Narayana has been hanging out by the old Cody’s Books building lately. She hangs there just about every evening, usually all evening. Sitting there leaning against the front door of the vacant building for hours, blankly staring out at her world. And at the end of the night she usually takes out her sleeping bag and crashes there. Often a couple of other street ne’er-do-wells hang out there, too, one on each side of her. And crash there at night. I’ll often pass them late at night on my way to the liquor store, laying there on the sidewalk in their sleeping bags like three bumps on the logs.
Like so much of my life these days, it’s a stark reminder of what once was, and now is. And such a bring-down from what once was. For many years Cody’s Books was one of the cultural centers of Berkeley. This dynamic hub of constant action and excitement. While today it’s mostly just the home for a couple of weary street people, sitting there killing time.
And for nearly 20 years, that Cody’s Books corner was one of my favorite hang-out spots. I used to half-jokingly refer to it as “my corner” (but half-serious, too). That corner was like my living room, my clubhouse, and my bar, as well as my work place.
When I pass that corner now it’s hard to even remember what it was once like. The countless dramas we enacted over the years on the stage of that corner. It’s so different now. It seems like it was all just a dream. A hallucination. Like it never really happened. It was nothing but a fading memory in the back of my mind.
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.
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. . .
Probably the last great moment for Cody’s Books was when Bill Clinton came to Berkeley to sign copies of his just-released autobiography. I forget the date. 2004? And I forget the title of the tome. Something very original like “My Life.” The thing was something like 900 pages. I couldn’t imagine anybody actually reading the thing.
But a HUGE crowd showed up for the event. We were all thrilled that a major celebrity and actual historical figure like Bill Clinton was visiting our humble little burg.
I was stationed at my usual spot on Telegraph and Haste. And I immediately spotted Bill Clinton when he made his entrance. He was a block away. But you couldn’t miss him. He had the white hair that shown like a spotlight. And this unmistakeable aura and glow. A lot of celebrities are actually “smaller than life” when you actually meet them. Not Bill Clinton. He had that unmistakable star power. That you can see from a block away. As soon as he stepped out of his limo he was surrounded by a mob of fans. He was like the center of a hurricane as he waded his way through the crowd.
My friend Danny — who is a savvy motherfucker — figured out in advance exactly which side entrance of Cody’s Books Clinton would likely enter on arrival. And stationed himself there. Which is how he got this great shot of him and Clinton right before he disappeared into Cody’s Books.
The line of people waiting to get their books signed stretched all the way down Haste Street. And down the next block. And up the next block. It was a HUGE crowd of people.
Somebody actually offered me 50 bucks if I would wait on line with their book and get it signed. And as much as I was intrigued at the once in a lifetime chance to look Bill Clinton in the eyes. I passed (I HATE waiting in lines).
So a huge crowd of us are milling around outside Cody’s Books as Clinton is inside signing books. We’re all waiting around hoping for a brush with greatness. But after about four hours they announce the event is over. Clinton has to move on to his next scheduled event at some other bookstore. So everybody outside is disappointed. There are still hundreds of people waiting outside hoping to get their books signed.
But then suddenly out of the blue Bill Clinton comes walking out of the front door of Cody’s Books. And we’re all in a state of shock. THERE HE IS! It’s actually Bill Clinton himself walking amongst us. Walking amongst the crowd. And he looks just like Bill Clinton. So it’s a surreal moment. But a totally joyous moment. Because we all realize we’re getting a once in a lifetime moment to breath in the same air as Bill Clinton.
Clinton is methodically working his way through the crowd. Quickly signing as many books as he can. And it’s one of those “above and beyond the call of duty” moments. He knows all these people have been waiting and hoping to get his autograph. So he’s trying to accommodate as many as possible before he’s whisked away in his limousine. But you can also tell Clinton is loving it too. He’s lapping it up. That he can’t get enough of being in the midst of this adoring crowd of people. The whole thing is like this big love-fest .
And Andy Ross — the much maligned owner of Cody’s Books — was right by his side. In his best suit and tie. Escorting The President Of The United States through the crowd. Andy Ross was one of Berkeley’s favorite villains at this point. But you can tell this is his one last shining moment (Cody’s Books would go bankrupt two years later).
It was hard to get a good look at Clinton as he was milling through the crowd. But I happened to have one of my folding chairs from my vending table. So I climbed up on it so I could get a good look at Clinton. This black guy that was standing next to me asked if he could climb up on the chair to get a good look, too. And I said “Sure” and I held the chair steady so it didn’t get knocked over by the crowd as he gazed at Bill Clinton in the flesh. And he had a big smile on his face. And it struck me that there were a lot of black people at the event and Clinton was one of the few white people that black people actually liked.
And then I looked up and noticed all the Secret Service agents that were on the roof of the apartment building across the street from Cody’s. Keeping an eagle’s eye on the crowd. As Clinton made his way through the throng. And they no doubt had their fingers on the triggers of their guns in case anybody did anything weird. And I reminded myself not to make any sudden movements.
And then Clinton got in his limo and was gone.
And we all felt joyous and thrilled and buzzed. It was a bit of an extra kick than the usual afternoon on Telegraph Avenue. Seeing Bill Clinton hanging out on the corner of Telegraph & Haste.
“So how’d it go?” I asked as we walked down Haste Street, still not sure if he’d hand me back my bill (in God knows what condition) or the drugs (in God knows what amount and/or quality) or whether some strange, new complication had arisen calling for a private strategy session and a Re-thinking of Our Options. “Did you get it?”
I spent many years standing there like a dork at my vending table in front of Cody’s Books. 19 years to be exact. I have no idea where I got that dorky shirt. But the photo reminded me of some of the misadventures we had over the years with the pay phone behind us.
This one time a friend of mine was hanging out with us. And he spots this hot young chick loitering around on the corner. “Man would you look at the tits on that one!” he said. “Boy would I like to fuck her!” and etc. etc. Going on and on in very obscene details about the things he’d like to do to her.
Little did we know her boyfriend was talking on the payphone right behind us. And when he got off the phone he was mad as a hornet. And he was a BIG guy, too. He got in my friend’s face and he’s ready to kick the living shit out of him. He’s got him backed against the wall of the Cody’s building. And my friend is fishing in his pocket for the can of mace he carries. And it was about to get really ugly.
When I somehow managed to talk the guy down. “We apologize,” I said. “We meant no disrespect. You have a very beautiful girlfriend, etc. etc.” Which somehow placated him.
He even said as he was leaving: “You have class.” But couldn’t resist adding: “But your friend is a dirty old pervert.”
He’s lucky he didn’t get a face full of mace from my friend. Who could do some damage, too. Ha ha. But that was a close one.
I met some really great people hanging out with Hate Man over the years. Hate Camp always attracted brilliant artists, writers, thinkers, talkers, intellectuals, spiritual seekers, and bohemians of every stripe.
But I also met some of the WEIRDEST people I have ever known at Hate Camp.
One of the best things about Hate Camp was that it was all-inclusive. Virtually ANYBODY was welcome to hang out with Hate Man, so long as they followed a few simple rules of Hate Camp protocol.
But one of the worst things about Hate Camp was that it was all-inclusive. The dregs of the street scene — who were rejected by all the other scenes that they tried to be a part of — were drawn to Hate Camp. Because, quite simply, Hate Camp was one of the few scenes that would accept them, and wouldn’t reject them out of hand. So you ended up with the misfits of the misfits of the street scene.
One of the odd characters who was drawn to Hate Camp was this guy named Rocker (and he was definitely off his rocker).
Rocker had red hair. I think he was in his 20s when he first showed up, fresh-faced (at least at the beginning) with blandly-normal All American Boy looks. If you passed him on the streets you wouldn’t think twice about him. Unless you looked closer into his eyes (which were crazed). Or heard him talk (which he did constantly).
Rocker’s favorite pastime was to go up to strangers and insult them, harass them, and harangue them. He’d come staggering up to you with his ever-present 40 of malt liquor in his hand (Steel Reserve, I think), and if you were a bit overweight he might call you a “fat pig” to your face. Or if you were an attractive co-ed he might say “let me see your cunt, girlie.” He was a real charmer, Rocker. Not surprisingly, Rocker got beat up on a regular basis. To the point where I wondered if Rocker actually ENJOYED getting beat up (maybe that explained it).
And the cops regularly hauled his ass off to Santa Rita, often hog-tied and strapped to a stretcher. (I once asked Officer Jones — the Telegraph beat cop — how he could stand to continually have to deal with a specimen like Rocker. Jonesy looked at me and smiled and said: “Are you kidding? Rocker is one of our best customers.” Ha ha.)
I didn’t know anything about Rocker”s background. But one rumor was that his psyche had been permanently twisted out of shape by witnessing his father dying in some horrific fashion. His father had committed suicide by blowing himself up with explosives. Or something like that. Who knows. But Rocker had certainly been bent out of shape by some one-shock-too-many. He was “out there” in a way that he would never come back from.
So Rocker would regular inflict his obnoxious trip on the people of Hate Camp. Who, of course, famously had more of a tolerance for “expressing negativity” than most scenes. But Rocker pushed the hatefulness to the limits. He would often scream the same obnoxious and insulting lines over and over (especially as he got drunker and drunker). And he would make insulting comments to people who were passing by Hate Camp.
So Hate Camp would pack up and move to another spot on the campus to get away from him. But Rocker would follow them. So Hate Camp would pack up and move again. Sometimes this weird game of hide-and-seek went on all night long. With Rocker searching and Hate Camp trying to hide from him (One trick Hate Camp learned over the years was they could often ditch Rocker by heading up a hill. Rocker had bad legs. I think somebody had broken his legs at least twice, and he walked with a noticeable gimp, and found hills difficult to navigate.)
As much as he drove Hate Man crazy with his endless harangues, Rocker had a real respect for Hate Man. Hate Man might have been one of the few people Rocker had any kind of real relationship with (his nickname for Hate Man was Super Tramp, which was a good one). Rocker certainly had no friends. He always came onto the scene alone. And left the scene alone.
I had one significant encounter with Rocker. One day he came up to our vending table and started haranguing and insulting Duncan. He wouldn’t let up. Wouldn’t get out of Duncan’s face. Finally Duncan couldn’t stand it anymore. So Duncan bolted out of his chair and attacked Rocker. So they’re sort of rolling around on the sidewalk wrestling. And Rocker managed to kick Duncan in the face. And broke Duncan’s glasses. So I picked Rocker up off the ground and ran him down the street.
The next day Rocker shows up at our vending table AGAIN. Supposedly to apologize (he kept repeating how “sorry” he was for breaking Duncan’s glasses). But when I repeatedly told Rocker to GO AWAY he refused to leave. His “apology” was just an excuse to continue to harangue us.
So I got up and gave Rocker a hard shove to the chest that knocked him backwards and to the ground (like I said, Rocker had bad legs and he went down like a bowling pin).
Rocker picked himself up and came after me. It was, as they say, on. Duncan had this big rock that he kept in his “donation” cup to weight it down. So I picked up the rock and threw it at Rocker as hard as I could. And i hit him right in the chest from point blank range. Rocker gasped in pain. For a second I thought he was going to lose his balance and crumple to the ground. Instead he turned and staggered down the street, wincing in pain.
Later that evening when I passed by the Caffé Med I spotted Rocker sitting in the window seat, rubbing his chest, in obvious pain.
So the next day I’m bracing myself for the possibility of an on-going war with Rocker. Its one of the worst things about living on the streets. You get into these kind of ugly confrontations with these street lunatics. And it can turn into an on-going vendetta that goes on for months. Or years.
But the next time I saw Rocker he just laughed about it. Rocker, after all, was in the process of destroying himself. So he didn’t take it personally when somebody helped him along with the process. Ha ha.
Rocker actually had a fairly robust sense of humor. And laughed often and from the belly. This lunatic laughter. He had an appreciation for the absurdity of human existence. And was particularly amused and mirthful when he found out that something terrible had happened to somebody. And even when it had happened to him.
Eventually, Rocker ended up getting arrested so many times that they permanently banned him from the Telegraph area. I haven’t seen him, or heard anything about him, in over 15 years. . . It’s possible he went on to bigger and better things. Though probably not very likely.
It’s a battle to keep coming up with all the food for my feral cats every day. But I really enjoy it and get a lot of pleasure out of it. So I guess I’d call it more of a game than a battle. And in the 10 years that I’ve been feeding the little rugrats, there’s only been 2 or 3 days when I didn’t have enough food for them. On those days they looked at me like: “What the fuck, dude??” So I had to patiently explain to them that, no matter how many times they meowed at me, I still wasn’t going to be able to materialize any cat food out of thin air. But almost every other day I stuff them full of food.
Today I fed 5 big cats for $1. That’s the ideal. I like to keep the cat food budget at under $2 a day, or about $50 bucks a month. The feeding session started last night. Moo Cat was waiting for me at the foot of the trail by the road. And she really scored this time. I had a leftover dish of pasta from this Italian restaurant with big chunks of chicken slathered in this rich, gooey cheese sauce. As I was getting the food out, Moo Cat kept rubbing against my legs and purring loudly. And when I put the food down on the ground, Moo Cat was so excited she jumped right into the dish. Ha ha. I had to sit there along side her while she was eating to keep the raccoons from bullying her off the food. I work hard enough to get the food. I’m gonna make sure the damn cats get it!
In the morning the regular crew — Scaredy Cat, Mini Scaredy, and Mini Owl — were waiting at my campsite for their breakfast. They usually start meowing at me to wake up and feed them before it’s even light (and to hear them crying you’d think they were starving to death!). As much as I spoil my cats, this is the one area where I draw the line. You drink as much beer as me every night, you’re gonna wake up when you damn well feel like it. So I’ll pull my blankets over my head to drown out their anguished pleas and go back to sleep. But they’ll keep pestering me — their favorite trick is to sit right on top of my head — until I finally drag my carcass into an upright position.
Scaredy Cat always jumps right on top of my backpack where I keep the food. And I have to patiently explain to her that I can’t get the food out until she gets her fat ass off my backpack. First course today was a ground-scored chicken calazone. They went nuts for that (I think my cats have a little Italian in them). And then some leftover McDonald’s scrambled eggs and a sausage patty that someone had left on top of a garbage can (it’s amazing how much discarded food there is in this town). Then I dumped out some dry cat food (I buy a big bag of it at Safeway’s every month at bulk prices so it only costs pennies per serving). And for final course I opened up a 15 ounce can of mackerel that I get for a buck at the Dollar Tree. The salty, oily juice that comes with the mackeral is one of their favorite things to eat and they always go for that first, and lick up every drop. They’re not crazy about the mackerel, but they’ll eat it. I also had a carton of milk that I had found in a discarded bag lunch. And they lapped that all up, too.
Then Fatty showed up off in the distance. She’s afraid to come within 30 feet of my campsite because Mini Scaredy doesn’t like her and always runs her off. So I flung her a couple of ham-and-cheese sandwiches that I had ground-scored. That should keep her busy until the other cats were done eating. Then I took Fatty the leftover dish of food that the other cats didn’t want.
Then Moo Cat showed up off in the distance (like Fatty, she’s been banished from the tribe). So I brought her a plate of food. And again I had to stand guard while she ate because the wild turkeys were lurking and they’d run her off the food if I wasn’t there. Then Mini Scaredy came trotting over. She was already stuffed with food, but she wanted to run Moo Cat off the food just out of spite. Ha ha. So I had to shoo her off (poor ole Moo Cat, she gets shit from every direction).
And that pretty much ended the feeding session for today. But you can bet they’ll all be waiting for me again tonight.
* * * *
When me and Duncan used to do our vending table in front of Cody’s Books, our friend Christeen — who lived in the apartment building next door — used to often bring us food in the evening. Christeen loved to cook, and she was a great cook, so she’d bring us these delicious home-cooked meals. Food for the street people. Feeding the feral humans as it were. And she even developed this pulley system, where she could lower the dishes of food (wrapped in tin foil) down to us from her 4th floor apartment on a rope. And when Christeen’s head was hanging out the window of her apartment, looking down at me, I’d often get this image in my head of: “Rapunzel, throw down your golden home-cooked dinners!!”
Christeen always reminded me of this book title I once saw. “FOOD IS LOVE” (and you know what they say, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”). I always thought that’s how Christeen looked at food. As an expression of love. And I guess that’s the deal with me and my goddamn feral cats, too.