I lived in Berkeley for a time. On a quiet street, bursting with flowers and trees and a good mix of people, not too far from the campus. It was big and cheap, the first floor flat of a somewhat rickety house. My friends lived in the flat upstairs. And for a year, my brother lived in the other upstairs flat. These Berkeley years were some particularly good years of life. I was poor. A graduate student. But I was devoted to life and to literature, thrilling to their proximity, exuberant about philosophy and poetry. Even my depressions felt luxurious at the time. I was poor, but rich.

Wherever I am, I love walking around, and Berkeley was no exception. Weekends meant yard-sales, and I’d often pick up a little this or that, maybe even a $5 splurge. One weekend I spotted a vintage typewriter. For five bucks it was mine. That night, at home I fed one end of a long roll of yellow paper into it and started clacking. It wasn’t a fast typewriter; it was old and dirty, but even clean and oiled, I imagine you had to earn every word. I thought it would be fun to just leave it out and encourage visitors and friends to peck out a this or that, whatever struck them. Maybe I’d even bang out a few lines. Or my husband.

Over two years, the scroll grew longer, the yellow paper bunching up behind the typewriter and eventually, when I moved the table away from the wall, cascading onto the floor in a lazy, curving pile.

When we moved back to New York, scroll and typewriter came with us. It was such frenzied packing, I didn’t reread the scroll, just pulled it out of the typerwriter, rolled it up, and packed it and the typewriter away.  

Back in New York, the unpacking was fairly leisurely. I hadn’t sifted and sorted and pitched before moving, and was doing that as I unpacked. I was happy to come across that yellow roll of paper and I sat down to read it through. Certain things brought back clear memories, other things I was delighted to find as if for the first time, some things bored me, other things made me laugh, and I even cried a few times. I was taken by the idea of slowly reading, unfurling this scroll, an eclectic version of my history for the past two years. Unrolling, unrolling, at the top of the scroll were the oldest entries, moving further and further into the future the more I unrolled.

The last entry was one that I had never read before. I had to read it twice to really understand it. It made my heart race with fear, then anger, and sadness. It made me cry, my body vibrating with discord. From memory here:

Ha! Ha! Ha! you in your cushy rich happy life here in berkeley.who would’ve thought that the hippies parked in the van across the street for the past two weeks would crash in and break your world. What makes you think you should live this life. You think the world is just fucking beautiful don’t you? well, we’re here to tell you it’s not yours so we’re taking what should be ours. you only got what you have by ripping people off. [then, iirc, there was a long kind of nonsensical “poem” or quote or stream of consciousness. it was syntaxless in some ways, but portended some private meaning or menace]

Smack. On the second reading. It clicked.

A few months earlier, still in Berkeley, coming home one day from German class, I found the outer front door was open and the inner one slightly ajar. I pushed it open tentatively, nervous, calling out my husband’s name. Silence. And then I realized what else was so strange. The cats were nowhere to be seen. They were hiding. Silence and absence. And then it came into focus what wasn’t there: the CDs, the T.V., stereo, computers, deeper into the apartment, drawers were open, things flung about. I noticed on the mantle that beautiful clock my parents had given as a wedding present was askew; perhaps they left it there, like that, at an angle, when they saw it was engraved on the back. Later, the police would dust it for prints. The dusting powder was black and a strange consistency. I couldn’t altogether get it out of the cracks in the white paint of the mantle. We never got any of the items back, of course. We never expected to. It was just part of a social ritual, I suppose, to have the police over, and fill out a report.

And so, I discovered 3,000 miles and several months at a distance, reading the last entry rolled up inside that scroll of yellow paper, not only had we been robbed and violated,  but the thief had taken the time to bang out a nasty message, deride me, judge me, hurt me even more–pure venom and insult, which also hurt because it was so wrong; it seemed so unjust.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, it’s not a hurt unbearable; it may even have a lesson in it somewhere. I’m not sure where.  


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    • srkp23 on May 4, 2008 at 06:49

    Maybe this thread will be our yellow roll of paper.  

  1. Excellent writing.  

    This is an interesting passage:

    I noticed on the mantle that beautiful clock my parents had given as a wedding present was askew; perhaps they left it there, like that, at an angle, when they saw it was engraved on the back. Later, the police would dust it for prints. The dusting powder was black and a strange consistency. I couldn’t altogether get it out of the cracks in the white paint of the mantle.

    I find it interesting because if you had noticed the last entry at the time, the police would have dusted the typewriter, too.  There’s an interesting thing going on with that non-fact . . . I just can’t think of what it is.

    I hope you got over the shock!  I’ve never been robbed before . . . I don’t know if it lingers, or what.

    • pico on May 4, 2008 at 07:16

    Seriously, this put me in a momentary funk, just thinking about it.  

    Our capacity to hurt each other, for even ostensibly “good” people to hurt other people with impunity, still amazes me.  I love that someone who’d call himself a “hippie” (with apparently little understanding of the term outside its superficial trappings) would take it on himself to become judge, jury, and executioner of someone he didn’t even know.  And here the target is someone so kind that she’s the type of person who’d selflessly devote hours of her time to researching and organizing on issues of torture and human rights.  

    This is why work like yours is an uphill battle, and always will be: if someone’s willing to pass off the most casual cruelty under a facile philosophy, what hope is there for the world?  

  2. What a story – fear, envy, indifference and cruelty on your own street.  oh, the humanity…

    I hope those hippies have become relatively “rich people” who can now read your story here  and perhaps realize and learn from their own cruelty.

    Thanks for posting this.  For me the lesson is always pay attention.  

    • RiaD on May 4, 2008 at 14:10

    and what irony the typewriter had such a story to tell!

  3. They left behind the clock and the typewriter because they had observed your joy and were impressed, in fact, awestruck by the joyous way you held your life.  The other stuff they took was just things that would be sold.  They left behind the things of real value out of respect for you.

  4. Interesting tale, well written and a joy to read.

    Keep it up!

  5. I love the story… wish I’d read it sooner. Johnny come lately, here!

    You and I have some things in common – my husband found one of those same old typewriters years ago in the East Bay of California..  in the 80’s, we lived in Hayward before moving north to Sonoma County! not far from Berkeley. I wish we’d thought to use that typewriter as you did, to record such memories.

    Fortunately, we never experienced a burglary like yours… just some petty incidents, really. Though, I do recall similar times of feeling totally misjudged as you did by your bitter, vindictive intruders. It sucks.

    Well, I hope everything else is going well for you. 🙂

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