I lived in the Berkeley Inn for 3 months back in the summer of 1982. I was trying to publish an underground punk rock newspaper. And my friend Duncan was excited about working on the project with me. So he let me sleep on the floor of his hotel room at the Berkeley Inn. If I remember right, it cost me 5 bucks a week. I was working full-time as a bike messenger in San Francisco, so I was able to use most of my paychecks to publish
I can still picture Duncan’s dusty, cozy little hotel room on the fourth floor of the Berkeley Inn. Duncan had a big brass bed that was usually half-covered with papers, artwork and publications. He had posters and pictures on all the walls. I remember a poster of Princess Diana (Duncan was a bit of an anglophile), and a big poster of a blue whale leaping out of the ocean, the famous Farrah Faucet poster with the erect nipples, and a framed original “Li’l Abner” comic strip signed by the cartoonist Al Capp. And on the wall behind Duncan’s bed, Duncan had copies of the covers of all 30 issues of “Tele Times,” this funky, xeroxed zine Duncan was publishing at the time.
One time Duncan had to take down one of his posters from the wall. And he was surprised by how brightly-colored the paint was behind the poster. As opposed to the dull gray color of the exposed walls which had turned dark from Duncan’s decade of chain-smoking in the room.
I remember Duncan had stacks and stacks of underground comix from the ’60s and ’70s. R. Crumb, Furry Freak Brothers, and everything in between. I spent hours pouring over those things, and got a real education about the history of comics.
Duncan lived pretty much on the fringe of society back then. He had only two friends. This little old lady who was drinking herself to death with endless 6-packs of Budweiser, washed down with Niquil cough syrup. And this weird, bitter guy who was the most misanthropic person I ever met. He hated the entire human race, with the exception of Duncan and this one other guy who he could sort of stomach (he had coined an all-purpose slur for all of humanity — “The humies!” — and he would spit out the word with complete contempt).
The Berkeley Inn had the feel of a once-regal joint that was just beginning to go to seed. For example, there was a big ballroom on the first floor — never used — that harkened back to the glory days of the Berkeley Inn. And it was widely rumored that Jimi Hendrix had stayed at the Berkeley Inn when he played in Berkeley in 1969. The Berkeley Inn was right across the street from People’s Park, so there were a lot of street-people and drug-dealing that was always going on. So it could get a little wild. But it was usually a pretty quiet place with lots of artists and bohemians and old people and college students. An eclectic mix.
And I remember there was a coffee machine in the lobby. You could buy these little paper cups of hot coffee for 25 cents. And the machine added milk and sugar. I remember the cups had brightly-colored pictures of playing cards on them, which was a cute touch. I had never drank coffee before. Duncan drank it non-stop all day long. So I kind of picked up the addiction from him. We’d sit there in his room — Duncan lying on his bed, me sitting at his desk — drinking our coffee and working away on our art projects. Or discussing the great issues of the day. Just a quiet time in the lives of two people. I was 25 so Duncan must have been 38. We’d talk a lot about our hopes and dreams for the future. Dreams of glory, of beautiful girlfriends, of dynamic social scenes we hoped to be part of, and beautiful homes we hoped to one-day live in. Meanwhile, we were making due in this dusty little hotel room, this little cocoon hidden off from the rest of the world.
Duncan’s room was just starting to clutter up with boxes of stuff. By the time he moved out in 1986 his room had become a veritable storage locker, with boxes piled up everywhere to the ceiling, with just a narrow passage-way from the door to the bed, which was also piled with stuff with just enough room for Duncan to sleep on. But back in 1982 it was still uncluttered enough for two people to hang out in.
I’ll give you an example of what I called “Duncan logic” (Duncan had his own unique way of looking at everything). One time Duncan lost an entire box of Tele Times. A crushing loss to Duncan. He searched through every box in his room looking for the lost issues. Except for one box buried on the bottom of all the other boxes.
“Well, why don’t you look in that box?” I asked him.
“Because that’s the last place they could possibly be,” Duncan explained. “So if they’re not in there, then that means they’re really lost for good. And I don’t know if I could handle the loss. So I’m afraid to look in there.”
(Two weeks later, Duncan finally mustered the courage to look in that box. And, much to his relief they were in there. Duncan logic.)
I remember one time Duncan got physically attacked by the manager of the Berkeley Inn. The manager was this weird, uptight guy who always wore a black leather jacket and rode a motorcycle and always tried to act macho and tough but just came off as a sneering punk (years later we learned he had been a closet gay guy the whole time). One day Duncan got frustrated because the ancient elevator wasn’t working right (as usual). So Duncan slammed the elevator walls with his hand. Which caused the manager to go nuts and start smacking Ducnan all over the lobby. Later, the manager got fired and this new guy took over, this friendly jock-type who’s cute girlfriend worked at La Vals pizza place. “Its a new regime, Duncan, so you don’t have to worry about any more abuse,” he assured Duncan. Then, on the first of the month, after the new manager had collected all the rent money — something like 5 or 10 thousand dollars — he took all the dough and fled for the Mexican border with his cute girlfriend.
In 1986 the Berkeley Inn caught fire. It was widely believed to be an arson fire purposely set by the owner. But, unfortunately for the owner, the building was only partially damaged and there were plans to rebuild it and have the tenants move back in. But then a second, and even more suspicious, fire started a couple weeks later when nobody was even in the building, which burned the place to the ground. So the owner collected his insurance money and that was the end of the Berkeley Inn. And it’s been a vacant lot ever since.
But every now and then I’ll think back to those cozy days and nights spent in that Berkeley Inn with Duncan. And in retrospect, those were some of the best days of my life. Its funny. Its like when they ask a retired professional athlete what they miss the most. They almost never say the big championship games or the great victories. They say what the miss the most was the camaraderie with the guys; hanging out in the locker room making small-talk, or riding together on the bus on the way to the game. The little things. The “in-between” times when nothing was really happening.
And I guess that’s what it was like for me and Duncan. We were so busy working and planning for our glorious future, trying to get somewhere with our lives, that we didn’t realize we were already there.