Gypsy Catano was a legendary Berkeley street person in the 1970s and 1980s. “Gypsy always reminded me of Charles Manson,” said my friend Vince. Gypsy was a cocky, swashbuckling little guy who walked with a swagger and the air of a charming rogue.
Gypsy was homeless back in the day when there was plenty of available housing in the Bay Area. “Gypsy was homeless because he wasn’t housebroken,” explained a girlfriend.
“I never dropped out,” said Gypsy. “I was never in.” Gypsy was born on the streets. And the street scene was his natural milieu.
One of Gypsy’s favorite panhandling routines was to have one of his friends stand on their hands while Gypsy worked the crowd like a carnival barker. “Help me get my down-and-out friend back on his feet!!”
Gypsy’s favorite thing to do was to drink and to fight. And when he was in a bad mood he could be a holy terror. And Gypsy was a natural leader who was usually surrounded by a gang of buddies. Some of whom were hulking lunatics who would crack your head open for kicks. So Gypsy could be a formidable force.
But he could also be very charming. And he often charmed normal, straight mainstream people who enjoyed Gypsy like an exotic pet. While Gypsy — ever the hustler — angled them as marks.
The first time I met Gypsy Catano in 1982 in People’s Park (his natural habitat) as he swaggered up to me I was struck by the malevolent, mischievous leer in his eye. And the home-made necklace around his neck that was made from the teeth of some wild animal. And he also had a fur stole wrapped around his neck. Gypsy suddenly grabbed the head of the fur stole and waved it in my face. It was the head of a dead dog. “I skinned the dog myself,” said Gypsy proudly. Then he did a puppet show pantimine with the dogs head for my amusement. “ARF ARF!!” he said, opening and closing the dog’s mouth.
Naturally, Gypsy Catano died a sudden and electrifying death. As befitting “as ye live so ye shall die.” If I remember right he choked on a chicken bone and had an epileptic seizure. Hundreds of people showed up for the memorial on Telegraph Avenue. A local newspaper covered the story and they were amazed that so many people, from all different walks of life, would show up to pay tribute to a guy who was basically a “homeless bum.”