Saturday, March 12, 2011
If you drive past the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley on Tuesday, March 22, between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., you'll see a bunch of people on the northeast corner waving and wishing you a good day. Some will be wearing orange construction workers' gloves. Several of your fellow drivers will be waving back.
They all - wavers and drivers alike - will be celebrating the 101st birthday of Joseph Charles, the late Berkeley Waving Man, who lived in the house on that corner.
For exactly 30 years - from Oct. 6, 1962 to Oct. 6, 1992 - he stood on his corner, rain or shine, and waved cheerfully to the passing cars. Instantly recognizable in his orange gloves, he would call out, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
On that first day, a few neighbors thought he was crazy and called the cops. But when the police arrived, they quickly sized up the situation and said, "Go ahead, Mr. Charles. You just keep on waving for as long as you want."
And people kept saying that to him for the rest of his life. Joseph Charles was to Berkeley what Sundar Shadi was to El Cerrito: He was our collective grandfather.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and that's exactly what he did. It might seem like a small thing, but he meant it literally when he wished us a good day. He loved us, and we loved him right back.
People would drive miles out of their way, just so they could start their day waving to the Waving Man. He brought a big smile to everyone's face.
Mayor after mayor issued proclamations in his honor no fewer than seven times. He was grand marshal of both the Solano Stroll and the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade.
Mr. Charles - that's what everyone called him - had quite an interesting life even before he started waving. He grew up in Louisiana and played ball in the Negro Leagues as a young man.
He faced Satchel Paige once when the great pitcher came through town on a barnstorming tour. He struck out on three straight pitches, but at least he made contact, which was better than anyone else did that day.
In 1942 he joined the great migration of African Americans from the deep South to the Bay Area, where he helped build Liberty ships at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond.
After the war he worked as a stevedore at the Oakland Naval Supply Center until his retirement in 1962.
That's when he began his true calling, the one for which he will be remembered long after you and I are long forgotten.
He died in 2002, just a few days short of his 92nd birthday, and the whole city went into mourning. He was truly one of a kind.
If you can, I hope you'll drive by his old corner Tuesday morning and wave to the wavers. I'll be one of them.
And if you can't, feel free to stand on your own corner, wherever you are, and wave to your neighbors. Already, people have pledged to wave in Portland, Oregon; Silver Spring, Maryland; and Germany, as well as all over the Bay Area.
Until then, keep smiling. And have a GOOD day.