The noise was big enough to bust through the front door of my apartment building, stomp down the long, dark hall, pound up two dusty carpeted flights of stairs, and wedge itself under the door of my studio apartment. It found me working at my tiny desk in the kitchen where I kept a roll of toilet paper next to my dot matrix printer. It worked pretty well: take one square of toilet paper, fold into quarters and then into a triangle and when you dip the vertex into water and shove it deep in your ear, the pulpy paper forms a plug of plaster of paris. In the reflection of my computer screen it looked like white dough had outgrown its container and puffed out of my ears.
My desk was strewn with little white wads of toilet paper, a fact which seems symbolically apt in retrospect. It was March of 1990, three months before UC Berkeley’s graduation, and I still had hundreds of pages to write on my theses: one on my favorite photographer, Cindy Sherman, and another on the painter Willem de Kooning’s Women. I was an English major but proud of myself for choosing two subjects that placed me firmly on the fringe, far outside the focus and interest of my department. It was a take-this-imaginary-job-and-shove-it kind of arrogance, the same feeling a wanna-be punk rocker feels when she skewers the crocodile on her Lacoste polo shirt with a safety pin. I was writing two theses because I wanted to graduate with high honors from the university but, at the same time, wanted everyone to know I’d never be a stuffy old academic, not me.
I was behind schedule but when the sirens started wailing outside I unplugged my ears and buttoned up my nightgown. I didn’t bother lacing my steel toed boots. From the roof of my building facing north, you could see the campus and the plaza outside Zellerbach where drummers met at midnight for impromptu jam sessions on drums made of overturned plastic buckets. To the east lay People’s Park, two acres of open land where homeless people set up permanent camps. The building to the south held the bald window of the neighbor who liked to expose himself whenever he thought I was looking and directly west was Barrington Hall, a student housing co-operative with a long history of political activism, illegal activity, and outrageous parties.
Earlier that day, James from my Chaucer class had invited me to a Barrington party. He’d come over to to borrow my book and sat perched on the edge of a chair looking damp and twitchy. Maybe it was the tackiness of the chair, made of black plastic and shaped like a giant hand. Perhaps it was the heat of the day— I’d used books to prop up all my windows but still, there was only a tepid trickle of movement. He didn’t seem to notice my unmade bed or the underwear on the floor near his foot.
“Are you okay?” I asked him. “Would you like something to drink?”
He helped himself and came back from the kitchen holding a paper cup from the garbage, full of water.
“I have glasses you know,” I told him. “They’re next to the sink.”
“This is fine. This cup has no delusions of grandeur. It’s fulfilling its objective purpose.” He held it up in front of his face to admire it, then laughed at himself. James was a tall, thin boy with luminous skin and hair as thin and pale as spiderwebs. He wore denim coveralls, a red beret, and just enough black eyeliner to define his pale blue eyes. I liked him because he was interesting and didn’t seem like he wanted to get in my pants. James was different from most boys I knew: as gentle as a fawn and romantic as a gothic Victorian. He sat next to me during class and passed charming literary notes which were too good to throw away. He liked to go for long walks and stop here and there to lie in the grass and look up at the trees. He called me every night to say goodnight and I wanted to help him since he was just starting school again after dropping out for a year to deal with a little heroin problem.
This Mortal Coil was playing on my stereo and the Chaucer propped the window open and before James retrieved it he put both hands on the sill and stuck his head out the window, way out, so that half of him vanished leaving nothing but his spidery legs to hold him to the floor. I thought he might tip over and disappear so I went over and grabbed a handful of denim at his waist.
“What are you looking at?”
“The sky. It’s so bare.”
I gazed out the upper sash toward the building across the way, at the nudist’s empty window. To the right, several pairs of battered Doc Marten oxfords dangled over the edge of Barrington’s roofline. The muggy space between the buildings was clogged with smoke and music.
“There’s a poetry reading tonight.” James nodded toward Barrington’s graffitied stucco. “Do you want to go?”
“Are you going?”
“Maybe just to show my face. Alive and kicking, you know.” He wiped the mustache of sweat off his upper lip. “You should come.”
Once, when I asked him what heroin was like, his face shifted into soft focus. “It’s deep. Like you’re in love, the real thing, and it never has to end. You don’t worry or struggle or fight or anything because you know in your marrow it will never leave you.” I understood that James was already taken. I told him he could keep the Chaucer as long as he needed and if I got enough work done, maybe I’d go with him.
It was 9 or 10 that night when the sirens started howling. I clomped down the stairs and out onto the street where I ran into a throbbing wall of noise. The poetry reading had exploded like a psychedelic mushroom, pushing Barringtonians out windows and boarded-up doors and out into the street where they chanted as they played crude instruments made of wood, chunks of cement, and pieces of metal. It was a protest of some kind, although I could not hear what they were saying. I had the sense that every person was chanting a different refrain. One group had pushed a dumpster into the middle of the street and lit it on fire. Glowing in rainbow flames they danced, tossing their tangled heads, the cords in their necks stretched tight, their teeth bared to the night.
I stood on the front steps of my building and peered through the black smoke, looking for James. When he’d called earlier, I’d told him to go without me. He begged me to come but I had work to do and when he’d told me I’d be sorry, I wasn’t really listening.
Maybe he was out there somewhere waiting for me to come find him but I didn’t know where to start. Maybe if he saw me standing there in my white flannel nightgown he’d have a clean, soft place to land. He’d come over and we’d sit on my steps and everything would be alright.
To my right, marching down the street, a line of cops wearing black uniforms and plexiglass shields approached. Their faces were covered, their legs moved in unison, and their billy clubs jutted out in front. The closer they came— their line moving like a shovel down the street, scraping students— the louder the crowd got, screaming and banging, scrambling up onto parked cars, and dangling from the trees’ lowest branches. I stood on the lowest step, straining to find James before the line mowed him over.
Just before it reached me, the line expanded to include the sidewalk and suddenly, a huge faceless officer swung his billy club and batted me off the steps and into the street. The line was not asking who or why. It was just a line, flattening everything and everyone. I fell onto my hands and turned to catch the cop’s huge boot as it descended, kicking me back toward Barrington, but I wouldn’t go. I held both hands over my head and wadded myself up into a ball of white flannel, so small and inert that the line moved over me.
I ran upstairs, into my apartment, grabbed my phone, and dialed 911.
“What’s your emergency?”
“I’m at 2320 Haste Street. There’s a big riot outside in the street! People are getting injured.”
“We know about the disturbance. Police officers should be there any minute.”
“But that’s the problem. The police are the ones hurting people!”
“So let me get this straight.” Her tone shifted to a slower gear. “You called the police to complain about the police?”
I stood there blinking at the phone in my hand for several long breaths before hanging up.
For me, it always takes awhile for things to sink in. It’s a fingers-shoved-deep-in-the-ears kind of consciousness, the muffled foreboding a supposedly educated person might feel when she recognizes something she knows absolutely nothing about.