Trouble on my right,
trouble on my left

The very moment I'd finished setting up the fish-stand and sat myself down, the vendor to my right waved this morning's New York Times in my face and threw a long rant at me, about how the American military should intervene in Bosnia, preferably before lunch.

Meanwhile, setting up her table to my left was a vendor I already knew, and knew she was nuts. At the morning lottery a few days ago, some poor guy had politely dared to have a different opinion than hers about one of the city's hundreds of rules and regulations for street vendors, and she'd started hollering at him. She was still hollering at him as I'd rolled my cart so far up the street the hollering faded into the distance.

So when that same woman started unpacking her wares and setting up shop next to my table, I inwardly sighed but outwardly said "Good morning."

Manners, damn it. Always manners.

Meanwhile, my right neighbor's anything-but-brief briefing on Bosnia continued, and I stiffed a yawn. If he'd simply said his warlike piece and then shut up, I would've worked quietly beside him all day, but he didn't shut up. He went on longer than the Times report, sometimes pounding the paper on his table, telling me how quick & easily American troops could disarm every Serb and every Croat, and how grand and glorious a US invasion would be for everyone involved.

And I still would've kept quiet, if he hadn't explicitly asked my opinion on all his war talk. "Don't you agree?" he asked at the end of several minutes I didn't agree with at all.

"No, I don't agree. America does nothing but war, and I'm tired of it. The world is tired of it."

"Oh," he said, frowning and sighing, "you're one of those idiot peace-niks."

"And you're one of those idiot war-nicks."

"No, man, peace is what we'd be fighting for!"

"That's not how it works," I said. "Never has, never will." He sighed again and sat down, but it wasn't over. Whenever there was a lull in foot traffic, he'd say something else, and I'd answer, and we'd argue for a bit and then shut up for a bit and then argue for a bit again.

This worked in my favor, actually. In a hurried argument I'll always say something I regret, but in a slow argument, with more time to think, I don't sound quite so stupid, at least not to me.

"Never has, never will?" he asked after a few minutes. "That's just wrong. We beat the Nazis and we beat Japan—"

"Japan attacked America, and the Nazis declared war on America. That's different. Like if you and me were fighting, and the US Army comes along and blows up all of Berkeley to establish 'peace' — that's what you're proposing."

"That's not what I'm proposing," he said, and then we sat there and said nothing for a while, until he said, "We can't just sit here and do nothing. There's a slaughter going on over there, and we're the most powerful country in the world. We ought to put that power to good use and stop the bloodshed."

"By bombing them off the face of the earth," I said, which to me is a logical extension of what he was saying.

"No, we don't bomb 'em off the face of the earth. C'mon, man. We send in our military, best fighting men there are, and we end it." He then explained exactly what the American troops would do in his fantasy, speaking too fast for me to remember much, but the details don't matter. Every US intervention is the same — a flurry of death until the Americans walk away from the rubble, and in the end it's better for nobody except the American companies making money from all the death.

After a few customers, I said something like, "We could send the Army and the Marines into every country that ever goes to war, and the USA could kill a lot of people. That's what always happens, and Americans die too, and then when the US or UN troops pull out, the wars begin again."

"It's like what the police have to do sometimes," he said. "They break up fights, to preserve the peace, and sometimes people get hurt. Send in the military, and some people would die, sure, but not as many as if we just let the genocide continue. Are you for genocide?"

"No, I'm not for genocide," I said, and also I'm opposed to police, and opposed to America pretending it's the world's policeman, but I said nothing more, hoping that silence would lead to an extended truce.

Not much later, though, he picked up where we'd left off. "If you're opposed to genocide, this is how we stop it," he said again. "We send in the US military."

"Another invasion. How come the answer is always sending the US military? Did it work in Vietnam?"

And I regretted it as soon as I'd said it. Say 'Vietnam' to the wrong person and you'll get an earful of tired bullshit about how America could've won but our hands were tied by the politicians. Yup, that was this guy's response. It went on and on and ended with, "The way to win renewed respect for America is to use our military might to prevent senseless bloodshed," and jeez, my mind reeled.

I don't give a damn about earning respect for America. I don't think America's is respected for all the wars and bombs and invasions launch by the USA, and it never prevents senseless bloodshed, it simply is senseless bloodshed.

But I sat quiet. Wanted the conversation to end. I always want all conversations to end, but this one, especially. I hate politics. Anybody's politics but mine is stupid and frustrating, and I don't want to talk about it and don't want to hear it, but I heard it all day.

Eventually he stopped talking, too, and maybe the day would've gone better if I'd stayed quiet. That would've been smart, though, and I'm never that. I wanted to say something more, wanted to win the argument, and this is what I came up with:

"'Senseless bloodshed', man... Maybe other countries should've sent their troops to stop America's 'senseless bloodshed' in 1776. We'd all be drinking tea and watching Upstairs, Downstairs!"

He looked at me and said, "It's not funny, Doug," and I wondered how he knew my name. I didn't know his name, and still don't. We've never shaken hands and we don't wear nametags on Telegraph. "They're raping women and killing children!" he said next.

"You think the Serbs and Croats invented raping women and killing children? That's what war is," I answered my own question. "Senseless bloodshed and raping women and killing children. Send in the US Army, and you'll get more of all that, not less."

"It's genocide, damn it," he said, and started telling me about the atrocities. 

The atrocities sounded awful, and I'm against genocide, against atrocities, against war, and against raping women and killing children. I don't have a solution that'll end all that, but sending America's army to fight against other armies is war, not a path toward happily ever after.

I may have said that, doubtless more clumsily than I wrote it, or I may have said nothing for a while. It's hard to remember every line of loud dialogue all day, harder to distinguish the shouting in my head from the shouting in my ears and outta my mouth.

At one point the man's eyes started to bulge out, and he said, "There are death camps! Mass graves!"

"And there will be again, come the next war," I said. "If you're against that, then you ought to be against war in general."

"I am against war in general," he said, "but just this once..."

Always it's just this once.

On and on it went on between us, but I'll let the argument end there, on paper. It went longer, on the Avenue.

And I don't know whether I'm right or he's right. I don't know what the Serbs and Croats are fighting over, and barely know what Serbs and Croats are. The man to my right was probably better informed about it than me. He reads those articles in the New York Times, but after a few years of the same war and the same atrocities, I only skim those articles, or skip them entirely.

I'll just say, we fought "the war to end all wars" 80 years ago, but the wars keep coming. America is not the moral force that's going to end war. It's the opposite: War is America's past, present, and future, war is America's habit, and I'm against it. Against using the US military for more bombings, more invasions, and more endless war.

Anyway, me and the vendor to my right kept arguing every ten or twenty minutes, and after several hours I'd almost forgotten about the vendor to my left. At first I thought she was a customer, and I almost said 'Good morning' again. She was standing at my table and holding Jay's booklet, What Lesbians Do (but not opening it).

Great, I thought, here comes another argument — it was written on her face.

"The book is supposed to be funny," I said, trying to forestall whatever anger was waiting behind her dull eyes.

She looked at me and said, "All of us working the Avenue try to be professional about what we do, and when someone sells something like this, it makes all of us look bad."

Her lecture didn't stop there, but my listening took a break, because I was instantly furious. Since two censorious vendor biddies tried to have What Lesbians Do removed from my table last weekend, it's been a constantly simmering controversy among some of the vendors, and I'm tired of it, but it's given me time to plan how to respond, so I was kinda ready.

I interrupted her. "You don't like the book?"

"I certainly do not like the book," she answered harshly.

"Then don't read it! Don't buy it! But put it down, unless you're brave enough to actually open it."

"You don't have to yell!" she yelled, and she was right about that. I'd been the first to yell.

"No, I don't have to yell," I said, not quite yelling, "just like I don't have to sell poetry, but it's my right to. There's this annoying concept called freedom of speech—" and she interrupted me, to say something stupid about the difference between free speech and filthy pornography, waving the book at me.

I took a long slow swig of water from my jug, more for time than for thirst, wanting to compose myself and come up with a good zinger. Swallowed some of the water, and spat the rest on the ground between us, but a little closer to her than to me.

That of course set her off again, but she weirdly shut up when I said not at all loudly, "I've heard enough. It's time for you to either put the book back and get out of my face or—" and I don't know where that ultimatum was leading, but I (wisely) swerved in a different direction and finished, "—or just open it, take a look inside, so you'll know what you're so angry about."

To my surprise, she opened the book. She expected to find something disgusting, so she flipped through some pages, looking for disgusting but never finding it because it isn't there. Then she started reading, and a new maybe-customer approached my table, while this lady read a little more, turned another page. I'd sold a fish before she spoke again.

"It's poetry," she said, and very briefly, she smiled. It was not a good look on her, but at least she was trying, maybe comprehending that despite the title, What Lesbians Do is not a how-to manual aimed at converting girls and women into queers. "I still don't like the book," she said, but she put it back on my table.

"That's OK," I said, and gave her a smile that was probably as uncomfortable as hers. "You don't have to like everything anyone writes."

And that was the wrong thing to say, in retrospect. Before I said it she'd been on a calming trajectory, but after I said it she said something else, a long something else, and clearly she was still (or again?) pissed off.

Another customer appeared, so I shot the vendor a glare and she shut up — a courtesy that's almost universal among vendors. My customer bought something, and then started browsing through that lady's t-shirts, so she left my table to tend to her own. When that customer walked away, we said nothing more to each other, which was lovely for a few hours.

On both sides of me, though, the right- and left-vendors were talking now and again and again, not to each other, but with friends and with passers-by, and mostly about politics.

The lady to my left, I should add, was politically of the left, too — very "Democratic Party." With one friend, she made an impassioned anti-Gingrich speech, and with another, she spoke of restoring the safety net of social welfare programs, and griped about the "fucking fascists" in Congress. These are generally my opinions too, only more so, but please, I'm not on Telegraph to talk politics.

Usually there's a lull in foot traffic in the mid-afternoon, and with no-one to talk to both my neighbor-vendors were finally quiet for a while. I was reading my right-vendor's New York Times, since he'd put it down where our tables touched.

When someone's shadow fell over the pages, I looked up, expecting to see a customer, or maybe the vendor from my right, annoyed that I'd swiped his newspaper. Nope, it was the vendor from my left, and again she was holding a copy of What Lesbians Do.

I smiled at her, because of good manners again, dang it. My mom taught me manners.

"I still find this book offensive," she said.

"The book that made you smile a few hours ago?"

"The poetry is all right," she said, quietly, not as angry as earlier, "but the title is unacceptable."

"Unacceptable to you." I said, "but why should I care?"

"I've been talking to some other vendors, and the consensus is that we all find the book offensive."

"Lady, if you talk to every vendor, talk to every man woman and child in the state of California, and it's unanimous that they're all offended, I'm still selling the book. So give it up and go back to your tie-dyed t-shirts."

She raged on for a while, and I was quiet for a while, cuz the concept of free speech is beyond a Berkeley Democrat's intellectual grasp. Why keep trying to explain it? I gave her the raspberries — pthth — ignored her, and started reading the Times again.

And then a second shadow fell over my table and The Times. It was my right vendor, the guy who wants to send American troops to the Bosnian Peninsula. He'd been hearing about Jay's chapbook, and now he wanted to look at it, so both left- and right-vendors had a copy and were looking through it, standing in front of my table.

Left-vendor started telling right-vendor why he ought to be offended by it, but he shook his head no, and said to her, "Adrian, you're wrong about everything you ever say" — guess they know each other — "and if you hate the book, it can't be all bad."

I do dearly wish I could report that the vendor to my right and the vendor to my left came to blows, or at least argued for a long time, or my favorite fiction would be that the right-vendor loved the book so much he bought two copies. None of that happened, though.

My right-vendor just stood there, flipping through the book for a minute, and then he said, "Poetry, huh. I was hoping for pictures of what lesbians do."

From Pathetic Life #15
Saturday, August 5, 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.


  1. This is why I keep coming back. It's like being there, with all the frustration and it's funny too. Terrific stuff. ★★★★

    1. Compliments usually embarrass me and my tendency is to argue, but today I won't. This one actually ain't bad, by my standards. Thanks.


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