The poetry of rural roguery

The extra-urban misadventures of "very large for his age" and his ilk.


Douglas Cruickshank
September 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I no longer live in the country. However, I don't miss the clean air, clear skies, wildflowers, trees, beasts, birds, infernal babbling brooks and other assorted, irritating natural wonders nearly as much as I miss reading the litany of rural sheriff's calls in the local newspaper.

The truth is, I don't miss those either because I now read them online.

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For years I lived in west Marin County, Calif., the somewhat less chi-chi part of the famously flaky and physically beautiful land just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. West Marin is dominated by the Point Reyes National Seashore and numerous state and county parks or open space preserves, as well as many large dairy farms.

The region attracts an odd assortment of artists, retirees, vacationers, rascals, drifters, bohemians, day-trippers, surfers, freelance nutcases, farm workers and cowpokes. Stir them all together and one of the happy results is an endlessly entertaining stew of misbehavior, which is documented every week in the tiny Point Reyes Light newspaper, edited by David Vokes Mitchell. (The paper got some attention in 1979 for winning a Pulitzer gold medal for Meritorious Public Service for its coverage of the Synanon cult.)

The exceedingly spare prose of the Light's "Sheriff's Calls" feature encourages those with an active imagination to fill in the blanks. Those of us who derive pleasure from the simple things in life find this a restful diversion.

For example, to get started, try this one:

An agitated person, whom deputies described as "very large for his age," got into a quarrel with a second person. Deputies separated the pair and referred the matter to paramedics.

Or this:

A woman reported that her neighbor's front door had been open for two days. A deputy checked and concluded it was "an apparent oversight."

Or this:

After a hiker found large piles of dirt and plywood, he told deputies he believed fresh graves were being dug. A deputy concluded it was "most likely Marin Municipal Water District work."

After a spell, reading these miniature tone poems -- haikus of pathos, bathos and garden variety badness -- puts one in something of a meditative state. They're not all funny (unless you're of the school that believes the entire Universe and all its spasms are one big joke) but even the sad ones have their moments:

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An Elm Road woman at 4 p.m. notified deputies her boyfriend, who is in his 30s, was refusing to leave her home. She said no drugs or alcohol were involved, but he was being verbally abusive and "acting strangely ... overly possessive." The boyfriend told deputies the two were just dealing with stress in their lives.

Yes, aren't we all, but that's no excuse for ill manners. Or outdoor furniture abuse, for that matter:

A man at 7:15 p.m. notified deputies that a woman was yelling, screaming, and throwing chairs in the playground. Deputies noted the woman is taking medication and that no further action was needed.

The material ranges from the dunderheaded misjudgments of visiting city slickers:

Campers using a cellular phone called deputies to say that some animal was grunting and eating food outside their tent. They said they thought the animal was a bear, but a deputy determined it was only a raccoon.

Or:

A "terrified" driver from Fairfax, Virginia, at 2:30 p.m. used her cellular phone to call rangers from a turnout along Highway 1. She said that driving an Oldsmobile along the precipitous Shoreline Highway had left her "in tears" and "paralyzed with fear [to where] she could not continue to drive."

To the aching episodes of the desperate and sorrowful:

A woman notified deputies at 3:30 a.m. that she was so upset her boyfriend was leaving that she planned to drive over a cliff.

A[nother] woman living along Valley Ford-Franklin School Road reported at 2:15 a.m. having heard a man screaming, "Oh, my God!" for the past 10 minutes.

And others, like the following, that are somehow comforting:

A man rode his bicycle over the hill from East Marin but began "acting weird" once he reached town. Fire department medics examined him and concluded he was not insane.

Then there are the reports of unique medical emergencies:

A woman at 8 p.m. asked deputies to assist fire department medics, who had been summoned because someone "on acid" was having an asthma attack.

And those that highlight inappropriate sporting practice:

A man complained at 10:30 p.m. that a group in their late teens were on Valley Avenue being loud, drinking alcohol, and playing horseshoes.

And of course there are the complaints that, much to everyone's relief, are found to be without merit:

A woman on Wharf Road reported that human feces had been spread all over a bench. A deputy found "no merit" to her report but scheduled extra patrols in the area.

Finally, there are those that remind us, perhaps more acutely than we might like, that from the most exalted to the humblest, our sentence to this sphere of travail may end at any time, and in most impolite fashion:

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A deputy at Laurel Canyon and Point Reyes-Petaluma roads shot a sick possum.

(You can scroll through months and years worth on the Light's Web site.)

All in all, a regular perusing of "Sheriff's Calls" affects one like the taking of a magic elixir: It doesn't make the world's problems vanish, but it does seem to shrink them, acting in just the opposite way from the "Drink Me" potion Alice downed. While they become no less serious, they do seem suddenly manageable. And that's a merciful thing, wouldn't you say?

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In its unnecessary note about "Sheriff's Calls," the Light explains: "The column is compiled from the Sheriff's Department's Daily Recap of official actions, the sheriff's log of radio dispatches, and interviews with deputies. Inevitably, some calls -- even serious ones -- appear humorous. Much of the humor results from deputies' having to describe in formal language the unlikely occurrences they periodically encounter."

Ah ha! So that's the secret! But really now, has it come to that? What kind of a world are we living in that such a thing must be explained? Don't answer that -- it's a rhetorical question. In any case, let's hail the Light, editor Mitchell and the distinguished, ever-changing cast for the best weekly poetry column of any U.S. newspaper.


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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