I spent about 20 years as a cartoonist. 1976 to 1995. For about 10 years I did it as a full-time job.
I considered myself an underground/alternative cartoonist. Whatever that meant. I always knew my sensibilities weren’t orientated for a mainstream audience. I couldn’t do a “Peanuts” or “Dagwood and Blondie” type of comic strip (and the one time I attempted to do one, R. Crumb himself mocked me: “I’m dizz-gusted!! There are a thousand candy-ass suburban cartoonists that can do that stuff better than you. Get thee back to underground comix.”)
Even as I felt I was so brilliant — self-centered egomaniac that I was — that I would find a mass audience anyways.
But it never really happened. With my Twisted Image comic strip I set my sights on the “alternative weeklies.” Papers like the Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express here in the San Francisco area. Or the Village Voice — the granddaddy of the alternative newspapers. But I could never quite break into those markets. My strip generally appeared in the second-rank alternative papers. One step below the big time. I always felt like a minor league baseball player who was a star on that level, but could never quite break into the Major Leagues. (Though this one, printed in color, was from HIGH TIMES magazine, which was as close as I’d get to a mainstream audience — I’d walk into a 7-11 and see HIGH TIMES in the magazine section and say to myself “I’m in there!” Ha ha)
And I always accepted that. The audience — not the editors — basically decides your fate. What level of success you succeed at. A mass audience either wants to read your shit. Or they don’t. They’d rather read some other cartoonist. And you end up, at best, with a certain “cult status.” And that’s about it. That’s the game.
When the Berkeley campus first went into lockdown, it was great for me. Because I had the whole campus to myself. But gradually, more and more people realized there was this big expanse of unoccupied green space right in the middle of the city. So more and more people are hanging out here every day. The campus is now like this huge, unsupervised park.
And there are more and more sketchy people hanging out in the shadows every night, too. People who couldn’t have gotten away with making the scene when school was in session. Like at one of my favorite late-night hang-out spots on the campus — this secluded patio. It used to be that almost nobody hung out there after 10 PM and I had the place to myself. But nowadays there are usually weird people doing weird things at all hours.
The other night I approached the place, and it’s pitch dark so it’s hard to see if anybody is hanging out at the tables. And the last thing you want to do late at night is startle somebody when you approach them in the darkness. Especially if they’re nutty or doing drugs. So I cautiously approach the tables. And I didn’t see anybody sitting there. But just as I was about to sit down on a chair, I noticed there was a homeless guy sleeping there. He had arranged the chairs as a bed. And I came very close to sitting right on top of him!!
So last night I was doubley cautious as I approached the patio. But the coast was clear. Nobody around. So I sat down at a table and I’m hanging out, drinking my beer and etc. When I smell some strange smoke coming from off in the distance. But I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Then I hear someone cough from somewhere in darkness. Finally I spot this orange flame from somebody firing up a cigarette lighter. Somebody is sitting UNDER one of the tables getting stoned. I decided to get the fuck out of there.
But that’s what it’s like nowadays. I guess the coronavirus thing has changed everything. Changed all the normal rhythms of our daily lives.
I just ran into Blind Tony. He was standing in the darkness on Sproul Plaza at 10 o’clock at night. I wouldn’t have even recognized him. Except I spotted his cane.
“Tony how you doin,” I said.
“I’m doin fine,” he said. “Who is this?”
“It’s me, Ace,” I said.
“Oh,” he said.
“It’s good to see ya, Tony,” I said.
“It’s good to smell ya, Ace,” he said.
Ha ha. That was probably the line of the night. After being homeless all these years I’m a little ripe these days. Needless to say, blind people can recognize me. Ha ha.
“You need anything, Tony?” I said
“I could use a smoke,” he said.
“Oh I quit smoking,” I said. “But here’s some bucks to buy a pack.” (I’m probably guilty of virtue-signaling here. But when you see a blind homeless person you want to help them SOMEHOW. Even as you really can’t help them very much. All you can do is give them a couple of smokes.)
“I miss Duncan,” said Tony.
“Me too,” I said. “And I miss Hate Man. If Hate Man was here we could get some Virginia Slims.”
I spent a couple of years hanging out on the street scene in Arcata in Northern California. There was usually a big crowd of us hanging out at the Arcata Plaza, drinking beer, playing guitars, smoking pot, and generally whooping it up. There were the regulars who had been there for years. But there were also always new street people who were coming and going.
The street scene is like that. Very fluid and transitory. So you constantly have these unusual and bizarre characters suddenly showing up, enacting their strange dramas right in front of your face for awhile, only to suddenly disappear as fast as they came, never to be seen again. It’s like watching a movie. Except you only get the middle act of the movie. You don’t get the first act or the third act. You don’t know their life story — what led up to them being the people that they are. And you almost never find out how their lives turned out. You just get these incredibly dramatic middle acts.
Case in point. One afternoon we were all hanging out on the lawn when this big van pulled up to the Plaza. And a bunch of street people piled out of the car and joined us. One person who joined us was this young woman who couldn’t have been more than 18. She was waif-like, wistful and skinny. And she would have been very pretty, except her face had one of the worst cases of acne I had ever seen. Her entire face was covered with these bright red spots.
So we’re all hanging around in a circle, whooping it up as usual. The woman was soft-spoken and withdrawn. Didn’t say much. Mostly sat there with her head down. It was somewhat painful to look at her. Because you couldn’t help noticing it. Most of us were in a certain amount of pain, street casualties that we mostly were. But at least we could hide our pain. But with her pain, the pain was right out there in the open for everyone to see.
So the afternoon turned to evening and then to night. When the new arrivals decided to call it a night and they got up and piled into their van. The young woman followed after them. But when she got to the van they told her she couldn’t come with them. One of the women stuck her head out of the car window and said something mean and angry to her. And then they drove off. Leaving her standing there.
For lack of anything better to do, she returned to our circle and slumped back down and hung out with us for the rest of the night. At one point she was sort of silently weeping. Rejected again. The only thing I remember her saying was: “I just want to hang out with the kids.” Which had a poignant tone. Like she was just looking for some place in this world, any place in this world, where she could belong. And not finding it anywhere.
It was dark on the Plaza by now, so at least her acne was no longer visible in the light. And you could see how pretty she would have been without it. After awhile you could sense that she was finally starting to relax, knowing she wouldn’t be burdened by it until the harsh light of morning. She spent a long time quietly talking to this young street guy. And I still have this vivid image in my memory of the end of the night, as they walked off together, side by side, their sleeping bags in their hands.
I happened to be renting out this little hotel room at this flophouse in Eureka at the time. And a couple days later I happened to pass the woman as she was wandering aimlessly by herself down the street. So I invited her up to my room to take a shower if she wanted. An offer she accepted. There was a small shower at the end of the hallway on my floor. So I gave her a towel and she took a nice long hot shower. Which can be a score when you’re living on the streets. When she was done she came back to my room with the towel wrapped around her hair on the top of her head. And we hung out for awhile, talking quietly. I can’t remember anything we said. I mostly remember her demeanor. This resigned, defeated, weary demeanor. And it was sad to see someone who was so young who was already so dispirited. It’s like she had no solution, no answer, to her life dilemma. All she could do was endure. And she reminded me of a ghost in a way. Like she wasn’t really all there. Like she couldn’t bare to be there. So her spirit had sort of disengaged from her body.
She thanked me for the shower and left. And I never saw her again. But every now and then I’d wonder what ever happened to her.
But that’s what the street scene is like. You get these vivid scenes. But no beginnings or endings. Just the middle. Just random jump-cuts from one movie to another.
Was just sitting on a bench on the campus when old Roberto sat down next to me.
“I got some good news,” he said. “I think I might finally be able to move into an apartment.” He paused for a moment and then said, “But it’s a little ironic. Because my lung cancer is really starting to act up. So I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Roberto rubbed his hand on his chest.
Sometimes I don’t know what to say.
Me and Roberto talked for a bit. It was one of those things where it started out a casual conversation and then suddenly wasn’t so casual. It was life-and-death stuff.
“It happens to everybody,” said Roberto. “Life comes to a bad end.”
“Well you know what they say,” I said. “Life is a lingering sickness cured only by death. But at least there’s a cure.”
“That’s pretty good,” said Roberto. “Who came up with that one?”
“Me,” I said.
“It happens to everyone,” Roberto said. Taking it philosophically.
“Sometimes it seems like 90% of the people I’ve known over the years are dead,” I said. “It makes me wonder why I’m still here. Everybody else is gone and yet I’m still here.”
“You drink all that beer,” said Roberto. “It pickles you. It preserves you.”
“Ha ha. I believe when we die we go to heaven. Or at least we’re reincarnated on a higher plane.”
“I hope so,” said Roberto.
“It’s got to be better than this life.”
I said goodbye to Roberto. As I was wandering off I wondered how many more times I’d see him. Or if I’d see him again. You never know.
Really bad dream last night. What was so bad about the dream, it was RELENTLESSLY bad. It just kept going from bad to worse.
It starts out with me spilling coffee on my cellphone. The screen actually dissolves, ruining the cellphone. Then I drive to the hospital to take care of some illness. I wander through the hospital for a long time trying to connect with a doctor, but everyone ignores me or gives me a bum steer. Then this violent lunatic attacks me. I keep pleading with him as we’re grappling, “I don’t want to fight you!” I run down the hallway and lock myself in the restroom. I hear him outside trying to break the door in. I push off the screen on the window and escape out the window. Then I’m wandering around in the parking lot and the streets trying to find my car. I forgot where I parked it. I ask a cop who’s passing by if he’ll help me but he just brushes me off. “It probably got towed.” But I have no idea how to get ahold of the towing company. I can’t even remember what kind of car I had. The psycho returns and attacks me again. I grab a big metal pole and whacked him over the head. . .
The dream continued on like that for a LONG time. One bad scene after another. Finally I woke up. . . I did what I always do when I have a bad dream. I went right back to sleep. And I kept sleeping until I finally got a good dream.
Woke up again. Mini Scaredy rushed over to me to say good morning like she always does. Mini Scaredy never seems to have bad dreams. Always wakes up in a chipper mood. I don’t know how she does it. . . Of course she doesn’t drink 100 ounces of malt liquor every night.
For a couple of years I did a monthly record review column with my friend Mary Mayhem. It was patterned after Siskel & Ebert at the Movies — Backwords & Mayhem at the Records. And we’d both review the same records, giving them thumbs up or thumbs down. Usually I’d just tape-record me and Mary talking about the records as we listened to them. Then I’d edit the tape down to the column. Mostly it was just an excuse to hang out with Mary, drink beer, and listen to music. And you know me, I love to gas off with my opinions. So it was a lot of fun.
I’d mail the column out to various zines and alternative newspapers across the country. I think at its peak we were reaching about 100,000 readers a month. Didn’t make much money. But the real perk was, free records.
I mailed out copies of the column to every record label I could think of. And pretty soon I was getting like a hundred free records in the mail every month. I didn’t have time to listen to most of the records. Usually I’d play thirty seconds of the first track, and if it didn’t grab me by then, I’d take it off and go on to the next record. Ha ha. Half of them I would sell at the local used record store. And most of the rest of them I’d give to my friends.
With the smaller, independent record labels, I’d make an effort to plug them. Because most of them were operating on a shoe-string, and it cost them money to mail them out. But the major record labels, I just looked at as a big tit to milk. And years after I stopped writing the column, they still kept sending me their latest records every month. . . Once you get on the promo list of the major record labels, you’re on the gravy train, baby.
I had a poignant moment at my campsite this morning. Involving those goddamn wild turkeys, believe it or not. My hated enemies.
Now, I feed all the wild critters in the Berkeley hills, except for the wild turkeys. Why? Because they’re too big (40 pounds) and there are too many of the bastards (dozens of them). And if I didn’t run them off, they’d eat every morsel of cat food I put out for my cats. And frankly I can’t afford to feed a flock of turkeys. Plus, they’re goons. They regularly knock over the water dish and my cats have to go all day with no water. So I always run them off when they show up at my campsite.
Two of the turkeys in particular have tormented me for years. They were always together, like a couple. So I named them Herkle and Jerkle. And they’d show up at my campsite every morning. And they’d circle around my campsite for hours. And the second my back was turned they’d make a mad dash for the cat food dish. I’d get up and chase after them in a rage, cursing and screaming bloody murder at them, and throwing rocks and branches at them. But I could almost never hit them. They were way too fast and zipped straight up the hill on their powerful legs like the Road Runner cartoon (Only one time I did manage to hit one of them right in the ass. That turkey jumped straight up 5 feet in the air, squawking and feathers flying before she fled up the hill. Very satisfying. For once. After the thousands of times when I missed) (I’d make a lousy baseball player).
Herkle disappeared a year ago. But Jerkle is still around (do turkeys experience loneliness??). Anyways, I was taking a nap this morning when Jerkle woke me up with her gobbling sound. They’d be more successful sneaking into my campsite as cat food thieves if they didn’t constantly make that gobble-gobble sound. But I guess it’s a compulsion with them. They can’t stop doing it.
I get up and start to chase after Jerkle in a rage, like usual. Jerkle took off running. But after he got about 20 yards away from me, he stopped running. He sat down on the ground. And sat there for quite some time. Looking like a chicken sitting on an egg. Which was weird. He’d never done that before.
After awhile I realized why. When he tried to stand up, his legs would buckle and he’d fall right back down to the ground. I had noticed for awhile that his legs were getting progressively worse. He staggered around with a bad limp that got noticeably worse over the last month, as he staggered around the woods. I realized Jerkle was on his last legs. Literally.
To my surprise, I felt a pang of sadness as I watched him sitting there. Part of my reaction was personal. I’ve noticed my own legs have been getting progressively weaker lately. And I often wonder how much longer I’ll be able to make the trek up the Berkeley hills to my campsite.
But it was more than that. As much of a nemesis and a pain in the ass that Jerkle could be, he’d still been a part of my life for many years. And I realized there was a bond there. I guess it’s like athletes who can be fierce rivals and hate each other’s guts all the years they’re competing against each other. But after they retire they realize there’s a strong bond there. A brotherhood.
I packed up my campsite, and left a plate of food for Jerkle. I guess I’ll have to start feeding him now.
I’m starting to worry that I might crack up. I’m under so much pressure these days coming at me from so many different directions. I have to be careful I don’t snap.
So I’m at Walgreens buying some stuff. I give the clerk the money and she’s ringing up my bill, when she says to me:
“Muh muh muh muh.”
“What?” I said.
“Muh muh muh muh,” she repeats.
“WHAT??” I said.
She’s wearing a mask over her face, which muffles her voice. And there’s a plastic partition in front of her that further muffles her voice. On top of that, she’s speaking very softly. So it’s like an episode of “Get Smart” when they’re trying to talk in the Cone of Silence.
“Muh muh muh muh,” she repeats again.
Finally, after much back and forth I’m able to understand what she’s saying: “Push the green button on the screen.”
I look at the screen, and there’s no green button.
“Push the green button on the screen,” she repeats.
“There IS no green button on the screen!!” I said.
She turns the screen around. Looks at it. And realizes, there’s no green button on the screen. So she switches the screen to another page and says to me (you guessed):
“Muh muh muh muh.”
“Muh muh muh muh.”
Now I’m starting to get pissed. It’s bad enough that I can’t hear what she’s saying. When I CAN hear what she’s saying she gives me the wrong instructions.
“LISTEN I CAN’T UNDERSTAND A WORD YOUR SAYING!!” I said. With more of an exasperated edge to my voice than I had intended. “WOULD YOU JUST RING UP MY BILL SO I CAN GET OUT OF HERE???”
She goes back to ringing up my bill. Hands me my change and my receipt.
“I apologize for being a little rude,” I said.
“Have a nice day,” she says blankly.
I turn and walk out the front door. I’m half-way down the street when I realize I had left my cup of coffee on the counter. So I had to go back in the store and face the clerk again. Which was embarrassing after kind of making a fool of myself.
I know it’s just a little thing. But so many of my interactions these days are like that. Things are off. Out of sync. And it’s the cummulative effect that’s getting to me. On top of some more serious problems that I’m dealing with.
Sometimes life is just like that. Where you’re overwhelmed with problems. And you have no answers. You just keep slogging forward. And hope at some point that the gods will ease up on you.