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Is this allowed? Isn't there a rule?

The way it works on Telegraph Ave, in theory, is that a city schmuck with a clipboard walks by every day, checking every vendor's license. There are only four bureaucrats overseeing more than a hundred vendors on four entire blocks of Telegraph, so of course they can't check every license every day. (That's sarcasm, if you're wondering.)

It had been a week since anyone from the city bureaucracy had scrutinized the fish cart, but one of the clipboard schmucks came 'round today, and it was the same inspector who'd ordered Darwin off the display. He noticed the Darwin fish immediately, maybe because there are now twenty of them, on a slightly raised shelf that says 'Banned in Berkeley', and the shelf has twinkling lights.

He frowned and looked at me, then back at the Darwin display, then me again. He opened his mouth, then closed it, couldn't think what to say, opened his mouth again, but remained silent. He looked sorta like a fish out of water, so I shrugged and explained it to him:

"We're a free speech table now. No license, lots of Darwin."

He looked like I must've looked trying to read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. "Huh," he answered, and then ten seconds later he asked, "And what's 'free speech' about Darwin fish?"

"The fish is an ancient symbol of Christianity," I said politely, same as I've explained to customers hundreds of times. "We're poking fun at it."

"And that's free speech because…?"

Guess they don't hire clipboard schmucks for their smarts, so I said, "It's a statement against fundamentalism, and for freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion. We're against the domination of American society and government by fundamentalist Christians, usually right-wing crazies. We're for the separation of church and state."

"Huh," he said again, still looking stupefied. Jay had announced that we're a free speech table, in person, at the city's Office of Vendor Control or whatever it's called, but obviously, this guy hadn't heard about it, so I broke the news.

"When you told us to stop selling Darwin fish, that was a suppression of our free speech," I said, and motioned toward where the license used to be taped to the table. "We've been a free speech vendor since then."

He looked at me for a moment that lasted longer than a moment, then looked where the license wasn't, and I couldn't guess what was on his mind. He didn't say anything, though, not even "Huh" again, until he finally pointed at the tree next to my stand.

"You aren't allowed to use city property for your display," he said.

Ah, I thought, so that's the way it's going to be.

Around the tree, there's a metal protective cage, and on the cage were several of our magnetic fish. There's a cage around every tree on Telegraph Ave, and vendors who've set up next to a tree often hang their handicrafts from the cage for better visibility. My neighbor vendor had several necklaces, priced $4 each, dangling from the other side of the same cage.

I apologized, though, and smiled as I took down the magnets. The man's job is to hassle people; that's what makes him 'The Man'.

He still seemed flummoxed, so I smiled bigger. Maybe we're the first vendor that's ever switched from licensed to unlicensed? He looked again at the corner of the table where our lack-of-license was, but there was only the outline of tape that had been there until a week ago.

He wasn't quite scowling, but I could almost see what he was thinking, as if a thought balloon was above his head: "Is this allowed?" said the cartoon lettering. "Isn't there a rule?" 

Eventually he sighed and took a step away, but immediately he turned back toward me. "If you're going to sell without a license," he said, "you'll have to get an OK from the Transportation and Infrastructure Commission."

"Really," I said, dully, but still as kind and cooperative as I could pretend to be without puking.

"Yes, you'll need to see Frank LaRue."

"Frank LaRue," I said, "Transportation and Infrastructure Commission. Got it." It smelled like the first step in a very long runaround.

He walked away like he'd won a battle, and I asked the necklace vendor to keep an eye on my table.

At the opposite end of the block, I'd seen my pal Umberto working. He's another unlicensed vendor, and he was napping in his chair with a sombrero tilted over his head. I tapped his shoulder, said good morning, and asked if he'd ever been to the city's Transportation and Infrastructure Commission to get Frank LaRue's permission to nap here.

"Are you nuts?" said Umberto. "Never heard of Frank LaRue. Never heard of whatever his commission is. I come out every morning, set up my table, and never ask anyone's permission."

"Of course not," I said. "If you need permission, it's not free speech."

"That's the general idea," said Umberto with a laugh. Then he went back to his nap, and I went back to my stand, and put the magnets back onto the tree cage.

From Pathetic Life #16
Wednesday, September 6, 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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