Ace Backwords is a former cartoonist, writer and semi-normal human being. He's been sleeping in the bushes in the Berkeley hills for the last ten years with his four feral cats, Moo Cat, Fatty, Mini Scaredy and Micro Scaredy. Future plans include growing old and dying. Preferably in that order.
This is one of the two issues of the TELEGRAPH AVENUE STREET CALENDAR that Duncan did all by himself while I was living in Humboldt County. And — like looking at the Beatles solo albums — it gives you an idea of what each of us brought to the table.
Some people thought Duncan was the genius behind the Calendar. While other people (like Hate Man) thought I “carried Duncan.” In truth it was pretty much as close to a 50-50 collaboration as you could find. I came up with the concept of the Calendar. But Duncan had previously come up with the idea of photo-documenting the Telegraph street people. So we shared the credit equally, conceptually.
One of the great things about our collaboration: We were never competitive towards each other. Our approaches to art were so completely different (while being strangely complimentary) that it’s like we weren’t even competing on the same playing field. Basically Duncan was Lennon to my McCartney. Duncan was this uniquely creative artistic visionary. While I added the popular, commercial touch. It’s worth noting that both Calendars Duncan did on his own lost money. Though artistically they ranked among the best of the 15 Calendars.
It was a strange project for two poverty-level street people to be involved in in the first place. For every year we rolled the dice on about $5 grand — which is how much money we had to generate via sales to pay for expenses before we started making a profit.
I was always happy to cede as much credit to Duncan as possible, since I felt he never really got the credit he deserved in his lifetime. Plus Duncan was the perfect public face for the Calendar, as the quintessential “crazed street artist.” And his face appeared on 3 of the covers, and I made sure that his photo was in every issue. And I was more than happy to hide behind him in the shadows.
It was an amazing run in a way. Coming completely from within the street scene, produced by street people, about street people, for street people. With no mainstream gloss.
I’m under a lot of pressure lately. And I have to be very careful I don’t snap.
Yesterday morning I had to make a crucial post on the internet. But my phone was dead. So I packed up my campsite and walked down to the campus to charge it. But when I looked in my backpack my battery charger wasn’t there. AARRGGHH!! I searched through everything in my pack but it was GONE!!
So I trudged all the way back up to the hills re-tracing my steps looking for it. By the time I got back up to my campsite I was soaked in sweat and dizzy in the head (we’re in the middle of a heat wave and it’s starting to get to me). I searched everywhere at my campsite but no sign of the thing. Finally I dumped out all my blankets from the garbage bag that I stash them in. And there it was. My charger. Whew! Somehow it had gotten mixed in with my blankets.
So then I go downtown to get some coffee. Walk into the deli on Shattuck where I usually get my coffee. But they’re out of coffee. AAARRGGHH!! So I have to walk 3 blocks out of my way to this Kwiki Mart to get my coffee. Pour myself a large cup, pay for it, walk out the door, notice my cup has a leak in it. Piping hot coffee is leaking all over my hand. Stomp back into the Kwiki Mart. Inform the clerk: “MY CUP HAS A LEAK!” Pour the coffee into a fresh cup. But that cup has a leak TOO!! Big puddles of coffee are forming on the counter. So I pour that cup into my canister, burning my hands on the hot coffee in the process. Mop up the mess with a bunch of paper towels and stomp out of there.
I’m reminded of a Bukowski poem. “It’s not the big things that drive a man to the madhouse. But the shoe-lace that snaps when there’s not enough time.”
And that’s what my life is like lately. This endless series of shoe-laces snapping. Little aggravations that somehow build up into this big thing. “MY LIFE JUST SUCKS!! AND I CAN’T STAND IT ANYMORE!! That feeling. Sometimes it can seem like the entire Universe is conspiring against me and thwarting me at every turn. And the pressure can drive you nuts.
So then I go to the Dollar Tree to buy some cat food. For once there’s nobody on line ahead of me. So I put my cat food down on the counter. But the clerk says: “I’m sorry my register is closed. But she can help you at the next register.” So I pick up my cat food and walk over there. But before I can get there this little old man with a shopping cart FULL of groceries who just happened to be passing by at that moment, cuts in front of me and heads to the register ahead of me. AAARRGGHH!!!
I don’t know if it was the looks-could-kill glare I shot at him, but he wisely turned to me and said, “You can go ahead of me. You were here first.” And I said to him (through clenched teeth) “THANK YOU VERY MUCH, SIR.”
The good news is, I haven’t snapped yet. But I’m working on it.
I first moved to California in the summer of 1976, age 19. Lived for a year on the Fremont St. off-ramp at the foot of the Bay Bridge. . . And I sometimes look back at my 19-year-old self. Having no idea what was in store for me. Having no idea what human life was all about, really. A blank slate waiting to be filled. But seething with dreams of glory. “Itching like a finger on the trigger of a gun,” as Paul Simon put it. And this yearning for something more, something I could never quite put my finger on.
I had this weird belief in myself — in spite of virtually no evidence or affirmation from the world at large — that I was touched with some kind of greatness. And that that could somehow play out in my favor if I got a couple of lucky breaks, as my life unfolded. But also knowing I could just as easily get swallowed up by the streets and amount to nothing.
And I had this gnawing loneliness. Looking everywhere for that one person who would somehow make me whole. Wondering where she was. And if I would ever find her.
I was already a deeply wounded person, age 19. So I was locked into this desperate search for truth. I thought God was the answer. And if I could just find Him, that would solve everything.
Trying to figure out how to support myself. Was there some kind of job I could slot into, something I could at least tolerate. Wondering if there was a place for me anywhere in this world. Or if I was just a hopeless misfit who would never fit in anywhere.
I can still see myself clearly in my mind’s eye — my 19-year-old self. Standing there at my campsite under the Bay Bridge, listening to the non-stop traffic droning on above me, and looking out at the San Francisco Bay, and the Oakland and Berkeley skyline far off in the distance beyond that.
Weird dream. I’ve gone to France to visit Crumb. He lives in this medieval stone castle. There’s a lot of people hanging out in his living room so it’s hard to get his attention. Finally I sidle up to him and say “So how about that Book Of Weirdo?” That piques his interest. We both start discussing the book. I mentioned how the author, Jon, kept contacting me year after year for a decade asking me questions about Weirdo for his book, and after awhile I had him pegged as one of those guys who’s always talking about artistic projects they never actually do. Ha ha. At one point I mentioned how Duncan would have loved the book and would have read and re-read every page over and over.
Then it was time for me to go so I announced I was leaving. “Ciao,” I said (I’m in Europe after all). But nobody acknowledges me or says goodbye. They’re completely indifferent. Which hurts my feelings. Crumb wanders off to hang out with some naked women (same old Crumb).
Then comes the weird part of the dream. I’m trying to get on a bus that will take me to the BART trains so I can get home. But every person I ask for directions gives me the wrong directions, purposely, out of malevolence just to screw with me. I get more and more lost. At one point I’m walking down this country road and it suddenly starts raining. I left my umbrella back at Crumb’s place so I get soaked. I cry out in anguish, things just keep going from bad to worse. I realize I’m getting more and more lost. So I turn around and head back where I came from.
Then the obligatory feral cat scene that usually pops up in my dreams. These cats are sleeping on these gigantic slices of pizza, rolling around in the gooey melted cheese.
Then I’m at a McDonald’s. All these rowdy high school kids are acting up and being threatening. I ask one of the teen girls for directions to BART. She says “It’s simple. Just keep heading down this street until you reach 3rd St.” So now I’m riding on a unicycle pedaling around in circles (go figure). Still trying to find my way back home.
I sometimes develop a fascination with certain crazy people. After all these years on the street scene, I’m like a connoisseur of wingnuts. A student of human nature, abnormal or otherwise. And I’ll find myself studying them like a clinical psychologist as I ponder just what the fuck is precisely wrong with their brains.
Like this guy. Who I became acquainted with a couple weeks ago when I was sitting next to him at this sports bar eating my lunch, when he suddenly lurched at me and grabbed a big hand full of my french fries (the situation escalated from that point on).
So, a couple days later, I happened to be passing by the sports bar, and I noticed him there, hanging out again. So I couldn’t resist sneaking back in there to get a closer look at the, um, specimen. As you can see from the photo, he’s seemingly normal looking guy. And a pretty big lug. It’s only if you look closely at his eyes that you see he’s crazy as a loon.
There are two empty pitchers of beer at his favorite hangout spot, the corner window seat. And now he’s sidled up to the bar where he’s the life of the party, making these weird animal sounds (one of his trademarks). I’m tempted to stick around just to see how long he manages to contain his madness before he gets thrown out again. But when I passed by again 5 minutes later, he was already gone.
Then I spotted him across the street, staggering and lurching down the street. He’s most likely not going to be remaining in an upright position for much longer.
Then, a couple of days later, I passed him hanging out on the sidewalk outside the sports bar. He’s babbling non-stop at these two black guys and woman who are taking a cigarette break. He keeps making those strange animal noises — these kind of whoops and grunts — and clapping his hands over and over, and sticking his face in their faces while repeating “IT IS WHAT IT IS!!” Ha ha.
His demeanor is like a manic, overly-friendly, overly-exuberant little kid. Who just happens to be a completely insane, 6-foot, 220 pound man who’s only just barely in control of his behavior.
He’s also a pretty good looking guy, in sort of a classic Nordic mode. That’s why he probably gets away moreso than a lot of people with acting so crazy in public. If you’re good-looking you can generally get away with more stuff.
Some people are just assholes. There’s no other way to put it.
So I go to this restroom in the basement of this building on campus. It’s summer break so the building is almost completely deserted. So I figured I could poop in peace for once. BUT NOOO.
I’m not in the stall for a minute when this guy comes in and sidles up to the urinal, which is adjacent to my stall. I can’t see him, but I can see his foot from the bottom of the stall. He’s wearing these shiny black boots. And as he’s standing there pissing — get this — he sticks part of his foot into my stall, with his foot pointing towards me. Real cute, huh? Not only that, he starts tapping his foot. Up and down. Up and down. Real subtle, this guy.
After standing there at the urinal, supposedly pissing — in between his foot-tapping — for an unusually long time, he FINALLY flushes the urinal and washes his hands in the sink.
But does he leave at that point? Heck no. He goes BACK to the urinal again and silently stands there, doing God knows what, for like 5 minutes.
Now I’m royally pissed. I finish my business and stomp out of the stall. The guy is standing there at the urinal with his back to me, so I can’t see what he’s doing, but I can tell he’s playing with himself. I glare at him with a look that could kill. He mutters something to me that I can’t make out as I make my exit, slamming the door for good measure.
There’s no excuse for that. If there’s one time when most people want some privacy it’s when they’re pooping. And if a person violates that privacy, they’re an asshole, plain and simple. I could understand back in the old days when it was illegal to be gay, that gays would have to resort to stuff like this to have their trysts. But nowadays, when gays can openly hook up with other gays in all the different walks of life, there’s no excuse for this.
I swear I get all the winners. I’ve got a computer at the library reserved, but when I go to the cubicle there’s this stocky, crazy old woman who’s sitting there. She’s got headphones on and 5 big bags of stuff piled near her — including a big potted plant — and the desk is full of her papers and crap.
“Excuse me, I’ve got this computer reserved,” I said.
She turns around and glares at me and says: “YOU AGAIN!” (which is weird because I’ve never seen her before)
“I’ve got this computer reserved for 3:22,” I said.
“You’re lying. I don’t believe you,” she said.
“Well, I’ll go double-check, ” I said.
“You go do that,” she said.
I go to the computer on the librarian’s desk and check. Yes, I have that computer reserved. I go back and tell her: “Yes I do have that computer reserved for 3:22.”
“And at 4:22 will your reservation come to an end??” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well I need to know! I MUST know!” she said.
“Well there’s no way of knowing,” I said. “Sometimes they extend your reservation for a second hour.”
“Very well,” she said. She FINALLY gets up and starts moving all of her stuff to another desk. Then she adds, “I’m taking the chair with me.” And she drags my chair off to the other desk.