Berkeley is a town full of ghosts to me

Every now and then I’ll pass this building on the corner of Telegraph & Dwight. And I’ll get a lump in my throat and feel like I’m gonna start crying. It’s where I met Duncan for the first time. Way back in 1978. It was a xerox shop back then. Krishna Copy. And I was making copies of some of my cartoons. And Duncan was at the xerox machine across from me making copies of the pages of this little 16-page zine he published, Tele Times. I can still vividly see the picture in my mind 42 years later.

I was 21 and just getting started with my life. I think I had only sold two of my cartoons at this point. And Duncan — even though he was a decade older than me and in his 30s — was just getting started with his life, with his artistic career (he had spent most of his 20s locked up in a mental asylum — “You’ll most likely spend your whole life in a mental asylum,” his shrink had told him). So Duncan was just getting started on his life too.

Duncan was the one who approached me. He had noticed out of the corner of his eye that I was xeroxing copies of original comic art. Just like I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was xeroxing off pages of a comics zine. “Ahh, would you be interested in letting me publish some of your cartoons in my magazine?” said Duncan.

So that’s how it started.

I’m not sure why it makes me want to cry when I think about it now 42 years later. I guess because life can just be kind of sad, how it all unfolds over the years. . . Or maybe it’s just because life can be such an overwhelming experience. You’re flooded with so many emotions. . . Sometimes you cry not because you’re sad. But because you’re just overwhelmed by it all.

“Thumping the tub”


When I was plugging my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book (my book about homelessness) back in 2001, my publisher set me up with about 30 interviews with radio stations all across the country (and one in Canada). And that was like a fantasy come true. Because all my life I had watched the movie stars and rock stars and famous authors going on their media tours to plug their latest product (“thumping the tub” as Marlon Brando famously put it). And now I was one of them doing it myself. Albeit on a smaller scale. Most of the radio stations were smaller markets like St. Louis. So it wasn’t like I was doing Howard Stern or the Johnny Carson Show. But still it was a kick.

Though I came to dread doing them. For a number of reasons. Number one I was always nervous as shit, stage-fright and all that. The other thing was, I did the interviews over the phone, and mostly in the morning, and often very EARLY in the morning, due to the different time zones. I was living in my office at the time, and the phone would usually wake me up from a sound sleep. Often it was still dark outside. It was the producer of the radio show. And I’d have like 5 minutes to fix up a quick cup of coffee, and then I’d be on the air. Still half-asleep. And babbling off the top of my head to thousands of people out there in radioland. So most of the interviews weren’t very good. And to tell you the truth, I much prefer being the interviewER. It’s a lot easier to come up with questions than it is to come up with answers.

The other thing about the interviews that was a pain in the ass: I’d have to figure out where the D.J. was coming from on the fly. And try to adjust my answers to their schtick. For example, some of them were “shock jock” types, and they were just using me as fodder for their dumb jokes. So it was pointless to try and have a serious conversation. While others of them had serious attitudes about the homeless issue. Considered the homeless a blight on their cities, just a bunch of smelly bums and drug addicts. So they wanted to use me as an excuse to do their axe-grinding. And then there were the super-serious and sincere bleeding-heart liberal types, who wanted to use me to publicly sob and weep over the plight of the homeless. And then ask me about my big and grand solutions to this pressing social problem. Something I usually wasn’t very good at articulating at 5 in the morning.

So it was pretty much of a mess. But at least it sold a couple of books. And that’s show business I guess. I’ll be right back right after this important message. . . .

Ace reviews the reviewers

Image result for "Surviving on the streets"

Was just checking the amazon page for my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book and I happened to notice this one sour review from some brainy guy named Christopher Debraine. Which is just like me. 20 good reviews and I’ll always notice the one bad review. Ha ha. Anyways, ole Chris takes me to task for not offering enough savvy advice about how to deal with the court system and tickets and the legal aspects of homelessness.

“Do NOT buy this book if you are looking for a how-to, or a manual, or even a lot of advice.
What you get here is a collection of personal anecdotes(which are interesting and amusing in their own right), personal opinion and politics (which are less interesting, and sometimes downright obtuse), and a scattered handful of advice.
You get more from forming your own opinions after reading about his experiences than you do from his actual advice. also, he tends to gloss over things you’d think were important, such as handling vagrancy tickets. how did ace overcome his tickets? he “jammed the machine with a blizzard of paperwork, and they forgot about it.” … yeah.
Anyway, the sad fact is that not many books such as this exist, mainly because the kind of people who end up on the streets either never get their life together enough to write something (let alone get published), or have no interest in helping other people should they suffer the same fate.
In summary: interesting and amusing, but NOT informative.”

* * *

The anecdote he was referring to was the time when the judge said he wouldn’t fine me if I pleaded guilty to this pot ticket, I’d just have to go to this Drug Education class, but then it turned out the class cost hundreds of dollars to sign up for (bastard!) but I did manage to beat the ticket by signing up for the class and then blowing it off (so I didn’t have to pay money or have a warrant go out for my arrest). And I was smug about how I weaseled my way out of that one. So fuck Christopher and his sneering comment. (Chris is probably one of those guys who gets lots of tickets and we could all learn from his experiences by learning what NOT to do).

But it did make me wonder if it was a glaring omission to have not delved more deeply into that aspect of the homelessness experience. I didn’t for several reason:

1.) I myself, rarely got tickets, so I didn’t have many personal experiences to share. But that’s the point of my book. If you do it right, and follow a few basic common sense rules, you WON’T get jammed up by the courts. And that’s the BEST way to deal with it.

2.) The laws pertaining to homelessness vary so much from city-to-city and state-to-state — as well as how the courts apply those laws. So the advice I give you for how to deal with it in Berkeley, might be the exact WRONG advice for how to deal with it in Chicago.

I guess if I could give one all-purpose bit of advice it’s: DON’T ANTAGONIZE THE COPS. If you get on their bad side they can surely make your life miserable. And they can usually even run you out of town if they want to, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

The other advice is: If you’re getting a lot of tickets, it may be because you’re doing it wrong, and you might want to re-assess how you’re operating.

That said, there are basically three ways you can deal with your homeless-related tickets:

1.) Go to court and either pay the fine or sign of for community service (which is what I usually did, spending a week or two picking up cigarette butts in the park.

2.) Just blow off your tickets (which is how most street people deal with them). Eventually, they’ll turn into Warrants For Your Arrest. And eventually the cops will probably arrest you. And you can spend a week or two sitting on your ass in jail. And that usually clears the ticket. Or:

3.) You can fight your ticket in court. Plead not guilty to the ticket, and then they’ll set a court date for you to state your case. Hate Man used to do this all the time. And he almost always prevailed. Mainly because the cop who gave you the ticket usually doesn’t have the time to show up in court over such a trivial matter, and since the cop can’t give his side of the story, the judge dismisses the ticket. The down-side is, if you take it to court and LOSE, the judge will usually give you a stiffer penalty than if you had pleaded guilty, to punish you for wasting the courts time . . . Nonetheless, if you have a good understanding of how the law works, and feel you have a strong case (and having the advice of a lawyer also helps) you might want to consider this option.

There, Christopher. Are you happy now??


May 5th, NATIONAL CARTOONIST DAY (be sure to worship them as gods for the next 24 hours)

I drew a comic strip off and on for about 20 years. It’s a pretty exacting medium. Every line, every word, has to be exactly in the right place in order to convey the punchline. And it doesn’t take much to throw off the timing and ruin the gag. Plus, you have to be able to conceive a worthy punchline out of your head, out of thin air, in the first place. It requires an odd combination of skills that really can’t be taught. You can either do it or you can’t.

Drawing a comic strip is like doing sketch comedy. Only you do everything. You write it, you draw it, you create the characters, you act out all the characters, you design the set, you design the costumes. You’re actor, writer, director, set designer, everything. And you have to be skilled in all these things to pull it off.

One thing it really requires is the ability to be concise. You have to pack all of this information into 3 or 4 little panels. So you can’t waste a single word. Doing a comic strip taught me how to express myself directly and forcefully. It is an in-your-face medium. You are reaching out and grabbing the reader by the collar and demanding: LOOK AT ME!!

It also teaches you how to package your thoughts and present them to others in an easily-digestible format. It’s like being an advertising executive, except instead of selling a product you’re selling your ideas.

A cop was once detaining me and grilling me about a possible offense I might have committed. In the course of the conversation he asked me about my employment history.
“I was a cartoonist for 20 years,” I said.
“Why’d you quit?” said the cop.
“I ran out of punchlines,” I said.

The cop laughed and let me go. . . I still know how to deliver a punchline if I need to.

A Telegraph Avenue hallucination


I was just hallucinating about classic Telegraph Avenue.

Moe was at the cash register at Moe’s Books, smoking a big fat cigar, as he nonchalantly rang up customers.

Across the street Julia Vinograd was at the Caffe Med, strolling up to the various tables, hawking her latest book. “Would you like to check out my latest book of poetry?”

Down the street at Cody’s Books, Andy Ross — the Woody Allen of Telegraph Avenue — was nervously fidgeting back and forth as a world-famous author gave a talk to a large crowd of people. Later, a long line of people would wait on line to get their books signed by the great man.

Around the corner Food Not Bombs has just served a delicious free meal in Peoples Park — it’s “Tasty Tuesday” by Judy the cook — and now all the street people are happily lolling on the grass under the sun, strumming on guitars and smoking pot.

Up the street in front of Cafe Botega, the Naked Guy is sitting on the sidewalk, buck naked of course, selling bumperstickers that say “IT’S JUST A DICK.” And the Rare Man is shirtless and doing chin ups and roaring: “HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?? RAAAARRRREEEE!!!”

Across the street St. Paul — the world’s most fanatical and brain-damaged Deadhead — in his brightly colored tye-dye t-shirt is flashing peace signs and shouting at the bewildered pedestrians over and over “JERRY GARCIA GRATEFUL DEAD!! JERRY GARCIA GRATEFUL DEAD!!”

On the Berkeley campus Rick Starr is crooning out his oldies into his fake plastic microphone. And Hate Man is hanging out at Bench One with Jaguar, Warpo, Krash and the rest of the Hate Camp crazies, getting into loud arguments, cursing at each other, pushing shoulders, and smoking many cigarettes. Until it’s time to bring out the drums for the drum circle and the nightly tribal stomp.

Meanwhile, Backwords and Duncan are hanging out at their vending table selling weird underground shit in between drinking many 24 ounce cans of Olde English.

Its ten o’clock and the Campanile Tower rings out ten times — that haunting, melancholy sound — and it’s one more weird and magical night in Berkeley. . .

Popular misconceptions about “the homeless”


Its funny, the stereotypes — and misconceptions — that so many people have about “the homeless.

My friend B.N. Duncan was a fairly eccentric-looking guy. He had a long, bushy beard down to his chest, and wild, unruly hair. And his clothes were often ragged and stained, and pitted with cigarette hole burns.

While I was fairly bland and clean-cut looking (at least compared to Duncan, ha ha).

And we’d be walking down the street together, and on many occasions, strangers would assume Duncan (who had never spent a day of his life homeless) was homeless, and offer him food or money or clean socks or etc.

While I (who had spent 13 years, and counting, homeless) rarely, if ever, received such largesse from the general public.

It’s a funny world, ain’t it??

When my friend Moby was filming a movie about the street scene, he cast Duncan as “the homeless guy.” Unfortunately, I didn’t look “homeless” enough to get the role.