The Stuff in My Bag

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The Stuff in My Bag

By Erica Etelson

While going through customs on my way home from a recent trip to Peru, I was randomly stopped for a routine inspection of my carry-on baggage. The customs agent was a middle-aged Indian woman who performed her duties in a reassuring, ho-hum manner. The process, which entailed taking every item out of my backpack and spreading them all out on a nylon carpeted counter, gave me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a number of items that had been stashed there some time ago and since forgotten. These are things I could have used, should have used, but hadn't, among them:

A personal body alarm. A private investigator gave me this alarm many years ago, when I was just starting out as a lawyer and had no idea that I should wear a personal body alarm at all times, in case one of my clients tried to assault me which, according to this private investigator, happened with some regularity. Prior to acquisition of the body alarm, I carried a canister of mace, which I was entitled to purchase after completing a police-approved training program.

The training consisted of watching videos of black men attacking white women wandering around alone in deserted one-way alleys. The white woman would then mace the black man and run away, leaving the black man staggering around and moaning in pain which, according to the training video, was a good thing, a very good thing.

The instructor was a stocky retired cop with a thick salt and pepper mustache that seemed somehow incomplete without a streak of yellow mustard across it. At the end of the class, he gave us the option of getting a tiny bit of mace sprayed in our eyes so we could experience how powerful it was and, thereby, be empowered to spray it in the eyes of black men. Not a single woman in the class took him up on this offer.

Two months later, my mace was confiscated when I tried to enter the Hall of Justice with it. I had forgotten I had it with me and didn't remember until Sergeant Seymour (I kid you not) saw it glide through the x-ray machine and took possession of it. He said I could get it back when I left

the building and tore off a jagged piece of paper to make a crude receipt for me. I pocketed the receipt but forgot to reclaim my mace and now, for my own protection, am forced to steer clear of deserted one-way alleys in the middle of the night.

The personal body alarm is a black boxy thing with a small jack in it. A pin fits inside the jack in the same way a headset is attached to a Walkman. Attached to the pin is a loop of nylon cord. The device is equipped with a clip (again imagine a Walkman, a very small Walkman that looks more like a pager--well never mind, just picture a pager) that hooks onto your pocket, and you slip the cord around your wrist and grasp it while waltzing around deserted alleys in the middle of the night. In the event of an attack, you quickly yank the pin out of its jack, causing an ear piercing alarm to sound. The private investigator demonstrated the personal body alarm in my tiny office and, believe you me, that thing can screech.

The body alarm went straight into my backpack and has come out only once when I bought a new backpack and had to transfer it. The body alarm also saw the light of day a few years ago when I decided to test the battery by pulling the pin out. I warned everyone in the office by making an announcement over the intercom: "I'm testing my personal body alarm," I said. "This is only a test. I am not being attacked." I closed my eyes and stuck a finger in one ear but needed my other hand to pull the cord so I prepared myself to hear a siren approximately half as piercing as the one I heard so many years ago.

The battery was dead, so I kept the personal body alarm in my backpack as a reminder to go buy a new battery for it. But, as one of the bulkier items in my backpack, it tends to reside in the bottom so I never remembered to buy batteries.

I've never been attacked by my clients or by anyone else for that matter and think this whole personal security business is really way out of control, like on par with Y2K out of control (which, for the record, I was fully prepared for had anything inconvenient happened). Rather than assaulting me, my clients tend to shower me with gifts, whether I win their cases or not. I have been the recipient of a heart-shaped picture frame made entirely of tightly folded squares of yellow and white paper (because paper can't be made into a sharp, dangerous object used to stab guards or chisel one's way out of prison), a near perfect facsimile drawing of Betty Boop, and an exquisite four course Persian meal prepared by the mother of a boy who was expelled from school because he punched a kid who teased him for crying because his bunny rabbit had escaped from its cage and run away. I also had a client, who was really just a pen pal, kindly offer to dip me in chocolate, though for what purpose I could only guess.

Fennel. I keep fennel seeds in a small tin1 that once held All Natural ginger drops (that I gave away to my friend Scott who loves ginger, after I discovered that I really don't like ginger enough to suck on ginger drops). It is a little known fact that fennel seeds both prevent and control gas. They can also serve as breath freshener though I've never used them for this purpose alone.2

I dip into my tin of fennel frequently,3 and the customs agent gave me a knowing look when she opened up the little tin box and saw what was inside. And when she held the fennel under her nose and took a sniff, we enjoyed a moment of bonding during which I understood that, if she did find any illicit substances in my backpack, she would not report me.4

BART schedule. BART is the subway in the San Francisco Bay Area. It stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit though the "rapid" part is something of an inside joke among the twelve million inhabitants of the greater Bay Area. The BART schedule is about two centimeters too long to fit into the compartment of my backpack that contains my checkbook, my day planner and other such items that are similar in size, shape and nature to the BART schedule. So instead I have to keep the BART schedule in the other compartment of my backpack, the one that contains my wallet, glasses, Extra Strength Tylenol, personal body alarm and fennel. These items are so unlike in every way the BART schedule that it pains me to force them into the same compartment. Every time I reach for my wallet and my fingers brush the BART schedule, I wince at the unbearable incongruity of it all.

Lighter. I don't smoke, but my friend Rose gave me a tiny red lighter with an appliqu image of Che Guevera on it. She bought it in Cuba though it was made in Spain. I know this because the words "Hecho en España" are chiseled onto the bottom. Interestingly, the lighter, like the personal body alarm, sinks to the bottom of the backpack but for opposite reasons, the personal body alarm for its bulk and the lighter for its smallness. When I showed the lighter to my mother, she said, “But isn’t it illegal to go to Cuba?” “Yes,” I said, “maybe we should call the police.” My mother loves it when I sass her like that. It reminds her of my adolescent years.

Highlighter. Orange. I often do work on BART and generally prefer to highlight the holdings of legal opinions rather than taking notes, because highlighting feels more like coloring in a coloring book whereas taking notes feels like very hard, unfun work, the kind that makes me regret I ever went to law school in the first place. I usually forget that I have a highlighter in my backpack and instead underline passages with a pen instead of highlighting them. Then, if the BART train suddenly lurches forward, I'm crossing out instead of highlighting legal holdings, which may actually be a Freudian slip on my part, given that most opinions appear to have been written by Attila the Hun’s evil twin.

Video and copy cards which don't fit in my wallet because there are so many so I have a special little Guatemalan zippered bag just for them. I didn't actually buy this bag in Guatemala, though I've spent a great deal of time there, because I hated going into the tourist stores and buying tourist things. So instead, I bought it from a Telegraph Avenue street vendor where I paid four or five times what I would have paid in Guatemala and implicated a middleman who derived more benefit out of the transaction than the Guatemalan artisan. But at least it cannot be said that I was a typical gringa tourist on a tropical shopping spree. That’s the important thing.

I have six copy cards, because I do research at four different libraries and twice have forgotten I already had a copy card and bought a new one, which means I have three copy cards for one library and one for each of the three other libraries.

I have four video store membership cards, including stores in neighborhoods I moved from years ago, but I never know when I might find myself back in the old neighborhood and in need of a video rental. Unfortunately, some of the stores drop you from their membership rolls if you don't rent a video within a certain period of time. Take Blockbuster for example, where I would never go because it is an imperialistic chain store that censors homoerotic content out of the movies it rents. Unless it happens to be the only place that has the video I want. Blockbuster has the most draconian policy of all--if a mere three months elapse without any rental activity, you are gone, ousted, forced to leave the premises or to stand on the dreaded customer service line to renew your membership. I for one refuse to be intimidated by Blockbuster's heavy-handed sales and marketing tactics.

Arm bands. Green and black. The green armband is the universal symbol of a Legal Observer. A Legal Observer is a person, often but not always a lawyer, who attends political demonstrations and, yes, observes. In particular, we keep our eyes on the police, so that when they start bashing protestors over the head or sticking pepper spray laced Q-tips in their eyes, we, as objective and unbiased Legal Observers, can tell the judge precisely what happened. Ideally, the police would then drop all charges against the protestors because they are so fearful of the vivid and galling testimony of Legal Observers. Were such testimony to find its way into the pages of alternative newspapers, which the angry, rebellious general populace zealously combs for information on police brutality against political activists, imagine the kind of hell that would break loose. I keep the green armband in my backpack in the event a spirited protest spontaneously erupts just as I am passing by on my way home from renewing my membership at Blockbuster.

The black armband was something I wore a few months ago at a Berkeley City Council meeting to demonstrate my opposition to something so obscure it doesn't bear mentioning. It is worth mentioning, however, that as obscure as my cause du jour was, I was thoroughly out-obscured by several other items on the Council's agenda, including "Proclamation Honoring Phil Lesh [bass guitarist for the Grateful Dead]", "Flag Procurement" and "Warm Water Pool 'Savings'".

Throughout the course of this meeting, a man in a straw hat emphatically waved above his head a laminated sign that said, "Front Yard Tipi." The man never got up to speak, though the Berkeley City Council in the great tradition of the Free Speech Movement encourages its citizens to speak (for three minutes and not a second more). He waved his sign with equal gusto regardless of what subject the Council discussed. My best guess was that some city agency had informed this man that he was not permitted to have a tipi in his front yard, and that he was so thoroughly outraged by this fascist affront to his fundamental human rights that he has dedicated his life to the dismantling of front yard tipi oppression via the waving of cryptic signs at city council meetings.

I had always thought tipi (as in a structure where people, traditionally Native Americans, dwell), was spelled "tee pee". When I got home and consulted the dictionary, I discovered that it is spelled neither "tipi" nor "tee pee", leaving me to wonder (a) what the hell this man's sign was

referring to and (b) how the hell to spell tee pee/tipi.

The strangest and saddest item of all. This was a postcard, folded over twice and shoved into God knows what forsaken chamber of my backpack, from the vet, reminding me that my cat was due for vaccinations in February 2000. (At the time, this postcard reminder impressed me because it meant that my vet's computer was Y2K compliant). My cat died two years ago (not for lack of vaccinations I should point out). It was so startling seeing this long forgotten postcard referring to a long forgotten and now useless medical regimen, and I turned my attention toward my fading memory of little Grey Kitty, who was as scruffy and smelly and neurotic as cats come. And because of how scruffy and smelly and neurotic he was, because he peed in my shoes more than once and because I felt it necessary to sterilize my hands after touching him and to banish him from all surfaces other than uncarpeted floors, I perhaps didn’t show Grey as much affection as I might have.

And yet I suddenly missed little Grey Kitty and his funky, peppery smell, the mere memory of which prickled the inside of my nose, so that I thought I might burst into tears right at the customs desk, with the surprising contents of my bag strewn on the counter before me. And it was only by chewing on a small handful of fennel seeds, once the customs agent returned them to me, that the smell of Grey dissipated and I could leave the airport full of the secret pleasure of having discovered yet another use for fennel.

1 The so-called “tin” box isn't actually made of tin at all though curiously, many people, myself included, inaccurately and perhaps nostalgically refer to many alloys as tin, not that the brutal history of enslaving people in tin mines is anything to be nostalgic about.1(a)

1(a)This essay contains only four footnotes, in case you’re getting nervous. For reasons unclear to the author, all four footnotes appear in close proximity in the context of the discussion of fennel. The skipping over of these footnotes will enhance the narrative flow without detracting from the meaning, if any, of the essay.

2 For the uninitiated, next time you're at an Indian restaurant, notice on the way out a small bowl filled with fennel seeds. If you're lucky, some of the seeds will have a hard candy coating, not unlike Good N' Plenty, that will transform the utilitarian fennel seeds into a free dessert. The best thing about the fennel bowl is the little silver spoon available for hygienically transferring the fennel from the bowl to your hand. This stands in stark contrast to the ubiquitous “pee pee mint” bowl, a collection of stale, chalky, pastel mints coated, according to scientific analysis, with microscopic traces of urine. There is no reason why the pastel mint bowl must deprive patrons of a spoon. Nevertheless, I have never encountered a spoon in the vicinity of pastel mints and, therefore, only partake of such mints when I am in a devil-may-care kind of a mood, which is not often.

3 I know I said in the first paragraph of this essay that I never use (or even remember!) any of the things I was about to describe, but that was really just a literary gimmick known as a "hook" to entice you to read on, as in "Why does this author carry around so much Useless Junk? I must know."

4 The reference to illicit substances in my backpack is ironical in nature. For the benefit of any federal agents who may be reading this, allow me to explain that irony is a discrepancy between what is said and what the reader knows is true. By this point in the essay, I would expect the reader to know that, as a lawyer who knows a thing or two about mandatory minimum sentencing for drug smuggling, I would have to be clinically insane to attempt to stash anything resembling Peruvian cocaine in my backpack.

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