Election Section

First Person: Little Lectures Everywhere

By Martha Dickey
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM

One day last June I was driving down Shattuck Avenue through Berkeley. Sun splashed through the sycamore trees as I followed the arrows through the University Avenue intersection. 

I was a bit distracted, thinking about the rapist still at large, who, in the previous week had broken into several women’s houses in broad daylight. E-mails on our community listserv had passed along advice from the Berkeley police to close and lock our windows, even when we were home in the daytime, for our own protection. 

One of the victims lived right around here, I was thinking as I absently drove into a parking lane. As I maneuvered back into traffic in the vicinity of the Gratitude Café, I noticed a shape on the median island that appeared to be darting behind a tree. My mind made a wild connection: Could it be the rapist? Had I by some incredible coincidence spotted him running from his latest victim? 

The whirling lights that appeared in my rearview mirror seemed to confirm my suspicion. I pulled over to let the police car pass and to watch the dramatic arrest as it unfolded. But the police car did not pass. It pulled behind me and stopped. Lights still whirling, the policeman got out and walked toward my car, gradually becoming one enormous shiny button in my side-view mirror. Probably he was going to caution me to lock my car doors and keep my window closed even while I was inside my car. I cranked the window down and squinted up at him. “Anything wrong, officer?” I said. 

“You didn’t yield to that pedestrian in the crosswalk,” he said. 

“Are you sure?” I said, confused. Was he referring to the fugitive rapist in the median? 

“Yes,” he said, as the sun splashed off his badge and into my eyes, momentarily blinding me. “We were positioned at the corner watching.” 

We? I thought, turning to look. Sure enough there was a second police cruiser parked near the intersection waiting to trap the next unwitting violator. Apparently they didn’t want to risk missing one transgressor while they were citing another. 

I signed the citation (not admitting guilt, he assured me) and pulled back into traffic. Wisely, he claimed not to know what the amount of the fine would be and said that I would receive that information in the mail. “What Are You Grateful For?” mocked the sign on the Gratitude Café. 

To regain perspective, I went to the Berkeley Marina to observe the world turning on summer solstice expressed by the sundial at Caesar Chavez Park. I noticed that since I’d been up there last, words had mysteriously appeared on the rocks encircling the site where Native Americans had once gathered. Once silent as Stonehenge, the stones now spoke. “Hope,” one said. “Determination” encouraged another. Was this Chavez’s philosophy that some anonymous moralist had distilled for me, I wondered? Or had God done some ten-commandments-style emblazoning while no one was looking? Feeling a little violated, I climbed down from the mountaintop and returned home to wait for the traffic summons to arrive. 

Months passed, and I began to believe that the policeman was just trying to put a good scare into me and that there might not be any further action. Tentatively, I began to feel hope, then determination, and finally, gratitude. 

Also, I had acquired wisdom. I became hyper-respectful of Berkeley’s crosswalks that appear so unpredictably in the middle of selected blocks unrelated to any traffic signal. I began to drive haltingly, braking every few seconds, just in case. 

I graciously yielded the righteous-of-way to everything between the sacred white lines; even those riding bicycles. Why, I thought, maybe that police officer had prevented me from running over a pedestrian, or smashing into that bicyclist weaving through traffic like she was leading a pack of environmentalists. 

Then, sometime before Halloween it appeared innocuously in my mailbox in the jumble of catalogs and credit card offers. The plain slip of paper gave me the choice of appearing in court to present my version of the incident—versus that of possibly four police officers who were positioned at the intersection for the sole purpose of apprehending me—or mailing in a check for $159 to atone for my transgression. 

My gratitude vanished much quicker than it had materialized. Seething, I wrote the check, trying to console myself that my $159 would contribute, along with our incredibly high property taxes, to the maintenance of the ever-vigilant Berkeley police force—protecting the vulnerable, even if they happened to be rapists. 

Halloween’s twilight was appropriately crisp and hazy. My husband and I relished the drive through the streets of Albany that evening on our way to dinner during the hour when miniature ghosts, goblins and Baracks skipped through the darkening streets. Jack-o’-Lanterns simple and elaborate glowed from doorsteps. Under a crimson-leafed maple next to their front door, someone had stacked four pumpkins, each carved with a letter perfect enough for a printer’s font: together they spelled H-O-P-E. 

The next day I received another e-mail message from the Berkeley police reminding me, for my own protection, to keep my windows closed and locked at all times. After a hiatus, it seems the rapist (still at large) is back molesting single women in their homes on sunny afternoons as the earth moves in its weary path toward the winter solstice. I have a message of my own, but it would require too many pumpkins.