My older sister has been forwarding my mail from Berkeley to the boondocks of Arizona where I’ve been living for the last 5 months. How to describe the latest batch of mail that came the other day? Ironic? Symbolic? Wistful? Disturbing?
For a kick my sister stuck in a bunch of my old press clippings that had been lying around in her file cabinet for years. Among them was a copy of the Berkeley Barb from 1977 with the first cartoon I ever got published. Also in the batch of mail was my latest royalty check from my last-remaining publisher. A check for 9 dollars and 60 cents.
So it was a weird juxtaposition. Like a before-an-after picture. Where I had started out. And where I had ended up nearly 40 years later. So it was hard not to “take stock” as they say. Of all the shit that had happened between those years. And how I had gotten from there to here.
The first thing I was nervous about was checking the date on the Berkeley Barb. Because for years I’ve been telling the story about how my first published cartoon came out on July 7, 1977 (7-7-77). And making a big deal about starting my career on such an portentous and magical number. But then I thought: What if I had remembered it wrong? Or what if I had just made up the whole story, and then had told the story so many times I actually started believing it?
This had happened to me once before. For years I had told this story about when I was 17 and a senior in high school. It was one of my most vivid high school memories. I’d be riding around town with my buddies getting stoned. And one of the hit songs of the day, “At 17” by Janis Ian, would come on the radio. And it always disturbed me and haunted me. This sort of maudlin ballad with lyrics like: “Those of us with ravaged faces / Lacking in the social graces / I learned the truth at 17.” And in my memory it was like the soundtrack to my senior year in high school. . . And then a couple of years ago I looked the song up and was shocked to find out it actually hadn’t been released until 1975, a year after I had graduated from high school! So much for that story.
But fortunately the date on the Berkeley Barb was in fact July 7, 1977. (Actually it was July 8, but like with a lot of weekly newspapers they usually had it in the racks a day before the published date.)
I remember I was 20 years old at the time. 1977. I had already been homeless for a year. I was already a deeply psychologically-wounded person. Which I guess is why I had belly-flopped at such a young age to the bottom of society. A position I had every reason to believe I would be occupying for the rest of my life. I remember walking down 6th Street — San Francisco’s skid row — amidst all these other losers, ghouls and lost souls. And thinking: “This is where they put people like me!”
I had already spent a year sleeping in the bushes at the Fremont Street off-ramp in a sleeping bag. This isolated spot on top of a hill at the foot of the Bay Bridge, with a panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay and the skyline of Oakland and Berkeley off in the distance. And I remember working on that Berkeley Barb cartoon for a month at that off-ramp. Sitting on this ratty mattress that I had dragged up to my crash spot and drawing away. I carried my drawing pad and my pens around with me everywhere I went in my backpack. I had this vague dream of becoming an underground cartoonists. And, like many 20 year-old boy/men, I was filled with youthful dreams for my future. These painful hopes and yearnings for a home and career and friends and fame and glory and great sex and drugs. The usual. And selling that cartoon to the Berkeley Barb was like the first encouragement I had ever gotten from the world. And it planted this seed in my mind, like: Hey, maybe I had a chance after all. Maybe I could carve out some kind of career doing this.
And so the other day, when I was looking at that Berkeley Barb cartoon, it all came back to me. The life that I had fervently hoped was waiting for me at age 20.
And then, of course, the royalty check for 9 dollars and 60 cents was sort of an ironic counterpoint to where my life had actually ended up, 37 years later.
Sometimes I think God actually purposely manufactures these kind of scenerios. Like He’s up there in Heaven looking down on us thinking, “Lets see what he makes of this one. This oughta’ be rich.” (One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons was one of God standing up on a cloud, but he’s not throwing lightning bolts down at people, he’s throwing pies. Thats sort of my conception of God.) Sometimes I think God is kind of like a game show host. And we’re all contestants on His game show. A sort of “Beat the Clock” kind of deal. The clock is ticking, we’re all racing towards death. And in the meantime the game is to see if we can figure out what this life is really all about before we kick the bucket. And periodically God will furnish us with some clues. To give us stuff to think about. To think about what our lives are all about. And what the point of it is. That’s assuming that life does in fact have a point.
So I’m looking at that 9 dollar and 60 cents royalty check from my publisher, Paladin Press. And wondering what it all had amounted to. Paladin Press had recently published my Surviving on the Streets book as an ebook. I’ve never seen the thing, but I’ve been told its out there. And I’ve got the 9 dollars and 60 cents to prove it. Now Paladin Press is an interesting book publishing company. They picked up the rights to my Street book when my previous publisher, Loompanics Unlimited, went out of business. We are kind of an odd match; Ace Backwords and Paladin Press. We don’t have a lot in common. How to describe them? They specialize in sort of rightwing survivalist/self-defense books. They publish a lot of books about weapons and martial arts and street fighting. Its the go-to company if you’re looking for books about the latest in eye-gouging techniques, and etc. So there’s enough of a tentative connection between them and my Surviving on the Streets book, which is sort of a how-to book for (you guessed it) surviving on the streets.
My previous publisher, Loompanics, was also a little on the off-the-beaten-track side. And they were notorious for some of the crazy shit they published. How to Kill, volume 1 through 7. And How to Manufacture Meth Amphetamines. They sort of specialized in the taboo subjects other publishers wouldn’t touch. Their number one best-selling book of all-time, by the way, was How to Pick Locks. An entertaining as well as practical look at that particular genre. I think they sold a couple hundred thousand copies of that one.
Now I loved Loompanics. And I also deeply appreciate Paladin Press. So I don’t mean this as a put-down. But in my heart of hearts I always kind of considered what I was doing as sort of . . . literature. Art, if you will. But evidently, the world at large has never quite considered me in those terms. Considering that my books usually end up on the bookshelf next to How to Pick Locks and Advanced Eye-Gouging Techniques.
But what the hell. That was the batch of mail from the other day. Excuse me while I get up and go see what horrors are awaiting me in today’s mailbox.