Regurgitation to greet the new day — I don't think I'm sick, but yesterday's bedtime snack of six sandwiches and two bowls of ramen emerged as a bitter lump in my mouth this morning. Seems a fitting summation of my life so far. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Washed away the residue with a glass of water, then put on my pants and walked to Walgreens (no apostrophe) to replenish my supply of unhealthy eats. Filled a basket with several loaves of bread and tins of sardines, and stepped to the end of the long, long line to pay.

Soon enough, a woman joined the line behind me, and started grousing about the wait. "What is the problem?" she asked nobody in particular. "What's taking so damned long?"

Since I'm nobody in particular, I answered: "You must be new in the neighborhood. This is typical here," and it is.

It's a mostly-black part of town, where Walgreens is our closest approximation of a grocery store, and because of the color or income of the customer base, the chain understaffs the store and overprices the merchandise. Usually there are a dozen people waiting in line at one open register, and two security guards watching everyone like prison guards. Ten minutes in line is ordinary, but if you're grumpy about it it'll seem twice as long, so it's better to laugh.

Today they had speedy service — I only waited seven minutes for my turn at the register, but then the scanner wouldn't scan my loaves of generic wheat bread. The cashier ran every loaf left to right, right to left, front to back, back to front, but the device wouldn't beep it up. She had to type the UPC, ten digits, hunt and peck, and here's where it got stupid.

Indicative of the store's top-notch hiring and training, she didn't input the UPC once and then punch the number 4 for my four loaves of bread. Nope, she input the UPC four times, stroke by slow stroke, button, pause, button, pause. The woman behind me sighed and fumed, and I memorized the bread's UPC. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

When I came out of the store, two scruffy-looking teenager boys approached me, and I thought I was about to get panhandled or maybe mugged. The scruffiest one asked, "Do you know where we can get some LSD?"

"Berkeley," I suggested.

"Isn't this Berkeley?" asked the other one.

"This is the place," I answered, walking on.

They're either from the far-away suburbs, or more likely they're police plants. Anyone who needs help finding acid in Berkeley just isn't looking very hard, but random middle-age white guys at Walgreens aren't going to be much help.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Too many times I've seen the Berkeley Police Department hassle the homeless, for "loitering" or "blocking the sidewalk" or whatever BS cops make up. So tonight, I attended an orientation session for CopWatch, the Berkeley good guys that are trying to bring rogue cops under control.

A nice lady named Alice ran the meeting, and kept the lecture lively and interesting. There were only four of us rookies in the room, though, and one was a gorgeous college girl in a tight sleeveless sweater, so I might have missed some of what Alice was saying. Still, I learned a few things about my rights.

I was pleasantly surprised when she said that mace is now legal in California without the ridiculous training classes that used to be required. Nobody needs "training" to know how to point and push a button. The law was changed effective January 1, Alice said, so the canister cops confiscated from me a couple of years ago, they couldn't confiscate today.

Of course, there's been mace in my pocket every day, either way, because I'll defend myself whether or not it's legal to do so.

There's a law against sitting on the sidewalk, which I've seen cops enforce dozens of times against the homeless, but never even once against college kids or yuppies eating a bag lunch. Tonight I learned that there's been a court injunction against enforcing that law, for months. I saw cops use that law against homeless people last weekend — breaking the law themselves, when they did.

I also learned, contrary to everything I've seen on the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco, that we the people are not required to carry identification. However (there's always a 'however' when talking about civil rights) if you're suspected of any crime, even jaywalking, and you can't present a valid and current state-issued identification card, police are fully authorized to handcuff you, take you to the station for fingerprinting, and jail you over a long weekend until your identity can be verified.

As I raised my hand and said at the meeting, this makes the concept of not being required to carry ID a de facto canard.

The main thing CopWatch does is watching cops. They go on two-person patrols around town, one person with a video camera, and the other with a radio monitoring police broadcasts. When cops are called to such-and-such an address, the CopWatch duet hurries to that address, to film everything. If police billyclub someone's head without cause, or shoot pepper-spray indiscriminately into a crowd (there's a great photo of this in the current CopWatch newsletter), they have the evidence on film.

Things get murkier after that, though. Any evidence of police misconduct is turned over to something called the Berkeley Police Review Commission, a bunch of hacks appointed by the mostly-Republican City Council, so usually nothing much happens. When I asked Alice if any local cops had ever been fired or prosecuted as a result of CopWatch's filmed evidence, she said she wasn't sure, but that she knew a few cops had been disciplined.

So, 'disciplined' but never fired, never prosecuted. This was my first moment of skepticism.

Alice then handed out some literature, information on what cops can and can't do (by law, anyway, for whatever that's worth) before, during, and after arresting someone.

We watched a training video, showing cops being cops, routinely treating humans like they're not humans — the Berkeley PD's greatest hits, so to speak.

In the video, though, the police officers — perhaps because they saw the CopWatch camera — were never particularly brutal or physical, just rude and vulgar. The only violence in the video was when a peace officer, infuriated because Food Not Bombs volunteers were feeding people in People's Park, smashed his club into an innocent paper plate of food on an empty table. 

"That spaghetti is under arrest," Alice explained, and we all laughed.

We weren't allowed to keep it and I wouldn't want to, but she also passed around a book titled California Penal Code (abridged). It was the size of War and Peace. The unabridged laws of the State of California would no doubt fill the building. As an anarchist or near-anarchist (depends on my mood), this reinforces my belief that America has too damned many laws.

Often, Alice said, CopWatch responds to a police call before the police arrive. She recounted several times when this has happened to her, when she and her CopWatch comrade got to an address several minutes before the police.

"How many of you are against drug laws?" she asked, and everyone in the room put a hand into the air. Which makes sense — the world's worst people are right-wingers, people who hate freedom, and none of them would volunteer for CopWatch because they love police brutality. Everyone in the room was a lefty.

Alice continued, "You have to disregard your personal beliefs when you're on CopWatch patrol. Our mission is to observe the police and act as witnesses, but we can't interfere. So," she explained, "if you arrive at the scene of a drug bust, and the police aren't there yet, you only stand and wait. We never warn people to get away, and we never tip anyone off that cops are coming."

So, if cops are on their way to raid a blind guy's house because he smokes pot for his glaucoma, and CopWatch gets there before the police, they say nothing? I have a problem with that, is what I was thinking.

As if she'd heard my thoughts, Alice said, "That's not what we do, and in fact, if you do anything like that, you're breaking the law yourself. You're subject to arrest for interfering with a police officer, and you're damaging the reputation of CopWatch. We're only there to observe and report police who themselves break the law. We need the support of the people of Berkeley, and to get and keep that support, everyone needs to know that we're not against cops on principle, and we're not against cops doing their jobs properly."

I raised my hand, and said, "I am against cops on principle."

"Well," she said, "you'll need to get over that," and she continued talking and I continued listening.

I could see her point. Guess I understand what CopWatch is and isn't, and that if CopWatch volunteers gave a heads up to a pot smoker, a prostitute, or the perpetrator of any other crime that shouldn't be a crime, there could be legal and public-relations repercussions for CopWatch.

Letting people know the cops are on their way is something CopWatch can't do, but it's something I can't not do.

There's simply no frickin' way that I could stand in front of someone's house, knowing the cops were coming to arrest someone for possession of peyote, and not knock on the door to let 'em know.

I've made a billion compromises with evil already in my life, but there are some compromises I can't make, certain things I can't and won't do, so I'm not volunteering with CopWatch. 

They're a good group doing important work, and I gave 'em a few bucks when they passed the hat, and I learned a lot at tonight's meeting, and I'll keep reading their newsletters, and I respect and appreciate what they're doing, but I can't be part of it. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Back home, I've finally written that letter to Sarah-Katherine, and it wasn't easy.

Way back last July, she invited me to move to New York with her, and I said I'd do it as soon as I could afford it. It was a pragmatic invitation, not a romantic one. She said she'd be seeing other men, maybe other women while we'd be living together in Brooklyn, and I said that wouldn't be a problem.

And like I said yesterday (in last month's issue), after giving it some long overdue thought, I'm not wild about moving to New York, nor about working my ass off to get the money, and I'm also not wild about a wide-open arrangement.

If I had a fat bank account and money was not at issue, I'd be in Brooklyn already. But I don't have the money and never will, so all other considerations are moot. I'd have to work double shifts at some shitty job six days a week for six months to scrape up the money for bus fare, shipping what little I own, and New York rents.

I'm not willing to work that hard to leave San Francisco, the only city I've ever loved, for a city I've never seen, where I'd probably have to keep working some shitty job six days a week, all for a woman who'll never be my girl.

I should've said no from the first time she brought it up, but I was enamored and stupid and I wanted to be wherever Sarah-Katherine was. Saying yes was a big mistake, which I've now belatedly corrected, in a letter that tells her the answer is no.

It's written, sealed, stamped, and I've taken it to the postbox, and it's on its way. And I am sorry, not that I'm not going, but for six months of making believe that I was.

From Pathetic Life #21
Thursday, February 1, 1996 

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. Walgreens still sucks. Everywhere. Worst service of any pharmacy by far.

    1. Ah, come to Seattle and visit Bartell Drugs — a local chain that was very good for 100+ years, sold themselves to Rite-Aid, and became instant shit.

      Curiously, even the local Rite-Aids are much better than Bartell.


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