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.
One of the fascinating things to me about homeless people is how every one of them makes their own unique adjustment to it, depending on their particular personality and situation. Being homeless is such a round-hole-in-a-square-peg situation that you have to make all sorts of unusual adaptations to be able to function and exist within the larger society (some doing this better than others)..
This long-time homeless fellow has made a particularly unique adjustment. About 50, he’s been on the Berkeley street scene for the last couple of decades. While never really being a part of it. In all these years I’ve never seen him talk to another person. Always sits by himself. And spends most of his time walking around and around across the sidewalks of Berkeley, on his own particular route. Usually stopping from garbage can to garbage can, looking for food or whatever else he can find.
He seems to be completely self-sufficient and independent, living totally outside mainstream society. Or any society. Aside from his own personal universe. I’ve never seen him go into a store — or any building for that matter — and I sometimes wonder if he’s managed to carve out an existence without using money of any kind. Imagine pulling that off.
His other unique traits is that he apparently carries everything he owns with him every step he takes. He always has his bedding, matting and tarps strapped over his shoulder. While usually lugging several other big bags with his other possessions.
Like I said, every homeless person makes their own unique adjustment.
I just ran into J.J., one of the REAL old-timers, survivors, of the Telegraph street scene. J.J. goes all the way back to the ’70s when he was a drinking partner with the legendary Gypsy Catano.
“Ace!! GOOMBAH!! How you doin’, my brother!!” said J.J..
Which is how he always greets me. I’m not even sure what “goombah” means. But J.J. is a Puerto Rican guy from New York City and he knows I’m an Italian guy from Passaic, New Jersey. So I guess it’s an East coast street thing. And I assume it’s a compliment (though maybe I should look it up just to be on the safe side, ha ha).
“How you doin’ J.J.?” I said.
“I just had my birthday. I just turned 73.”
“Well happy birthday, my man. I’m gonna be 63 next week.”
J.J. is a little guy. Still walks with a bit of a swagger, though it’s getting to be a bit more of a stagger at his advanced age. Wears a black eye patch (lost the eye about 10 years ago). But otherwise doesn’t look much different than he looked 30 years ago. For many years J.J. was a drop-dead street drunk. Drinking 24-7. Lurching down the Avenue with bottle in hand and unfocused eyes. Passing out in the gutters, etc. A guy you figured would NEVER make it to 40. But somehow he managed to right his ship. And here he still is years later. You just never know. What the fates have in store for any of us.
After some more small talk, J.J. headed off down the sidewalk, to buy some pot at the pot club down the block. And then off to his home, some little apartment in downtown Oakland, just below San Pablo. Where he’s lived quietly for many years. But he always comes back to Telegraph regularly to check in. Because this is his real home. And always will be.
As I watched J.J. walk off i regretted I didn’t take his photo. It occurred to me I might not get many more chances. Him or me.
Gina is a long-time Berkeley street person. Completely bat crazy. Doesn’t so much talk in English but makes these weird animal sounds.
I remember one New Years Eve we’re all hanging out on the sidewalk outside Larry Blake’s right after midnight, ringing in the new year. Everybody buzzed and mellow. And Gina starts coming on to this guy, caressing him and hugging him. It’s New Years Eve and everybody’s getting a little loose after all. And suddenly she grabs hold of the guy by the hair and won’t let go and starts screaming “RAPE! RAPE! RAPE!” Ha ha. And for a second — as they’re violently grappling back and forth and he’s frantically trying to escape from Gina’s clutches — everybody thought she was fending off this guy who was trying to rape her. . . Fortunately — before people started beating the poor guy’s ass — people figured out what was going on.
One time I was hanging out at my vending table listening to the radio on my boom box. And the song “Angel is a Centerfold” by J. Geils came on — this song about this guy who’s dismayed to find out that his high school girlfriend had become a porno model. Gina happened to be passing by and when she heard that song she came charging over at me with a big crazy smile on her face: “THA’S MAH’ FAVORITE SONG!!” she said. And she stood there by the radio, singing/yelping along to the song and laughing like a loon.
Gina always made me a little nervous because she was so unpredictable. She was like a wild animal. She’s wasn’t a bad person really. Just really damaged and “out there.” She has some kind of brain damage, and most likely coupled with childhood trauma and abuse. You meet all kinds of unique and unusual people on the street scene, that’s for sure.
Human beings are a territorial creature by nature. And homeless street people are no exception. The problem is that street people don’t have any personal territory to call their own. They live in the public spaces after all. You indoor people have the walls of your houses and the fences around your yards to clearly delineate your personal territory. But no such line exists for street people. So it’s a source of constant problems.
But there is a certain protocol that most street people respect. For example if some guy has been sleeping in a particular doorway every night, most (but alas not all) of the street people on the scene will respect that that’s his personal campsite. And not camp there. And a similar protocol governs hangout spots. If somebody hangs out at the same spot on the sidewalk every day, that’s generally accepted as their spot. Though it can get a little hazy. Somebody might consider a favorite panhandling spot to be their personal spot. But someone else might consider it first-come-first -served and they got there first so now it’s their spot. So like I said the lines are not clearly drawn. But these conflicts are usually resolved in a calm and reasonable manner; i.e. the one who is bigger and stronger and more vicious and capable of beating the other person’s ass usually prevails.
Which brings me to my latest conflict. There’s a homeless street person who’s been hanging out on the Berkeley campus for the last 20 years. And he’s got his own personal hangout spot (and I respect his space). And I’ve got my own personal hangout spot (and he respects my space). And we’ve coexisted all these years with no problems. Until recently.
Now I have a favorite hangout spot on the campus that I’ve been using for years. I usually only use it in the evening when that area is mostly deserted. And it’s a great spot. It’s secluded. It has an awning to protect me from the rain. And best of all it has an outlet where I can charge my cellphone. But that was also the source of this recent conflict.
It turns out about 6 months ago this guy got a laptop. So now he’s been eyeballing my hangout spot — and that outlet — with serious intent, as a spot where he can plug in his laptop. And whaddaya’ know, I show up one night and there he is flopped out at my hangout spot with his laptop plugged into the outlet. I figure it’s probably just a one-night thing. So I just let it slide and go off and find another hangout spot.
But whaddaya’ know? The next night there he is AGAIN at my hangout spot. So I go up to him and explain to him, in a very reasonable voice, that I’ve been using this hangout spot for many years, and it’s a very valuable spot to me, and there’s simply no room for two bums at this spot. He nods his head in agreement and seems to understand.
But whaddaya’ know? The third night there he is AGAIN hanging out at my hangout spot.
So now I’m realizing this guy is planning to make this HIS permanent hangout spot. And this guy is like the classic ne’er-do-well layabout. Once he attaches himself to a hangout spot he’s there ALL the time. He’s basically spent the last 20 years doing nothing but laying around, taking up space. Which is fine — everyone in this life is on the level that they’re on. But the problem is, now he is taking up MY space.
So the next night I’m ready for him. I’m sort of hiding around the corner. And when I hear him coming I rush over to the spot right before he gets there, and say to him: “This is MY hangout spot. And there’s not room for TWO! Now GO away and STAY away!!”
He turns on his heels and leaves. And apparently he got the message. Because for the next 6 months peace and harmony reigned in the world of Ace Backwords.
Until the other night. When I showed up at my hangout spot. And whaddaya’ know? There he is again flopped out at my hangout spot. He’s lying on his back on his matting with his leg crossed, and all of his stuff dumped out around him, and his laptop plugged into the outlet. And he’s like some guy leisurely enjoying a swell evening in the comfort of his personal living room.
I look down at him, glaring at him, not saying anything. He looks up at me and says cheerfully “How are ya’ doin’?”
“How are YOU doing!” I said with a sharp edge in my voice.
“I’m doin’ just fine,” he said. “How are you doin’?”
I didn’t say anything for a couple of beats. Just continued to glare at him. And then I turned and stomped off. And I hoped he got the message and it refreshed his memory about our previous confrontation 6 months ago.
But then the next night? Whaddaya’ know? There he is AGAIN.
So now I’m realizing I have no choice. I either take action. Or else my favorite hangout spot is now his favorite hangout spot.
So I said to him: “Dude, this is MY hangout spot.”
“I realize that,” he said.
“Well if you realize that then why are you here hanging out here at my hangout spot??”
“Well let me explain,” he said.
“No. Let me explain first and you can explain second,” I said. “The next time I catch you at my hangout spot, I am going to go to your hangout spot when you’re not there. And I am going to dump all your stuff into the creek. Do you understand me?”
“I hear you,” he said.
And I turned on my heels and stomped out of there.
And I hope he DID understand me. Because I WILL do it.
It’s always a bit of an odd experience when I come across a comment by a Facebook friend who is no longer with us. Gail Estes popped up this morning. She was mostly known by her street name, Willow. She was part of the Telegraph street scene for many years. She was kind of quiet and unassuming, mostly stayed in the background. But she would often chime in with these wry, humorous observations. I always remember her with a smile. Willow was homeless for some time. But got a room in a house during her later years before she quietly passed away.
I always remember one thing Willow said to me. She mentioned that she had over-heard a couple of women that we knew gossiping about me. “So the women are talking about me?” I said. “The women are ALWAYS talking about you, Ace,” she said.
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.
The street scene can be a lot like high school. Where you pass the same people in the hallway year after year. And even if they’re not your friends, or even your acquaintances, you still feel you “know” them somehow. Simply because you’ve seen their act over the course of a period of time.
The Famous Dr. Shububu (as he billed himself) was one such character to me, who I passed on the streets many times over the years. With his green hair, zany outfits, and his loud, nervous, non-stop chatter (he was one of those guys who always seemed to be talking, even when there was nobody for him to talk to), Dr. Shububu was kind of hard not to notice when he was in public. He was one of those “performer” types who always seemed to be putting on a street performance — even as it often wasn’t clear what his performance actually was. In a scene of odd characters, Dr. Shububu was one of the odder.
One time him and a friend of mine, the Infamous Bones, decided to busk together on the corner where I had my vending table. I watched as the two of them spent an hour setting up their amps and trying to get their electric guitars in tune. And then spent another hour arguing and bickering about what song they should play. They finally ended up packing up without having played a song. Ladies and gentlemen, The Dr. Shububu Experience.
Dr. Shububu was probably most well known for his very public obsession with this crazy but beautiful Berkeley street woman. It all started when she started posting these crazy handwritten fliers all over town. She was convinced that she had started all the Bay Area pot clubs, and she had started the rave scene. So her fliers constantly demanded that the people who had stolen these establishments from her should pay her the millions of dollars they owed her. Immediately. Or else she would tie them all up with duct tape and chop them up into little pieces (but her handwriting was surprisingly very neat).
Apparently Dr. Shububu developed an obsessive attraction towards the woman. And in an effort to gain her attention and woo her into his arms, he began making his own fliers, proclaiming his undying love for her, and posting them all over town along side her fliers. A plan that apparently was never successful. Shabubu’s fliers were often witty and zany. But usually didn’t quite make sense. Which may have also described Dr. Shububu.
So for years the two of them had this dueling fliers thing going. And their fliers became a ubiquitous presence in the urban landscape of Berkeley and Oakland. And I even spotted a website on the internet where some people had started collecting, trading and posting the fliers. So the Famous Dr. Shububu attained sort of a cult like status.
And then one day, after years of this, the fliers just stopped appearing. I guess his obsessive fascination with the street woman had finally run it’s course.
And I had pretty much forgotten all about it. Until today somebody told me that Dr. Shububu had passed away. He had been missing for 3 days. And someone did a welfare check at the SRO hotel where he lived, and found his body there. RIP The Famous Dr. Shububu.
I remember one of the last times I saw Craig. It was late in the evening and he was standing in front of the Annapurna head shop (“Since 1969!!”) on Telegraph. I could tell he was stoned out of his mind. He was hurking and jerking and sort of piruetting around in circles like a wind-up toy with a crucial piece broken.
“How ya doing, Craig,” I said.
“Not good, Ace” said Craig flailing his arms in the air. “The clerk at Annapurna’s is calling the cops on me.”
I looked in the front door of Annapurna’s and could see that the clerk behind the front counter was doing precisely that. “Why is the clerk at Annapurna calling the cops on you?” I said.
“Ooooh. I DON’T KNOW!! The last time I was in there I caused some kind of scene and they permanently banned me. I forgot about the ban and just went back in there again and I got all confused when I tried to make my transactions.”
“What was the transaction?” I said.
“I forget'” said Craig. His face was contorted and in some kind of distress. He threw his hands up in the air and started pacing back and forth. “It was all a big misunderstanding.” Then he burst out laughing.
“Oh,” I said.
“I went back in there multiple times to try and straighten things out but the clerk just kept gettin’ more and more confused and freakin’ out on me for no damn reason!!”
“Oh,” I said.
Craig’s brains had become permanently scrambled from speed. I had known Craig since 1994. And now it was 2007. He had been a legendary speed freak even back then. It was a big part of his self-image as sort of a Keith Richards-wannabe rocknroll outlaw romantic street poet drug addict. I was a John Lennon-wannabe myself with my own drug demons, so what could I say.
“Maybe you should get out of here before the cops show up,” I said.
“No I need to go back in there and buy something at Annapurna’s,” said Craig.
“What?” I said.
“I don’t KNOW! I FORGOT!!” Craig threw his hands up in exasperation and confusion. Then started laughing again.
Back in the old days Craig used to get high. But then he’d come back down. Come back down to earth. But then Craig got high this one time and never came back down.
I think it was that one last fatal speed binge that did him in. One of the biggest speed dealers in town had recently ODed. And since the rent on his studio apartment was still paid up until the first, this whole pack of speed freaks — including Craig — had descended on his apartment like a horde of locusts. And moved in, systematically selling off all of his stuff and using up his huge stash of speed. And I think all that speed finally drove Craig over the bend.
So nowadays you’d often find him in the middle of the street babbling nonsense non-stop. Or laughing hysterically for no reason. It was really sad to see. Because Craig was basically a really good guy. But that’s life on the streets. Some people hit the streets with some kind of deep wound in their souls. And then the streets just tear them apart.
“Well I better get going,” I said.
“Hey Ace,” said Craig. “Would you give me a hug?”
“Well sure,” I said.
We embraced standing there on Telegraph in front of Annapurna the head shop. And Craig held onto me tight for just a couple of extra beats. Before he finally released me.
It was an odd request. We had never hugged before after all. But I just figured it was one more goofy thing that Craig did. He was almost always in a goofy head space now.
“You take it easy Craig,” I said.
“YEAHHH!” he said.
And he started laughing. That kind of loon laugh where things are so fucked up all you can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. One thing I’ll say about Craig, he never lost his sense of humor right to the end.
I could see two cops walking in our direction so I made a hasty exit. And I didn’t think more about the encounter. Just one more surreal interaction with crazy ole Craig.
Until a short while later. After Craig had jumped in front of a train. And I thought about that hug. I think Craig had realized he was fucked. Doomed in a way. It’s hard to get through life when a person’s brains are permanently scrambled. And they’re sort of beyond help. And all they can really ask for is a good hug before they walk off the plank.
Another wonderful day at the Berkeley Library. The guy sitting down at the cubicle directly in front of me, two words out of his mouth and I got him pegged as the Just Out Of The Joint type. White guy about 30 with a tight, black ponytail, long-boned, chest and arms covered with tattoos showing through his sleeveless t-shirt. Plops down his huge frame backpack and immediately gets into it with this old guy sitting at the cubicle next to him.
“What you doin’ staring at me, boy?? Is this some kind of faggot shit. You got no right to look me over like that just because I’m wearing a tracking device!!”
The old guy looks back at him, completely perplexed. Like: How did I get myself into THIS? There I was just minding my own business . . .
Now the guy is glaring at the old guy with daggers. “You look at me one more time and I’ll take you outside and cut you up. You thinking I’m playing? You don’t know me. I’ll cut you up. You wanna go outside?”
The old guy stands up and backs off, you can tell he’s pissed that this complete asshole is going off on him in public for no reason, but you can tell he also doesn’t want to escalate the situation.
Then three library employees, including a burly black security guard, are hovering over him, trying to calm the guy down..
“Are you telling me I gotta leave??” he says. “I wasn’t doing nothing. You just heard the second part when I was going off on that white cracker. But you didn’t see the first part when he kept staring at me and my tracking device. . . No I’m not leaving until I talk to my parole officer. I gotta check in with my parolee whenever I get into a confrontation.”
He takes out his cellphone, calls his parole officer and tells him the same basic story he told the security guards. I can faintly hear the parole officer’s voice squawking on the other end in an official tone, no doubt offering sage, sensible advice that translates in the real world as: “Don’t cause any more trouble, you stupid fucking asshole.”
“OK, I talked to my parolee and now I’ll leave,” says the guy. He hoists his big frame backpack on his back, and another big pack on his chest, and the security guards escort him down the stairs and out of the building.
I think he had been in the library for less than a few minutes before he got into his confrontation . . . Guys like that, you wonder how they make it to the end of the day.