Acid Heroes

April 13, 2018

“Son, you need to grow your hair out and start smoking pot and getting into a more mellow vibe.”

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 9:08 pm

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April 11, 2018

I few random thoughts on the “behavioral” aspect of the Homeless issue

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:32 pm

 

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The homeless encampment down by my storage locker in the Berkeley flats keeps growing. It’s unbelievable. Every month when I go down there to pay my rent, it’s bigger than the month before. This photo doesn’t do it justice. It stretches for an entire city block. With plenty more down the road.

Today a Facebook friend of mine asked me: “Do you think that mental illness is more a cause of, or a result of homelessness? Because it seems obvious to me that both of those are happening.”

My response:

Living on the streets can certainly drive a person crazy. Its a painful and agonizing way to live for many people. . .  The drug and alcohol abuse is also often a RESULT of being homeless, a way to medicate themselves from their miserable circumstances. Rather than a CAUSE of their homelessness. The “behavioral” aspect of the homeless issue is widely misunderstood.

I often use the analogy of the children’s game of Musical Chairs. You had 5 people competing for 4 chairs. With the slowest person ending up without a chair. . . Now you could say it was because of his behavior — his slowness — that he ended up chairless. But that’s a secondary factor. The primary factor is the 4-chairs-to-5-people ratio.

Another one of my Facebook friends added this comment:  In NYC last year there were more homeless people then at the height of the depression. I read that the majority have some form of mental illness or addictions.”
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My response:
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Take what you read about the homeless in the media with a big grain of salt. They’ve been perpetuating this simplistic stereotype about “the homeless” for decades. Most of them don’t have a clue as to who the homeless actually are. The homeless street scene is very much an underground society. What mainstream people see is just the surface of it. The tip of the iceberg.
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This friend of mine came up to me today and said: “Well, Ace, I’m out here now, too. I’m homeless, too. I just gave up my apartment and moved into my vehicle.”

The guy is in his 60s, a couple years older than me. He’s been part of the Berkeley community for decades, contributing a lot of political activism. He’s a hard-working guy who’s held jobs all of his life, and has been quite affluent at times. Was actually a manager of an apartment building for several years. An intelligent and attractive guy with all sorts of talents. The very definition of a solid, respectable citizen. And now he’s homeless.

42 years ago when I first hit the homeless street scene, most of the homeless were fuck-ups. That’s not the case anymore. Those of you who think our homeless crisis is primarily a “behavior” issue couldn’t be more wrong. And the sooner we get past that notion, the sooner we’ll have a chance to get a grip on this crisis.

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Welcome to 6th Street

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 12:28 am

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For some reason tonight I’m thinking about this friend of mine, Fearless Frank, that i used to hang out with back in 1976 back when I was a 19 year old homeless bum in San Francisco.

One afternoon me and Fearless Frank were hanging out on 6th St. — the traditional Skid Row in every sense of the word. We were waiting to get a free meal at the Gospel Soup Kitchen on 6th St. If you sat through an hour-long sermon haranguing you for being a God-less sinner who would burn in hell if you didn’t believe in Jesus — they would give you a bowl of soup and a sandwich of unknown meat and a bunch of day- old pastries.

So me and old Fearless Frank are waiting outside on the sidewalk with the other bums for the soup kitchen to open. On 6th St. Skid Row. Which was a unique couple of blocks in its own way. Next door to the Soup Kitchen was a Glory Hole where people could meet new friends. And there were multiple porn stores where you could buy porn mags or masturbate to porn movies in 25-cent peep booths in deep shame. And there were a bunch of liquor stores and delis and flophouses. And even a couple of seedy bars and a discotheque where you could dance and score drugs. Plus several back alleys that you walked down at your own peril. WELCOME TO 6TH STREET.

So me and Fearless Frank are hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for the soup kitchen to open. And Frank notices this hubcap that was lying on the sidewalk. God knows what it was doing there. But this is Skid Row so you never know what kind of junk will be lying on the sidewalk.
So Frank just sort of gently kicks the hubcap from the sidewalk into the gutter. He meant no harm. Just clearing the pathway of the sidewalk.
Unfortunately this black guy, who just happened to be walking by, took great offense at this. He shouted at Frank: “WHY DID YOU JUST KICK THIS HUB CAP AT ME???”
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Frank tried to explain that he meant no harm. But the guy could not be placated. “YOU MOTHERFUCKER YOU COULD HAVE HIT ME WITH THE MOTHERFUCKING HUB CAP!!!”

So now Fearless Frank is sort of cowering in fear. The guy picks up the hub cap and waves it right in Frank’s face. “YOU MOTHERFUCKER!!”

I’m just sort of standing beside Frank, not sure how to react. The one thing I remember, oddly, was that the guy was wearing a totally orange suit. Orange jacket, orange pants, orange wide-brimmed hat. And he was sweating profusely. As he waved the hub cap menacingly in front of Frank’s face.

Frank is backed up against a brick wall. And Frank is one of the nerdiest, wimpiest guys you could imagine. The classic campy queen. So you know he’s not going to fight back. He’s at the guy’s mercy.

Suddenly the guy takes the hub cap and smashes it against the brick wall. Inches away from Frank’s face. Then he throws the hub cap into the street. And stomps off in an angry, cursing rage. “MOTHERFUCKER!!!”

Me and Frank stood there. And looked at the indentation on the brick wall. That could have been an indentation on Frank’s face. And both sort of went:

“WHEW!!

And then we went into the soup kitchen and got some soup and sandwich and sermonizing.

Another day on Skid Row.

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The Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 12:01 am

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Back in 1976 when I first became homeless I used to hang out at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion with my crazy friend Fearless Frank. We used to eat lunch at St. Anthony’s Dining Hall with the other bums, then we’d walk a couple blocks to 5th and Market and hang out at the pavilion and watch the world go by.

There weren’t too many homeless street people in San Francisco back then. Believe it or not. And most of them got herded off to the couple blocks of skid row on 6th St. and the Tenderloin. So me and Fearless Frank stood out a bit as we sat there on a bench in our rags. Amidst the tourists waiting for the cable cars, and the business people from the financial district, and the rich people shopping at Union Square.

We were an odd pair, me and Fearless Frank. Because we didn’t have much in common. I was 19, he was 30. I was straight, he was gay. I was an acidhead and he was an alkie. But for whatever reason, we both hit it off. I think because we were both damaged. Even as Frank had given up on life and was going down. While i was still fighting to make something of my life and would pull myself up. But at that particular juncture we both intersected at the same level of damage. And that bonded us.

And we both had a weird, gallow’s humor, sense of humor about our plights. Both considered life to be absurd and ridiculous, and we could laugh about it, even when the joke was on us. We used to say:

“Would you like to adjourn to our luxury suite at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion?”

“Why surely. That strikes me as a simply marvelous and splendid idea.”

And we’d sit there on the street bench like we had box seats to the latest grand opera. We’d watch all the people rush by. Talk about our lives. Gossip about the latest freaky scenes on the street scene. Just killing time basically. And we had plenty of that.

And it was an odd juxtaposition. Two bums at the bottom of San Francisco’s society sitting at a pavilion named after one of the richest movers-and-shakers at the top of San Francisco’s society. And it was like an inside joke between us how we’d always refer to it by its full name — “THE Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion” — in this very regal and stuffy tone. We’d imagine ourselves holding little umbrellas over our heads like uppercrust snobs, sipping on mint julips.

Life seemed so different to me back then at age 19. Like my life was mostly a blank canvas, with an endless expanse of time to fill it. As opposed to now at age 61, where the picture has mostly been painted, aside from little embellishments on the sides.

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April 9, 2018

Working the Graveyard Shift in the Twilight Zone

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:02 pm

 

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One of the oddest jobs, of the many odd jobs I’ve had over the years, was working the graveyard shift at this home for retarded children.

It was 1975 and i was 19 years old. I had spent the previous year going to college in Cleveland, but I had flamed out at that. So, for lack of anything better to do, I moved back in with my parents at their house in the New Jersey suburbs. And that was weird — sleeping in my childhood bedroom even though I was now an adult man. And all my high school friends had moved out of town to go to college, so it was like a ghost town to me. It was like everyone else had moved on with their lives while I had been left behind.

This was a very surreal period in my life. It was like everything was upside-down. Like living in a twilight zone. I never really adjusted to the graveyard shift. Which added to my discombobulated head space. The whole world was sleeping, but I was awake, toiling away in this ghost world.

There were about 40 big cribs in this big room where the retarded children slept at night. They ranged from mildly retarded to complete vegetable. Our job was to watch them at night., My boss and my co-workers were all women, I was the only man. So, as usual during this period, I was the odd man out. Literally. Our main job was to go into the room every couple of hours and check on the children, make sure they were OK. And some of them we had to change their diapers. And the rest of the time we watched TV and killed time talking and reading. So that was upside-down, too. Most jobs you work a couple hours and then get a 15 minute coffee break. On this job it was like you worked for 15 minutes and then you had a 2-hour coffee break.

The room with all the sleeping retarded kids was eerie and ghostly. We’d turn on this night light with just enough light so we could see what we were doing but not disturb their sleep. So the room had this eerie, translucent glow. And the retarded kids would make all kinds of weird noises in their sleep, like they were having nightmares. Which made the room seem haunted. I remember this one black kid named Charles, he was about 12 but he was already almost 6 foot tall, and he had an intimidatingly large penis. And he would shout to himself all night long: “CHARLES, GET IN THAT CLOSET!! CHARLES, GET IN THAT CLOSET!!” (I’m sure there was a story behind that one)

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Most of the kids I really couldn’t connect to. But there were a couple I grew really fond of. My favorite was this black kid about 5 or 6 years old who looked just like a little Jim Hendrix with the wavy hair and toothy smile.

Most of the time I spent watching TV or reading books. The only decent thing on late-night TV back then was the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder where he interviewed famous people. But mostly it was the dregs. Infomercials, etc. I spent several weeks trying to read that Russian novel The Brothers Karmazov. I thought maybe I could become an intellectual or something. But the thing was like 700 pages, and I only got to about page 25 before I gave up.

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Most of my co-workers had been working together for some time, so they were like a clique and I was an outsider who mostly couldn’t connect with them. But I became friendly with this one woman who was my age and had started working there the same time as me. She was very cute but completely crazy. And completely humorless. She would sort of whisper to me in this urgent tone: “My mother is a witch! She does satanic rituals at our house! She’s tried to poison me multiple times!” I was so lonely, I actually considered her as a possible girlfriend. And we went out on several “dates.” Well, as much as you can go on a date at 7 in the morning after we got off of work. I even went to her house once. Like me, she lived with her parents and was having trouble making that often difficult transition from dependent child to independent adult. I remember she had this inexpensive electric keyboard in her bedroom and she would play the same 4 chords over and over, like a 10 year old. We were both stunted people basically. My development basically got psychologically stunted at age 17 and I never developed much past that point. I did meet her mother, who seemed like a normal suburban housewife who cared for her daughter. But for all I knew she had bodies chained up in her basement.

One of the weirdest things about the job was driving home at 7 in the morning. My day would be ending while everybody else’s day was just beginning. Adding to my out-of-sync-with-the-world, twilight zone feeling. I used to drive my Mother’s yellow Toyota Corolla back and forth from work, so I managed to learn how to drive a stick shift (that was about the only thing I accomplished during that period).

I was seriously depressed at that point in my life, almost catatonic. I spent a lot of time lying on my bed in my bedroom in the darkness staring at the ceiling. Periodically my father would come in and assure me that all my problems were just in my mind and that everything was fine, along with other pollyannyish cliches of inspiration, and then leave my bedroom with a self-satisfied smile, having solved all my problems yet again.

reasonswhyalatenightdriveismostawesomethingever1_1412682674_350x163.jpgOne day, after working there for a couple months, the boss unexpectedly called me into her office for a stern reprimand about my job performance. She complained that, while I related well to the kids who were only mildly retarded, I treated the ones that were like vegetables like, well, like vegetables. I was embarrassed and humiliated by this dressing down. I had no self esteem as it was. And now I was being told I wasn’t even capable of doing this most menial of menial jobs.

As I drove home that morning I knew I wouldn’t be going back there. So that was the end of that job.

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April 7, 2018

I hate you!

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:22 pm

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For some reason I was just thinking about this guy in Berkeley who was pissed off at me for many many years. I barely knew the guy. So it was weird. I couldn’t figure out why he was pissed at me. But I could tell he was because he was always making these putdown comments about me and expressing disapproval of me.

So one day I just asked him what his problem was. And he said it was because of this comic strip I had done 20 years ago which he felt was making fun of him.

The weird thing was, he had completely misinterpreted the point I had been trying to make with that comic strip. And when I explained to him what I really meant (it had nothing to do with him) he was no longer mad at me. And we became friends

But the weird thing was. He had been pissed off at me for 20 years for the wrong reason.

I don’t mind people being pissed off at me. But at least get it right

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There was this other guy in Berkeley. Same basic story. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was always pissed at me for some reason.
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Finally I asked a friend of his what his problem was. He said: “Ace. He’s jealous of you.”
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I was COMPLETELY dumbfounded by that one. I said: “Holy shit. He should walk around in my shoes for a couple of hours. See what it’s like to be me. He wouldn’t be very jealous of me after THAT.”
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April 6, 2018

Still crazy after all these beers

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:29 pm

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I’ve always considered myself “crazy.” But I don’t consider myself “mentally insane.” There’s a difference.

I’m kind of crazed and mentally unbalanced and mentally unmoored. But I’m not particularly delusional or out of touch with “reality” (whatever that is). Which is what most people consider “mentally insane.”

I’ve always been hyper-sensitive and mercurial. Which are great traits for an artist. But not the best traits for a stable, well-adjusted human being. My brain is like one of those lie-detector graphs where the lines are constantly shooting way up and way down. To say I suffer from “mood swings” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Insanity does run in my family. Both my father’s brothers spent most of their lives in mental institutions. And my little brother spent most of his life as a mental patient. So I probably have a genetic disposition towards madness. And I’ll regularly have these mental breakdowns where my psyche is swept up in this dark and stormy turmoil. But no matter how bad it gets, its like I never crack all the way up. Its like there’s this little sane part of myself in the back of my brain, that is always watching, and offering wise, or at least clear, commentary.

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Part of my madness is simply a by-product of being an artist. You have to open up your mind and your soul to Whatever Is Out There. And allow it to rattle around in your skull. For its the only way you can come up with new ideas and new inspiration. But in the process, you let down your mental guards in ways that are unhealthy and leave you vulnerable. Its what I mean by being mentally “unmoored.” Most people prefer to be grounded in a specific set of beliefs. Whereas an artist is more like a scientist who’s constantly doing experiments on his brain. Reality is always up for grabs.

I don’t know how I got started on this weird tangent. What can I say, I’m kind of nuts.

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One of the last really good comic strip ideas I came up with

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 6:22 pm

 

I was a cartoonist for 20 years. And one of the last really good ideas I came up with before I burned out on the gig was: I decided to do a series of comic strips. And I’d do a different drug while I was drawing each comic strip.

I’d start out the first panel of each comic strip like: “Its 9 PM and I just dropped that acid and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . .” or “Its 9 PM and I just smoked this crack cocaine and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . . ” or  “Its 9 PM and I just snorted this heroin and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . .”

And so on. And I’d draw these series of comic strips while being under the influence of all these different drugs. Crystal meth, pot, alcohol, and so forth.

It was a great idea. Because I could not only illustrate the affect of these drugs on my mental processes. But also the affect on my motor skills as I physically drew the comic strips.

The problem was: I ended up doing all the drugs. But I never got around to drawing up all the comic strips.

I guess they don’t call them “pipe dreams” for nothing.

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April 2, 2018

Wishing wells

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 7:25 pm

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I went through a period in the 1990s where I was so broke, I’d sometimes wade into the Sproul Plaza fountain and pull out all the coins. There was usually a couple bucks in there. Enough to buy a 24 ounce can of beer or a hot dog or a cup of coffee.

Then one day this young woman scolded me. “People make wishes when they throw those coins into the fountain! If you take those coins out, their wishes won’t come true!”

I wasn’t completely sure about the soundness of her theological interpretation of wishing wells. But I assured her: “No its cool. I threw a quarter into the fountain and wished to get a bunch of coins. So the wishes are still coming true.”

What I say doesn’t always make perfect sense. But the important thing is to always get in the last word.

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March 31, 2018

“Health Tips for Teens” by Dr. H. A. Backwords

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 9:56 pm

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I have so many unhealthy habits.

Crappy diet. Massive alcohol and drug consumption. Sleeping outside in the cold and rain as a homeless bum for decades at a stretch. Etc etc.

But I think the one thing that saved me. The one reason I’m still in surprisingly good health at age 61. In spite of my bad habits: I don’t repress my emotions.

If I feel anger I express my anger. If I feel sadness I express my sadness. If I feel fear I express my fear. Etc.

If you block your feelings? Its like emotional constipation. You have to let those feelings flow through your body so you can release them and get them out of your system. Like a good dump. Otherwise they fester inside you like a cancer.

Some people think “emotions” are like this airy ethereal thing. But emotions are also this physical, chemical presence in your body.

When you feel fear, your body surges with adrenalin. When you feel happiness, your body surges with endorphins.

The tricky part is finding ways to express these surges of crazy emotions while doing minimal damage to other people. To be able to express your anger and your rage where youre just blowing off steam and not hurting anybody..

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