I ran across Chateaupia this week. It’s a documentary about Le Chateau, a place I lived as a UC Berkeley student in 2001-2002. It was shot during the time I lived there. I dropped out of Berkeley for the second and final time in May 2002.
As the video suggestes, Chateau was a madhouse.
First they flung chunks of a cooked pig at passing cars. Then another resident of the student housing co-op beheaded a chicken with garden shears, said shocked neighbors.
Le Chateau is Berkeley’s own Animal House, its neighbors say, and they want a court to force the landlord to pay them damages for their years of suffering through raucous naked pool parties, nighttime bongo drumming and piles of rat-friendly garbage.
When you heard about something really bad happening at Chateau, it was usually a result of the gutterpunks. Gutterpunks were crashers––they didn’t live at Chateau, they weren’t technically part of the house although they typically had friends who were. But their presence was felt far and wide, nonetheless.
For example, the guy in the film who lights his nipple on fire and punches himself in the head repeatedly is a gutterpunk, not an actual Chateauvian. If I remember correctly, he also had 5150 tatoo’d in big letters on the back of his head. Nice kid at heart, just had lots of problems.
The scariest gutterpunk episode was when someone jumped off the 4th floor roof into the shallow end of the pool. At 3 feet deep, I thought for sure the guy was gonna die. It was so scary. But somehow, he lived, popping out of the water with a scream: “Oh my god, I can’t fucking believe I’m still alive!!! That was awesome!”
Which isn’t to say that the real Chateauvians were angels. My roommate, for instance, caused a stir when he cut down someone else’s San Pedro cactus and boiled it to make mescaline for a weekend camping trip with a girlfriend. The problem wasn’t that he used it to make mescaline; the problem was that he had prevented someone else from using to make mescaline. A Molecular & Cell Biology major, he financed much of his education by distributing Psilocybin Mushroom to the East Bay.
Once a month, I would arrive home to a massive pile of shrooms on the coffee table. He would divide them up into freezer bags and sell them off, making (I assumed) several thousand dollars of profit in less than 24 hours.
Personally, I was afraid that he (and me as his roommate) would end up getting robbed at gunpoint. Fortunately, this never came to pass.
Truth is, the drugs never had much appeal to me. I wanted adventure; I wanted excitement. The madness of Chateau initially seemed like it had both. And for a while, it did. But then the novelty wore off. There’s a great line from the film, at 17m47s:
I thought it was going to be a socio-political experiment inside these walls. But it’s just a bunch of people with cheap rooms trying to move somewhere else when they can.
People moved out because it was the extreme. Newcomers would arrive and some subset would do a bunch of drugs and spin out of control. Three weeks after I moved in, a guy lost his mind and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He was one of two suicides that year.
Chateau was really, really bad for people with underlying mental illness (most mental illnesses rear their head in your 20’s). Their illness would be exposed and offered an assortment of uppers, downers and hallucinogens; the chance to run free, no limits. People lost it. It was bad.
But that was just the dark side, which for a time felt like a minority of what was going on in the house: Staying up until 5am every morning; painting murals on the walls whenever you wanted; naked pool parties; strangers doing LSD in the living room; for better and worse, it was the centennial Garden of Earthly Delights.
At age 20, I had already done too much and seen to much to be overly enamored with the drug culture. Drugs had already been a part of my high school experience: my best friend had gotten busted for smoking pot and doing acid, both of which were revealed when he crashed his car while studying for the SAT. The cause? Acid flashback triggered by marijuana use. (He scored a 1520/1600 the next day, fyi.) This was the kind of kid I hung out with in high school.
For me, Chateau was like working as an EMT in South LA or fighting forest fires in Montana––another adventure, another episode in my life; I was never an insider, never a drinker of the Chateau kool aid.
All in all, the Chateau adventure was a good one. And this film a good reminder of where I was a decade ago, before I had learned about the elite class and power at Columbia, before I had turned into a jaded street medic in the Bronx, before––hell, long before––I had ever thought of becoming an entrepreneur.
Oh, what a long strange trip it’s been. I’m just grateful that it’s taken me here.