I arrived in Berkeley for graduate school in August 1985. When I went to the off-campus housing office, there was dead silence as hundreds of people looked over a small number of listings. A TV news crew arrived to interview some students who had been looking for months for a place. The ridiculous rent-control laws of the city led to an incredible housing shortage. I ended up moving into a dorm at Mills College, thirteen miles from campus.
The city had a horrendous homeless problem which meant you couldn't walk down the street without being constantly asked for money. Berkeley, home of the free speech movement, was in fact the most intolerant place I have ever been to. Many ads for housing, jobs and the school newspaper required applicants to be "politically correct". And my favorite: A man drops garbage on the front lawn of City Hall, calls it art, and there is an actual debate on whether the town has the right to remove it.
Initially I didn't fit in well socially with the other theory students, partly because I lived so far from campus and didn't have an office my first semester, and party because I didn't fit well into their culture. I broke my finger playing touch football with my dormmates. Some theory students thought I made the story up, how could I be so foolish to play such a game. Others said "serves you right".
I nearly dropped out of graduate school that year. When my advisor, Michael Sipser, decided to move back to MIT I happily followed him.
I did have some good experiences from that year in Berkeley. Many of my fellow graduate students at that time are now some of the leaders in their fields and I consider many of them good friends. MSRI had a special year that year on Computational Complexity with many visitors and seminars. Berkeley hosted STOC and the very first Conference on Computational Complexity (then called Structures), a conference that would become an important part of my life. And I can't deny Berkeley has great food.
The following fall at the MIT theory group picnic we played touch football. I found where I belonged.