I read about you in the Novato police log, flipping through the usual entries about public defecation and stolen socks. “A bowl containing an unknown liquid” was your technical title, and according to the woman who’d called NPD at 10:09 p.m., you’d appeared on her kitchen counter out of nowhere that night. At first, she didn’t know what you were — let alone how you’d gotten there — but when she poured you into the sink, she guessed you were tomato soup.
I smiled, because I was sitting in the Northern California town’s empty police station waiting room and I could. This wasn’t City Hall, where a community reporter like myself was expected to wear serious, unbiased expressions and ask the public serious, unbiased questions, like “How do you feel about Gov. Brown’s redevelopment plan?” or, more often, “Why do the Redwood Boulevard medians make you want to ‘grenade launch yourself’ off a bridge?”
Yours wasn’t the first entry to catch my eye. Any small-town journalist worth their $15-an-hour will tell you that the cop log holds deeds worthy of great fiction, or at least mediocre TV. There are loose bulls and stolen Chihuahuas, illicit sponge baths and Dollar Tree bomb threats, cheerleaders who steal from garage sales and housewives who attack their husbands with pinking shears. But your story was special, partly, of course, because you were magical soup, and partly because on that hot Tuesday last September when I smiled at you, I was about to quit my job.
There were many reasons, one of them exhaustion. I was the Novato Advance’s main news reporter, but I also edited, designed pages and snapped dark, blurry photos. And because I was 25, deep in college debt and unable to afford a $1,500 one-bedroom in wealthy Marin County, I drove an hour to work every day. Really, though, I quit because I didn’t know how to deal with the discontent that spread through the town’s quiet cul-de-sacs — a subdued, electric hum that sparked and fizzled until it burst into rage.
Soup, while you were preparing to take mystical, tomato-y form, Novato’s City Council was trying to zone land for low-income apartments and town residents were trying to stop it. Entire neighborhoods flocked to the converted church where meetings were held, on one occasion filling it past capacity and leaning in its open windows to shout and boo. Opponents of the project painted a bleak picture of the meth dealers, sex offenders and gang members who would move into those homes, decimating property values and graffiti washing the town. Officials were urged to stick the properties “in the desert somewhere,” or at least across the freeway, separate from this hamlet where the lights went out early at night.
I was assured often, and with the firmness of a political handshake, that although Marin is famed for its lack of diversity, the community’s vitriol was “not a race thing.” Townspeople were still uneasy: Shortly before I came to the paper, an anti-immigration activist had gone to the podium during a meeting one night and told council members that he hoped their families would be “murdered or raped by an illegal alien.” He ran for local office soon before I left, outlining a plan to set up drivers’ license checkpoints around the city for anyone whose truck contained gardening tools.
I began to dread, and then avoid, those Tuesday-night meetings. Every week I packed our paper with more stories about high-school football and increased my reading time in the air-conditioned police station waiting room. “The cop log is proof that everyone in this town is certifiably crazy,” I told my cubicle-mate, pretending to be an experienced, world-weary reporter like her. Pretending not to be a naïve liberal arts grad, shocked and squeamish at my first glimpse of actual hate.
Soup, the real reason I retreated into that three-ring binder full of desperation and petty crime was its simplicity. No one asked, or cared, why The Woman stole soda from KFC or The Man shattered a merlot bottle over his head. It wasn’t my job to be fair, like it was at City Hall, to know that this was what a small town going Tea Party probably looked like; that it was happening during an influx of first-generation Latino immigrants; that it corresponded with an aging population that had once been working class; that, although property values had soared in this now-wealthy county, they were all that kept many residents from living on Social Security alone. With the police log, I didn’t have to be understanding and disgusted, appalled and conflicted and sad.
No, soup, although I’m sure the truth behind your story is probably a dark one involving dementia or LSD, I didn’t have to see you that way. The week I found you, just before I quit my job, I chose to accept you in the simple terms created by your scrawled, black-and-white entry. You’d appeared suddenly on a counter somewhere, in a floating, ethereal America superimposed on this one, a place where social harmony existed, and so did magic tomato soup.