Back in 1996 I used to hitchhike back and forth from Berkeley to Arcata every month

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Its weird how certain songs can be like time capsules that transport you back to the time to when you first heard the song.

I remember the first time I heard that Dolly Parton song, I Will Always Love You, it was back in 1996. I used to hitchhike back and forth from Arcata to Berkeley every month. And this one time I happened to get picked up by this black man wearing a cowboy hat.

Now when you’re hitchhiking around and you get in some guy’s car, you’re usually a little paranoid. Because you never know who you’re dealing with. So you’re sort of checking them out as you’re talking to them. To make sure they’re cool. And I was a little more paranoid than usual. Because I rarely got picked up by a black guy in my travels. OK?

So we’re chatting back and forth as we drive up 101 North, about 100 miles from Arcata. And in the course of our conversation he mentions he’s the father of a young son who suffers from some kind of physical disability. I forget what it was. Parkinson’s Disease or something like that. And for the first time I noticed his son is sitting in the backseat of the car. He’s about 5 years old. And I can tell he’s seriously physically impaired in some way. But he’s quietly sitting there and he’s otherwise doing OK.

So at that point I realize the black guy is OK. He’s a loving, caring father who’s taking care of his son. So I relax and I’m no longer paranoid.

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Then the guy decides to play some music. So he pops a cassette into the cassette player. And its that Dolly Parton song, I Will Always Love You. Which is the LAST think I expected some black guy who picked me up hitchhiking would play. A Dolly Parton song. So this ride is just getting weirder and weirder.

I’d never actually heard the song before. But as the song was playing I couldn’t help it. I started crying. Maybe to some people its a corny song. And maybe it is. But I was so overwhelmed by the emotion of the music and the weirdness of the moment. I turned my head to look out the window. So he couldn’t see me crying. You don’t want to cry in front of some other guy. Because that’s sissy stuff. Plus. the guy might start getting paranoid about ME. Some stranger he let into his car who is now publicly weeping over a fucking Dolly Parton song. Sheesh.

Later I would hear the Whitney Houston version. And I cry when that one comes on too.

But EVERY time I hear that Dolly Parton song I flashback in time to that moment. Riding in a car on Highway 101. In 1996.



The Merry Men of Arcata

 I camped in the Redwood Park in Arcata last night.   This huge forest full of beautiful redwood trees.  There were more than a few bands of homeless camping there, who evidently have been living in the woods for some time . . .

Which often reminds me of the story of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men.  Illegally living in Nottingham Forest and poaching the King’s venison (and watch out when the Sheriff of Nottingham pulls up in his squad car). . .   When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that the Robin Hood story was about a bunch of homeless guys.

Anyways, this annoyed me.  Last night around 10 PM, I’m hanging our amongst the redwoods in the deep, dark forest.  And I had my sleeping bag laid out on the ground, and I’m sitting on a log drinking my last beer of the night and scrolling away on my cellphone.  When these four guys wander by. Shine their flashlight at me.   “Don’t shine your flashlight in my face!” I said, rather curtly.  They proceeded to set up their tents about 20 feet from where I had planned to camp.  Evidently it didn’t concern them that I had got to this spot first.  They probably figured, there were 4 of them and only 1 of me, so too bad for me (I can guarantee they wouldn’t have tried to pull that shit if there had only been one of them).   But what the hell.  At least they offered to smoke some of their weed with me as a conciliatory peace gesture.  Which I declined.  I grabbed my sleeping bag and staggered off in the pitch darkness in search of another, more private, spot to camp . . .

You can get into some weird scenes dealing with total strangers in the deep, dark woods.

A friend of mine just emailed me a story from the Arcata newspaper.  Headline:  “Two Stabbed During Altercation Over Camp Site.”  And yeah, it can get that way sometimes.  It can get very primal out there in the wilderness.  Like the Laws of the Jungle.  A bunch of cavemen getting into territorial pissing wars.  And what further complicates the situation is:  none of us has a legal right to the turf.  We’re all illegally camping.  When you’re homeless, the only space you can claim for yourself is what you can carve out, and what you’re able to defend with your will and your cunning.

Calvin of Arcata

(Originally published December 14, 2002)

These rainy winter days get me to thinking of the couple of winters I spent on the streets of Arcata. 1995. 1996. Fabled Humboldt County. A very wet county.

Calvin and Fingers were the two guys I mostly hung out with; two aging hippies in their mid-40s. Original hippies from the 60s. The last of a dying breed. Calvin was a trip. You could make a great movie about that guy. He was both heroic and tragic. He was a barrel-chested hippie with just the beginning of a beer-gut. He looked like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boy, or the bearded hippie on the Zig Zag pack, or Jesus Christ Himself, with a vaguely chipmonk-ish sheen to his red-cheeked face.

Calvin was originally from Los Angeles. Both his mother and father were alcoholics who died when he was 12. So Calvin ran off with the circus; got odd jobs cleaning up elephant shit, the whole deal. A real street kid from the word go. Now, pushing into his mid-40s, he was kind of at the end of the line of a spectacular street career. You’re talking about somebody who spent 30 years on the streets. That’s a lo-o-ong time in street years.

Calvin was a born-again Christian hippie who was also an alcoholic (mostly a beer-o) who played the devil’s music, rock’n’roll. He could take the most beat-up, battered, out-of-tune, old street guitar and make it sing. He knew every pop song from the 60s: Beatles, Hendrix, Stones, the Who, Neil Young… The one that really got me was “Baby It’s A Wild World” by Cat Stevens. Street people would be crying when he played that one. “Hard to get by just upon a smile…” The one he loved the most was that Youngbloods song, “C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together try and love one another, right now.” He would belt that one out with an intense, yearning sweetness, as if he was trying to propel himself into a better world, a world of love, by the force of his musical will.

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Some people found Calvin a little self-righteous; “The Jesus of Arcata” they would smirk. But Calvin was a genuinely sweet, good-hearted guy, though their was a self-destructive martyrdom to some of his sweetness. He would give away his last blanket to somebody who needed it, and then sit there shivering all night. If somebody gave him $20, he’d just give it away. “What do I need money for?” he’d say. He literally lived without money. He deeply wanted to be “good,” often at the expense of himself. He practiced an odd brand of Christianity: If he did something good, God got all the credit. If he did something bad, it was all his own fault. Somehow, that didn’t seem fair to me. But that was Calvin’s trip. I was extremely fond of him. He was the one guy on the Arcata Plaza scene that I would seek out.

Like I said, he was just starting to get bloated from 30 years of non-stop boozing. Sometimes he would look up to the sky and call out with a dramatic gesture: “I’M READY TO GO ANY TIME YOU WANT TO CALL ME BACK HOME, LORD! I’M READY TO GO RIGHT NOW!” He was one of those guys who wasn’t quite of this world. Well, he had one foot in this life and the other foot in the next. Now, he was sort of biding his time. But even at the end of his street career, he had more life in him than most anybody else on the scene. When Calvin showed up, the party was happening. When Calvin showed up with his guitar, the beer would flow and the movable street party would emanate from around him. In between songs he would cry out his eternal mantra: “SOMEBODY BUY ME A BEER!” And somebody always would, because we wanted to keep the party going.

Calvin saw the doings of planet Earth in the dramatic terms of God-versus-Satan.  “God rules the heavens, but Satan is the landlord of this planet,” he would say.  “I remember when I lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s.  I saw ENTIRE BLOCKS taken over by Satanists!!  One after another, people would turn into ZOMBIES!!  Their souls, GONE!!  I SAW IT, MAN!!  With my OWN EYES!!  Block after block being taken over by Satan, like a black cloud descending on the land!!”

Fingers was his partner, so named for his deformed fingers. Fingers was a lanky hippie dude, with long hair, Fu Manchu mustache, cowboy hat, and fringed leather jacket. Fingers fancied himself kind of a fast-talking speed-freak con-man, mixed with a slow-talking, cool-walking Allman Brothers. But he was a fuck-up and he knew it. After inflicting his latest disaster on whoever was dumb enough to get hooked up with his latest deal, Fingers would repeat his eternal mantra: “You fucked up, you trusted me.” Both Fingers and Calvin were quintessential street people.

One winter afternoon after the rains, Fingers and Calvin offered to take me out ‘shroom hunting in Fingers’s beat-up old station wagon. I was very excited by the prospect. I had all sorts of fanciful images in my head of frolicking through enchanted forests picking magic mushrooms from the psychedelic earth. So I was a little disappointed when Fingers pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway 101 and we got out at the off-ramp. “They grow in the wood chips under the trees on these off-ramps,” he explained. In 20 minutes we had picked several big bags of shrooms as the cars rushed by us on the freeway.

At the time, I considered psychedelics to be spiritual medicine. I’ve since concluded that psychedelics have zero spiritual value, as well as the potential to do serious spiritual harm. And I concluded that any so-called “insights” or benefits I got from the psychedelic state of consciousness weren’t transferable when I returned to the normal state of consciousness, anyway. It’s like winning the lottery while you’re dreaming; you can’t cash that check when you wake up. But anyway, I dug how the airplanes seemed to be going off in my brain while I was riding that first manic rush of the ‘shroom buzz. Fingers and Calvin were in the front seat as we barreled down Highway 101, looking back at me with this strange, leering grin on their faces. I suddenly realized that, behind their smiles, they were members of the Manson Family and that they were driving me off to the woods to sacrifice me in some weird and bloody satanic ritual. I gritted my teeth, fighting the urge to grab the steering wheel and run us off the road before I was murdered, and rode out that first manic wave of the shroom rush, hoping it was all just in my mind. But then, what isn’t? Calvin and Fingers continued to smile and talk as if nothing had happened.

We decided to drive 300 miles down to Berkeley to sell the 20 pounds of ‘shrooms that Fingers had collected. I still remember that crazy drive in Fingers’s beat-up old station wagon, packed with his worldly possessions, dirty laundry, etc. The car clanked and rattled and sparked; every bump in the road I thought the engine would fall out. There was a big hole in the floor by my feet and you could see the highway rushing by beneath us at 60 miles per hour. “Oh, and don’t lean on that door, Ace, it might fly open,” cautioned Fingers. The whole scene was like living out a scene from the Furry Freak Brothers. Fingers, behind the wheel with his cowboy hat, was Freewheeling Franklin. I was Phineas. And Calvin was Fat Freddy. He sat in the back seat drinking beer and gobbling down ‘shrooms.

By the time we got to Berkeley late that night, Calvin was seriously sick. He staggered out of the car and fell to the sidewalk, groaning in pain. “I-I’m paralayzed! I can’t move!” he gasped. “I think there was something poisonous in one of those ‘shrooms.”  Calvin paused dramatically.  “If I die right here, fellas, just put me in a cardboard box and dump my body in a dumpster.”

“Okay,” said Fingers. Instead we dumped him back in the back seat to sleep it off, and by the morning he was fine.

Fingers decided to park his station wagon alongside People’s Park and bag up the ‘shrooms in little plastic baggies. Me and Calvin went off down to Telegraph with his guitar to hustle up beer money singing ’60s rock songs on Sproul Plaza. Within 20 minutes, Fingers managed to get busted by the cops with the car-full of ‘shrooms, and hauled off to Santa Rita in handcuffs. A typical ending to a typical Fingers caper. Calvin and I spent the rest of the week waiting to find out about Fingers’s fate. 20 pounds of psychedelic drugs could be serious; like 5 years in jail, serious. But somehow, just before we were about to drive back to Arcata without him, the police released Fingers. “The cops mysteriously lost the evidence,” explained Fingers. Most likely, the cops were sick of dealing with Fingers, too. So the Furry Freak Brothers were back on the road, barreling back to Humboldt County.

Well, there were many more strange and mysterious misadventures with Calvin and company. This one Arcata cop took a bad disliking to Calvin, considered him the troublemaker and ringleader of the whole scene. Which was true in a way. So the cop kept arresting Calvin for this and that, usually locking him up for a month at a time, but it started to add up. The writing was on the wall. “That cop wants to put me in a cage for the rest of my life. He’s evil so he can’t stand goodness.” It wasn’t that Calvin was a trouble-maker — if anything he helped keep the fragile street family together; he was one of the few people on the streets who cared about somebody other than themselves. But drunken scenes were always spinning around him; fights and god knows what. Calvin was half-dead by this point, anyway. His skin was turning a mottled yellow from a shot liver. The party was just about over for Calvin. There was really nowhere else for him to go. But sometimes, on the streets, you gotta go anyway. So he hooked up with Fartin’ Martin, this wino/hippy from Czechoslovakia, and headed up to Portland. And the Arcata scene has been dead ever since he left. Shortly after, I packed up my shit and hitch-hiked back down to Berkeley for good.

Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to barrel-chested, guitar-playing, beer-drinking, Jesus-preaching Calvin. He’s probably dead. And if anyone deserves to be in Heaven, it’s him.