The last 10 years have been like a slow-motion nervous breakdown for me. It’s like I keep creeping towards breaking, but I never quite break. I always sort of snap back. Like I have some kind of built-in fail-safe mechanism in my psyche that shuts down my system whenever I get too close to the brink.
I remember one such time where I came close to completely losing it. It was the summer of 2009. My best friend B. N. Duncan had recently died from cancer. And I had gone through a year-long process of watching him slowly die in agony. Which was painful enough. Followed by the shock of seeing him die right in front of me. Followed by the excruciating problem of: What to do with all of Duncan’s stuff?
Duncan had this huge storage locker crammed from floor-to-ceiling with hundreds and hundreds of boxes of stuff in various states of disrepair. Completely disorganized. Half of the stuff was junk, the other half incredibly valuable (to me anyways). There were old coffee cups and phone bill receipts from 1978 mixed in with original artwork and letters from R. Crumb and Al Capp and god only knows what else.
Duncan’s sister, Elaine, flew in from Iowa to help me deal with the Herculean task of figuring out what to do with it. This mountain of stuff. B. N. Duncan’s “life’s work,” basically. First we had to somehow organize the stuff (which would take 3 weeks, working non-stop, 10 hours a day). Then we had to deal with the daunting problem of what to do with it. Neither of us had a place to store the stuff. Hell, I was living on the streets and couldn’t even put a roof over my head, let alone put a roof over Duncan’s stuff. And the storage locker cost about $250 a month — of which neither Elaine or I could afford to pay. So it was a battle against the clock. To find a place for the stuff before the storage bill became so big that the storage company would claim all the stuff.
Elaine’s original plan was to have the stuff shipped by train back to Iowa. But she quickly realized that would be too expensive. So we were frantically searching around for options as we went through the tedious process of sorting through the mountain of boxes.
On top of that, I was also under incredible pressure in my personal life. At that point I had been homeless and sleeping in the bushes for the last 3 years. Which has a cumulative effect of wear-and-tear. On top of that, I was in the midst of four different on-going feuds (wars, really) with four different street lunatics. Battles that involved physical violence, constant threats, dealings with police, etc. In other words, the typical shit you have to deal with when you’re on the streets.
On top of that, I was working full-time as a street vendor selling used books. Which required a tremendous amount of physical, and psychic, labor. Basically, I was hauling an entire small bookstore back and forth on a daily basis. As well as the constant stress of “dealing with public.”
So, with all that, I was already pushing it. Stressed to just about the maximum level that I could withstand it. I was constantly at that point of total breakdown. Or, as Bukowski put it: “Its not the big things that drives a man to the nut house. But the shoe-lace that snaps when there’s not enough time.”
My life had become like a Myth of Sisyphus episode. Endless, pointless toil leading to nothing but further toil. No satisfaction ever. Endless effort expended for no purpose. As my life got more and more miserable, the harder I worked. Weird how that works sometimes.
After two weeks of non-stop work at Duncan’s storage locker, we still hadn’t begun to get the stuff organized. And every plan we came up with as to what to do with the stuff had fallen through. Finally, out of desperation, I suggested the Bancroft Library — which was a hoidy-toidy campus outfit that dealt with Berkeley memorabilia, but whom I knew from past experience was pretty much a long shot. But it was all we had left. Our last shot.
Elaine was in the process of setting up an appointment with the Bancroft Library. And, as an offhand aside, she said to me: “Oh, and when we go there to make our presentation, Ace, you should really wear a clean shirt.”
She didn’t mean it like that. She just meant it like: Let’s look as presentable and respectable as possible. But I interpreted it like: “Elaine finds me offensive. Elaine has been looking down on me all this time, like I’m a pathetic smelly bum in my dirty rags.”
It was like a final blow to me, somehow. On top of all the other things I was dealing with — working full-time, sorting through Duncan’s stuff full-time, sleeping in the bushes, dealing with all the street lunatics, etc — I hadn’t been able to get around to doing my laundry lately, I was like 3 weeks over-due. It was just one of about 100 things I desperately needed to do but didn’t have time to take care of. And now I was down to my last shreds of semi-clean clothes.
On top of that, it probably never occurs to indoor people how difficult it is for a homeless person to take care of a seemingly-simply task like laundry. In the best of times. Let alone amidst the madness I was dealing with now. I mean, to an indoor person its as simple as tossing the dirty clothes in a dirty clothes hamper. But did it ever occur to you how a homeless person, living in the middle of the city, usually carrying everything he owns on his back, deals with something like that? In fact, I had my dirty laundry scattered all over the city at various secret stash spots. In fact, doing my laundry was an incredibly complex operation that I often likened to a military campaign: I had to find a shopping cart, I had to gather up all my dirty laundry, I had to get to my storage locker several miles on the other side of time, I had to find a Laundromat, not to mention about 20 other details I won’t bore you with.
So it was one more demand on me. One more blow. One more joyless, tedious labor on top of all the other joyless tedious labor. It was the shoe-lace snapping. The one shock too many.
I became very quiet for the rest of the day. Usually, Elaine and I made friendly, light-hearted banter as we worked side-by-side. Often we would reminisce fondly about Duncan, who we both loved (Elaine mostly referred to her brother as “the old boy”) as we rummaged through the madness of his life. But I was sullen now. In fact, I was outraged.
Later, as we sat outside the storage facility waiting for our ride, I continued to give Elaine the silent treatment. Finally I muttered:
“What are we going to do if the Bancroft Library turns us down?”
“I don’t know,” said Elaine.
“This is hopeless,” I said.
“It may well be,” said Elaine.
“If we can’t figure out what to do with Duncan’s stuff we’re just gonna’ have to dump it all by a dumpster,” I said.
“That could be how it turns out,” said Elaine.
Later that evening, I trudged back to Hate Man’s homeless scene at People’s Park, cracked open a 40 of OE, and sat there with the other homeless people. Feeling myself slipping into a bottomless pit of despair. I knew how important it was to Duncan that his life’s work was preserved. And anyone who has had a good friend die, knows how important it is to honor their last requests. And I was willing to practically kill myself to save Duncan’s stuff. But now it looked like it was killing me. It had been an incredible battle. But I had finally given up.
“IT’S HOPELESS!!” I said to Hate Man. And I burst into tears. It totally surprised me. I just started blubbering and gasping and crying and sobbing. It was like a dam had burst and it all just came pouring out of me. Tears were pouring down my face. Snot running down my nose. The whole bit. I was sort of half-talking, half-blubbering amidst the sobs:
“DUNCAN’S STUFF!! . . . END UP INNA’ DUMPSTER!!! . . . S’ HOPELESS!!! . . MOTHERFUCKIN’ GODDAMN IT ALL TO HELL!!. . . WAHH-A-HAHHHH!!! ” Etc. Etc. I was in rare form.
On top of everything else, it was embarrassing and humiliating to lose my shit in public. In front of other people. It’s bad enough to be a loser. But now everybody else knows it, too. But I just no longer gave a shit.
In between sobbing and convulsing, I would take a sloppy pull on my 40, wipe my face with the back of my sleeve, and then resume my blubbering. But then, during a temporary pause in my breakdown, Hate Man said something odd:
“Oh by the way,” said Hate Man, “I got a call today from George, the producer at CBS News. He wanted to talk to you. They’re thinking about doing a CBS News feature about Duncan.”
“Say . . . what?” I said.
“Yeah, CBS News,” said Hate Man. “He wants to come by tomorrow to talk to you.”
“You’re kidding?” I said.
I sat there in silence for a few moments. And it all just became too much to comprehend. It was so completely unexpected. I started laughing hysterically. The laughter burst out of me just as strongly as the tears had. This sort of gulping, loon-laughter of total madness. So now I was alternating between laughing and crying and hick-upping.
But in the back of my mind I was thinking, this little ray of hope that had suddenly dawned on me: “If several million people see this TV piece about Duncan, there’s the possibility that some new options might pop up . . .”
It was like one of those scenes where you’ve been ship-wrecked at sea for weeks. You’ve finally given up all hope. And you’re just about set to keel over and die. When off in the distance you see what appears to be the tiny figure of a rescue ship. Or am I hallucinating . . . ?
The next morning I was going through some stuff in my storage locker and I happened to stumble across a box of clean clothes that I had forgotten all about. And in the box was this expensive, brand-new cashmere sweater that I had picked up somewhere and forgotten all about. I threw away my dirty t-shirt and put on the sweater. Suddenly I was styling. It was like, after this relentless series of bad luck, the gods had finally decided to ease up on me. Things were finally starting to fall my way. “Hey, nice shirt!” said Elaine later, when I showed up for work.
It reminded me of this famous Hindu story. This poor farmer had toiled all his life, living in a shack and eking out a pathetic existence toiling on his barren farm-land. Finally he died. And when they went to bury him, they discovered troves of gold underneath his farm land. All those years the farmer had lived in poverty, not knowing there was untold wealth just beneath his feet. And one of the morals of the story was: As bad as things might seem, there are often untold opportunities if we know where to look for them. It’s a moral I often remind myself of when things look hopeless — one of my favorite lines I made up:
“This life is so unpredictable, anything is possible. Even happiness.”
CBS News feature about Duncan’s memorial: “Mourning a Photographer.”