(Originally published February 18, 2005)
The Berkeley street scene is just getting crazier and crazier. The drug of choice these days is crystal meth, washed down with cheap malt liquor. Crystal meth is cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s deadly. It short-circuits the mind in record time. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Is it that our minds are such a burden we want to shut it off by any means? Crystal meth deranges the mind. It’s not like the speed of the old days, which was mostly just a body drug. You’d get this high-powered, vaguely euphoric buzz, like you’d just drank 10 cups of coffee with no jitters, just pure, smooth energy, which is what we always want, right? More energy. Of course, 10 hours later the j-j-j-jitters would hit, and after two days with no sleep you’d crash like a motherfucker; end up sitting on the sidewalk like a piece of cement for about a week. This dulled out, sanded down thing. But that was the speed of old.
Today’s crystal meth — I don’t know if they’re mixing it different or what, god only knows what kinda’ lethal chemicals they slip in the mix — but today’s crystal meth is more of head drug. It goes right to your head, and to your soul even. You hallucinate — and not just from the sleep-deprivation like the days of old. Crystal meth is sort of like a bad acid trip; it’s sort of “spiritual” but it takes you to this eerie occult kind of realm. From just beyond the swirling cacophony of swelling street noises you hear this eerie celestial chorus, like haunted angels sweetly singing off in the distance.
One night, in the midst of my own moronic speed binge, I tossed a soda can into the garbage can. This guy sitting on the steps said to me “Hey, you should recycle the can.” I started to respond when I realized their was nobody there, it was just a shadow on the steps. I had hallucinated the whole thing.
After four days without sleeping, I finally crashed. When I woke up 4 hours later, I laid there on my bunk and it was like I was listening to a radio broadcast of this disc jockey on the radio talking about me. It was clear as a bell. Only there was no radio on! The voice was coming from my own brain. But it was more like my brain was picking up a radio signal from some other dimension of reality. I laid there for ten minutes listening to the hallucinatory radio broadcast in rapt fascination. I’ve heard about crazy people who “hear voices.” Who knows what that meth stuff does to the chemicals of your brain? I mean, normal so-called reality is weird enough, ain’t it?
Anyway, after just a couple months of minor league bingeing, I had a certified nervous breakdown. I’d walk down the street weeping to myself. The littlest thing could set me off. I snapped to my so-called senses in the nick of time. I’ve been pretty much clean and sober for several months now.
Others aren’t so lucky. Legendary speed freak Jizzy Smith has finally snapped. He used to shoot up a big shot of speed and then rant and rave and hurk and jerk for hours on a stretch. But then, the next day he’d come down. Now, he’s out there in the ozone all the time. Tonight he was on the steps of the campus raving at the top of his lungs “THIRTY FIVE YEARS IS THE OPTIMAL YEAR FOR MOTHERFUCKERS! LET THE ELECTORAL GO TO PRISON I ALREADY DID MY TIME! COCKSUCKERS DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO EAT! LET THEM MAKE THEIR OWN BABIES!” On and on.
“I remember when you used to be able to have a normal, rational conversation with Jizzy,” said this one street chick. “And now he is just GONE.”
Jizzy got high one time too many, and now he’s not going to come down. His brains are permanently scrambled. And that’s sad.
Down the Ave, all the street people are huddled under the awning of Amoeba Records trying to keep out of the rain. This fat, crazy chick keeps fucking with everybody. She grabbed at my head as I passed by. Finally, the other bums ran her off the scene with a derisive chorus of “QUACK QUACK QUACK!” Sort of like pigeons pecking at the pariah of the pack. This young ne’er-do-well gave her a hard kick in the ass for good measure to send her on her way. Then the ne’er-do-well vented his energy by going berserk on a bicycle locked to a pole, kicking it and stomping it into a pile of twisted metal. Typical. All these useless street people flopped out on the sidewalk with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no place to put their energy, except into trouble.
Ten years ago, there was still a remnant of the “hippie/counterculture” vibe to the Berkeley street scene. Kind Rainbow hippie brothers and sisters looking to expand their consciousness with pot and acid, to groove with the cosmos. It was all bullshit I guess, but at least they believed in SOMETHING even if it was false. Too bad that turned out to be such a dead end. Today’s street people believe in nothing. They come to Berkeley looking for nothing but drugs and free food. Which at least is real, but what the fuck. They are mostly the product of broken homes or no homes. Walking down Telegraph Avenue is like walking through a gauntlet from hell. Panhandlers and fuckers and nuts invade your space with every step. Like I always used to say: “We had a better class of bums back in my day!” Ha ha.
Earlier, I passed this one street person, and his dog on a leash lunged after me as I walked by, barking and flashing his fangs and straining to reach me. It’s hideous. I know these streets weren’t designed to be LIVED ON. Yet here are all these people living on them nonetheless. Most of them, they add nothing to the community, and take away with their mere presence, which is mostly noxious. They are the equivalent of trash on the sidewalk that you’d want hauled off to the dump. That’s the EFFECT. And yet they’re human beings, too, and they’re caught in the crunch of a bad situation that mostly is not of their own making. And their lives are so miserable already, the last thing I want to do is heap more abuse on them. Christ, you can’t help but feel sympathetic, even as another part of you is disgusted, even as another part of you says: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I was flopped out alongside them once already. And I’m a prime candidate to end up back there again.
And yet, when I first hit the Berkeley street scene back in 1993, there was more of a bohemian and intellectual, and even magical, flair to the scene. One of the guys I hung out with, the legendary Hate Man, was a former reporter for the New York Times. Another guy, Scooter, had graduated from Yale and was doing post-graduate work in Rabbinical Studies (in other words, not your average, typical homeless street people). And there was a crew of brilliant young painters who were also part of the scene, regularly creating colorful chalk-drawing masterpieces on the sidewalk. And brilliant musicians and poets would regularly join us during our nightly drum circles and jam along with us. Beautiful young hippie and punk chicks would dance along. My friend Duncan would document it all with his camera. And I’d record the music with my 4-track. The scene reminded me of Andy Warhol’s whacky art scene in the ’60s. After midnight, the city landscape was like our own private playground for our weird art happenings. It was like a movable piece of performance art. Street theater of the bizarre. I was proud to say I was “from the streets.”
But nowadays, there’s nothing left but the dregs. And me. It’s like being surrounded by a camp of drunken, feuding hillbillies. Am I just waxing nostalgic here? “Back in MY day we had a better class of bums.” Maybe. But maybe not.
It all started to change around 1996 when the first wave of Gutter Punk kids flopped out on the sidewalk. They mostly didn’t do ANYTHING. They’d just sort of sit there all day like they were waiting for something to happen.
Nowadays, the mob of street people flopped out on the sidewalk is growing bigger every day. Like a plague, or a growing cancer. This dark shadow that is descending on the land, growing darker every year, like some ominous sign of a future that will very soon be here among us.