Acid Heroes: the Legends of LSD

October 21, 2014


Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:00 pm


Telegraph Avenue Street Music's photo.

Heroes.   It’s a funny word.  Means a lot of different things to people.  This is one of the most heroic things I ever saw.

It was at Duncan’s memorial. July of 2009.  My best friend had died.  So I was grieving.  On top of that, I had to put together the memorial service for the guy.  Which can be stressful.  In spite of it’s grim nature, putting on a memorial is kind of like putting together a big party or a concert.  Except you get no royalties, let alone a cut of the door.  But it was a soulful experience.  Hundreds of people expressed their love and respect for Duncan.

By the end of the night I was totally drunk and emotionally drained.  But relieved.   We had given Duncan a good send-off to the Next Life.  So I started to pack everything up.  But then I noticed — much to my shock and disbelief —  that my backpack was missing.  I had kept it stashed under my chair while I was doing my duties as toast-master general of the memorial.  But, apparently, somebody had stolen it.  Holy shit!  Now one thing you have to understand:  when you’re a homeless street person, you live out of your backpack.  I had all my crucial items in my backpack.  A hundred dollars in cash.  A clean change of underwear.  Both pairs of glasses (I’m half-blind without them).  All my glaucoma medication (which cost hundreds of dollars and I needed to take on a daily basis to keep from going completely blind).  All my toiletries and other daily-living essentials.  My laminated Guru photos that I’d been carrying around with me everywhere I went for the last 12 years.   Plus:  my favorite porn mag (bastard!).  But the most painful thing to me:  My journal, my notebook, was in my back pack. Three months worth of immortal writings, hand-scribbled by me — Ace Backwords — now lost forever!!!  An epic tragedy for me personally.  And for the world of literature, which lost a bunch of crucial, irreplaceable shit that I had personally hand-scribbled from the depths of my goddamn soul.  So I was bummed.  Seriously.

I stood there on the corner of Telegraph and Haste in a complete daze.  Completely fucked.  It’s like when you’re at your weakest point.  And then somebody comes along and kicks you in the nuts.  The proverbial knockout punch.  My friend had just died.  And I couldn’t even properly mourn the loss without somebody stealing all my shit when my back was turned.  So I was at a major low  point in my life.  I just felt like crawling into a hole and dying as Option A.   I remember thinking:  “I’m just going to pack up all my shit, and then tomorrow I’m gonna’ get on a Greyhound bus.  I don’t even care where it’s going.  Just anywhere but Berkeley.”  I’m generally a fighter.  But this was such a low-blow, it just felt like things just weren’t worth fighting for anymore.  I mean, if you can’t even relax and let your guard down at a memorial for your best friend without getting stabbed in the back by some asshole. . . .Well, fuck it.

It turned out, this asshole that I had been feuding with for years — lets call him Snake — had stolen my backpack.  “You snooze, you lose,” as he cleverly explained to one of his friends.  He had been lurking around during the memorial.  And, like a viper, he had been waiting, for years, to strike back at me.  And so he finally got me when I was most vulnerable.

Basically, the two of us had been scrapping for years.  We could both be kind of assholes, so it was inevitable that we would tussle eventually.  Snake was one of those guys who caused trouble and got in fights virtually everywhere he went.  One of those guys who was constantly getting banned, getting stay-aways, getting restraining orders, getting evicted, getting arrested, everywhere he went.  Everywhere.  Just one of those types.  There are a lot of guys on the streets like him.  They burn their bridges everywhere they go, so they end up on the streets because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Snake was a big guy, about 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, about 30 years old at that point, had kind of a baby-face, often with a malicious, leering smile on his cute little face, in combination with a pea for a brain.  A bad combination.  He was basically a hulking piece of shit.  An opinion widely shared by many.

One time we got in a fight and he hit me over the head with a chair and perforated my ear-drum.  And I went deaf in one ear.  Which sucked.  And made me really, really mad.  So I spit in his face and told him:  “I’m gonna’ kill you!”   And I meant it.  So we were seriously scrapping.  But then, after about three months of warfare between us, my ear started to heal, so I came to my senses.  I figured (as I usually do eventually):  “This shit ain’t worth it.”  So I apologized.  Made peace with the dude.  We shook hands like bros.  And lived happily ever after.  Or so I thought.  But actually, he still secretly carried a grudge.  So he was just waiting to deliver the knockout punch when I was at my weakest ebb.

So anyways, like I said, at this point I was like some guy who had just been kicked in the nuts.  For once I had no comeback.  Completely defeated.  I give up.   Crawl into a hole and die.

But here’s the heroic part.  My friend Danny heard about my sad and tragic plight. Which was bad news for Snake.  Now Danny, he only had one leg (he lost the other in a motorcycle accident when he was 19).  But he was as tough as they come.  If you messed with him, he’d get in your face, smack you in the face, and say: “Do you want me to stick my foot up your ass?”  A somewhat rhetorical question.  But he meant it.  But Danny was also a sentimental guy.  Family and friends meant a lot to him.  And he sort of saw the Telegraph street scene as his extended family.  And I think think he was doubly offended that someone would pull such dirty shit  on a sacred occasion like a memorial service.

So, on his own accord, Danny somehow managed to track Snake down in the middle of the night.  By making a bunch of phone calls, he found out where he lived in downtown Oakland.  And he burst right into his apartment.  Pounded on the door and burst into his place and basically said:  “What did you do with Ace Backwords’s shit?”   Turned out, Snake had dumped most of it in the dumpster behind his apartment building.  So Danny got Snake (“under duress”) to climb right into that fucking dumpster and he rooted around in the middle of the night, until he had retrieved all my crucial shit.  My glasses.  My glaucoma medication.  My immortal journal.  My Guru photos.  My change of clean underwear . . . Well, he didn’t retrieve my pornography or my hundred dollars in cash — that bastard Snake had pocketed that.  But that stuff is replaceable.  I got all my crucial stuff back.  And lived happily ever after.  Well, at least I didn’t crawl into a hole and die.

Is that heroic or what?


/0909/bnduncan_memorial.html  (Here are some cool photos from Duncan’s memorial.)

October 20, 2014

Rocky Raccoon

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 7:57 pm


(click on the “Ace Backwords” to watch the video)

October 19, 2014

Patty Hearst

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:54 pm


When I visited Berkeley for the first time in the summer of 1974, age 17, my older sister was living on Benvenue Avenue.  She was living in this boarding house with her hippie boyfriend in a one-room hippie pad (mattress on the floor, Jefferson Airplane poster on the wall, etc.).  Unbeknownst to us at the time, Patty Hearst was living right down the street in this brown shingle.  We probably anonymously passed her on the street many times. . .  All that would change a year later when the SLA — the Symbionese Liberation Army —  burst into the house with machine guns blaring and kidnapped Patty Hearst, spraying bullets across the neighborhood as they made their swashbuckling exit.

To give you an idea of the mood of Berkeley at the time, I remember much earnest political debate about the Patty Hearst affair.  Were the SLA righteous revolutionaries, offing the pigs and transforming society into a beautiful new tomorrow?  Or were they in fact just a bunch of demented, violent, destructive lunatics?  The debate raged.  And, at least within my circle of friends and acquaintances, opinions leaned overwhelmingly towards the former.  The SLA were, as we used to say, “right on.”  And when Patty Hearst picked up a machine gun and transformed herself into the revolutionary “Tanya,” there were many, many Berkeleyoids who were thrilled to the point of orgasm, practically.

At any rate, the whole Patty Hearst story is a classic time-capsule of the town that was Berkeley in the mid 1970s.


October 18, 2014

Friday night plus Saturday morning: a two-act melodrama in the key of C

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 7:10 pm


I know I've turned into one of those guys that wants to show you hundreds of "adorable" photos of their newborn baby.

I had another one of those nights last night. One of those nights you have every now and then in the life of an alcoholic. I woke up in the pitch darkness wondering: “WHERE THE HELL AM I?” I could hear my feral cats calling to me off in the distance. So that helped to orientate me. Somewhat. The cats were making that weird, high-pitched, wailing sound that cats sometimes make: “WAAAAAHH!” “WAAAAAHHHH!” Which in this case, probably translated into English as: “What the hell is that stupid idiot doing there lying in that ditch when he should be up and feeding us.” So I started to get a grasp of my situation.

I stood up shakily. Held my arms out by my side for balance. Which helped me from teetering over and plummeting back into the dirt. I could vaguely see my cats off in the distance. Little blurry blobs of fur in the darkness. So I followed them up the trail as they led me to my campsite. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like heroic Lassie the dog leading me to safety. The cats were leading me up to the catfood dish. But, fortunately, that’s also where I camp. So it was a win-win situation for both of us.

I grabbed my blankets from the bushes where I keep them stashed and then took out a can of catfood to reward my cats for saving me from peril. But wouldn’t you know it? If things weren’t sketchy enough at this point there was a goddam raccoon sitting there two feet away from me also waiting to be fed. So I’m sitting there at the catfood dish with my two feral cats on one side, and the raccoon on the other side. And they’re both growling at eachother. And I’m like the referee in the middle that has to navigate the situation. But I was proud of my cats for holding their ground and not running away like they usually do when a raccoon shows up. Course it was sort of like when the neighborhood bully shows up but your big brother (me) is there to protect you. So that made my cats feel especially tough in the situation.  I’m too drunk to find a stick to spoon the catfood out of the can like I usually do. So I have to scoop it out with my hands. Which I hate doing. The cats might really like that canned cat food. But I personally find it yucky and don’t like to get it on my hands. But I manage to dump one pile of it on one dish for the raccoon and another pile on the other dish for the cats. So we all lived happily ever after.

Feral Tom with his characteristic "needy" look.
Then it was like I blinked my eyes and I’m lying there with the sun shining in my face and its daylight. One of the few beneficial side effects of alcoholism is you don’t have to worry about insomnia. You usually sleep pretty well. In any circumstances. And I had gotten a good 8 hours of sleep and felt vaguely refreshed. My campsite was a complete mess, my blankets strewn haphazardly around me. And I didn’t have my cardboard matting, which I usually sleep on, so I had slept right on the dirt. I couldn’t find where my glasses were. My first thought was that I had lost them when I had toppled over. Or maybe I rolled over in my sleep and crushed them, (which I’ve done at least 5 times before, mangling them all out of shape). But. fortunately, they were laying there safely in the dirt by my blanket. Feral Tom, one of the more cautious of my feral cats, was peering at me from behind a tree. So I got up and fed him some cat food. I realized I was wearing gloves, which was odd. Apparently some time during the night I thought: “Gee, its a bit nippy, I better put some gloves on for warmth.” In fact when you sleep out in the cold you lose most of your body heat from your hands and your head. So that shows I was semi-sensical last night. Of course I had lost my hat somewhere amidst my confusion. So I’d have to track that down. Which is what its like in the dreaded Next Morning. You’re like a detective at the scene of the crime trying to piece together what had happened last night. I noticed there was a 6 pack of Racer 5 (my favorite) in my backpack, minus two bottles. It was probably the extra weight in my pack (about 10 pounds, those bottles are heavy) that had caused me to lose my balance, lose my equilibrium and topple over. Usually the laws of physics explain everything in the end.

I staggered down the trail and found my piece of cardboard and my hat at the spot where I had evidently plummeted to the earth. I would find my piss jar — filled to the brim — further on down the road where I had apparently placed it for some mysterious reason.

As I staggered down the road I noticed there was a huge mob of people up ahead of me. Including a bunch of cops and security guards. Its bad enough when you wake up hungover and disheveled. Not only that, you’re still drunk from the night before. And then on top of that,you also have to deal with reality (so-called). I quickly realized the people were all gathering there for the Cal football game which would be played in the stadium later in the afternoon. Cal was playing those UCLA Bruins from southern California. One of our natural rivals. Hopefully the Bruins will be defeated. Go Bears! As I passed the security guards who were manning one of the barricades I overheard one of them say: “How the hell did that guy get in here?” Because they had the entire area fenced off on account of the upcoming game. I briefly considered stopping and explaining to them my situation. But then I thought better of it and just kept walking. . .

October 17, 2014

Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson: A compare-and-contrast thing

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:05 pm

It’s interesting to compare Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson.  They have a lot of similarities as well as differences.

Both came into prominence through the ’60s counterculture press.  Bukowski writing a column for the Los Angeles underground newspaper Open City in the late ’60s.  And Thompson writing for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco a couple years later.

Both would become just as famous (and notorious) for their larger-than-life personas, as they would for their writing.  Both were kind of self-styled “outlaws.”  Both were famous for their chemically-altered states:  Bukowski, mostly on booze; Thompson on booze and a wide variety of drugs.  Both were macho kind of “man’s man” writers, reveling in booze, broads and barroom brawls.  Both had an affinity for violent sports: Bukowski as a boxing aficionado, and Thompson with his love of football.

Both were wildly admired by Hollywood actors.  Johnny Depp became close friends with Thompson, while Sean Penn was close to Bukowski for awhile.  In part because the two writers embodied the two traits most revered by actors:  They were both outrageously original characters.  And they could both write the kind of words that made actors look good when they performed those words.

Both Thompson and Bukowski saw themselves as “outsiders.”   Thompson had a life-long chip on his shoulder from growing up as a poor Kentucky hick from the wrong side of the tracks, who viewed the Louisville high society with both envy and contempt.  Bukowski was raised in a grim and loveless household, his alienation from mainstream society further heightened by a terrible case of adolescent acne that left him permanently disfigured and turned him into, in his words, “the ugliest man in Los Angeles.”

One key difference:  Hunter S. Thompson was almost an instant success.  His first two books — Hells Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas — were not only smash hits, they were cultural sensations that rocketed Thompson to superstardom.  Whereas Bukowski’s road to success was a smoother, more gradual ride.  He didn’t begin to gain real prominence and fame until he was in his 50s.  And his career — and his output — would continue to grow right up until his death at age 73.

Thompson, on the other hand would spend most of his life striving (and failing) to come up with a second act after his initial success.  His third book, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72, showed promise that Thompson could develop beyond merely writing about America’s subterranean underbelly (biker gangs and drug subcultures) to that of a keen observer of mainstream America.  But it would be pretty much downhill from here on in for Thompson as a writer.  His subsequent books would mostly be slapped-together attempts at rehashing his former glory.

Rolling Stone writer, David Felton, probably pin-pointed the reason for Thompson’s lackluster second act when he pointed out:  “Being a celebrity is easier than being a writer.  One thing Hunter does not enjoy is writing. He hates it and he fears it.  He would rather do anything than write, even be a celebrity.”

Unlike most writers — who tend towards being introspective and solitary, and have the kind of personality that lends itself to sitting alone in a little room with just a typewriter for long stretches of times — Thompson was an extremely outgoing and sociable person who liked to constantly be surrounded by people.  He liked to have a court of people around him at his Colorado home, with him as the center of attention, performing for an audience.  To get him to sit alone at a typewriter was like pulling teeth.  Editors and publishers soon realized that in order to get anything out of Thompson they had to ply him with a full-time assistant who would badger him and bribe him, 24 hours a day, in the hopes of pulling some words out of him.

Bukowski, on the other hand, loved nothing more than to be “sitting alone at the typer, with a bottle of good red and classical music on the box.  It’s the best party in town.”

Another difference between the two men:  In my opinion, Thompson’s basic personality had a deep streak of infantilism to it.  He was like a super-brat that needed to be constantly indulged and pampered.  One friend maintained that Thompson’s love of drugs was primarily an offshoot of his deep fear, and low threshold, of pain.  The smallest injury — a stubbed finger, anything —  would send Thompson running for his medicine cabinet.  And the slightest discomfort would inspire the most violent outburst of childish temper tantrums.

Whereas Bukowski always struck me as more of a fully developed adult.  Bukowski largely saw human life as a grim and painful affair. But fancied himself as the great battler.  No matter how tough life was, Bukowski would always be tougher.  Fighting to his very last breath.  “I judge a man by how he walks through the fire.”  And on his tombstone, Bukowski would have a silhouette drawing of a boxer.

Thompson, on the other hand, would commit suicide at age 67, for the reason that life was “no longer fun” — words that one could easily imagine a child uttering.

October 15, 2014

“Dumpster Danny”

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:41 pm
So sad to see this posted yesterday on University ave. Danny was a sweet and kind and generous human being. A great loss to us all.
This is so weird!  I just happened to be thinking about Danny this morning as I was walking down from my campsite.  Thinking about some memories of him back when he was “Dumpster Danny” and hung out by Cody’s.  What’s truly weird is, I haven’t thought about Danny in years!  But for some reason, he just happened to pop into my head this morning.  Thinking about him and wondering what he was up to these days.

And then I go to Facebook and see this picture posted on Moby’s page.  Weird.

The last time I saw Danny was about 3 years ago.  I had to go to an AA meeting as part of my “community service” to work off an “open container” ticket.  And Danny was working for the city at the time, doing volunteer work for different AA and NA programs.  Looked great.  Still hippy-ish, but clean-cut and well-dressed.  He’d been off the streets for several years at that point, had kind of cleaned up his act.  He’d periodically have a few problems with “substances.”  Danny liked to have fun, and every now and then maybe he had a little too much fun.  Ha ha.  But he had been straight for many years by this point, and was using his expertise in the field of “substances” to help other people as a counseler.  And I’m sure he was good at it.

The thing I remember about Danny, he was always smiling, always laughing.  Had this infectious cackle of a laugh.  One of those guys who just seemed to really enjoy life, always happy.  Always had a twinkle in his eyes as he strolled around with his hands in his pockets, never in a hurry, it was like he whistled his way through life.  Reminded me of an elf.  One of those guys, you couldn’t imagine Danny having an enemy in the world.

He was a couple years older than me.  I think he was one of those guys who had been a hippy in the ’60s and just never changed. He was a Telegraph fixture for many years.  When I knew him in the ’90s he used to hang out by the Cody’s building behind our vending table.  Had been homeless for years.  It was like the streets were his living room and he was perfectly at home on them.  Never had much money back then.  Mostly lived off what he scrounged and dumpster-dived.  But he never seemed needy.  Always seemed perfectly satisfied with his lot.  I’m not sure what his spirituality was, don’t remember him talking about it. But he had the demeanor of an enlightened spiritual master — a wandering street sage —  who knew the answer, but kept it to himself, like he was in on a great secret and knew that everyone else would find out about it in their good, sweet time.

One of the most impressive things to me (as a guy who’s kind of a curmudgeon) is how Danny seemed to like everybody, seemed to get along with everybody.  Had absolutely no venom or bile in him.  Was just one of those very rare people who was completely sweet, through and through.

God, it’s so weird.  The memory that popped into my head this morning was about the time he hooked up with this crazy homeless black  woman. “The Gorilla Woman” as she was known.   The woman just turned up one day on our corner and planted herself there.  And she made everybody nervous.  Because she obviously had serious mental problems.  She was always raving to herself, muttering and shouting at imaginary enemies. And she was in a constant rage.  There was a barely (and I mean just barely) suppressed violence that eminated from her every pore.  Plus, she was built like an NFL middle linebacker.  Just one more raving Telegraph wingnut on a street that was famous for them.  But it was un-nerving to have her stomping around our vending table all day long, just seething with rage.  Like a ticking time-bomb that was bound to go off sooner or later.  And probably sooner.

But then, much to everyone’s surprise, Danny made a play for her.   He was a bit of a lady’s man who truly loved the ladies.   Practically all the ladies.  Ha ha.  And before you knew it, they were a couple.  After that, the woman would sit quietly alongside Danny on his blanket. Just sort of humming along.  Danny had that calming effect on virtually every one who came into his orbit.

I lost touch with Danny after he got off the streets.  And now he’s probably circling around the planet earth with a twinkle in his eye as he embarks on his next soul journey.

October 12, 2014

The return of K

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 10:16 pm

Ran into K for the first time in almost two years.  Was on the University Avenue bus heading back from my storage locker.  And I noticed this cute, young chick with her back to me sitting in the front seat.  At first I thought it was sexy Chanel —  this young chick from Hate Camp who’s always dolling herself up in slinky fashions.  The chick on the bus had the bare-shoulder thing going, and these long, slinky gloves all the way up her arms.

But when she stood up and turned around to get off the bus, I was surprised to see it was K.  She was wearing a long, plain kind of hippy skirt, and she looked kind of like a hippie peasant woman.  She was missing a couple of her front teeth, which gave her a  street woman look.  Of course, I flashed on the memory of the stylish young “punk rock chick” K —  the way she looked when she first hit Berkeley in 1997 at age 17.  This baby-faced thing that looked 12-years old.  And now she’s a middle-aged woman.  Which you could see coming.  But it was still a little sad.

She was standing there by the back door waiting to get off on San Pablo Avenue.  She had her back to me. She was probably coming from the Berkeley Marina.  And headed to San Pablo to hook up with some people she knows. And it was one of those split-second calls where it all happened too fast to think.  She’s going to be off the bus in the next two seconds.  So I called out.

“Hey, K.”

She turned and looked at me.  “Oh, hi.”

“Hey, here you go.”  I pulled out the big wad of cash in my pocket and handed it to her.

“Oh thanks,” she said.  “For my birthday?”

“Yeah,” I said.

She had a happy smile on her face.  Contented and at peace, even.  Self-contained, calm and self-controlled — maintaining her public façade, blending in and functioning like a normal person.  Which might seem like “damning with faint praise.”  But after all the years of seeing her sprocketing all over the place, it was nice to see that, at least for the time being, she’s somewhat normal and functioning. Which is an incredible triumph in it’s own way.  Considering what she’s been through in her life.

Just before she walked out the back door, she turned to me and smiled happily and said:

“Oh, I’m sorry about the (unintelligible).”  I couldn’t  really make out what she said.

And then she was gone.

. .

October 11, 2014

The Flower Shop

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:43 pm
Life is weird.  During the 19 years I ran my vending table on Telegraph and Haste, there was always this flower shop directly in front of my vending stand, just a few yards away.  I used to think:  "Rich people might spend 50 or 100 bucks a day to get a few bouquets of flowers to beautify their workplace.  While I'm a poverty-level street person.  And yet I have an entire store full of beautiful flowers arrayed around my work place every day.  For free."  Weird how life works. . . .  And the flowers really did add something special to the vibe of that corner.  Not just the beauty and the fragrance of the flowers.  But the constant parade of people buying them as an expression of their love. . .   Mother's Day was always the biggest day of the year for the flowershop.  And the line of customers would curl around the block.  Even moreso than on Valentines Day (which I believe was second-most popular day).  The theory being:  Everyone has a mother.  But not everyone has a boyfriend or girlfriend.   Christmas and Easter were the other two biggies.  Father's Day was a dud.  Ha ha (everybody probably went to the hardware store for that one). We had relatively few problems or fights over the years on that corner (I said "relative" -- I got in about 10 physical fights over the years, but thats not bad considering what a volatile scene it was, just a half a block from People's Park and all the crazy people that were always milling around -- and in my defense, your Honor, there was a bare minimum of actual bloodshed -- it was mostly just scrapping).  And I think it was the presence of all those flowers that really helped to keep the peace. . . .  And all the different flowergirls that worked there over the years were all incredibly beautiful and sweet.  I don't know if working amongst flowers all day made them that way.  Or if they just happened to be naturally sweet.  . . .   We had more than a few memorials for fallen comrades over the years on that corner  (it got to the point where one oldtimer quipped:  "The only time we get together and party anymore is when somebody dies.").  And I always bought flowers.  And the flowergirls always laid an incredible spread of flowers on me.  Because the flowergirls were all part of the scene, too. . . .  I'm thinking about it now because they just recently tore down the flowershop booth.  They're putting some kind of trendy new club or art discoteque or something in the building.  Hopefully it'll be pretty cool.  But I doubt it will be as cool as a flowershop.

Life is weird.  During the 19 years I ran my vending table on Telegraph and Haste, there was always this flower shop directly in front of my vending stand, just a few yards away.  I used to think:  “Rich people might spend $50 or 100 bucks a day to get a few bouquets of flowers to beautify their workplace.  While I’m a poverty-level street person.  And yet, I have an entire store full of  beautiful flowers arrayed around my workplace every day.   For free.”   Weird how life works.

And the flowers really did add something special to the vibe of that corner.  Not just the beauty and the fragrance of the flowers.  But the constant parade of people buying them as an expression of their love.

Mother’s Day was always the biggest day of the year for the the flower shop.   And the line of customers would curl around the block.   Even moreso than on Valentine’s Day (which I believe was the second-most popular day).  The theory being:  “Everyone has a mother.  But not everyone has a boyfriend or girlfriend.”   Christmas and Easter were the other two biggies.   Father’s Day was a dud.  Ha ha (everybody probably went to the hardware store for that one).

We had relatively few problems or fights over the years on that corner.  And I think it was the presence of all those flowers that really helped to keep the peace.  (I said “relatively few” — I got in about 10 physical fights over the years, but that’s not bad considering what a volatile scene it was, just a half-a-block from People’s Park and all the crazy people that were always milling around — and in my defense, your Honor, there was a bare minimum of actual bloodshed — it was mostly just scrapping)

And all the different flower girls that worked there over the years were all incredibly beautiful and sweet.   I don’t know if working amongst flowers all day made them that way (I mean, it beats working with raw meat all day, or working in the sewer system).  Or if they just happened to be naturally sweet.

We had more than a few memorials for fallen comrades over the years on that corner (it got to the point where one old-timer quipped:  “The only time we get together and party anymore is when somebody dies.”).  And I always bought flowers.   And the flower girls always laid an incredible spread of flowers on me.  Because the flower girls were all part of the scene, too.

I’m thinking about it now, because they just recently tore down the flower shop booth.   They’re putting some kind of trendy new nightclub or artsy discotheque or something in the building.   Hopefully, it’ll be pretty cool.   But I doubt it will be as cool as a flower shop.

Damn hippies.


October 9, 2014

Public computers

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 7:08 pm
The library computers -- my little cubicle of heaven.

The library computers, my little cubicle of heaven.

I’ve never had my own computer.  So I regularly use the public computers.  And one thing I’ve learned from this:  There are a lot of strange people in this world.  Like right now, I’m at the library and I’m using the library’s computers.  Along with about 50 other people.  The general lot of humanity.  So, just by the law of averages, there are bound to be a couple of, ahem, characters.  Like the guy who’s sitting right behind me.  He’s clacking away at the keyboard of his computer, incredibly loud and at an incredible speed.  It’s quite a racket, actually.  So I looked over his shoulder to see what he was typing.  And he’s not typing anything.  He’s just banging away on the keyboard.  Almost like he’s playing drums (gets a nice, wild rhythm going, often ending a beat with a grand flourish).   And as he types, he keeps shaking his head back and forth, and gesturing wildly with his arms like a conductor leading an orchestra.   Every now and then, he’ll stop typing and stare intently at the screen, as if studying it with great import. . . . Makes me a little nervous that this guy is right behind me and I got my back to him.   But I guess as long as I can hear him clacking away, I’m safe.

There’s another weird, old guy who’s sitting across from me.  He’s a regular at the library. What’s distinctive about him is;  at all times, indoors or out, he’s not only wearing a batting helmet or crash helmet on his head, he also has the Darth Vader kind of protective visor he wears on his head.  You can only see his eyes through the slits, and wisps of gray hair.  And his demeanor is that of the classic Grumpy Old Man.  Almost like a cartoon character.  The other day I was sitting at the computer right next to him.  And this young black woman was sitting at the computer on the other side of him, with her one-year old baby.  And the baby keeps crying.  Now I, personally, have no problem with the sound of a crying baby. I even find it kind of soothing; it’s a natural sound and it’s kind of like hearing somebody singing the blues.  But I can understand how other people might find it annoying.  The Grumpy Old Man keeps complaining about the baby, and the two of them keep jawwing back and forth, arguing and bitching at each other.  Old Grumpy goes to the front desk and complains to the librarians several times.  Finally, the black woman has had enough, grabs her baby and her stuff, stands up and prepares to leave.  But before she goes, she spits at Grumpy, a direct shot right to the face.  Fortunately, most of it just hits his protective head-gear. . . . And I couldn’t help wondering:  Maybe that’s why he’s always wearing the crash helmet.  Because other people are always trying to bean him on the head. . . . Just another day at the public computers.

Course, I’m one to talk.  This one time I was using one of the public computers on the Berkeley campus.  And nobody was noticing me.  So I couldn’t resist.  I clicked on this porno site.   And on the site is this big color photo of this woman in, well, let’s just say it was a particularly crude and graphic pose.  And then — wouldn’t you just know it? —  the screen of my computer locked up and froze.   I guess they had the computers rigged to specifically do this, to prevent people (like me) from going on porn sites.   So now I’m sitting there in public, with all these people milling around, with this hideously obscene image frozen on the screen of my computer.  So I’m in a panic.  And I’m frantically pecking away at the keyboard to try and un-freeze the screen.  But nothing works.  So I’m draping my jacket across the screen in a pathetic attempt to try and hide the image, but that only calls more attention to the situation.  I can sort of feel people giving me side-long glances out of the corner of my eye. . . . So I quickly decided to do the wise and prudent thing.  I grabbed all my stuff and skulked out of that room as fast as I could.   I didn’t go back to that computer for a long time.


October 8, 2014


Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:56 pm

 I’ll sometimes hear writers talking about “writer’s block.”  I have no idea what they’re talking about.  I’ve never had that problem.  My problem is I can’t stop writing.  I couldn’t stop spewing out all this verbiage if I tried.

I started keeping a daily journal in 1993.  Twenty years later I have boxes and boxes of the things.   Hundreds and hundreds of these notebooks, every page, every line, filled with my feverish, scribbled scrawls (I’m told within 20 years “cursive writing” will have become completely archaic, so a lot of good the things’ll do me since nobody will be able to read the damn things).  I just find something really satisfying about taking the garbled chaos of my daily life and stringing into together in a linear form.  I might not know what life is, or what life is about.  But at least I can kind of describe it, and that’s a start.  And when I have no one to talk to, no one who will listen to me and try and understand what I’m going through, I can always talk to myself.

And I guess that’s what writing basically is to me.  Having a conversation with myself (and if the readers feel like coming along for the ride, too, well, that’s cool, but it’s not mandatory).

I once read one of the best definitions of “good writing” that I’ve ever heard.  “Good writing is like a delicious food that you just want to keep eating.”  Take somebody like the horror writer Stephen King.  I’m not into his books because I’m not into that genre.  But this friend of mine, she would avidly wait for each new Stephen King book.  And when a new one came out, she’d be up all night for the next 5 or 6 nights, gobbling up all 800 pages.  And I’d say to myself.   “That’s some good writin’ there!   Ole Stephen is delivering the goods.”

Ideally, a piece of writing should grab the reader from the very first sentence.  It should be like you’ve strapped them into a train and they’re helpless but to ride the thing all the way down the tracks until they reach your final word.  Ideally, the words should flow effortlessly into the reader’s brain.  Because if they don’t, if it’s too much work for the reader to keep plodding along,  then the reader will hop off the train and go read some other writer’s words.  Which, of course, is the ultimate horror to most writers.

Of course I have a couple of pet peeves.  I had this one junior high school English teacher, Mrs. Ryan   — who looked like this big giant toad and was always scowling because she was really mean and all the students were seriously scared of her for real — who always claimed that you should never start a sentence with “And.”  That it was grammatically incorrect. And Mrs Ryan would regularly mark up all my papers with her red pen and give me bad grades.  But in fact, I like starting a lot of  my sentences with “And.”   It’s a cheap, but effective, literary devise for linking two sentences together and keeping that train rolling down the tracks.  But to this day, to this goddamn day, every time I start a sentence with “And” a little voice in the back of my head says;  “Man, this is wrong.  But fuck it, I’m gonna’ do it anyways.”  (Like I said, Mrs. Ryan was a scary, evil person.)

I did a comic strip for many years.  And that was an excellent discipline for any writer.   Because you have these four little panels that are reduced down to practically microscopic size. And you’re trying to express an interesting, and often complex, concept in an entertaining mode.  So you have to make sure every line, every word, counts.  You can’t afford even one unnecessary word.  I used to count the number of words in every comic strip I ever did.  And I always tried (but didn’t always succeed) at keeping it under 100 words.  Because, of course, the more words you had, the less space you had for the drawing, which takes a lot of the fun out of a comic strip.  Plus, the more words you have, the more work the reader has to do plodding through your words, the bigger the pay-off, the bigger the punchline has to be.  Because the reader is investing his time, so you have to deliver comparable worth.

To this day, I’ll still agonize over every word.  Like if I’m describing a character and I mention he was wearing a “red shirt” and was in his “mid-20s.”   I’ll think:  “Are those details really necessary?”  And sometimes they aren’t.  So you can chop them out.  But often, it’s the little details that really make a piece of writing.  They help to create the mental picture that you’re implanting in the reader’s brain.  So it’s a real tricky one.  But as a general rule:  I try to say as much with the least.

The other trick I learned from doing a comic strip:  I like my writing to be just like a comic strip:  Set-up, concept, punchline.  You have to continually be delivering these pay-offs to keep the reader interested.

When I wrote my “Surviving on the Streets” book, I knew I practically had a license to kill.  That I could get away with murder.  Because I knew that all the critics would hold me to a very low standard.  And sure enough, most of the reviews were variations of:  “Gee, for a homeless street bum he’s surprisingly articulate and thoughtful.”   Whereas, if the critics were going to judge me on the level of “literature” (which it secretly was)  the bastards would have crucified me left and right.

I also got away with writing my “Street” book just like I talk.  Which is how I like to write anyways.  Like I’m just having a conversation directly with the reader.  But it was particularly effective with the “Street” book, because talking in the vernacular of the streets added another dimension to the thing.  (My other big pet peeve:  I always prefer to write “Me and Mary” when I know you’re supposed to write “Mary and I” but fuck that.  That’s how I say it, so that’s how I like to write it, and all the English teachers are wrong and I’m right on this one.)

I’ll never forget the first time I got acclaim for my writing.  It’s kind of like popping your literary cherry.  And usually just as painful and embarrassing as the sexual kind of deflowering.  It was my 8th grade English class and my a teacher was Miss LaVigna.  And (fuck Mrs Ryan, I still like using “And”) she was a great teacher.  She was one of those teachers who was like a stage performer working an audience.  And she would burst into the classroom every day and put on a show.

Miss LaVigna was a raw-boned Italian woman in her mid-20s (I forget if she was wearing a red shirt). And she was a real character, a real individual.  Like, she would do stuff like coming to class for weeks at a stretch wearing these big, clod-hopping ankle weights attached to her ankles.  She was really into skiing, so she was trying to build up her ankle-muscles and she didn’t care less how she looked or what people thought about it.  One of those types.

Miss LaVigna gave me one really great piece of advice.  “When you’re writing, you should always flow.  Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or anything.  Just scribble it down as fast as you can. You can always polish it up later.  The important thing is to keep pace with the flow of your thinking.”  And to this day, I always try and do that.  I’m a very fast writer.  Usually it takes me about as long to write one of these blogs as it takes you to read it.  And, as a general rule, the more I have to work at a piece of writing, the worse it is.

And Miss LaVigna would do these weird and original things during her classes.  Like one time, she spent the whole class discussing the concept of “poignant writing.”  And she kept repeating the definition:  “Poignant:  painfully touching!”  Which she’d say in this really hushed and dramatic tone.  Then she’d read different samples from different writers that were examples of that concept.  Then repeat each time:  “Poignant:  painfully touching!”  A fairly subtle concept.  And it must have made an impression because I still remember it vividly 45 years later.

Anyways, this one day, Miss LaVigna comes bursting into the classroom in her usual dramatic entrance and announces:  “Class!  I was reading the writing assignments you all did yesterday.  And there was one particular piece of writing that I thought was truly impressive and evocative.  It was written by Peter Gabbiola. ”  I was in the back of the class, half-asleep like usual.  But when she mentioned my name in front of the whole class I quickly snapped to attention.

“I’d like to read Peter’s essay to the whole class,” said Miss LaVigna.  “It’s called ‘The Driftwood’ by Peter Gabbiola.”  And she annunciated my last name in this real dramatic way, like:  “Here now are the words of a true master, so listen up all you dirtclods.”  (I was still using my real name back then, and hadn’t yet gotten saddled with the stupid “Ace Backwords” nom de plume)  “I was greatly impressed with the sensitivity of Peter’s prose, and feel his story is an apt metaphor for the existential dilemma that many of us face in our lives.”

So anyways, she starts reading my essay.  Which to me was just another dull homework assignment that I had already forgotten about.  The story is all about me, alone on a beach one night at the ocean.  And I’m watching this piece of driftwood that’s bobbing up and down in the waves.  And the driftwood sort of symbolized how I felt about my life at the time.  How I was being  buffeted back and forth by all these different forces and I had no control over my life, I was just kind of pointlessly blowing in the wind.  What can I say, I was laying it on pretty thick.  I was already a deeply depressed and mentally disturbed kid back then.  And, I don’t know if that’s a prerequisite for a career as an author, but plenty of the greatest writers share that trait that’s for sure.

While Miss LaVigna is reading my writing — and she’s up there putting on the performance of a lifetime, reading every word like it’s some kind of “Romeo and Juliet” classic for the ages or something — I’m sitting in the back, just cringing.  I’m the kind of a person that doesn’t like to call attention to himself.  So I just wanted to crawl under my desk.  And geez, all the other guys were going to think I’m a sissy or something with all this metaphor stuff (I wasn’t even sure what a “metaphor” was at the time).

Then, at the end of the story, after musing about the driftwood for quite some time, I concluded that I just could not bare to go on.  So I rushed into the ocean and committed suicide.  The end.

And that was the first time I ever received any praise or acclaim for my writing.  And it was hell of embarrassing.  But at least I picked up a good literary trick out of the whole deal.  If you’re not sure how to end one of your stories, just kill off the main character.  That’s a time-tested winner.

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