Tinkerer, Gadfly, Soldier, Spy 

Tales of gentrification, part two: Meet the man whom Emeryville has spent almost three decades trying to make just go away.

Page 2 of 2

In the '50s and early '60s, Carpiaux joined the Belgian army, working as a mechanic and, he claims, conducting investigations for the army's "secret service." Eventually, he said, he was stationed in the Belgian Congo, where he taught Africans physics, math, and automotive technology -- and attended parties given by a young, ambitious man named Mobutu Sese Seko. "I met the man, with many of his wife, you know," he said. "Because he used to greet all the Belgian teachers that came to teach his people. He was a very nice person." As he talked, Carpiaux rolled his eyes to acknowledge the awkwardness of having enjoyed the hospitality of a murderer.

Carpiaux has dozens of tales like this -- some taller than others. In 1962, he came to America and never looked back. He settled in Berkeley, took a wife, and began teaching mechanics at an old vocational education center run by the Peralta Community College District. It was there, he said, that agents from the FBI contacted him in the early '70s. "They found out through the Belgian embassy that I was in the secret service, and they asked me to do some investigation about the activity of the Black Panthers," he said. "I did it, yes. I discover weapons, arms. I could have been part of a sting operation. I felt it was a plot to bust people with guns that they couldn't use."

Shortly after his FBI adventures, Carpiaux said, Peralta fired him. His son Patrick claims it was retaliation for ratting out the Panthers; Carpiaux refers to an administrator who had it in for him. In any case, he sued for wrongful termination, and the case dragged out in appeals for roughly a decade. Hanging from one of his front windows is a relic from those days in court, a sign Carpiaux used to picket with in front of the appellate court. It's an excerpt from the initial decision -- in French.

This litigation set the tone for decades of his life. After his divorce in 1974, he moved into a loft above an auto repair shop he ran, and spent years tinkering with gadgets, pursuing his case against Peralta, and fending off legal action by the city of Emeryville. Along the way, he picked up strays such as Bill Blackolive, a Texas biker and aspiring writer who needed a place to stay. "He was homeless; I took him home," Carpiaux said. "He was a writer, and he had a nice personality. He come and introduce himself and say, 'I need a place to stay.' And he say, 'I'm a writer.' And he show me what he was writing, and I felt the man had merit in what he was doing." Over the two years Blackolive spent living with Carpiaux, he wrote a rambling 87-page novella about Carpiaux's legal troubles called "The Emeryville War," which he published online.

In 1995, Carpiaux met Martin Koebler, a UC Berkeley engineering student interested in solar-cell technology. Together, they formed Solarmotions, a joint effort between Stanford and UC Berkeley to compete in an annual solar-car race in Australia; Carpiaux eventually conceived the steering and suspension device that helped their car come in fourth in the 2001 tournament. But last year, the two men had a falling-out, and Koebler had Carpiaux thrown off the team. Carpiaux has since filed a police report accusing Solarmotions staff of stealing his race car. "The man is a liar, he's a pathological liar," Carpiaux said of Koebler. "He took the car away from me." An earlier model of the solar car lies mouldering in his yard, along with the detritus of forty years of lube jobs, lawsuits, and countersuits.

Last week, Carpiaux won a reprieve from the city's latest legal action. "The judge is pretty much in my favor," he said. "He give me a couple month to deal with the underside and inside of my house, and he set the tone for the city to cooperate with me, instead of being adversarial."

Andre Carpiaux gets to go back to hammering sheet metal onto his roof, trying to sue his old colleagues at Solarmotions, and taking in the next homeless person who wins his sympathy. Emeryville's lawyers will aggravate their blood pressure when they drive past his house, but his neighbors will probably just chuckle at the next contraption that shows up on his property. As the East Bay's city of industry continues its glide into the world of Swedish furniture and loft living, Carpiaux will no doubt continue to remind its leaders that their ragged, shopworn past is just around the corner on Ocean Avenue.

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