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.

“Telegraph people”

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Julia Vinograd passed away almost exactly a year ago today. And that got me thinking about “Telegraph people.” For Julia Vinograd was certainly one of the most renowned of the “Telegraph people.”

I used to see “Telegraph people” all the time back in the day. As I walked down Telegraph Avenue, I’d pass the same people, see the same faces, day after day, year after year, for decades at a stretch. Like the people who lived at the Berkeley Inn, or the other apartment buildings on the Ave, or lived in the houses and the boarding houses around the Telegraph area. And you’d see them day after day going about their daily business. And get to know many of them.

Or all the “Telegraph people” hanging out at all the coffee shops. The Berkeley old-timers at the Caffe Med. The younger, hipper crowd at Cafe La Botega and Wall Berlin.

Or you’d pass all the people who owned all the businesses on Telegraph, or the employees who worked in the stores and shops. Like Moe, the famous owner of Moe’s Books, forever slumped behind the cash register chomping on one of his cigars.

Or all the Telegraph street vendors, selling their colorful wares, set up at the same spots year after year, like a permanent part of the scenery.

Or all the whacky Telegraph street people, and the colorful self-created “Berkeley characters,” as well as all the street musicians and street performers and street orators that gave the Ave this feel of living street theater. Like the Hate Man — one of the more famous of the “Telegraph people,” and forever identified with the Telegraph scene (Hate Man would sometimes go years at a stretch without leaving the confines of Telegraph Avenue — “Everything I want is right here” — aside from regularly going to the courthouse in downtown Oakland to deal with his latest tickets, ha ha.).

When I first met Duncan — a quintessential “Telegraph person” — in 1978 he was publishing a little xeroxed magazine called “TELE TIMES: Telegraph Avenue’s Tight Little Monthly” to chronicle his little slice of the “Telegraph community.” And it really was like a community. Like this unique little village living within the larger confines of the city of Berkeley.

Tonight I walked back and forth down the 6-block radius that most people consider the “Telegraph scene.” The 6 blocks from the campus to 7-11. And I didn’t pass a single person I recognized. . . That’s just what it’s like now I guess.

Michal Overhulse: 1922-1986

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Stumbled across this photo of Michal Overhulse, this little old lady I knew in the 1980s. She was a friend of Duncan’s which is how I met her. Duncan and Michal had the same shrink, they were members of the same therapy group, which is how they hooked up in the first place. She was around 60 when I first met her.

Michal was typical of a certain kind of person you sometimes meet on the fringe of society. Michal couldn’t find any purpose or direction for her life. Couldn’t find hardly anything to connect to or plug into. Mostly just existed in this void. She had no career, no family, no hobbies, virtually no interests. She spent most of her time just sort of existing, killing time in her apartment, sitting by herself on her bed, watching day-time television (game shows) with her two siamese cats, Mish and Mosh (who mostly just laid around like part of the furniture). Smoking endless cartons of menthol cigarettes, and drinking endless 6-packs of tall-can Budweiser, which she’d wash down with a chaser of a big glug of NyQuil cough syrup. By the end of the evening she’d reach some zonked-out state that would knock her out. And then she’d wake up in the morning and start the cycle all over again.

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Michal had a great studio apartment on Bancroft Avenue on the second floor, with this big picture window that was like a solar panel when the sun hit it in the afternoon, and a great view of lower Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. On the weekends the sounds of the Sproul drum circle would waft up to her apartment, adding this exotic, hip Berkeley soundtrack. The other thing I remember was she had these bookshelves with these dusty old books from the ’50s and ’60s. The most dead books you could imagine — obscure theories on Fruedian psychoanalysis from some quack you had never heard of, unreadable poetry books, sociology tracts from the ’60s. You got the feeling Michal hadn’t looked at any of the books in a decade. Everything in her apartment was like that. Like a mausoleum. Lifeless, untouched and covered with dust.

Duncan said that he thought Michal was an unpracticing lesbian. She had made this one attempt to hook up with this one woman she was interested in when she was a young woman. But when that didn’t work out, she just gave up on the whole thing. Which was sort of her life-long pattern. Periodically she would take a half-assed stab at dabbling at something, but it wouldn’t amount to anything and she’d pretty quickly give up on it. For awhile she dabbled in poetry — writing this string of words that didn’t make much sense or have a point. But quickly gave up on that. By the time I met her Michal had pretty much given up the ghost on everything. Just sort of quietly killing time as she waited for her string to play out. She had a phrase that she would sometimes repeat — “I’ve been waiting all my life” — that had a haunting feel to it. For you knew that whatever she had been waiting for in her life would never arrive.

Michal was also the first person I ever watched disintigrate right before my eyes (there would be many more later). She was a somewhat frail person to begin with. And the never-ending series of cigarettes, beer and NyQuil began to take it’s toll. But it was really the ennui that engulfed her and weighed her down and crushed out her life-force that really did her in. It was like everytime I saw Michal she looked worse than the time before. And she got locked in this pattern of staying in the hospital for awhile and then returning to her apartment. And the stays in the hospital grew longer each time. And the time she stayed at her apartment grew shorter each time. You could see she was locked into a downward spiral leading to an inevitable conclusion. At one point they had her on oxygen tanks for her failing lungs, and 12 different kinds of medication (that god knows what affect they had mixed with the beer and NyQuil).

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The last time she was in the hospital they told her if she went home she would surely die. But she insisted on leaving. She had made her choice. She wanted to die in her apartment. I went to check up on her that night — I had a key to the building because I fed her cats when she was in the hospital. When I got to her apartment that night the front door was wide open. The apartment was dark except for the eerie gray light eminating from her television set, that was jammed between channels and squawking static. Her bookshelves and several other things had been knocked over. Michal was lying on her bed on her back, sort of vibrating and making weird animal sounds, still alive but no longer really there. I backed out of her apartment, shut the front door, and made my way out of the building .

 

Some of the publications of B.N. Duncan

 

B.N. Duncan was one of the most relentlessly creative people I’ve ever met. In the 30 years I knew him, I don’t remember a single day going by when Duncan wasn’t creating something: writing, drawing, photographing, painting, sculpting, publishing.

The art flowed out of him naturally and effortlessly. If not compulsively. Like eating and sleeping and breathing. And probably just as necessary to him. He wasn’t an artist who waited around for “inspiration” to strike — he was always inspired. And you’d never hear him talk about “writer’s block.” Are you kidding?? He couldn’t have stopped it from coming if he had wanted to.

These are some of the publications B.N. Duncan produced during his lifetime. And I was there for the creation of most of them. Looking over his shoulder as he first came up with the idea, then worked to create the piece, and then finally produced the finished product.

One of my favorite Duncan moments was right after the latest issue of his magazine TELE TIMES had been published. Hot off the presses. Duncan would take out a copy — the ink still shiny and barely dried. And he’d lie on his big brass bed in his cramped little hotel room on the fourth floor of the Berkeley Inn. With a warm cup of coffee and a pack of smokes. And he’d lovingly leaf through every page, every word.

B.N. Duncan.

A long forgotten day in 1992

 

This popped up on the internet today. This photo from some long-forgotten day in 1992. I was just starting to get to know Hate Man at that point. I had put him on the cover of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar 1992 (the 3rd edition of the series). I operated the calendar under the same premise that most magazines operate under: “Stars sell magazines.” And the street scene — just like the Hollywood scene and the sports scene and all the other scenes — has it’s stars, too. With Hate Man most definitely being one of them (PS. That issue sold well).

I was 36 at the time. I had been working at my comic strip full-time for 6 years at that point. But I was just starting to get pulled into the Telegraph street scene, because, frankly, it was more exciting than sitting at a drawing board all day long.

I started out as a voyeur of the Berkeley street scene, an on-looker, an outside observer, not really a part of it. But eventually I ended immersed in it, if not overwhelmed by it. Eventually I would be taking part in funerals and weddings and births and deaths and everything in between. An active participant and member of the tribe. My life would end up intertwined with all sorts of other people’s lives, in all sorts of bizarre ways. Something me and Duncan never really anticipated when we first started the calendar.

Me and Duncan were just burning burning burning back then. We were never short of ideas or mad-cap schemes. As well as the burning desire to pull them off.

At the time it never occurred to me that it would one day come to an end. I guess you rarely do at the time. Especially when everything is just starting up. And all the stories are only just starting to unfold. When I was young, it seemed like I had this huge expanse of time ahead of me. And then you blink your eyes, and all that time has come and gone.

 

A time capsule back to the Berkeley Inn

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Some songs are like time capsules. They take you back to a period of time. And when you hear them again, decades later, it’s like all the memories of that time are somehow encoded in the music. And when you hear it again you might start crying and crying and never stop.

I used to listen to this song on this one album by Peter Green in the summer of 1982. I was staying with my friend Duncan at his hotel room in the Berkeley Inn. And my big dream At the time was to publish an underground newspaper. And as I worked on laying out the lay-out pages for what would be TWISTED IMAGE #1 on Duncan’s desk — rubber cement, x-acto knife, white-out, etc, the tools of the trade — I used to listen to this song over and over. “When Kings Come Home” was the title. It’s an instrumental, just one guy playing an acoustic guitar. And It was like soothing background music that helped me concentrate on the work at hand.

Duncan had this dusty little hotel room. It must have been about 20-feet-by-20 feet. It had a big brass bed, and a desk, and a sink, and one window that looked at to the back corners of Telegraph Avenue. And that was it. I can still see Duncan’s hotel room clear as a bell. I even remember his room number. 414. On the fourth floor. And he had a bunch of posters on his walls. A beautiful blue photo of a whale leaping out of the water. A poster of Princess Diana (go figure — Duncan was English). And he had xeroxes of all the covers of his underground zine TELE TIMES on the wall behind his bed. Every time he published a new issue he’d immediately scotch-tape a Xerox of the latest cover on the wall. Like a trophy. I think he had about 25 covers on his wall at that point. All posted in chronological order. Like a history of his on-going accomplishments.

And Duncan also had this cheap record player. It was just a box that folded out with a handle and a tinny little amplifier built into it (if you were a kid in the 60s you probably had one of those record players in the days before stereos). And he had a stack of records. I remember he had “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfield. And, oddly an album by Laverne and Shirley — the TV sit com actresses — singing the rock songs from the’ 50s. That was one of his favorites.

And he had this one too. It was a quirky compilation album by John Fahey and Leo Kotke and Peter Lang. And I used to play it over and over back in June of 1982 in Duncan’s little hotel room.

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Decades later I was trying to remember what that one particular song was that I used to play over and over back in 1982 in Duncan’s dusty little hotel room. All I remembered was that it was a compilation album with John Fahey. I couldn’t remember the song title or the album title or even who did it (Peter Lang). Finally — thanks to the wonder of YouTube — I was finally able to find it. And as I listen to it now, it’s like I’m back in Duncan’s hotel room and it’s 1982 and we were young and everything was starting. And then in a blink of an eye it all came and went.

 

When Kings Come Home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LocAHVcuROU

The last day at my vending stand

 

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I remember my last day at my vending table on the Cody’s Books corner. It was right before Thanksgiving, 2009. … 

My friend Duncan had died 5 months earlier. And it just wasn’t the same without my old vending partner. Plus, the ruthless Telegraph mogul Ken Sarachan had recently bought the Cody’s building. So all the signs said that the party was over. And it was time to pack up my pop stand.

A big rainstorm was forecast to come in that afternoon. And you could feel it coming in the air. So I quickly packed up all my vending stuff before I got soaked. As I went to grab my cardboard “25 Cent Books” sign a huge gust of wind suddenly hit and sent the sign flying in the air down Haste Street. I considered running after it and trying to save it as a memento. But it seemed symbolic. Let it go. Cast your fate to the wind. One part of my life was ending. And a new part of my life would soon be beginning. Whatever that would be.

I managed to get all my vending stuff packed into my shopping cart just as the rains hit. This sudden outburst of pouring rain. I forget if there really were explosions of thunder and lightening. Probably not. But that’s how it seems in my memory. This sudden explosion of rain pounding down on the pavement.

I put a plastic tarp over my shopping cart, and stashed it in the corner under an awning, then ran to this doorway on Telegraph to get out of the rain. The doorway of the Kingpin Donuts shop, boarded up and vacant at the time. And I stood there by myself as the rain came crashing down. People were running up and down Telegraph frantically trying to get out of the rain.

And I suddenly started laughing. This loon laughter. Not quite hysterical, but almost. That kind of laughter where you’re so overwhelmed by emotion it just bursts out of you. And it’s not much different than crying. Laughing and crying are the same thing at that point.

And I thought back to all the memories of all the years at that vending table. 19 years ago when we had first started. With such great hopes. And now 19 years later it had come to an end. And I was overwhelmed by this flood of memories. It was like the tape of my life was on fast speed. And all the scenes rushed by me. One after another. All the dramas at that corner over all those years. The triumphs and the tragedies. The lives and the deaths. And it was almost too much for my brain to take it. Just overwhelmed by all the things I had experienced, it was mind-boggling.

And I stood there in that doorway. As the rain came crashing down. Laughing and crying and blubbering to myself. 

And that’s how that ended.

A Telegraph Avenue hallucination

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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. . .

The B.N. Duncan archives are now available at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum & Library

Biographical note from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum 

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Biographical description written by Ann Lennon and will accompany the Duncan archives. . . . .Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum <cartoonevents@osu.edu>

B.N. Duncan was born in Rochester New York in 1943. His mother left his father when Duncan was an infant and moved to Berkeley and later, when Duncan was 14, to Pasadena. After graduation he attended Pasadena Community College but suffered several mental breakdowns. He returned to Berkeley in 1966 a diagnosed schizophrenic. Encouraged by his art teacher, Dick Warner at Vista Community College, he began cartooning in the early 1970s. Around this time he was briefly married. He lived most of his life on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue working as a cartoonist, editor and publisher. His full name was Bruce Nicholson Duncan but he preferred to be known as B. N. Duncan or just Duncan.

His first strip ‘Hank and Hannah’ about a couple and their relationship and ran in porn newspapers and new wave zines. Another strip ‘Berserkeley Blues’ was published by the Berkeley Daily Gazette and it was through it he met Telegraph Avenue street person Wild Billy Wolf. Wolf was working on a zine called ‘The Tele Times’. Duncan provided art for its first cover in 1978 and he collaborated with Wolf on early issues. Duncan eventually took over the publication, making it his own, a vehicle to share his passions and interests and a way to celebrate the outsider art and writing he enjoyed. He produced over 30 issues of ‘The Tele Times’ until it ceased publication in 1982.

He drew for the underground comics ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Mineshaft’ and he corresponded with a wide range of other underground cartoonists and comics people including Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch.

He had a strong interest in sadomasochistic sex and drew for ‘Growing Pains’ the publication of the San Francisco ‘Society of Janus’ as well as other S/M publications. He self-published the titles ‘Top Comedy and Bottom Burlesque’, ‘So be it’ and ‘Buttock’s Blasting’ and in 1995 he published a collection of SM cartoons through Greenery Press called ‘Mercy??’’No!!’. Much of the S/M material he produced is graphic but commentators have noted how the drawings ‘have a humane approach to the situations presented’.

In the early 1990s with the encouragement of the Berkley Friends Church he published two collections of spiritual cartoons called ‘Nature and Spirit’ and ‘Seeking Vision. His lifelong interests in anthropology, paleontology and zoology, are evident in both these and in his experiments with clay sculpture.

From 1990-2004 Duncan collaborated with cartoonist Ace Backwords to create an annual calendar called the ‘Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar’. It featured Berkeley street people and the stories of the socially marginalized in and around Telegraph Avenue. Duncan took thousands of photographs of street people for the calendar and taped many interviews with the homeless, work he considered ‘street anthropology’. Through both ‘The Tele Times’ and the ‘Telegraph Avenue Calendar’ he made enormous efforts to promote the art of outsider and street artists living in and around Berkeley. He believed that ‘even people on a society’s margin have something to contribute to its sensibility and spirituality’.  

Duncan’s suffered ill health in his final years and he died in 2009 aged 65.

All of Duncan’s publications, his original art, his photos, his correspondences, and much much more are now available to the public at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library.