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Umberto

In my beginningless quest to be a better man, I know I should talk to people more, but I almost never do. I've tried saying hey to my neighbor-vendors as I'm setting up the fish stand in the morning, and usually they ignore me.

Today I introduced myself to the guy at the next table, who was selling a lot of anarchist and subversive bumper stickers on display. When he said that his name was Umberto, I knew who he was. Everyone on Telegraph Ave knows who Umberto is.

He's the anarchist who fought City Hall, and won. It was long before my fish-selling time, so I don't know the details, but legend has it that Umberto refused to apply for a vendor's license. And yet, he vends. His stickers are all political, so he argued that it's his freedom of speech, not a plastic permit from the city, that allows him to set up shop on the Avenue every day. And he won.

That's amazing. Inspiring. Everyone ought to have the right to set up a table in a public space and sell whatever they want. It doesn't need to be regulated and overseen by city officials. But it is, and the rest of the vendors — including me — do as we're told. We pay the fees, follow the rules, to be allowed to sell our stuff. Umberto just sells his stuff.

Soon as he said his name, everything I'd heard about Umberto filled the empty space in my head, and he was someone I wanted to know. There aren't many people I want to know, but dang it, I wanted to know the details of how Umberto won his legal right to be there without filing forms and paying the city. He looks scruffy and poor, like me and like the rest of the vendors, so it's hard to imagine he took it to court. Harder to imagine he won in court. Yet somehow, he won.

I wanted to know if he's also fought his way out of having to attend the tedious vendors' lottery every morning. Wanted to know if selling anarchist bumper stickers is enough to pay his rent. Wanted to know Umberto, so after I'd set up my table, when there was a quiet spell with not too many people walking by, I though I'd start a conversation with him. I strolled over and waved my hand toward all the subversive stickers on his table, and I said, "Tell me where you're coming from, Umberto."

"If you can't tell where I'm coming from," he said coldly, "nothing I can say could explain it." Then he went back to reading a newspaper.

That's fairly rude, I thought. Of course, "Tell me where you're coming from" was a dumb opening line, because while he had no circle-A on display, everyone knows Umberto is an anarchist, and the stickers make it obvious, too. 'There's no government like no government.' 'Under Republicans, man exploits man. Under Democrats, it's just the opposite.' Et cetera, et cetera.

That's why I wanted to talk with him. He's an anarchist, and I'm an anarchist too — some days, and about some things. It's fair to say I'm anarchist-adjacent.

And damn it, I respect the man. If what I've heard about Umberto is true, he's actually accomplished something in what's almost always the futile fight for freedom. The man sells bumper stickers without a license.

But, my social skills are moot, and after he shot me down I didn't ask again. I'm not sure if it's me he hates, or just dumb questions in general, but sitting next to him all day I heard him answering far dumber questions than mine, with more patience than he showed me.

Maybe he sees my semi-sacrilegious stickers as competition for his anti-political stickers? I'd have thought the fish and the anarchy compliment each other, and several customers bought from both Umberto's table and mine.

Maybe he's just weary of dealing with vendors' politics. Some of the vendors hate him, because he broke the rules. I wanted to like him, because he broke the rules.

We watched each others' tables when we had to pee, and he watched my table again when I walked to the corner store and bought a Diet Coke. I offered to get him one but he said 'no'. Not even 'no thanks'.

What's eating Umberto?, I wondered. I don't know, and decided I don't care. I just don't like the guy.

He's an anarchist, and I have anarchist sympathies. He beat the bureaucracy, and I love that. I wanted to buy two of his bumper stickers, and I don't even own a bumper. But he's a schmuck and I don't like the guy.

♦ ♦ ♦

After I'd scribbled the gist of the above in my notebook, Umberto maybe mellowed out a little. I sold some of his stickers while he was on another pee break, and he said 'thanks' when I gave him the money and told him which stickers I'd sold. He's not an asshole, only a schmuck, but I didn't try again to have that conversation I'd wanted to have with him.

It was interesting, though, when the inspection man came around. You remember, the semi-cop from the city's Department of Compliance with Stupid Rules. I'd failed his inspection that day, but today I passed inspection — all my paperwork was where it was supposed to be.

Same as he does every time I see him, at every vendor's table, the clipboard man jotted the numbers off their vendor licenses and other vital information onto a piece of very official paper. But he didn't say anything to Umberto. He didn't even pause at Umberto's stand. He simply walked right past, as if Umberto and Umberto's table weren't even there.

Fabulous — the joy of being un-numbered, un-licensed, and un-hassled. I sure do admire that schmuck Umberto.

From Pathetic Life #13
Wednesday, June 28, 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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