August 20, 2014
August 16, 2014
August 15, 2014
Last night I dumped out a big pile of food for my feral cats at my campsite. Within a couple minutes this pack of raccoons showed up and ran my cats off. Five or six of them. Big, hairy mothers. The raccoons snarled viciously at each other as they’re fighting over the food. Raccoons are like a mob of lowlife thugs. A nasty critter. But very intelligent. I have total respect for them. They were about five feet from my sleepingbag while they were eating. I watched them in the darkness with fascination.
All the other critters in the woods cower in fear in the face of human beings. We’re six-foot tall, with big brains and amazingly agile fingers. Plus, weapons. Top of the food chain we are. And the other animals recognize that, and respect that. Except the raccoons. They have absolutely no fear. They stomp around the woods like the neighborhood bullies.
I remember the first time I confronted a raccoon in the woods. I jumped up and shouted: “BAHAARGHH!! BEAT IT! SCRAM!! GET LOST!! NOWWWW!!!” while making all these very fierce gestures. The raccoon just sat there staring at me with those blank raccoon eyes, like: “Yeah. Whatever, dude.”
August 14, 2014
Living on the streets you meet a lot of street people who are — how should I put this? — a little peculiar. You meet many people who stretch the parameters of what we would consider normal human behavior.
For example, there’s this one street person who’s been hanging out on the Berkeley campus for over a decade. He’s a big, burly, heavy-set guy with a bit of gut. Blandly normal looking face. You could picture him playing the slightly-dim but jovial middle-aged father on a TV sitcom. Its easy to picture him sitting in his easy chair with a pipe. Or cooking burgers on the grill in the backyard. He’s the kind of guy who blends into the crowd and if you passed him on the street you probably wouldn’t even notice him. It’s only after repeated exposures to the guy do you become aware of his, uh, peculiarities.
For example, in all the years I’ve seen him, I’ve never seen him once talking to another human being. And he’ll often sit for hours in the same place, staring blankly into the sky. If you happen to get close to him, you’ll notice that he’s often making these weird sounds — this high-pitched squealing sound. And he’ll often make these contorted facial expressions, squinting his eyes, like there’s some kind of intense struggle going on in his brain. It’s like he’s talking to himself, having some weird conversation in a language only he understands. But unless you looked closely at him (which few people do) you wouldn’t even notice these peculiarities.
I have no idea what his name is. And he’s so bland, I’ve never even come up with a nickname for him in my head. So lets just call him Milton.
So anyways, this one morning I’m in a basement men’s room on the campus, sitting in a stall taking care of business. It’s the weekend, so the building is practically deserted. Which I’m grateful for. A little peace and quiet and privacy. Frankly, I’m not a morning person. When you wake up with 300 hangovers a year, you develop an adversarial relationship with morning. I’ll sometimes warn people: “I don’t turn into a human being until I get that first cup of coffee in me.” So I’m usually a little shattered and fragile in the morning. So it was nice to have found this peaceful haven to help me ease into my day.
When suddenly someone walks into the men’s room, followed by the sounds of explosions crashing all across the room. I’m momentarily stunned and confused at first. What the fuck is going on??!! This cacophony of explosions echoing and reverberating across the tiled men’s room walls (amazing the acoustics you get in a bathroom). At first I thought it was a series of firecrackers. I quickly realize some nut was rushing from toilet to toilet, flushing them over and over again. It was like being in the middle of a fireworks explosion. And while the guy is flushing the toilets non-stop he’s making these weird, high-pitched giggling noises, almost like a little girl.
I immediately suspect it’s Milton, because I’ve caught him doing his toilet-flushing routine before. And I check under the stall wall to get a good glimpse of his shoes, just to make sure I identify the right guy. Over the years of using public restrooms I’ve come across three or four different people who got their jollies from pulling this toilet-flushing routine. Serial flushers. It’s a special kind of nut.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” I shout. “STOP FLUSHING THE GODDAM TOILETS!”
I would have rushed out and confronted him right then and there, but unfortunately I was predisposed at the time.
The guy makes a couple more high-pitched giggle sounds, flushes a couple more toilets, and rushes out of the room.
So now I’m really steamed. My morning has been shattered. I finish my business and go rushing off in search of Milton.
Now I’ve gotten into more than my fair share of these kind of confrontations over the years. Because 1.) I can be a bit of a hot-head. And 2.) After several decades of living on the streets, surrounded by nuts and assholes like Milton, you just get damn tired of taking shit.
But these confrontations can be very tricky. Especially when you’re confronting a nut. And doubley so when he’s a large nut. The goal, of course, is to resolve the conflict, nip the thing in the bud, draw a line in the sand and make sure he knows he better not cross it. Which is how it works out sometimes. But other times, it can escalate into an on-going feud and outright war that can go on for years. Which can involve physical violence, the police or worse. And the street scene is a very enclosed scene. So you’re constantly running into each other. So it’s a tricky thing that has to be handled with a certain amount of tact and restraint. Which I unfortunately lack.
I quickly spot Milton hanging out at his usual spot behind the Student Union building, staring blankly into space like a big, dumb bear. I get right in his face and shout:
“DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!! FLUSHING THE TOILET OVER AND OVER WHEN I’M IN THE RESTROOM!!’
“Whatever are you talking about?” says Milton with a look of blank innocence on his dull mug.
“YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!! YOU WERE JUST IN THE BASEMENT MEN’S ROOM AT WHEELER FLUSHING THE TOILETS OVER AND OVER!! DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!!”
Milton gives me a blank look of stupidity, like he can’t quite formulate a response in whatever passes for a brain in his head. I give him one last hard look and stomp off.
Well, thankfully, nothing more came of that particular confrontation. But for years afterwards, whenever we happen to pass on the street, I always think of that incident. And I’m sure every time he sees me, he thinks the same thing.
August 13, 2014
My drinking is starting to get off the hook. I’ve been back in Berkeley for a month and I’ve been drunk every night. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s the general emptiness of my life. Trying to fill the space with something.
Normally I’m a functional drunk. But every now and then I’ll push it too far and lose my sense of time and space. Last night I was so drunk (two pitchers and a pint of STRONG beer — Racer X, my favorite bar beer, 7.8% alcohol content, has a nice kick to it) that I fell down when I was reaching for the piece of cardboard that I use for a sleeping mat. Toppled over and fell into a ditch. I tried several times to stand up. But it was hopeless My equilibrium was off. “Fighting against the laws of gravity,” is how I put it. And losing. So I wisely decided to sleep right there. In the ditch. And I had my cardboard to sleep on. So it was actually quite comfortable.
Woke up a couple hours later. And was sober enough to navigate my way up the hill a hundred yards to where I had my sleeping bag stashed. I fed my feral cats — who had been waiting patiently for me to quit goofing around and get my goddam ass out of the ditch and feed them. And then crawled into my sleeping bag and lived happily ever after. Until the next morning when I woke up feeling like shit.
August 11, 2014
August 10, 2014
This is another one of the “Telegraph Avenue characters” that used to drive me nuts, but who I also got a kick out of on another level. He was a regular customer at my 25 Cent Books vending table. And he was one of those guys that really played up the “evil queen” routine. Swiveling his hips and doing a Mae West schtick. Vamping and camping. But funny. Tongue firmly planted in cheek (I won’t say which cheek).
And he’d always talk dirty to me. I mean, filthy. Saying how much he wanted to fuck me. “Honey, I would looove to lick your etc, etc.” Mostly, I think he did it because he liked to embarrass straight guys and make them cringe. He was mostly kidding (at least I hope he was). I’d play along: “Stop it! You are sounding like a shameless hussy, you slut.” But we had a lot of other stuff in common, too. Like the Fab Mab punk rock days. He was a bit of a lounge lizard.
Then he’d do his other routine. “I just so hate black men! They are so vile! I just loathe them so much!!” (like a lot of gay black guys, he took a lot of shit from straight black guys) . . . I would chide him: “You are so racist!” Ha ha.
I used to hate it when he did all the dirty sex talk. Coming on to me. It was embarrassing. But I was helpless to stop it. Because I’m such an egomaniac. The idea that somebody, anybody, might possibly find me attractive was something I didn’t want to discourage. Ha ha.
August 9, 2014
This guy used to drive me nuts back when I was doing the recycling gig. I called him “the Human Vacuum Cleaner.” Because if he was ahead of me on my route, he’d clean out ever can and bottle for a 20 block radius.
But I tremendously admired his work ethic. He did recycling just like a 9-to-5 job. And he worked non-stop all day long, 5 or 6 days a week. Which can be grueling labor, recycling. I think he’s Vietnamese, a little guy about 5 foot tall, probably in his late 60s. Don’t think he speaks English. Shows up every morning in a car, probably from Oakland — just like a commuter going to work — parks it on a side street, and then he buzzes up and down every street on the Telegraph scene. Walks countless miles, and always moving fast.
The load he’s got right now is probably worth 25 or 30 dollars. And it probably took him several hours to collect it. Working hard and fast and relentless. Just to give you the scale. Nobody’s getting rich recycling, that’s for sure. The average recycler would be happy to amass a load like that in a day or two.
The Human Vacuum Cleaner has got such a lust for cans and bottles . . . one time I was pulling some cans out of a garbage can, and he came buzzing right at me like a torpedo. He couldn’t help himself. He’s like a machine. I turned and snarled at him. Like: “BACK! BACK! This garbage can is mine!” . . . He only grudgingly turned on his heels and sped off towards another garbage can. Ha ha. And I swear, his facial expression was just like a shark.
We had a friendly competition for several years, since we both worked the same area. We’d pass each other constantly. Both
grumbling at the sight of each other. GRRR!! Sometimes I’d beat him to the punch and score all the cans. But many times I’d hit a couple of garbage cans in a row that had been stripped of every last can and bottle, and I’d know the whole area had been stripped clean. I’d say: “Curses!! The Human Vacuum Cleaner strikes again!!” All the garbage cans in the area would be like a forest that had been completely clear-cut.
The Telegraph/Berkeley campus area is so congested, it’s one of the prime recycling areas. There are usually a dozen different recyclers working the area at any given time. And each one of us would develop our own special niche. For example, Hate Man attracted all the alcoholics to his Hate Camp scene, because it was a great place to hang out and get drunk. And after we pounded our beers, we’d toss him the empty can or bottle. Hate Man would amass a big bag of recyclables just laying there on his ass under his blanket, smoking his Virginia Slims. Ha ha. Crafty old fuck, that Hate Man.
August 8, 2014
I was a Telegraph Avenue street vendor off and on for 19 years. From 1990 to 2009. Like most things in my life it started out by accident. Duncan and I had just published the second issue of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar and it had become a surprise local hit. So CBS News came up to the Ave to do a feature about it. They thought it would be a cute visual to have us actually selling copies of the Street Calendar on a street corner. So I dragged over a newspaper rack, put a board on top of it, and dumped a bunch of calendars on it. Pretty soon a crowd of people had gathered around us and were buying copies. I think they were attracted by the TV cameras. People seem to think that if something’s on TV it must be important or something (an attitude that has always baffled me considering all the crap on TV).
But as I stood there, a little lightbulb went off in my head. You hang out on a street corner and all these people start throwing 10 dollar bills at you. Seemed like a good gig. Thus began my career as a Telegraph street vendor.
Duncan and I became a fixture at our vending spot in front of Cody’s Books. And over the years I developed several different vending gigs, starting with the Calendar. Then one year I sold this beautiful set of greeting cards by different homeless artists that I printed up on a linoleum press. That was a big hit, too. It was the closest I ever came to printing up money. We sold every card we printed. And for awhile I sold my own different publications and artwork.
For about 10 years I did my 25 Cent Book table, selling used books. That, too, started by accident. I used to scrounge up books and try and sell them at Moe’s Book store. Usually I’d sell a couple books and make 20 or 30 dollars in cash or trade-slips. Anyways, this one day I scored four boxes of pretty good books. Unfortunately, Moe’s only bought 5 of the books. So I thought: “Geez, these are pretty good books. What should I do with them?” So I dumped them out on a street corner, wrote “25 CENT BOOKS” on a piece of cardboard. And pretty soon I had 50 bucks in my pocket. Thus began me 25 Cent Book table.
I scrounged up the books from a variety of sources. But one of my primary sources were the recycling bins at Half Price Books on Shattuck. Twice a week they would put out 5 or 6 recycling bins crammed to the top with all the books they no longer wanted to sell. The only downside was, they would tear off all the covers (to prevent people from trying to re-sell them — it was a pain in the ass for the book stores to keep getting the same books that they had thrown out boomeranging back at them 20 times a day). So what I would do was haul all the books and the torn covers to my vending table. And in between dealing with the customers, I would systematically tape the covers back onto the books. I’d go through 4 or 5 big rolls of tape every day. And after awhile I became very proficient at it. Fast and exacting. I got so good at it, you could barely even tell they had been taped. The tape even added a nice bit of lamination to the covers.
And I found it very relaxing. Sitting there for 10 hours taping away. It was kind of like knitting or crocheting. Mindless, but just challenging enough to keep your mind semi-occupied while you’re multi-tasking. And it was weird to have invented this entirely new craft that was all my own. I was without a doubt the greatest book-taper in the history of book-taping. I was an expert in a field of one.
And it was amazing to me, the quality of the books Half Price Books would throw out. These big, gigantic coffee table art books. Every classic author you’ve ever heard of. All the books that had been best-sellers just 6 months ago, but now had to be cleared from the shelves to make room for the latest best sellers. I even found some of my own books in the recycling bins.
So it was like a gold mine. And my customers absolutely loved it. Getting all these great books for a quarter. It was like selling books by the pound. And I would go through thousands of books every week.
One day this older, Indian-looking guy approached me. I guess he had seen me taping away. He had this huge book with a torn spine and he offered me 20 bucks if I would tape it. It was a sacred text by Kabir, this famous eastern mystic. And it was one of those ancient, gigantic books like you’d see on the altar of a temple. The pages were so silky and thin they were practically transparent. I felt like it was a great honor to even be holding a sacred book look that. But I was also very nervous as I taped away. I sure didn’t want to fuck it. Maybe God would put a curse on me or something.
Another time, this friend of mine — who was a big chess fanatic — spotted this chess book from the 1940s that was actually autographed by this famous chess master. He bought it for 25 cents, then took it to Moe’s Books who paid him $150 for it (not a bad dividend for a 25 cent investment). And Moe’s ended up selling it for $250. My friend offered to split the dough with me. But I let him keep it all because I knew I would get such great mileage from telling the story over the years.
When Duncan died in 2009 I knew the party was over and that it was time to retire my vending career. I distinctly remember the last time I set up my vending table in November of 2009. At one point it suddenly began pouring rain. Almost like a flash flood. So I scrambled to cover up all my books with these huge plastic tarps I kept with me for that purpose. Then I rushed off to this doorway on Telegraph to escape the rain. Normally I would be cursing the gods when that kind of thing happened (“MOTHERFUCKIN’ COCKSUCKER!! MOTHERFUCKIN’ COCKSUCKER!!” repeated many, many times). But I knew this was my last day, so I was savoring the experience. It was like the last scene in a movie. I sat there in the doorway, sipping on my beer, as the rain pounded down, with this big, goofy grin on my face. Thinking about a million different memories from over the last 19 years).
When the rain finally stopped, I went back to my vending table and packed it up for the last time. I was going to keep the cardboard “25 CENT BOOK” sign as a memento. But just as I was reaching for it, this big gust of wind blew the sign far down Haste Street. I took that as an omen. The gig was over.
Aaron Cometbus later did a famous issue of his Cometbus zine all about the history of the different Telegraph Avenue book stories. And I was featured in there. As the last chapter naturally. And it was a great honor to have been a part of it all. A little part of history
I used to always cut through the Haas School of Business at the end of the Berkeley campus every night on the way to my campsite in the Berkeley hills. It was usually well past midnight, so the place was usually deserted. They often had these catered events during the day, so the garbage cans were often full of great food. So I’d always make a quick round, and hit all the cans, looking for leftover food for my feral cats. I was spending 50 to 100 bucks a month on cat food. So, to defray some of the costs, I’d feed my feral cats lots of human food, too. And they preferred the human food to the cat food. So it was a win-win situation. (One time I went through a 6-month period where I fed them nothing but human food. When I finally switched back to cat food, they wouldn’t eat it at first. Turned their noses up at it. Gave me a look like: “What the fuck is this shit, dude? Cat food??! Go out and get us some real food. NOW!!” Cats. Ha ha.)
So anyways, this one night I’m up there at this sort of outdoor mall area at Haas, and I’m scrounging around in the garbage cans. When suddenly this guy pops his head out of one of the doors. It’s the young black guy who was working as the late-night security guard. He calls out to me: “Psst. Hey you. Dude. Come over here!”
I thought: “Oh fuck. Busted. He’s gonna’ kick me out and tell me I can’t come through here any more.”
Instead he says: “Hey. I got something for you.” And he hands me 10 beef and chicken burritos, still wrapped in the tin foil. And three 2-liter bottles of soda.
“Oh man, thanks!” I said.
We high-fived and I went on my merry way. My cats were going to eat good that night. And me, too.
Evidently, the black dude, the security guard working at the Haas School of Business, had been doing the same basic thing I was doing. Grabbing the leftover food after the catered events and taking it home for his family and friends. And I guess this night he had a little extra, so he slung some of it my ways. Or maybe it was because he sees this pathetic homeless guy rooting around in the garbage cans and feels pity or empathy or whatever you call it.
But from that point on, he would lay a little food on me on a semi-regular basis whenever he spotted me coming through the Haas School of Business at the end of the Berkeley campus. And I thought it was a pretty cool thing to do. Because he didn’t have to do it, but he did it anyways. And face it. There’s not a lot of love lost between black guys towards white guys these days. In fact, there’s a fair amount of hostility and resentment. So it felt like some kind of little victory, or something.
I thought it was pretty darn cool that he would go out of his way to give me a little helping hand. I don’t want to make out like it was a big deal or anything. Like we’re all sitting around holding hands and singing “kum ba ya” together. But it was kind of special to me. I still remember it.