A thousand nights out for coffee with Vincent Johnson

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Every now and then I’ll think of my old friend Vincent Johnson. He’ll pop into my head like a barely-remembered dream. Even as it seemed so very real at the time.

I was pretty close to Vince for about 15 years. And for several years he was my roommate. So I got to know him pretty well. I’ve never met anybody quite like Vince. He had a purity of spirit and a basic goodness that was rare. I’d call him a very spiritual person. Even as he rarely talked about his spirituality. Never made speeches about it. He expressed it with his actions and how he lived his life. He had this other-worldly quality. It was like even when he was immersed in the dirt and grime of this world, he always had one eye on the heavens, on the next life, this cosmic realm.

Vince came to Berkeley in the ’70s to be hippie. Had a big tan afro. And wore street-hippie clothes. For many years he had this bomb of a ’56 Chevy with a brightly-colored psychedelic paint job, and the Grateful Dead skull logo on the front hood. The car rarely worked, but he used it mostly to sleep in. And he had a deep admiration for the idealistic aspect of the ’60s hippie movement. “Peace and love” wasn’t a cliche for Vince, but the way he lived his life. Though he was dismayed at how drugs had had such a destructive affect on so much of the hippie scene (the only drug Vince ever did was coffee).

Vince’s biggest dream was to start a hippie commune. To that end he bought 40 acres of land in the middle of a cowfield in the middle of nowhere (technically Modoc County in rural Northern California). And plopped his school bus down in the middle of it and dubbed his commune Rainbow Junction. Over the years a couple people would join him for a few months here and there, but alas it never really caught on.

And that was Vince in a nutshell. He was a dreamer who’s dreams were never quite realized. But the dream itself — the ideal in his heart — was so real, that it didn’t seem to matter. He never got discouraged or defeated, and never gave up on his dogged strivings to attain his dreams and visions. (My friend Duncan once wryly described Vince as “a combination of persistence and ineffectuality, with persistence sometimes winning out.”)

I would get long, handwritten letters from Vince from Rainbow Junction, always written from the local Dairy Queen — he would walk several miles to this small downtown area (basically the Dairy Queen, the Post Office, and a couple of small stores) to have his coffee. And I could tell he was lonely — the letters were a substitute for not having anyone to talk to.

The winters could be pretty tough up at Rainbow Junction. You’d get several feet of snow and freezing temperatures. And all Vince had to keep warm was a small wood-burning stove. One time he came close to dying. He had an epileptic seizure in his school bus and was passed out for quite some time. Came close to freezing to death. When he finally came back to earth he somehow made it to a doctor. But his health was never the same. And that was pretty much the end of Rainbow Junction.

He moved back to Berkeley and then he got lung cancer. They had to remove one lung. Was in the hospital for some time, close to death. When I visited him in the hospital he was much frailer than he had been. But he still had his beaming smile and a twinkle in his eye. He never lost that no matter what the circumstance. I brought him a framed photo of the Star Trek crew to put on his bedside to aid in his recover. Because Vince was a big fan of Star Trek, and an even a bigger fan of the Star Wars movie. “May the Force be with you.” And he didn’t see anything corny about it. But saw it as an enactment of this heroic vision he had of human life — of goodness and light ultimately triumphing over the forces of darkness.

When Vince got out of the hospital he had to carry around a tank of oxygen for awhile. But eventually he recovered and even started working out regularly at Gold’s Gym to build himself back up..

Vince got a little room in a boarding house near the Ashby BART and we kind of drifted apart. The last time I saw him was at Duncan’s memorial in 2009. For many years we had been the Three Amigos — me, Vince, and Duncan. And now we were down to two. Vince was in poor health at the time and didn’t get out much. But it was important to him to show up for Duncan’s memorial. He had the same amused smile as always. And I can still see the look on his face as clear as a bell in my mind. We spoke softly about Duncan and the old times. Which had gone by so fast. I can’t remember anything specific that he said. And then he left. And I didn’t realize at the time that that would be the last time I would see him. He died shortly after. They packed up the meager possessions he had in his room, and Vince quietly departed from this life without any fanfare.

In retrospect I wish I had gotten Vince to talk more about his life, for he wasn’t the type of person who talked about himself much. There’s a lot I don’t know about him. I know he grew up in Watts, had a black father who he never knew, and a white mother who was cold and angry and seemed to hate him. How Vince developed his uplifting spiritual vision from that background is one of the great mysteries. I guess he was just born with a highly developed soul.

I think now of the countless times we went out for coffee together. For that was one of our bonds. We were always in the middle of countless adventures, misadventures and soap operas back then. And that’s what we mostly talked about. Oddly I distinctly remember how he fixed his coffee. He’d put some milk and sugar in it. Taste it. Put some more sugar in. Taste it again. Put some more sugar in. Taste it again. He’d repeat this ritual 6 or 7 times until he got his coffee exactly right. Ha ha. I have no idea why I think of that now.

And I remember one of the few times he talked about his high school years. Which was an unhappy period for him. And he told me about how he developed this huge crush on the most beautiful girl in his class. Talking about her I could tell he was still overwhelmed by her beauty. And that was so Vince. He was always getting these crushes on different women. Who he’d follow around like a puppy dog. That was another one of his big dreams, to find The Girlfriend. The Soul Mate. Something he never quite did. And that was another one of the things we had in common that bonded us.

And he told the story about how he finally mustered the courage to tell the girl, his high school crush, that he was madly in love with her. Hopelessly in love with her. And how he doggedly pursued her for many months. Only to be rejected. She was way out of his social class after all. Vince was frail, skinny, nerdy, and spoke with a pronounced stutter. While she was the most beautiful girl in the class after all. But Vince told the story with a beaming smile on his face, and a bemused affection for his younger self. And he said that him and the girl even ended up as sort of friends, or at least friendly, if not lovers. And that was so Vince. Never defeated.

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Somebody asked me why R. Crumb’s WEIRDO comic book wasn’t more commercially successful

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WEIRDO was a somewhat obscure comic book that R. Crumb published from 1981 to 1993. 28 issues in all.

Crumb is mostly noted for doing the ZAP underground comic book — the first issue of which he published in the Summer of Love (so-called) while he was living in the Haight-Ashbury in 1967. So it’s like a historical icon of those times. And they sold zillions of copies of ZAP. It’s like the comic equivalent of Sgt Pepper.

Another thing Crumb is noted for is his iconic Janis Joplin album cover.

And another thing Crumb is known for is his “Keep On Truckin'” cartoon. Which ended up everywhere.  I once noticed that Tony Danza — the actor from the TV sitcom Taxi — had Crumb’s “Keep On Truckin'” cartoon tattooed on his arm. So it’s an iconic image

Crumb is also known for his “Fritz the Cat” cartoon. Which the schlock film maker Ralph Bakshi turned into the first X-rated animated Hollywood movie

Crumb is also noted for his famous Mr. Natural cartoon character.

But Crumb’s WEIRDO comic book mostly flew under the radar. Why was WEIRDO relatively obscure? There were probably a bunch of reasons for that. For one, what Crumb published was a reflection of his personal tastes, which could be pretty weird and eclectic (he published me, for example). Another was distribution. WEIRDO was hard to find, you really had to seek it out if you wanted to buy a copy. And another was timing. When ZAP first hit it was right when the ’60s hippie counterculture was exploding. There was no similar wave for WEIRDO to ride on.

And yet ultimately, WEIRDO might end up being one of the more interesting things in the Crumb canon.

San Francisco days

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I lived and/or worked in San Francisco for about 8 years (1976 to 1984). And like many San Franciscans I started every morning reading Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s weird, but Herb Caen made you feel like we were all part of something. Part of this big, fantastic club that was San Francisco. You really felt like you were living in this special place back then. This golden city. Of course we had this smug sense of superiority that may or may not have been warranted. But mostly we just felt grateful that this place existed, and that we could be a part of it.

When I was a bike messenger in the 1980s I sometimes delivered letters to Herb Caen’s office in the Chronicle building on 5th and Mission. It was like he had his own private wing of the building. And he was important enough to merit that. I heard that when he switched from the Examiner to the Chronicle, he took something like half of the Examiner’s circulation with him. Ha ha. . .. . I never saw Herb Caen himself, just dealt with his legendary secretary. But the door to his office was open and you could sneak a peak into where he typed up his column every morning. And it was like being in the inner sanctum of San Francisco. Like going to see the Wizard of Oz himself.

Herb Caen actually even wrote some nice items about the S.F. bike messengers. Called us “whacky and wild and wonderful” or something like that. But that was Caen. He included everybody in his vision of San Francisco. From the top to the bottom of the society.

The return of Moo Cat

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Moo Cat is a tough old girl. She made it through her 10th winter living in the woods.

Moo Cat had been missing for over a week. Which she’ll do sometimes. But I was still starting to worry. I’ve seen so many feral cats come and go over the years. And Moo Cat is over 10 years old — which is pretty ancient for a feral cat. And one day I know Moo Cat just won’t be there anymore.

So it was a relief when she showed up this morning. And as wild and crazy as ever. And definitely hungry. Ate a big 14 ounce can of cat food and 3 big pieces of cheddar cheese.

The 2nd floor of the Greyhound Hotel and Losers Beach

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In 1981, age 24, I spent a year living in a little hotel room in the middle of nowhere (Eureka, California, technically). I was trying to start over after a somewhat bruising first attempt to make an adult life for myself in San Francisco and Berkeley (had spent a couple years living on the streets of SF on Skid Row, another couple of years working dead-end minimum-wage jobs, was trying to recover from a failed romantic relationship — the first in what would be a long series of failed relationships — and I had even managed to get myself in the middle of a murder trial when my next door neighbor — this big drug dealer — shot and killed someone right outside my apartment).

So I was licking my wounds and seeing if I could come up with a Plan B.

So I got a little room on the second floor of this flophouse, the Greyound Hotel. I think the rent was $75 a month back then. My room had a bed and a sink and a bathroom down the hall (though everyone secretly pissed in their sinks). And one window with a view of the alley out back. And I had an electric hot plate that I could cook hamburgers and fry eggs on. 

And I enrolled at this local college, Humboldt State, to resume my sophomore year and see if I could come up with some kind of career or shit. My grades actually weren’t good enough to get in, but I met with one of the Deans and managed to talk my way in (when I cleaned up my act I could sometimes project this up-and-coming All-American Boy image back then that sometimes helped me open up some doors).

I ended up getting to know, and be friendly with, just about everybody who lived on the second floor of the Greyhound Hotel with me that year. Which was unusual. Usually people kept to themselves in those kind of hotels. 

The guy who lived in the room next to me was this large man who worked at a local fish processing factory (Eureka was a seaport town). And some nights he’d bring home a big bag of fresh fish and he’d invite us all into his room for a big fish fry on his hot plate. And that fish tasted great. Then we’d watch re-runs of Saturday Night Live on his TV (Belushi and the original cast). And the more pot we smoked, the funnier the skits were (we all agreed the new Saturday Night Live sucked).

The guy in the room on the other side of me was this lonely old guy in his 70s with a big round belly. His main hobby was walking around the streets of Eureka and looking for change on the sidewalks and payphones. And he kept a detailed calendar — going back several years — of how much money he found every day (“12 cents on Monday, 37 cents on Tuesday,” and so on).

At the end of the hall was this other lost soul, Victor, this middle-aged man who eked out of living painting window displays on the local storefronts. Santa Claus and reindeer during the Christmas season, pumpkins on Halloween, and so forth. He knew I was an aspiring artist and would sometimes give me unsolicited art tips for how to improve my art technique.

The guy who lived across from me was my age and he was taking classes at another local college, and he must have had some money because he was the only one of us who could afford to live in an actual studio apartment — his place came with it’s own kitchen and bathroom. And he took a special delight at mocking the storefront painter — who could be a bit pompous — and busting his balloon when he tried to be the big know-it-all. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Victor.” (plus he could tell my artwork was already more advanced than Victor’s, a fact he delighted in rubbing in Victor’s face)

At the other end of the hall by the stairs was this swaggering little Keith Richards-wannabe who went by the name Butch, who seemed to be trying to live out some kind of Rocknroll Outlaw fantasy. Butch usually had a cigarette dangling from his lips and a pint of Jack Daniels in his back pocket. And when I’d pass his room I’d often hear him blasting out heavy metal power chords with lots of fuzz tone on his electric guitar and amp. He was actually an excellent guitarist and songwriter. But was a little too dysfunctional, personality-wise, to pursue his dream of a career as a rock star. Though one of the hot local bar bands did perform cover versions of some of his songs in their live act. Some nights he’d invite me down to his room to jam with him. And he’d mix up a big batch of magic mushroom tea (shrooms were all over Eureka during the rainy season). And we’d get all glassy-eyed from the shrooms (and whiskey and pot). And the music would take on a magic tone as we jammed to Rolling Stones songs and “Hey Joe” and his own originals which were great too.

Everyone on the floor was a single guy without a wife or girlfriend. And we were all people who were either hoping to become successful, or who had given up on being successful. So we all kind of had this aura of losers who had been cast adrift from the mainstream of American life. Holed up in our lonely little hotel rooms on the second floor of the Greyhound Hotel. It reminded me of this thing I once read about, this place called Losers Beach. According to this article I read, these whales would all meet up every year at a certain time to act out their mating rituals. The male whales would fight amongst each other, jousting, ramming against each other over and over. Until one of the whales finally gave up. And then the victorious whale would go off and have sex with the female whales. The age-old two-bulls-fighting-over-a-cow routine. And they actually had these tours where you could pay money to go out there on a boat with a bunch of other people and watch the whole spectacle of the whale-mating ritual.

And the other thing was, all the loser male whales, who wouldn’t get to mate, would wearily swim off to this other cove, far from the action, and hang out together and sort of commiserate, and lick their wounds, and drink Olde English malt liquor, and try to build up their strength for another jousting session. And the area where these whales hung out was dubbed Losers Beach.

I always thought that would be a great title for an album of tragic love songs. “Losers Beach.” And it kind of fit us on the second floor of the Greyhound Hotel, too.