BERKELEY -- What are those dubious-looking, little single-sheet newsletters, laid out every week on the hall table outside the Berkeley City Council meetings, alongside official meeting agendas and official supplemental agenda items and the occasional official Tibetan-Zen-meditation-and-car-wash flier?
Hmmm. The "Pepper Spray Times."
Odd name, to be sure. But it must be OK. Must be sanctioned in some way, seeing as how they've been here at the city meetings for ages.
Hah. This particular issue has an item about "the last duck at Cesar Chavez Park" who was forced out because lax leash laws meant dogs running around with wild abandon. The lone duck, Larry, was quoted as saying, "It was nice, but now it's over. You can't fight City Hall."
Hee. This one's got a story on the city cutting down trees on University Avenue because the sticky leaves bug the merchants. The headline reads, "Save the trees: kill the merchants," and quotes the city's public works director as saying, "Merchants are impossible to satisfy and plentiful. A good street tree is hard to find."
Heh heh. Who writes this stuff? Who is this mystery muckraker, this secret satirist, this clandestine comic?
Hold onto your funny bones. We will now reveal the woman behind the "Pepper Spray Times" (only because she wouldn't cough up enough hush money). A political superhero to some. A nasty little mosquito slowly sucking blood on a summer day to others. Nosier than Larry King, quicker of wit than a speeding Robin Williams, she's ... the quasi-mild-mannered Carol Denney.
Chances are you've probably seen her around. She has been a Berkeley local for 30 years (she grew up in Southern California, but came to UC Berkeley to major in political science and stayed). She's an obsessive musician (her current instrument of choice is the concertina -- more on that later).
She's a political activist (you'll see her in just about any picket line -- this very weekend, she'll be protesting outside PG&E). And she's a really smart cookie who loves politics and feels she needs to help lighten up the political lunacy in her town.
"This is a funny place," she said recently at Au Coquelet Cafe in Berkeley --meaning the city , not the cafe.
"At least I find it funny," she said, sipping juice to get over a cold. "This town takes itself too seriously. Most people in Berkeley love to see the so-called right lampooned. But I'm kind of an equal-opportunity critic, and I find the left to be equally funny and equally corrupt. That doesn't always go over too well here."
The thing is, Denney's funny herself, but not just for fun. She says she has a "devious, nasty agenda to be educational," to douse some of the more heated local issues with buckets of humor and ease some community tensions.
This, of course, means she has a huge pile of hate mail.
"I have a huge pile of hate mail," she said.
While some of the bylines in the Times are such names as "Alan Fun," or "Jel O. Yernalist," she admits to writing the whole thing.
"What I have are more like consultants than actual contributors. I have a vast network of highly trained spies throughout the city, so watch out," she said with a sly smile and a wink behind her no-rim glasses.
While she freely admits to making up quotes in the Times, she prides herself on being accurate with figures and factual information.
"There's always a kernel of truth in there somewhere," she said. And when she does use a real quote, it's exact, she said. Often, even recorded for proof.
The Times was created in the first place over real serious issues. It all started in 1996 during a huge controversy about the Berkeley Police Department's use of pepper spray.
There were weeks of heated council meetings and public protests. People on both sides were all worked up over the topic -- to the point that nothing could be accomplished.
"Both sides were so fact-challenged about this," said the 47-year-old Denney. "There was very little medical research presented. People were screaming at meetings almost to the point of violence. I thought there was a strong need for comedy."
So she printed up the first "Pepper Spray Times," with items about pepper spray improving one's complexion, and information on pepper spray recipes.
She claimed the Police Review Commission was too afraid of the police to subpoena incident reports, so members decided to "visualize" receiving the reports instead. She dressed up in a fake police uniform and handed the fliers out at council meetings.
But that wasn't all. Denney also did some real reporting, making a Freedom of Information Act request for pepper spray incident reports from the police department.
"I got some information that way," information which may have helped clarify some of the facts in the dispute, she said. "I hope I at least added to the dialogue."
Denney didn't really plan to continue the Times, but she had such fun doing it and got such strong reactions -- of all kinds -- that she has made it a monthly publication.
The main distribution point is at City Hall, but she does accept subscriptions and she'll mail it for free. "Money is always acceptable, however," she said. She even has some subscribers in Chicago.
Surprisingly enough, Berkeley's Mayor Shirley Dean -- who has undoubtedly been lampooned in the Times on some occasion but couldn't remember when -- loves Denney. (Dean already knew who wrote the Times, so it wasn't any fun to tell her.)
"I think Carol's the funniest thing," Dean said, chuckling at the mere mention of the Times. "I avidly read each issue and save them. What I like about the way she writes is that it's hysterically funny, but not mean-spirited.
"And I like the little note at the bottom each time that says "plagiarize wildly," Dean added. "That shows a pretty fun attitude on her part."
Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque also broke into a rare bout of chuckles when asked about Denney, saying she loves the Times because it's "not just a sardonic discussion of issues, but really taking the issue and going off on a flight of fancy about it in a humorous way," she said.
"There was one time, when we were discussing the nudity ban, and Carol wrote about how I wanted to tax various body parts that were exposed as a creative way of increasing city revenues," Albuquerque said. "That was really hilarious."
This Pepper Spray stuff is all well and good, but in real life, Denney is an "obsessive" musician, she said. That's actually what she does for a living. She is a composer, a lyricist -- with overtly political overtones. She performs live concerts, playing the guitar and tons of other instruments, including the very difficult concertina -- a squeeze box kind of thing that she likes because it's really loud, yet so compact you can hold it up close to a microphone during outdoor protests and rallies.
Denney just released her new CD called "The Rich Will Never Be Poor." Her music has even been barred from some venues because of her politically charged lyrics. She takes this all in stride and will probably write a song about it.
So Carol, anything else you'd like to tell the readers under your real name? "Perhaps just to send money," she said. "Did I mention sending money?"
If you want to subscribe to the "Pepper Spray Times," check out Denney's Web site at www.caroldenney.com.