as it steels him to return to his flagging store.

“I need a Dream of Cream,” he told the woman working the counter.

“I need a Dream of Cream,” he told the woman working the counter. (Photo by the author)

If there’s been a recurring theme to this post, it’s of inevitable change coupled with surprising rebirth. Neldam’s Bakery has, indeed, shuttered. However, its former employees subsequently relaunched it as a bakery collective under the new moniker A Taste of Denmark. Chabon’s description is, still, highly accurate: the décor is clearly angling for some kind of classic Danish tea house effect, automatically generating nostalgia even in someone unfamiliar with the store itself. As I wandered the display cases, though, I had a moment of fear: I didn’t see anything labeled “Dream of Cream,” and having never heard of such a dessert before Telegraph Ave, I wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to look like. I finally asked the woman behind the counter, who told me that they now call the cake Chantilly. (Apparently not even confections are spared in Oakland’s march toward the bourgeois.) She asked if I was interested in a piece or a whole cake, reminding me of Archy’s “bearish sighs and exclamations” while he devours the majority of a full cake with an old spork in his parked car. I opted for the single piece.