Last night I was passing through Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus around midnight. The place was dark and deserted. And I was alone and friendless, like I usually am these days. And this memory suddenly flashed across my mind. A somewhat painful memory. What do they call it? Poignant (“painful touching” — I still remember the definition from 8th grade English class). I remembered sitting on the steps of this very Plaza back in 1994. Twenty years ago.
It was a lazy summer evening and we were all lazing around the steps. Me. English Tracey. Sunshine and Luna — the teenage hippie sisters (17 and 19) from Orange County. Some others. It was one of those in-between moments where nothing much is happening. I was sort of noodling around on my guitar. And we were bantering back and forth, making jokes and small talk. English Tracey and Sunshine were sort of the Golden Couple of Telegraph Avenue during that period. And they had sort of an off-again, on-again relationship. At one point they went off into the bushes to see if their relationship was still on. Luna danced around for awhile down by the fountain. Just one of those warm and pointless summer evenings.
I was 37. But a fairly youthful 37. I still hung out effortlessly with the young crowd and was accepted as one of them. I was still on that side of the line. It wasn’t quite yet to the point of: “Who’s that creepy old guy hitting on the young chicks.” Ha ha. I was always embarking on these grand artistic projects back then. I was sort of like Don Quixote embarking on these mad, imaginary crusades. And I always had a big bunch of fellow-travelers hanging with me. Paul the Pillar used to say — and probably with a bit of jealousy — “Hey Ace, you ever notice how whenever you sit down somewhere a big group of people immediately congregates around you.” And it was true. I was kind of in the center of this very dynamic scene of people back then. And people like Tracey, Sunshine, Luna and me could even be considered part of the cool crowd (believe it or not, the street scene has it’s cool crowd, too, just like high school and Hollywood and all the other scenes).
There were plenty of brilliant writers and painters and poets and musicians back then. The Berkeley street scene of the ’90s reminded me a lot of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” scene back in the ’60s. The same mixture of genius artists, bohemians, people interested-in-the-arts, street people, druggies, and outright lunatics. And our scene was mostly outdoors, right on the streets. Which made it even wilder.
But as you get older, the cool people get weeded out of the street scene. The ones that have something together usually move on to jobs, careers and families. And only the dregs are left behind.
Of course there were also a lot of young ne-er-do-wells on the scene back then, too. But you don’t notice them so much when you’re young. Because when you’re young, most of us hadn’t accomplished much with our lives yet. We mostly just had our grand plans for the future. And the young ne-er-do-wells had plenty of grand plans, too. It was only when they started pushing into their 30s that you realized none of their plans would ever pan out. That they were mostly spent forces. But when you’re in your 20s, the young ne-er-do-wells still have sort of a grace period. Because you never know. Maybe their lives will amount to something. But eventually it becomes like what Lenny Bruce said; “Nothing sadder than an aging hipster.”
I still vividly remember that lazy night. In part because I recorded a couple of hours of it on my tape recorder. I was into that kind of thing back then. I was always recording things. Every now and then I’ll come across that cassette tape and listen to 10 or 15 minutes of it. And it’s weird, like a time capsule, that transports me back to that particular moment in time and space . . . and to relive it as each moment unfolds. But maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so haunted by my past. Because, as an artist, I spent so much time recording and preserving my past.
But anyways, as I walked past the steps of Sproul Plaza last night, it was like I could almost see the ghosts of Tracey, Sunshine, Luna and me. Lazing on the steps. Back in 1994. Just a moment in time. Gone gone gone.