Incantation for Memory

Peter Plate
(c) 1995

This is a story about the city of Berkeley. This is a story that may or may not be real. This is a story told at a perfect hour. In this story the image of a street will play with its own reflection. Turning it over, first black, then white, like a photograph where there has been too much exposure. It is a picture of policemen running away from a cyclone of rocks and bottles that follows them wherever they go.

Think of history as a string of words. Think of Telegraph Avenue in the city of Berkeley as a riot of words. Think of James Rector in May of 1969 as a solitary word on a rooftop. The police buckshot embedded in his flesh is a sentence written in a corrupt alphabet. The blood pouring from his wounds will make a question mark on his shirt. The sun burning overhead will electrify the surrounding air, drawing it in like a halo, and releasing the heat waves that concuss the pavement. The near summer holds itself, breath lifting from the street, pulling over the rooftops. Only to sweep back moments later, returning as a faraway echo of a shout: James Rector has died. The question mark on his face has faded away, leaving a faint imprint but no answers to explain the years that have come after him. If words fail to change life, then what will? And if life doesn't change, then certain words are going to be placed in cheap pine coffins, and buried in the paupers' section of a cemetery. Thousands of words have been rounded up, segregated and disappeared into the national stadium of illiteracy.

But if words don't die, they work like everyone else does or words become unemployed. Poems, stories, novels sign up for the dole. Lose their apartments to foreclosures. Become homeless. Because of this more words are turning to crime. They are organising into gangs that call themselves dialects. Each dialect becomes a refuge for those women and men who are living without a home. Some words resemble people: they mortgage their existence to a series of bad choices and poorly constructed marriages. Other words will become alcoholic to compensate for their devaluation in the gross national product. These words will always look a little bit slurred. But in this story, when words get tired of their poverty, they'll get pissed off. They'll start a fight in the street. Windows will get broken. Shopkeepers will call the police. Some words are willing to take the situation into their own hands. These words don't have an idea what private property is all about, and besides, what good is a landlord to the word?

Some stories have the ability to never end. No story can end without an act of freedom. In this story the policemen inside the picture are not moving. They are facing the crowd. The strangers tending to James Rector are listening to the surf of noise cresting Telegraph Avenue. The man is a word in their arms breathing to his last. The seconds roll on like drops of sweat. Consider James Rector at the age of twenty five. From here on with nothing less: only words can keep James Rector alive on the streets of Berkeley.