Acid Heroes

March 28, 2014


Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 7:12 pm
Tags: , , , ,


588828I first came to Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  I had just graduated from high school, age 17, so I decided to hitch-hike cross-country from New Jersey to California to visit my older sister and her hippie boyfriend who were living in Berkeley at the time.  They were living on Benvenue Avenue, just a couple blocks from where Patty Hearst was living with her boyfriend right before she was kidnapped by the SLA.

It took me about 5 rides to get to Chicago.  And then this long-haired hick from Kentucky gave me a ride all the rest of the way to Berkeley.  The hick from Kentucky spoke with a deep, southern drawl.  “I’m goin’ to Loz Angel-EEEZ to git’ me a job as a radio disc jockey!” he said, in a voice like Jethro Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.  I sounded possible, but unlikely.

I distinctly remember as we were riding through the salt flats of Utah, they announced on the radio that Richard Nixon had just resigned from the Presidency.  Somehow that seemed symbolic.  Like I was taking my first steps out into the real world of America, and America as I had known it had just changed into something completely different.

 1167488_706875095996703_2016167045_o.jpgI distinctly remember hitting Telegraph Avenue for the first time.  We were tooling down the Avenue in his station wagon and I was amazed to see all these hippie street vendors lined up on both sides of the street, selling their hippie wares.  In fact, the whole city seemed like wall-to-wall hippies.  A town full of hippies!   Berkeley:  “The town that time had forgotten.”  It was like slipping into a time warp, or an alternate dimension of reality.

The Kentucky  hick stuck his head out the window while he was driving down Telegraph, and his tongue was practically hanging out of his mouth drooling like a cartoon character as he exclaimed:  “HOT DAMN!  Wouldja’ lookit’ all them hippie chicks with no bra-SSEIRES on their TITTIES!!”

I thanked the hick from Kentucky for the ride, grabbed my frame backpack, and plunged into Berkeley for the first time.  This sea of hippies.Twenty years later, when I, myself, had become a Telegraph street vendor, I’d often think back to those first moments in Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  And I’d see some young kid hitting the Ave for the first time and I’d feel like I was in some kind of strange time loop.

I spent about 30 years living in Berkeley.   Near the end it started getting really weird.  Like I could see ghosts  on every single block. I couldn’t go anywhere in the town of Berkeley without remembering some weird scene that I’d gone through  at that spot, years and years ago.  I’d walk by the Amherst Hotel on Shattuck, and I’d remember knocking on the front door in 2006, finding out that my friend Linda had just died. . .   Then I’d look across the street at the movie theater and remember when Duncan and I had put together a big art exhibit there back in 1994 . . . Every block was like that. Like an endless acid flashback.


 In 2010, at age 54, I started working as a bottle-and-can recycler.  It was grueling work, but it kept a wad of bills in my pocket.   One afternoon I was pushing my shopping cart full of cans down University Avenue and I passed the apartment building I had lived in for 13 years.  I had first moved in there in 1982.  As I stared across the street at the front steps of the apartment building, I could almost see my 26 year old self walking in that front door for the first time in 1982. . .    Then I watched my 54 year old reflection in the windows of all the stores as I trudged down University with my shopping cart full of cans. . .

It got to be like that.  Ghosts every where I went.

There was a period of years in the ’90s where I almost felt like I embodied the best of Berkeley.  That I was some kind of Berkeley icon, even.  I had the long, hippie hair, and the neatly-trimmed beard.  And I had these round, dark John Lennon shades that I used to wear.  And when the sun hit the shades just right you could see these rainbow-colored peace signs on the lenses.  I was doing this hip, underground, Berkeley-esque comic strip at the time that was appearing every day in a local Berkeley newspaper.  So it was like I was projecting my aura all across the town.  And I was co-publishing a photo calendar about the Telegraph street characters that was a local hit.  And I was getting interviewed by all these newspapers, and radio stations, and TV stations.  Different art groups were offering me thousands of dollars in grants to produce my latest artistic projects.  And art galleries were displaying my stuff at their exhibits.  So it was a heady period.  Sometimes I would even secretly crow to myself:  “I dominate Telegraph Avenue!”  Even though, in the back of my mind, I always knew that Telegraph — and the streets in general — always dominated you in the end.


The whole Telegraph scene seemed like a magical, bohemian circus back then.  And the town of Berkeley generally seemed proud of it, and celebrated its zany, quirky, eccentric charm.  So it was a bit of a shock to me around 1999, when all the local newspapers  started writing headline articles about; “What’s Wrong With Telegraph Avenue?”  And the same people who had been celebrating me just 10 years ago, now seemed to be blaming me.  Like it was my fault that there were all these “bums” and “street people” that were ruining their nice, little shopping district.  Suddenly, I had come to embody all that was bad about Berkeley.

Life is like that, I guess.  Endless loops and time warps.   And ghosts.  Plenty of those.




  1. Often when I read your nostalgic blogs about the good ol’ days of 90s Berkeley I am inclined to regard you with a mixture of pity (because you really seem sad at the loss of better days) and bemused contempt (because of the gap between actuality: street person/fanzine cartoonist and fantasy: “i dominate Telegraph Avenue”).

    As always, your wry self-awareness is your saving grace. And I’m left with the thought that we all need some pond to be a big fish in, we all need a little bit of fame and recognition and the approving eyes of our neighbors.

    Comment by hardears pickney — March 29, 2014 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

    • Very interesting and perceptive observations.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — March 29, 2014 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

  2. Never spent much time in Berkeley. Reading you story makes me feel nostalgic anyway

    Comment by peter jones — March 30, 2014 @ 12:02 am | Reply

  3. Ace-
    I’ve been reading your work for about 15 years now. These ‘retrospectives’ never fail to start the needle on Bob Segar’s “Still the Same”.

    Comment by jncompton — June 15, 2015 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

    • It’s too bad I can’t add a soundtrack to my blogs. Ha ha.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — June 15, 2015 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

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