Jackass, the Play

The line between office equipment and theater becomes nebulous in Berkeley.

“Fuck the yuppies!” roars a woman with maroon hair, defiantly waving her cigarette and plastic Coke bottle at the traffic turning the corner where Telegraph Avenue dead-ends into the Cal campus. “Are you guys punkers or jocks?” she asks a small audience of six people who are intently discussing racing strategies and examining their office chairs. “What the fuck?”

The line between the street and street theater has long been a fine one in Berkeley. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the line between office equipment and theater becomes equally nebulous. It’s 11:27 p.m., the official start time of the Third Annual After Thanksgiving Office Chair Races, and nobody knows how far the race is supposed to go.

“We’ll go as far as Shakespeare and Company Books,” yells race organizer Eric, snapping up his bright orange jumpsuit. “Anyone here know how to read?” Meanwhile, the fellow in the left-turn lane is describing the special grease that will make his chair go faster. A guy in a Humboldt sweatshirt is doing hurdler’s stretches while he waits for his teammate to arrive with their chair on her bike trailer. “How does this work?” he asks. Eric offers a response: “The way Newton put it, theoretically an object in motion stays in motion.” Then Humboldt Sweatshirt’s partner rolls up, a woman with blue and purple hair. It’s showtime.

Since Telegraph near campus is one-way, the racers will be rolling against traffic. The spectators consist of a guy with a video camera and two women who’d seen the race mentioned on the Squidlist listserv. “Going out dancing was too much work,” one says. “One short burst of humor and then home seemed about right.” Her friend is asked to be the ref. Four competitors take their seats — Naugahyde, wood, plastic — and their partners take positions behind, holding the chair backs. A guy in a yellow plastic duck’s bill stubs out his cigarette. A gray Honda creeps through. Someone gives the all-clear, the ref drops her arm, and they’re off in a great clatter. The videographer runs along the sidewalk, the chairbound racers lift up their feet, and the crowd smoking outside Blake’s hoots and cheers.

The racers make it two blocks. Nobody’s sure who won the first one, and the second is bitterly disputed. They’re debating whether to try for a third when the police arrive. The officer had been calm when the racers passed him the first time; now he’s not amused. “You guys want tickets?” he asks. “Time to take your chairs and go home.” Grumbling, the racers head back up to Bancroft. Wrangling ensues, and Eric and his teammate threaten to take the trophy simply because they can. Finally Special Grease and Humboldt Sweatshirt and their partners are identified as winners. Some office chairs go into a station wagon; others are divided up and sent home on BART. “I feel good about how we did today,” someone says. “But next year, I’m going to start training sooner.”

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