Narrative non-fiction in Berkeley

Tw_bio_portraitAt Harvard's Neiman journalism conference last year, Tom Wolfe argued that narrative non-fiction naturally attracted all the best contemporary American writers. Reality in America today, he said, was so remarkable, so absurd, that no fiction writer, however talented, could ever invent it.

Wolfe is right. I can personally verify it.

I live near downtown Berkeley (on Carleton at Milvia). At around lunchtime today, I was disturbed by the screech of a car chase. Then there was a huge crash, the sound of crunched metal, followed by the official wails of the police. I ran up to my first floor balcony that overlooks the street. I had a front row seat on the unfolding drama. I settled down to watch.

A gang of crouching Berkeley cops had surrounded a mud colored minivan that sat immobilized besides a lampost. Their guns were all drawn. There must have been about ten of them, a number quickly inflated by reinforcements, some arriving in cars, others on bicycles (this is Berkeley, after all). I could hear screaming from inside the van. Cops, guns, injured angry criminals, cars, and bicycles. It really was better than tv since I could watch the drama without advertisements, TiVo style.

But it wasn't just me obsessed with electronic media. The military stand-off continued. The cops waved their guns at the crumpled van. Then the window of the driver's side rolled down. I could see a young woman, a hugely fat thing, jabbering on her cell phone. Every so often, she would get off the phone and swear at the cops.

"Motherfuckers," she shouted at them, nonchalantly, without much civic virtue. I assumed she was from Oakland. They don't respect the cops much over there.

"Get out of the van," the Berkeley police screamed back at her.

I guessed terrorism, or at least homicide. Judging from palava, somebody must have been killed. After all, this was Berkeley, the home of politically correct policemen (and women). Surely this wasn't a regular lunchtime entertainment, triggered by something really sinister like not paying one's cellular bill or failing to stop for a disabled pedestrian.

Eventually, the Berkeley cops, their guns still drawn, succeeded in getting her out the van. The woman, in shorts and a tank top, waddled out of the vehicle, still talking on the phone. I wondered if she was talking to her lawyer, her boyfriend or her mother. Maybe she worked for Sprint or maybe she sold telephone sex. It was hard to tell. But she certainly was attached to that cellular telephone.

"Drop it!" the cops screamed.

"Fuck you," she replied. But she eventually dropped her phone. I guess she had no choice. I heard it clatter on the asphalt. I've never hard a phone sound so physical. I imagined its clatter resembling a gun.

The stand-off continued. Eventually, the cops persuaded another of the women to evacuate the van. She was an even fatter creature than the first. But less Patty Hearst, more Ross Dress For Less. Outfitted in a pink, skin tight tracksuit. And phoneless. She didn't even have a BlackBerry.

But now the story took a truly bizarre turn. Judging from the armored battalion now surrounding the crashed van, I was guessing that a crack cell of Al Quaeda hard men, fresh out of Ramadi or Fallujah, would burst out of the van and, instead of the Battle of Algiers, we'd have the battle of Berkeley taking place beneath my balcony. My own personalized, Web 2.0 style real-time media.

But no such luck. As the cops surrounded the van, their guns drawn, the door of the van swung open. There was only one person left in the minivan. A young girl in thick spectacles and pigtails, she couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old, emerged. She was screaming and running and flailing all at the same time. But she didn't have a cell phone. Nor was she very fat.

She seemed to have stumbled into this drama from another show. Why were half the cops in Berkeley going after this little girl?

As Tom Wolfe might have commented, had he been able to join me on my Berkeley balcony to watch this spectacle unfold, it was more intriguing than fiction. I only wish I owned a camcorder. Then I could have put the whole thing on YouTube for all of our entertainment. I could have even recorded a live commentary and podcast it on my own afterTV.