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A question for the Councilmember

As I was setting up the fish-table, I was also watching a well-dressed middle-aged white woman casually tear fliers and posters off the ugly metallic cages surrounding the tiny trees on Telegraph Ave. None of them were my posters, but still it's offensive, isn't it? 

Posters on public infrastructure — tree cages and telephone poles — is how people get their message out, if they can't afford paid advertising. She was ripping down posters for cheap concerts, lost cats, political rallies. None of my "I'll do anything" posters are on Telegraph Ave, but postering is how I find work, so I feel a kinship with the punks and radicals and everyone else with posters on that tree cage. 

I strolled over casually and opened with, "Is it your job to tear down the posters?"

"It is today," she said, the way you'd say "Isn't it a wonderful day" if you're one of those people who believe in wonderful days. And then she added with a smile, "I'm on clean-up duty!"

She must work at one of the many yuppie restaurants in the neighborhood, I figured, and her boss sent her out to 'beautify' the neighborhood. "Seems mighty mean," I said, low-key and non-confrontational, not like yesterday. "Not everyone can afford an ad on TV or in the paper."

"Oh well," she said, in that cliché way that means whatever you've just said doesn't matter.

Having mostly stripped the tree cage, she walked some slight distance to the next tree cage and started ripping down more posters. Adios to somebody's dog-walking business. Rip! Next weekend's rally against whatever they're rallying against — gone. And so much for that upcoming concert by the Bloody Menstrual Pads.

It's an argument I couldn't win, so I decided not to argue, and went back to my fish-stand instead. From there, I watched her continue ripping posters down — silencing people. She wouldn't have said that's what she was doing, but that's what she was doing. Rip rip rip, stuffing people's messages into the trash cans. 

I jotted our brief conversation into my notebook, unsure whether it would make it into the zine. Depends on how boring the day goes. And I circled her "Oh well" because her raging indifference was what bugged me the most.

Finally she rounded a corner, a customer started asking about fish, and that woman silencing Berkeley disappeared from my consciousness. I didn't know Round Two was coming up.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Taking some boxes into a store, some guy illegally idled his Volvo near my table, which put his smog and bumper stickers in my face. "I believe you, Anita," said one of the stickers. "Keep abortion safe and legal," said another. Between them, another sticker said, "It is never OK to hit a woman or child," and I agree with the other two stickers but I'm a stickler for common sense, so I'm not sure about that third platitude.

We're all opposed, of course, to the battering of women and brutality toward children, but is it never OK to hit a woman or child?

If a woman attacked me, I wouldn't hesitate to hit her, and I might hit her hard. And kids? Almost any time I ride a bus there's at least one teenager who could've turned out better with more frequent paddling.

It would be more accurate and honest for the sticker to say, "It's almost never OK to hit a woman or child." 

♦ ♦ ♦  

An hour after she'd gone, the well-dressed white woman came walking back, still wearing her oversized smile.

What was behind that smile?, I wondered. What joy did she derive from obliterating other people's messages?

As she approached my spot on the sidewalk, I was feeling more argumentative than earlier, so I said, "Hey, lady," and she turned her smile at me. "Are you against free speech in general, or only when you're on 'clean-up duty'?"

She replied with no hesitation, "Do you have a license to be selling?"

What kinda response is that? "Who are you to be asking?"

"I'm Carla Woodworth, City Councilmember. Who are you?"

City Council, eh? "Somehow I'm not surprised. So again, are you always against free speech, or only free speech by poor people?"

I was ready to argue, but she quickly assessed me as nobody so she was gone before I'd finished re-asking the question. I wrote our second brief conversation into my notebook.

All of it had been politely spoken, by the way. I hadn't raised my voice, and neither had she. 

She was very "City Council" about it. She heard a question she didn't want to answer, so she inquired about my vendor's license. I don't have one any more, but the table has a "free speech permit" that she'll probably have revoked by next weekend. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

When Corina, a zine reader from Sacramento, chatted me up a month ago, she mentioned that I should see Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation, an annual collection of cartoon shorts that comes 'round every summer.

I've never gone to Spike & Mike, because I refuse to spend seven dang dollars for an hour and a half's entertainment, and their shows never come into the second-run discount theaters. But I could make an exception.

Reading the Chronicle, though, between customers at the fish-stand, it says this year's Spike & Mike opens tonight. So I used the cartoonery as a lure, and wrote a note inviting Corina to Spike & Mike with me.

It's a short note, not much more than "I'll spring for tickets and popcorn, but you'll have to pay the Amtrak fare from Sacramento." I'll mail it tonight, if I don't lose my limited courage before licking a stamp.

♦ ♦ ♦  

A few hours later, pushing the fish-cart toward its overnight storage at Jay's house, a strange piece of urban blight stared up at me from a patch of yellowed grass beside the sidewalk. It was a folded, kinda crumpled poster, featuring the smiling face of that same woman I'd talked to twice this morning.

I paused, picked it up, unfolded it, and it said, "Carla Woodworth for State Assembly." Had to smile back at her picture, because she lost that election. She's still just a Berkeley City Councilwoman.

What's most annoying is, she's not a Republican. She's probably the most liberal member of the Council — the only one whose name and reputation I sorta knew before today. But like almost every politician left or right, big-time or local, she has power so she's happy to abuse it.

When she said to me, "Do you have a license to be selling?" she was basically asking, "Are you sure you want to tangle with me?" Or, "Are your papers in order?" She's a liberal leader whose first response to disagreement was an attempt at intimidation.

From Pathetic Life #23
Friday, April 12, 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.

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