This is long-time Berkeley street person Sunshine. And what a little dumpling of love she is.
One of Sunshine’s favorite routines — for years and years! — was to call 911 to call for an ambulance. She used to do it 3 or 4 times a week. For YEARS!!
We’d all be hanging out on the street scene. Next thing you know ambulances and fire trucks are rushing towards the scene. Siren blasting and lights flashing.
“What’s going on?”
And the paramedics would all go rushing towards Sunshine, who was on the street corner waiting for them. “What’s the problem?” “My tummy really really hurts. I feel really really sick.” So they’d strap her to the stretcher. And haul her carcass off to the hospital.
I’m not sure what the psychology of it was with Sunshine. I guess she liked being the center of attention. And having all these people rushing to help her. And sometimes she’d get a warm bed for a night at the hospital. So she’d pull this routine 3 or 4 times a week. For years.
It used to piss me off. Because I heard it cost the city something like $5 thousand bucks every time the ambulance came. So I hated the waste of it. But I guess the ambulance people didn’t care. They were getting paid
So anyways, one night I’m at my 25 cent book street vending stand. It had been a long hard day dealing with one customer after another. But it was 10 o’clock now. And things had finally quieted down. And I could finally start to relax. I poured myself a big cup of Olde English. And took a big hit off my joint. And just as I was kicking back and making myself comfortable, and turning my radio on to a nice relaxing radio station. I noticed good old Sunshine headed for the payphone right behind me.
“Oh no. She better not be. . . ”
Of course she was. Next thing I know my peace and quiet is shattered by sirens blaring. And lights flashing. And paramedics and cops rushing towards me. And Sunshine saying “My tummy really really hurts.”
And the whole mad scene went on for at least an hour (seemingly) before they finally hauled Sunshine’s carcass off to the hospital.
The next day I told Sunshine: “DON’T YOU EVER PULL THAT ROUTINE AT MY VENDING TABLE EVER AGAIN!!”
And out of respect — or fear — for me, she never did. Sunshine would always use the payphone at the next block.
Ray set up his vending table right next to ours, every weekend for 15 years. And we couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more kind-hearted neighbor.
Ray sold hand-made “Star Stix” juggling sticks, and hand-sown hackysacks, and later computer-generated paintings at his vending stand. And everything he sold was always of the highest quality.
Ray was a big, strapping Nordic guy, about 6-foot-3. He was one of those guys who adopted the peace-and-love hippie “mellow vibes” persona in the late ’60s, and never deviated from it over the decades. So as big as he was he made a point to never be aggressive or macho, and, if anything he was a little on the fem side, and he had this girlish giggle that he’d often do.
Periodically Ray would disappear into his pick-up truck to take a couple of big hits of pot (“always the highest quality”). Then he would return to his vending table, turn on his boom box to KFOG, the hippie radio station, and dance around to the music while he played with his Star Stix and hackysacks (Ray was an excellent athlete).
A lot of Ray’s trip was in reaction to his father, who was this incredibly rich CEO of some big corporation. When Ray would describe his father he sounded like one of the worst persons on earth, this mean-spirited miser, and this wrathful God of thunder who had to dominate, bully or destroy everyone in his orbit. And a lot of Ray’s hippie-dippie trip was an attempt to be as opposite of his father as he could.
One of Ray’s favorite things to do was talk. And he loved nothing more than to deliver non-stop lectures on religion and spirituality. He loved to take the role of the wise spiritual master bestowing his great wisdom to his eager and breathless students. Which could get annoying. Because, as neighbors, we were a captive audience. And Ray had a tendency to appoint himself to this lofty position of the spiritual master, and you as the student that he would strive to elevate up to his high level. And I have a bit of an ego myself. And I don’t remember ever agreeing to adopt the lower position that Ray had appointed me to. So every now and then I couldn’t resist popping Ray’s balloon. Which wasn’t too difficult to do.
Ray would often say things like: “In true spirituality there is no such thing as higher or lower. Everything is equal and one. . . And I learned that from studying the HIGHEST form of Zen.”
“The truly enlightened person NEVER judges or makes judgments about other people. . . Unlike those lousy Republicans and lawyers who are constantly judging other people!!”
(I respected Ray’s spirituality as coming from a very pure and authentic heart. But lets just say his wisdom didn’t always come directly from his brain.)
Ray’s favorite line — endlessly delivered with a deep sense of gravitas as if it explained all — was: “Just let it all go!!”
“To attain real wisdom and spiritual enlightenment you have let go of all mental and intellectual concepts. Just LET IT ALL GO!!” And Ray would lecture for hours on this subject.
To which I couldn’t resist sometimes adding: “Ray. Maybe you need to let go of the concept of letting it all go.”
But in spite of Ray’s tendency to be a bit over-bearing and long-winded (he usually prefaced his sermons with the phrase “I’ll be brief” — which he rarely was) there was a real innocence and purity to Ray’s spirituality that I genuinely respected.
One of Ray’s most cherished dreams was to set up this world-wide commune of hippie artists and musicians where we all worked together and played together and danced together. “And we would never need money because we would all share everything equally!!” He had this whole utopian dream of creating this world-wide community of peace and love that would transform the world into heaven on earth. He fervently believed in this vision. And was constantly trying to enlist others into joining his crusade.
Of course sometimes I couldn’t resist adding: “Ray. Maybe you should see if you can get along with living with one roommate first. And then you can build it from there to your world-wide commune.”
During the weekdays when he wasn’t at his vending table, Ray would work at his apartment making his vending products. And in the evenings as he worked he liked to smoke pot and drink vodka. “I get some of my deepest and profound spiritual revelations from drinking vodka,” he once told me. “And by the time I finish the fifth of vodka I can hear God talking directly to me.” And I believed him.
Around 2005 the house in Alemeda where Ray lived for many years got sold. And Ray bounced around for awhile, barely keeping a roof over his head. Finally Ray saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail for the paradise that he envisioned Hawaii to be. The glory days of Telegraph hippie street vendors had passed — most of us were just scraping to get by at this point. So Ray packed up all his stuff, sold his truck, and headed off to Hawaii with all the child-like enthusiasm in which he embarked on all of his life’s adventures.
I remember Ray’s last evening on Telegraph when he packed up his vending table for the last time and headed off into the sunset. I was the only person there to see him off. In spite of being so gregarious and sociable, Ray was actually a loner at heart with very few close friends. So I was the only person there to see him off. We shook hands and I wished him all the best and then he was gone.
True to his nature, Ray had let it all go, had let go of all of his vending stuff, his signs and display material and various bric-a-brac, which was in a big free-box on the sidewalk. I couldn’t resist grabbing a bunch of it for mementos, which I still have to this day stashed in my storage locker.
What can I say. I have a hard time letting things go.
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.
I always get a wistful feeling when I walk by this corner. I’m so haunted by my past in a way. And a thousand random memories might pop into my brain. Some happy. Some funny. Some bizarre. Some heart-breaking.
Just now as I passed I was thinking about the Summer of 1982. Remembering dropping off a big stack of TWISTED IMAGE #1 — hot off the presses! — and leaving it with the other free newspapers by the front door of Cody’s Books. It was my first real success in the world, age 26. After mostly fucking up, up to that point. So it was a triumphant moment. And it was the first (and certainly not the last) time I would leave my mark on Telegraph Avenue. It was kind of like a dog marking his territory by urinating on the corner. I guess that’s what I was doing, dropping off a big stack of my newspapers on that corner (“I’M HERE, WORLD!”).
Or — like Billy Pilgrim traveling in time — my mind might suddenly fast-forward to December of 1990. And the CBS News film crew is there to interview me and Duncan about the latest issue of the TELEGRAPH STREET CALENDAR. And I’ll think back to all the characters that were on the scene back then. And wonder where they all went. And why the hell I’m still here. . .
And it’ll keep going back and forth like that in my mind. Until I finally get to the next block. And I can stop thinking about all that crap.
Whenever it rains I sometimes think of this funny thing I once saw during another rainstorm about 15 years ago. . .
It had been raining pretty steadily for about 2 weeks. And I, as homeless street bum, had been outside for most of it. So I was more than a little bedraggled and wet behind the gills at this point. And the storm was just starting to peak and explode at this exact moment. Big sheets of water raining down, pounding against the pavement.
So I’m standing there on the street corner, soaking wet, waiting for the light to change. When this lady comes rushing out of Cody’s Books. She looks like an affluent, suburban housewife-type. Perfectly coifed. And she’s wearing an expensive rain jacket. And she has an expensive rain hat. And she has a big expensive high-tech umbrella. I mean, she probably only has to walk a half-a-block from Cody’s Books to her parked car. But you can tell that she is determined that not a single drop of water is gonna land on her pretty little head.
Meanwhile, I’m standing there in my raggedy-ass soggy-ass homeless street bum get-up. And I admit I felt more than a twinge of envy at her comfort level.
But then, just as she’s rushing across the street she accidentally steps in one of the biggest puddles I’ve ever seen. This big pot-hole in the road. She was submerged in water practically up to her knees. And what with all the splashing and kicking she got pretty soaked.
I burst out laughing. HAW HAW!! I couldn’t help it. It was so funny. I mean, the one thing that she wanted to prevent from happening is exactly what happened.
So I turn to cross the street with a bemused smile on my face. And at that exact moment a big AC Transit bus goes blasting down the street. And it hits this big puddle of water in the gutter. And the water splashes right up in my face. It was like getting directly hit by an ocean wave. Almost knocked me over.
So now I’m standing there sputtering and cursing and completely soaked. And, to add insult to injury, all the people who had seen me laughing at the lady are now pointing at me and laughing at me (personally, I didn’t find it nearly as amusing as the previous incident).
But in a way it was great. It was a perfect illustration of how karma works. Karmauppance. What goes around comes around. Only usually there’s a little more of a time lag between the cause and the effect.
The other day I happened to come across across this photo of these cartoonists on Facebook — Chester Brown, Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman and Phoebe Gloeckner. So, for the hell of it, I posted it on my Facebook page.
One of my Facebook friends asked: “Didn’t Art Spiegelman once wish you a slow, painful death?”
Yeah. I once got a short and pithy letter from Spiegelman on RAW stationary: “I can only wish you a quick and excruciatingly painful death.” (he was mad at me about something or other).
I used the line as a back-cover blurb on my Twisted Image collection of comics. I figured it might help sell a few copies. Ha ha..
About 10 years later Spiegelman was appearing at Cody’s Books in Berkeley to do a book-signing to promote his latest product. A line of people were waiting in line to get his autograph. So I dropped by to check him out in the flesh, and my pal Duncan took a couple of photos to commemorate the occasion. Art didn’t mention anything about killing me. In fact he looked a little nervous to see me and Duncan (who he had also once written a nasty letter to).
Cartoonists can be so bitchy. But at least we’re not as bad as poets.
Later I happened to mention the Spiegelman death threat letter on the internet. Someone immediately posted: “Hey if you ever put that letter on eBay I’d like to buy it.” Ha ha.
But you know me. I always have to get in the last word. So to get back at Spiegelman for sending me that letter, I did a cartoon making fun of him. And then R. Crumb — the greatest cartoonist of our times — published it in his WEIRDO comic book. Ha ha.
For 19 years I considered the corner of Telegraph and Haste in front of the Cody’s Books building as “my corner.” I basically claimed that space for myself and used it for 19 years. I set up various vending tables over the years. So it was my place of business. But it also served as my livingroom. And my clubhouse where me and my friends could hang out.
I was able to claim that space because, when Fred Cody — the original owner of Cody’s Books — first built the Cody’s Building (I think it was a gas station before that) he wrote into the lease that the space in front of his building should be reserved for “noncommercial vendors” for “political” and “community service” and “free speech” purposes (Fred was a cool liberal). And I felt my various vending tables fit into those parameters. So there I was.
Over the years various people would dispute my legal interpretation of Fred’s lease. And try to run me off of that corner. Cops, business owners, City vending license officials and even a couple of my fellow street bro’s. Because it was a very valuable piece of real estate and a lot of other people wanted to use the space. But I was slippery enough to hold onto that corner for 19 years.
* * * *
Running a vending table on a street corner can get pretty wild. Its kind of like running a bar. The clientele can get a little sketchy. Because you’re on a street corner and you’re open to anybody. So sometimes you had to act as bouncer and run off unruly customers (plenty of the Telegraph street vendors keep a baseball bat discreetly placed under their vending table for that purpose). Anyone who has had a “service job” where they have to deal with the general public will attest to this fact: A certain percentage of the general public are flaming assholes. So, just by the laws of averages, you have to deal with them.
So, in the course of my street vending career, I’ve had to explain to certain individuals:
“I have the right to refuse service to anyone.”
They would invariably counter with: “I can hang out here if I want.”
And I would counter with: “No you can’t.”
And then I would prove it. Ha ha.
Several times I had to pick up my folding chair and chase some asshole down the street, waving my chair over my head like a tomahawk.
And I knocked some people on their asses. And some people knocked me on my ass.
* * * *
On top of that, I hung with a fairly wild crowd back then. I knew most of the street people on the scene. And plenty of the drinkers and druggers. So things could get a bit raucous at times. I, myself, liked to drink a beer or ten while I was tending to my vending duties. Interspersed with some good strong pot to add a surrealistic touch to the proceedings. So I’d generally get a good buzz going.
And I had a big ghetto blaster on my table which I used to blast out loud rock’n’roll. And that usually drew a crowd. Sometimes I’d be having so much fun, I’d still be sitting there on that goddamn corner well after midnight. It’s a miracle I was able to pack up all my vending stuff and get out of there with my life intact some nights. Ha ha.
I know I’m nuts. But part of me wishes I could go back in time and do the whole thing all over again. *sigh*
For over a decade I ran a 25-cent Used Books vending table on Telegraph Ave. It was a great gig. I went through thousands and thousands of books every week. I described it as: “selling books by the pound.” I had dozens of sources for my books. But one of my prime sources were the 5 or 6 recycling bins that Half Price Books put out on the curb twice a week.
I’d wait until Half Price Books closed for the night at 11. Then I’d pull up with my huge Berkeley Bowl shopping cart and start loading up with books. The bins would be loaded to the brim with unbelievable treasures. Everything from last year’s best sellers to the classics of literature to $100 coffee table books. As well as plenty of drek, too. The trick was to sift through every book as quickly as possible, all the while making the lightning quick decision with each book: “Will this book sell for a quarter?”
I had a basic system: Paperbacks in one stack. Hardcovers in another. And coffee table books in another. I’d hit the bin with the least amount of book in it first. And then I’d precariously stack the crap books that I didn’t want alongside the bin. Once I had an empty bin, that simplified things. Because I could then take the reject books from the next bin and just toss them into the empty bin. And I’d methodically work my way down the line of bins like that.
Further complicating things: Half Price Books tore the covers off of all the books. The reason they did that was: If they DIDN’T, book hustlers would find the books and try to re-sell them at all the other used book stores. Which was a tremendous waste of time for the book stores. Having the same used books boomeranging back at them dozens of times. . . So, as I’m sorting through all the books I’m also doing a mix-and-match, trying to find the covers that go with the books (later I’d scotch-tape the covers back on the books).
I had it down to a science. Usually it would take me about 2 hours to go through all the bins. And by one in the morning the 6th bin would finally be empty. Then I’d dump all the reject books stacked alongside the first bin into the now-empty sixth bin. Having come full-circle. Quickly clean up any other messes I might have made, leave the corner spotless, and trudge off with my jam-packed shopping cart, bungee-corded with the over-flowing books, like a noble hunter returning from the forest with his hard-earned treasures.
But there could sometimes be complications. Worst of all was when passerbys happened to notice me: “HEY, LOOK AT ALL THEM GREAT FREE BOOKS!!” And they’d inject themselves like a monkey wrench right into the middle of my careful organized machine. And total chaos and confusion would ensue (so much for my “system”).
One guy I particularly dreaded was this extroverted street person with a guitar who, in his insatiable need for attention, would call out to every person who passed by and invite them to join in on the fun. Before you knew it, it’s this huge party with books getting tossed around everywhere and my nice, neat piles becoming strewn across the sidewalk. Plus, inevitably, a huge mess for me to clean up afterwards.
Adding insult to injury, it used to drive the manager at Half Price Books into a frenzy. Because people would get indignant at THEM when they realized all these books were being trashed. “That’s just, like, WAY uncool, Half Price Books, taking all of this great literature and dumping them into the garbage!! I, after all, am a book-lover!!” They just didn’t understand the reality of the book biz. It’s like the day-old produce at the grocery store. They have limited shelf space, and they have to make room for the endless waves of new books.
So the manager got pissed at ME for drawing all the attention to the operation. So she began dumping liquids of unknown origin on the bins of books in a futile attempt at discouraging me. But I was making a hundred bucks a day off those book. So nothing less than an armed guard or a court-ordered subpoena would have kept me from those bins.
Anyways, this morning I happened to pass by those recycling bins. And it all came back, like the memory of a half-forgotten pleasant dream. All those nights standing out there by myself on a lonely street corner . . . Well after midnight under the moon and the streetlights. The streets quiet and peaceful, for once. As I sifted through all the immortal words from all the great and non-great authors down through the ages of history.
One odd and ironic epilogue to my 25 Cent Books vending table. When Ken Sarachan — the businessman who owns half of Telegraph Avenue — bought the vacant Cody’s Books building, I decided it was time to retire my 25 Cent Book table. But I told Ken how much my customers loved my vending table. And I recommended to him — half-jokingly — that he should re-open the Cody’s building as a 25 Cent bookstore. Would you believe it? He actually took my advice and opened up a 25 cent book store . . . I swear. I must be the only homeless bum in the history of homeless bums where multi-millionaire businessmen actually take my savvy business advice. Go figure.
I rarely go to movies. I’ve gone to one movie over the last 20 years. Living on the streets, you live out about 20 weird movies every week. So the celluloid movies don’t quite make it anymore. The last movie I saw was the Crumb documentary about 10 years ago. And the only reason I went to that one was because I had a vaguely personal connection to it. (During the scene where Crumb is in his studio as he’s packing up to move to France, you can see on the wall behind his head a copy of the “TELEGRAPH STREET CALENDAR 1991″ that I co-published. I was standing up in the theatre screaming at the screen: “Pan in on the calendar! Get your fat head out of the way, Crumb!”) (What can I say, I found the scene particular evocative.)
Anyways, last week I was hanging out on a street corner at my 25-cent used books vending table by Cody’s Books. I was sitting on a milk crate, minding my own business (who me?), taping covers back onto torn books, when a “scene” broke out right behind me. This cute young black chick in her car was stopped in the middle of the street. And she was yelling at a tall, young black guy who was standing in the street, blocking her way. “GET OUT OF THE STREET!” she yelled.
Next thing I knew the black chick is attacking the black guy right in front of me. He’s backing up, trying to fend her off, whipping his jacket at her like a matador. She’s throwing punches. He grabs her by the wrist and they’re swinging each other back and forth. He gets the best of her and flings her in the air like a rag doll into the metal payphone. A very vicious picture in my mind’s eye, as the side of her head crashes into the metal. A few more inches and she would have broken her neck.
She gets up from the sidewalk, mad as a hornet, and pulls a knife out of her pocket. The black guy is backing up like mad, with his palms up to fend her off. And he backs right into my shopping cart full of books parked right next to me, knocks the cart over into the street and he lands on his ass in the middle of the street. She’s still pursuing him and backs him all the way into the middle of the intersection on Telegraph and Haste.
“HEY, YOU SHOULDN’T BE FIGHTING WITH A WOMAN!” yells a passerby.
“SHE’S GOT A KNIFE!” yells the black guy.
So the black chick — and cute, I might add, in a young, Diana Ross kinda’ way — walks back towards her car, and spots his black leather jacket lying on the sidewalk. She picks up the jacket, holds it up towards him — in the classic “NEENER NEENEER NEENER!” schoolyard brat tradition — and proceeds to slowly and methodically slice the jacket to ribbons with her knife. And I can tell you, that knife is razor sharp: it slices through that leather jacket like butter.
So the black guy, not to be out-done, shouts out: “OH YEAH?” and runs over to her car — which is still parked in the middle of the street — and starts kicking the shit out of the side of it with his boots. CRASH! CRINKLE! sounds of broken metal and glass.
Suddenly, four cop cars blast to the scene: that surreal, red-lights-flashing-in-the-dark-night scenario. They catch the guy in the middle of the street in mid-kick. So, needless to say, he’s got Some Explaining To Do.
As usual with these weird street movies, you never know how they started, or how they end. You usually just get the 2nd and 3rd act of the drama.
Who knows why people do the crazy things they do? Who knows, and who cares, right? Unless you’re nosey bastard like me and can’t help wondering, What The Fuck?
At first I assumed they didn’t know each other; that perhaps the black guy was standing in the street trying to save the parking space for a friend who was circling around the block in his car. But then it was pointed out that there was an older white man in the car with the young, cute black chick. So the second possible scenario was that she was a hooker, and perhaps he was a jilted ex-boyfriend. And the third possible scenario was that it was just a bunch of stupid bullshit over nothing (and people on the streets regularly get killed over less).
I ended up re-telling the story at least 10 times to 10 different people — something Exciting Happened! — embellishing the story with each re-telling (“And then she pulled out a switchblade! No, it was a MACHETE!”)
And me? I bought 10 bucks worth of crystal meth and went back to my office and masturbated for 48 hours. What the fuck.
A couple weeks ago I got interviewed by Aaron Cometbus of the legendary COMETBUS fan-zine. Aaron is another one of those guys I consider “from the class of ’82.” One of those teenage punk kids who was profoundly influenced by the whole punk scene at the time. That whole scene died for me by 1984. But, apparently, its still going. Spotted a review in the latest EAST BAY EXPRESS about Aaron’s “legendary punk band” that was making a “rare” appearance at Gilman Street. The line stretched down the street, some people had been waiting all day in the hopes of getting in for the show. Aaron’s band features the front-man from Green Day — Billie Joe Armstrong. So that shows you how plugged in Aaron is to the whole scene. He’s sort of the literary rock star of the scene. Regularly referred to as a “punk rock Kerouac.” The thing — COMETBUS — mostly goes over my head. Probably because I’m 10 years older than Aaron and have already “been there and done that” by the time Aaron gets to it. But I’m impressed by how much the kids of his generation relate to his writiing. And he’s an undeniable “star” in a scene thats produced precious few of them.
He caught me at a flat moment. We sat there on the sidewalk by “my spot” on Telegraph & Haste and I chain-smoked and tried to think of something signifigant, or at least clever, to say. And mostly failed. I’m always intimidated by handsome guys. Even when they’re nice guys like Aaron. Aaron Cometbus always reminded me of the cool guy in high school who effortlessly hung out with the coolest of the cool crowd. But never looked down on the un-cool kids. Which only made him seem cooler.
“I always thought your 25-cent book vending table idea was a stroke of genius,” said Aaron.
“More like a stroke of desperation,” I said. “Somehow, I never pictured myself at age 51 selling junk on a street corner.”
He asked me about the exciting Telegraph Avenue scene.
“Its pretty much turned into a skid row,” I groused.
We gossiped a bit about the old fan-zine scene. Darby Romeo, of BEN IS DEAD zine, was rumored to have completely dropped out and turned into a recluse and joined a weird religious cult. Turns out she’s in Hawaii working for a school that teaches young girls how to surf. Which seemed exactly right for a former SASSY afficionado. So there’s your fan-zine up-date.
Aaron and I chatted some more. I don’t know who gets more props: Me, name-dropping him. Or him, name-dropping me. Probably him. He’s got way more “Google search” hits after his name. Which is the new barometer for fame. Myself, I’m sort of a weird, minor-league legend in certain circles. Which is nice. But it doesn’t help pay the rent. Or alleviate this persistent painful rectal itch. So, in other words, I’m fucked.
Araon asked me about some obscure, sappy comic strip I had done about a Paul McCartney album (“Red Rose Speedway”) back in 1987. Which is weird that he would remember it 21 years later, it was only published in one place, the UC Berkeley college newspaper. But I guess thats why he’s the Kerouac of punk. Kerouac, of course, was known for his attention to detail. Had a bit of a photographic memory.
Anyways, we concluded our chat, shook hands, and went off with the rest of our lives (as horrifying as that prospect can sometimes be).
Now I’m at Raleigh’s across the street, drinking a pint of dark beer and watching a dull college basketball game. I’ve wasted this whole day. I’ve wasted so many days. And yet, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. What ARE we supposed to be doing? I’m surrounded by bums who never do anything. They sit around and get stoned and drunk all day long and make noises (“socializing” I guess its called). Others of them hang around coffee shops all day doing nothing. Zombies. Then there’s the ones who camp out at the public computers on the campus playing mindless computer games all day long.
Then there’s the drones who work at the local establishments. Frittering away their hours, “watching the clock” until Friday when they can sit around and watch TV all day.
Then there’s the hordes of Asian college students swamping the campus, just looking to slot into the machine like mindless clones.
And then there’s me. I guess I’m a zombie, too. Water seeks its own level, right? But then, I did draw a memorable comic strip about Paul McCartney back in 1987, so at least there’s something on my resume.
I kept looking for a “scene” to plug into. And when one wasn’t there, I set out to make one myself. And that turned into an even bigger horror.