Slippery Transaction

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The Bay Area is ground zero for the locavore movement. We've got artisanal breads, organic produce, even handcrafted soap. But how often does buying the soap feel illegal? It happened to me.

I started buying soap from a vendor at our local farmers' market. He looked to be in his late 50s, and said he made the soap with his daughters. What's not to like about that? A local family making all-natural soap together, and selling it at farmers' markets. Very Berkeley.

The soaps were olive oil-based, with fragrant combinations. The aroma of the cinnamon-clove was like a tea, and the orange had the tangy zest of a Valencia orange pulled fresh from the tree. I initially bought two bars and my family loved it. We became soap addicts, buying from him repeatedly.

Until he stopped selling at the farmers' market. We wondered what to do -- how do we get our fix? -- until I noticed a phone number on one of the soap wrappers. I called it, and our soap dealer answered. He lived in North Berkeley, not a mile away, and he took my order. He gave me specific instructions for the pick-up: I was to come by his house in the evening, pull in his driveway -- but not get out of the car -- and call him on my cell. It seemed odd, but this was for our soap and we were jonesing for it.

Here's how it went down: A dark night, a block of poorly lit houses. A car comes slowly down the road, eases into a driveway obscured by trees. The driver kills the lights, but keeps the engine idling. He makes a quick call on his cell and sits, waiting. A moment later a man comes hurrying out of the house, a brown paper bag in his hand. He takes cash from the driver, passes the bag into the car and is gone.


I felt like I was part of an illicit deal, that I should be making furtive glances over my shoulder. But then I wondered, why? All I'm doing is buying soap. I'm supporting local artisans, but it feels like a scene from "Cops."

In retrospect, while the pick-up was quirky, I figured if that's what I gotta do to get our cinnamon-clove soap, that's what I'm gonna do.

With a Perspective, I'm Fred Etheridge.

Fred Etheridge works with water rights in the General Counsel's office at East Bay MUD.