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Proof of meekness

Today I worked on Telegraph Ave again, as Fish Man for Jay, but I BARTed in early because the vendors' lottery takes a lot of time. Got there even earlier than I'd intended, and found myself killing time at Sproul Plaza, in the warm morning sun.

On the steps where Mario Savio once stood, I sat and thought about things that happened at Sproul and in Berkeley, things that need to happen again, happen bigger and better and happen more often, here and everywhere.

There's more I want to say, but I'm in a good mood at the moment, and politics is pessimism. Anyway, there's a long and pointless story to tell, so let's get to it.

♦ ♦ ♦

My fisherman's workday began in the parking lot across from People's Park, where dozens of permitted and licensed vendors milled around, waiting for the daily draw.

What's the daily draw? Well, if everyone who wanted to sell what they'd made simply came to Telegraph Avenue and sold their stuff, that would be untidy. Society must be tidy, so there are rules and requirements, lots, even for selling trinkets from folding tables on Telegraph Ave.

First, you're required to buy the permit and license. Then you go to a hearing, and prove to some Arts Commission that what you're planning to sell was actually created by you. Everything sold on the sidewalk is supposed to be art, and they decided that Jay's fish qualify as art.

Every dang day, though, there's a lottery to determine which licensed vendor gets which space, on which block of Telegraph Ave. The daily draw is a long and boring process, and being there, being part of it, was even more boring than reading about it.

Before the drawing, all the vendors talked and harrumphed amongst themselves, but I'm not much for talking and wasn't in a harrumphing mood, so instead I leaned on a tree and studied the scruffier types in the park. There were ten or twelve homeless and/or addicts or just plain bums on the benches there, awake but maybe not conscious, and I hoped they're happy in their lives.

Hoped, because if or when a few things go wrong, it's likely I'll be one of the bums across the street. My mom and dad would say my life's on a downward trajectory, that bumhood is what awaits me, and maybe they're right. I have moved down a tax bracket or two, on purpose. Maybe I'll eventually fall further, on accident. Check back with me in a few years, and see how low I might go.

To enter the drawing, I showed my vendor's permit to Martin. He's a vendor too, who'd volunteered to run today's lottery. A different vendor runs it every day, to keep things seeming fair.

Martin is a burly guy, in sloppy clothes and with an untamed beard, and he glanced at my plastic card to be sure I was street-legal. He jotted something onto a scrap of paper, then handed it to me instead of putting it into the big bag for the drawing.

See, some vendors think they'll have a better chance at having their name drawn early if their piece of paper goes into the bag late, so it's near the top of the pile. That's stupid, of course, so when he handed me my piece of paper I dropped it into the bag, and walked away and waited. There's a lot of waiting at the morning draw.

"Last call," Martin shouted at a few minutes past ten. The drawing is supposed to be at 10 AM sharp, but we were running late, which apparently isn't unusual.

If you'd been holding your scrap of paper, you'd put it in the bag now, right? No, because a minute later Martin shouted "Last call!" a second time, a little louder.

Then a little later and a little louder still, he called "Last call!" the third time, and everyone knew that the third "last call" really is the last call, so now all the slips of paper were in the bag.

Martin mixed and shook the bag real good, even closed it tight and turned it upside-down, before he started pulling out and announcing names, and numbering each piece of paper sequentially.

For a long time, I waited impatiently to hear my name, but it was Jay's name instead. She wasn't there, but she owns the fish and the booth and most important, the license. Her number this morning was 47, which means I got the 47th pick for a spot on Telegraph.

I walked to the next line and waited there. The queue snaked around somebody's beat-up pick-up, where all the vending spots were charted on four photocopied pages spread out on the truck's tailgate, and held down from the breeze by magnets. Number 19 was choosing her spot for the day, so I was waiting again. The whole morning was a series of wait, wait, waits.

Number 19 owned the pick-up truck, so after signing in she opened the door and cranked her engine while someone gathered the papers, and as 19 drove away, the ritual moved to a blue Buick.

Does all this seem like a complicated process to go through, just to sell fish stickers and magnets? It is nuts, and I sighed then, and sighed again now typing it.

The Buick turned out to be Number 33, and drove away, too, so by the time we got to my Number 47, everyone was huddled around the back bumper of an ancient yellow Subaru Brat.

Yippee, it was my turn to pick my space. New at this, though, I don't have the expertise to know a good spot from a shitty spot, so I picked an untaken space across Telegraph from where Jay and I worked last weekend. My logic was only that the shadows should hit me a few hours sooner there — a scorcher had been predicted.

As the lottery dwindled to fewer and fewer participants, vendors huddled around the parked cars, negotiating deals, swapping their spaces for future considerations.

Suddenly, across the parking lot, Martin screamed at another vendor, "You're an asshole! You're a shit-head!" and then they both stomped away in rage. From a distance it seemed comical, and I half-thought they were kidding around, but some other vendors were saying, "Come on, Marty, chill out" and such, so I guess it was genuine anger.

Martin slammed his car door and left two stripes of rubber on the asphalt, but not before yelling to the crowd, "I run the best damn lottery the Avenue has ever seen, and you God damn well know it!" Again, all evidence suggested he was serious.

I couldn't see who he was mad at and couldn't guess why, but there was a muttering of agreement from several voices in the crowd. "Yeah, Marty runs a clean draw," seemed to be the gist.

Pulling out my ever-present notebook and pen, I scribbled, "God Unlikely, we're deciding who gets what space for hawking hairbobs and earrings on the Avenue — this ain't exactly the Paris Peace Talks. Shit-fuck."

Expounding on that later, it needs to be said that half the vendors are hippies or ex-hippies, and the other half are dropouts. There are no neckties in this crowd. We're all small-timers, mostly marginalized people, all on the bottom rungs, and no cars in the parking lot were newer than ten years old.

And yet, before during and after the daily draw for vendor spaces, there's a hierarchy, turf to protect, battles to be fought. Humans will never fail to disappoint you. Always there will be land wars, even over unmarked five-foot rectangles on the sidewalk.

At a phone booth I called Jay, to tell her where to deliver the goods and equipment. She said she'd meet me at the designated corner in fifteen minutes, so I walked over and waited, ate a sandwich I'd packed and waited, ate a second sandwich and waited. Being as I was on the clock, the delay didn't bother me, but most of the other stalls were open for business, and making money, while I was just eating sandwiches.

I was eating a third sandwich and drinking a diet root beer when Jay got there, 45 minutes later. We unloaded the table and umbrella and merch, and then she left me to work alone all day. Behold Doug the Fishmonger, sitting there saying "Fish!" every minute or two, all through a hot sweaty day.

When I wasn't selling fish, which was most of the time, I was cutting new fish from the pre-printed mylar. By closing time I'd made lots more fish than I'd sold, but the fish were jumping — there were more sales today than there'd been on Sunday.

Sales would doubtless be better still, if I had the ability to schmooze like a salesman. The vendors working around me did that, and it seemed to help. They smiled at prospective customers. I didn't. They talked about the weather and the news, made jokes. I didn't. Remember, I hate people, and surrounded by people all day, simply not decking anyone felt like a success.

By the end of the day, though, I'd worked up a few comical lines that seemed to be helping. Maybe by the end of the summer I'll have a few more. I can pretend to be nice, and I'll get better at it, I suppose. Couldn't get much worse.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mid-afternoon, with the sun beating down so my fuse was already lit, some schmuck from the City of Berkeley walked by with a clipboard and got grumpy at me. Anyone with a clipboard is a schmuck, by definition, and I hate people, but I especially hate bureaucrats bearing clipboards.

He demanded to see my license to sell on the sidewalk, because your government wouldn't want anyone doing anything anywhere without prior permission, fees and photos taken, IDs flashed, Social Security number listed, home phone, work phone, home address, business address, three local references, and most important, proof of meekness — which is what's actually provided by going through such a rigmarole.

My proof of meekness is my vendor's permit. It cost five bucks, and it's supposed to be on my person at all times when I'm selling. It was in my wallet, and I showed it to the schmuck — more proof of meekness — but he was not satisfied.

He wanted to see Jay's proof of meekness — her vendor's license, which isn't the same as a vendor's permit. The schmuck told me that the license must be posted conspicuously, but it wasn't, because I didn't even know what piece of paper he was talking about until he pointed to the license taped to the next table's umbrella.

I'm the guy with a permit, which proves I've kissed ass. Without Jay's license posted, though, my kiss-ass permit means nothing. The schmuck said that I could get a ticket or a fine or maybe a night in the slammer for not having Jay's license posted, and I sweet-talked him by not demanding to see his license to hassle me. "We're new at this," I said, proving my meekness again, "and I don't think the license has come in the mail yet."

He shook his head with a weary "yeah right" look. Oooh, he's heard all the excuses and he's tough and itching to punish me for what seems the tiniest and pettiest violation imaginable — failure to post a piece of paper permitting the sale of bumper stickers.

He let me off with a warning , but if the license isn't posted the next time he "inspects" the fish stand, he says he won't be so "nice," and the full force of the California legal and penal system awaits me.

♦ ♦ ♦

The shadows I'd hoped for took a long time coming, and by the end of the work-day my arms and forehead were sunburned. It's gonna hurt for days, so I stopped at a drug store on the way home to buy sunblock and pain cream and be generally miserable.

♦ ♦ ♦

Remember the guy who'd called yesterday, Ron, who said he was thinking I might be his handy-man at a northern Cali cabin? He left another message today, saying he wanted me to bring a resumé to dinner tonight. That's a red flag — it tells me he's normal — so I considered telling him to fuck off.

Thinking it over, though, I could see his side. if I had a cabin, I wouldn't hire me and let me live there, based solely on my "I'll do anything" flyers. I'd want to know who the hell I was, so OK, I typed up a half-assed resumé (more proof of meekness) listing the straight jobs I'd had before going un-straight with the flyers. It's not impressive, and I'm still not sure I'd hire me.

Then Ron called again, canceling out of the dinner and interview for tonight. I called him back to reschedule, but I'm more interested in his offer of a free meal in a restaurant, than in his cabin job.

Moving out of San Francisco, even for just a few months, to someplace so remote that the nearest bookstore or movie theater is a week's walk away? Doubtful. I hate people, but I need civilization.

From Pathetic Life #13
Saturday, June 10, 1995

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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