Copping to cops

 
 
 
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Some people want to make cops out to be the villains. The oppressors. The enforcers of the “police state. And there’s some truth and validity to that outlook. Myself?? I mostly look at cops as the referees. The umpires. Somebody has to make those judgment calls.
 
People see cops as heroes or villains and everything in between. I mostly see them as social garbage-collectors. They get called in to try and clean up society’s messes.
 
I once read this survey of cops where the cops themselves claimed that 20% of the cops weren’t fit to be cops. They were too dumb or lazy or had bad judgment or were lousy at dealing with people or had weird attitudes. I mean cops are basically just a cross-section of human beings — the good and the bad and everything in between.

So I keep that survey in mind, every fifth interaction I have with a cop.

The cops main job — like the sports referee — is to maintain the social order, and enforce the rules and the laws. And I guess therein lies the rub. Because many people on the bottom of society feel the laws are written specifically to oppress them, and benefit the rich. But it’s important to remember: The cops don’t write the rules. They only enforce them. Though they do have a certain amount of lee-way as to precisely HOW they enforce them. And the cops have to make zillions of judgment calls every day they’re on the job. And sometimes they have to make split-second judgment calls while in the middle of highly stressful, and even dangerous, situations. All the while knowing that every judgment call they make will be second-guessed by somebody.

 
The better cops know that there’s “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.” And have an intuitive sense of when to apply one or the other. It’s like a basketball referee — technically they could call a foul on every play. But the good ones have a feel for the flow of the game, and they interpret the rules with that in mind.
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Many people think the job “inordinately attracts people who are bullies or thugs and like to beat people up.” And I’m sure the job certainly attracts a certain amount of bullies who enjoy wielding power over others. But it also attracts many other types. My older brother was a cop for a couple of years when he was a young man. And he was what you might call a “boy scout” type. He legitimately wanted to help protect the people from the bad guys and all that.  Then there are others who want to be a cop simply because they’re attracted to the excitement. And then there are others that see it simply as a decent job where they can make a living and support their families. 
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I don’t know, it’s a complicated subject. Of course I’m mostly like Bukowski:  “I got nothing against cops. I just feel better when they’re not around.”
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Hate Man gets crunched yet again in People’s Park

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The cops just crunched Hate Man. They claimed he had “too much stuff.” And gave him a “trespassing” ticket (??). And a “7-day stay-away.” And ran his ass out of People’s Park.

Its totally arbitrary. Hate Man isn’t doing anything different from what he’s been doing for the last 10 years. But this particular cop decided to crunch Hate Man’s ass. For whatever reason.

There’s often not a lot of rhyme or reason to life on the streets. There’s no rule book. Its often just the whims of the moment.

The “trespassing” ticket, by the way, is ridiculous.  How the hell can you be trespassing when you’re hanging out in a public park during the daytime just like everybody else in the park?

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The streets

Certified (ha ha) public accountant.

 

 

A cop recently asked Hate Man:  “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my books,” said Hate Man.

“What do you mean you’re working on your books?”

“During the course of the month I loan out money to dozens of people.  And a bunch of other people have regular tabs with me.  So on the first of the month  I have to tabulate all the numbers to see where I’m at.”

“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard!”  laughed the cops.

The cop was dumbfounded at the idea that a 79-year-old homeless guy basically operated as sort of a communal trading post for the street scene. And that dozens of street people would run up tabs with Hate Man, many of them for hundreds of dollars.

Some people are often surprised to find that street people pretty much operate just like most other people and the other facets of society. In truth, the streets are just like high school, except with rattier clothes and less teeth.

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Hate Man at his “desk” at the Brown Shingle, working on his books. (photo by David Thompson)

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The ballad of Asshole John

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Asshole John and Officer Boga enjoying a Christmas Eve moment together.

The cops swooped down and hand-cuffed and arrested Asshole John the other night.  Asshole John had a “stay-away” order from People’s Park.  For some of his, um, previous disturbances.  But, typical of John, he kept hanging out in the park anyways.  So the cops crunched him.

Asshole John is a long-time member of the Berkeley street scene.  He’s been around for several decades.  That’s the name he gave himself, by the way.  Asshole John.  And he often lives up to it.  Ha ha.

Asshole John can be loud and braying and belligerent. Especially when he’s drunk.  But when people call him on it, he just gives off a crinkly smile and shrugs.  “What can I say.  I’m an asshole.”  Hard to argue with that.  Ha ha.  But he’s basically harmless and has a lot of heart.

When the cops hassle him, he’ll often start shouting at them and berating them.  Calling them the n-word and the c-word and the mf-word, and any other words he can think of.  But this time he went fairly quietly.  “Hate Man, watch my stuff while I’m jail,” he said, softly, as he pointed to his backpack and sleeping bag and etc. . .   Sometimes I think some street people actually look forward to a couple-week stint in Santa Rita.  As a break from the rigors of the streets.  Almost like a trip to  a health spa.  And they usually look better when they come out of jail than when they went in.  The ole’ “three hots and a cot” routine.

Like a lot of street people — who often tend to develop, um, exaggerated personas — Asshole John often reminds me of a cartoon character.  With his thick Texas drawl and cantankerous manner, he often resembles Yosemite Sam.  “YOU CRAZY VARMITS!!”  Or a drunken, brawling hillbilly from Dogpatch in the “Li’l Abner” strip.

One thing’s for sure.  At age 66, Asshole John is a bona fide street survivor.  And that goes even moreso for Hate Man at age 78.  With me bringing up the flank at age 58.  The streets are a young man’s game.  It’s a very Darwinian mileau.  The weak and the reckless are regularly pruned from the herd.  But there are exceptions, too.  The old-timers.

I’ve read that long-term stints of homelessness can take 20 or 30 years off your life-expectancy.  And while I take most of what I read about “the homeless” in the mainstream press with a big grain of salt (because they’re usually wrong about virtually everything), there’s probably some truth to that. This analogy may sound a little crude, but street people often remind me of sperm swimming up-stream.  And over the years I’ll watch so many of them fall along the way-side, one by one.  Premature death.

But then there are others, like Asshole John, who not only survive on the streets, but thrive.  Its a special breed of weirdness.

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Drugs in general are pretty stupid, but crystal meth has to be among the stupidest

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For some reason this  morning I was thinking about some of the stupid things I’ve done when I’m drunk or stoned.  Probably because I did something stupid last night while I was drunk.  Generally, I’m a functional alcoholic and druggie.  But every now and then I’ll cross that line and do something stupid.

I remember this one time, I had been up for three days tweaking non-stop on crystal meth.   I was in the middle of a brief flirtation with meth. One of the stupidest drugs known to man. Plus, meth has that deadly combination of making you stupid while also giving you massive amounts of energy to act out your stupidity.  A bad combination.

Anyways, I’m in a men’s room stall on the campus, sitting on the toilet and snorting up lines of speed on my hand-mirror.  When I got the bright idea to start working on a collage.  I used to like to do that when I was stoned.  I’d cut out color photos from magazines and alter them and scotch-tape them together in these intricate patterns to make these bizarre pictures.  I’d work on them  for hours and hours at a stretch.  working and re-working them obsessively.  Cutting and re-taping the pictures in all sorts of patterns.  And the layers of scotch-tape would make the picture glisten and twinkle in the light in all sorts of cool psychedelic hues.  I’d become obsessed with lining up the photos exactly right.  Doing and re-doing it until I got it lined up exactly right.  Though I’d quickly change my mind — it was a semi-millimeter off — and I’d re-cut it and re-tape it and start all over again.  Like I said:  stupidity.   At a certain point, the collage would in fact look incredibly cool.  But by the time I got done re-working the picture it would be a hopeless botch of smudges and smears.  At which point I’d start over on a new collage.

So anyways,  I’m sitting there in the stall, and I have my scissors out and my scotch-tape and my magazines.  And I’m cutting and taping away.  And whenever my inspiration would start to flag, I’d just take another toot off of my hand-mirror and I’m suddenly Rembrandt all over again.  Not that I was keeping track, in fact I was completely oblivious, but I must have been in that stall for four or five hours, merrily amusing myself.  Things were going great.  Unfortunately my artistic reverie was interrupted by a loud knock on the bathroom stall.

“IT’S THE POLICE.  WE’VE HAD A COMPLAINT THAT YOU’VE BEEN IN THAT STALL FOR A LONG TIME!”

So now it’s my worst nightmare.  Confronted by the police while glazed on drugs, in the middle of doing something weird, while having drugs on my possession.  The sobering possibility of handcuffs and jail-time flashed across my mind.

“Oh, um, I’ve been feeling sick, officer,” I said.  “I’ll be right out.”

“Okay.  We’ll be waiting for you out in the hallway,” said the cop.  I heard the men’s room door open and close.

I quickly packed up all my crap, took my little bag of meth and hid it inside a newspaper and slipped it into the next stall, splashed some water on my face, checked my face in the mirror to make sure I looked semi-human, and staggered out to the hallway to face the music.  I obviously had some explaining to do, and only hoped I had an explanation.  I mean, I hate talking to the cops in the best of circumstances, let alone when I’m completely deranged on drugs.  It’s one of those situations where I just start talking and I have no idea what might come out of my mouth.  I forget exactly what I told the cop.  Something about how I had a bad case of the runs and had been in and out of the toilet for hours and how I was a hard-working street vendor and well-respected member of the community.  “I’m a good American just like you, officer.”

Much to my surprise, the cop actually bought my line of bullshit.  And after apologizing numerous times for having caused an inconvenience, he let me go without even so much as a warning.

After the cop was finally out of view I let out a “WHEW!”  that probably could have been heard for a block.  I got my ass out of there.  And didn’t come back until several hours later.  To retrieve the newspaper with my little bag of meth in it.  And I found a safer and more secure spot to continue with my artistic creations for the next 10 or 12 hours.

So, as usual, I didn’t learn much from the experience.

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Cops

 

When you’re a homeless street person it’s not unusual to have interactions with cops on a daily basis.  Sometimes from the moment you get up until the moment you go to sleep.  Even if you’re not doing anything, if you’re hanging out with a bunch of street people, usually you’re in the middle of some kind of trouble.   And the fact is, just about every facet of your existence as a homeless person  — sleeping, sitting, drinking, shitting — is illegal to some degree.  So it’s not surprising that you inevitably have interactions with the cops.

I have more than a few friends that hate cops; that regularly use the P-word and would be happy if they were all dead.  I have no problem with that.  I generally feel everybody has earned the right to their attitudes, whatever they are, even if I don’t share them.  I mostly look at the cops the same way I look at the rain; it’s an annoying force of nature that I have to deal with.  But it’s nothing personal.

Probably one thing that made me slightly sympathetic towards cops is that my older brother was a cop for a couple of years when he was in his early 20s. I remember hitch-hiking down to the town where he lived  the summer of my 17th year and staying with him for a couple days.  One night he took me out on his route so I could see what his job was like. It was an eye-opening experience to view the world from the cop’s perspective from the front seat of a cop car.  At one point, around midnight,  we pulled up to this street corner and there was a bunch of black guys hanging out there.  As our head-lights hit them, they all turned around and glared at us over their shoulders.  I’ll never forget that.  If looks could kill, my brother and I would both be dead. If you tend to view the cops as power-mad bullies, I can assure you it doesn’t always feel that way from the cop’s perspective.

My brother was a little guy, about 5-8.   He became a cop because he was sort of a Boy Scout, do-gooder type.  He wanted to protect the good guys from the bad guys. I think a lot of cops start out as kind of Boy Scouts.  But it’s hard to maintain that attitude for very long.  Of course there are also some cops who are drawn to the job because they’re mean-spirited bullies and the cop job gives them the means to act out their low impulses.   But I suspect most people become cops simply because it’s a way to make a decent living.

My brother lived and worked in this rough, little town in New Jersey. The train used to go through the town, but when they canceled the route, half the businesses in the town when bankrupt.  The town was made up of about 80% unemployed blacks.  It was an eye-opening experience for my brother, who came from a fairly sheltered, suburban background.

People don’t realize:  Cops see the worst aspects of human behavior.  Over and over.  The worst things you can imagine human beings doing to each other, the cops see it being done.  Over and over.  And then they’re called in to do something about it.  To solve things and make it right.  Sure.  Not only that, they constantly get thrust into the middle of intense — and often violent — conflicts.  And they have to make split-second decisions.  Judgment calls.  And one bad call can ruin their entire career.  It is a stressful job.

But I think what really warps cops is that they’re constantly watching people to see if they’re doing something wrong.  They’re constantly on the look-out for the worst aspects of human behavior.  And I think that becomes ingrained in their psyche after awhile.  Like a compulsive reflex action.  Seeing the worst of other people.  Expecting the worst.  And many cops have the attitude that all people are guilty.  Some of them just haven’t been caught yet.

I don’t look at cops as heroes or villains.  I mostly look at cops as society’s garbage collectors.  They don’t so much as solve crimes or protect people from crime.  They just come in after the fact to clean up the mess.  Mop up the blood and haul the victims and the perps off to the hospital, jail or nut-house.

The cop shows on TV always show the cops running around shooting their guns.  But the fact is, many cops will go their entire careers — 30, 40 years — without ever shooting their guns once.  My brother once told me:  “The most important skill that a cop can have is the ability to be able to talk to people.”

My brother was never much of a drinker.  But after a couple of month’s on the cop job, he always had a fifth of whiskey on top of his refrigerator.  I guess to take the edge off after a hard day on the job, to calm his nerves after all the shit he had to deal with.  He told me there was a high level of alcoholism among cops (a bit of knowledge that I tucked away in the back of my mind, and it helped me deal with cops when I was getting jacked up for public drinking, knowing that many cops were secretly sympathetic to my situation).  After a couple years as a cop, my brother saw the writing on the wall, saw where the job was leading, saw the kind of person it was turning him into.  So he quit the job and became a banker.

 

Homeless

Surviving on the Streets: How to Go down Without Going Out

When you’re homeless its easy to feel like a criminal, an outlaw or an outcast.  The other morning I walk up to the Golden Bear restaurant on the Berkeley campus to look for recycling in the garbage cans.  Like I’ve done a thousand times before.  A UC cop is standing there but I proceed anyways because I figure I’m not doing anything wrong.  Or so I think.

“Step over here,” said the cop.  I get the distinct impression he’s been waiting for me.  “You know, technically its illegal to go through campus garbage cans.”  (technically the cops can ALWAYS get you for something)

“Geez, I didn’t know that.  I’ve been doing this for years,” I said

“Do you have any ID?” said the cop

I give him my I.D. and he runs my name over the wire.  My mind is racing.  Why are they jacking me up?   I’ve got the distinct impression the cop had been waiting for me.  But why?

“Have you ever been arrested, Peter?”

“Just once.  Back around 1995.  I got in a fight with a friend of mine. But it was bullshit.  The charges were dropped the next day.”

“Do you know your PFN number?”

“PFN number?  Whats that?” I said, perplexed.

“Thats your Personal File Number.  I just asked that as a test.  If you knew that number that would have told  me that you’ve done time in prison.”  So I passed that test.  But why is this cop testing me?

“I work the campus beat and we just like to check out who’s here,” said the cop.  (Oh really?)  “You seem like a professor. (??)  Did you go to school here?”

“No.  But my sister graduated from here,” I said.  “I worked for the Daily Cal (the campus newspaper) for seven year.”  (I’m trying to convey the impression that I belong here.  My sister is a fucking UC alumni for godsakes. They’ll be TEACHING my shit in shit-ass colleges like this someday.  So why am I being treated like a common criminal?)

“What did you do?” asked the cop.

“I was a cartoonist for 20 years,” I said.

“What kind of papers did you get in?”‘

“Magazines like High Times.  Rocknroll papers.  Counterculture papers.  The Bay Guardian.”

“What happened?”

“I ran out of jokes,” I said.

The cop burst out laughing at that line.  So  I guess I’ve got one last joke left in me.

The cop gave me back my ID and I went on my weary way.   I guess I passed the test.

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Calvin of Arcata

(Originally published December 14, 2002)

These rainy winter days get me to thinking of the couple of winters I spent on the streets of Arcata. 1995. 1996. Fabled Humboldt County. A very wet county.

Calvin and Fingers were the two guys I mostly hung out with; two aging hippies in their mid-40s. Original hippies from the 60s. The last of a dying breed. Calvin was a trip. You could make a great movie about that guy. He was both heroic and tragic. He was a barrel-chested hippie with just the beginning of a beer-gut. He looked like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boy, or the bearded hippie on the Zig Zag pack, or Jesus Christ Himself, with a vaguely chipmonk-ish sheen to his red-cheeked face.

Calvin was originally from Los Angeles. Both his mother and father were alcoholics who died when he was 12. So Calvin ran off with the circus; got odd jobs cleaning up elephant shit, the whole deal. A real street kid from the word go. Now, pushing into his mid-40s, he was kind of at the end of the line of a spectacular street career. You’re talking about somebody who spent 30 years on the streets. That’s a lo-o-ong time in street years.

Calvin was a born-again Christian hippie who was also an alcoholic (mostly a beer-o) who played the devil’s music, rock’n’roll. He could take the most beat-up, battered, out-of-tune, old street guitar and make it sing. He knew every pop song from the 60s: Beatles, Hendrix, Stones, the Who, Neil Young… The one that really got me was “Baby It’s A Wild World” by Cat Stevens. Street people would be crying when he played that one. “Hard to get by just upon a smile…” The one he loved the most was that Youngbloods song, “C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together try and love one another, right now.” He would belt that one out with an intense, yearning sweetness, as if he was trying to propel himself into a better world, a world of love, by the force of his musical will.

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Some people found Calvin a little self-righteous; “The Jesus of Arcata” they would smirk. But Calvin was a genuinely sweet, good-hearted guy, though their was a self-destructive martyrdom to some of his sweetness. He would give away his last blanket to somebody who needed it, and then sit there shivering all night. If somebody gave him $20, he’d just give it away. “What do I need money for?” he’d say. He literally lived without money. He deeply wanted to be “good,” often at the expense of himself. He practiced an odd brand of Christianity: If he did something good, God got all the credit. If he did something bad, it was all his own fault. Somehow, that didn’t seem fair to me. But that was Calvin’s trip. I was extremely fond of him. He was the one guy on the Arcata Plaza scene that I would seek out.

Like I said, he was just starting to get bloated from 30 years of non-stop boozing. Sometimes he would look up to the sky and call out with a dramatic gesture: “I’M READY TO GO ANY TIME YOU WANT TO CALL ME BACK HOME, LORD! I’M READY TO GO RIGHT NOW!” He was one of those guys who wasn’t quite of this world. Well, he had one foot in this life and the other foot in the next. Now, he was sort of biding his time. But even at the end of his street career, he had more life in him than most anybody else on the scene. When Calvin showed up, the party was happening. When Calvin showed up with his guitar, the beer would flow and the movable street party would emanate from around him. In between songs he would cry out his eternal mantra: “SOMEBODY BUY ME A BEER!” And somebody always would, because we wanted to keep the party going.

Calvin saw the doings of planet Earth in the dramatic terms of God-versus-Satan.  “God rules the heavens, but Satan is the landlord of this planet,” he would say.  “I remember when I lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s.  I saw ENTIRE BLOCKS taken over by Satanists!!  One after another, people would turn into ZOMBIES!!  Their souls, GONE!!  I SAW IT, MAN!!  With my OWN EYES!!  Block after block being taken over by Satan, like a black cloud descending on the land!!”

Fingers was his partner, so named for his deformed fingers. Fingers was a lanky hippie dude, with long hair, Fu Manchu mustache, cowboy hat, and fringed leather jacket. Fingers fancied himself kind of a fast-talking speed-freak con-man, mixed with a slow-talking, cool-walking Allman Brothers. But he was a fuck-up and he knew it. After inflicting his latest disaster on whoever was dumb enough to get hooked up with his latest deal, Fingers would repeat his eternal mantra: “You fucked up, you trusted me.” Both Fingers and Calvin were quintessential street people.

One winter afternoon after the rains, Fingers and Calvin offered to take me out ‘shroom hunting in Fingers’s beat-up old station wagon. I was very excited by the prospect. I had all sorts of fanciful images in my head of frolicking through enchanted forests picking magic mushrooms from the psychedelic earth. So I was a little disappointed when Fingers pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway 101 and we got out at the off-ramp. “They grow in the wood chips under the trees on these off-ramps,” he explained. In 20 minutes we had picked several big bags of shrooms as the cars rushed by us on the freeway.

At the time, I considered psychedelics to be spiritual medicine. I’ve since concluded that psychedelics have zero spiritual value, as well as the potential to do serious spiritual harm. And I concluded that any so-called “insights” or benefits I got from the psychedelic state of consciousness weren’t transferable when I returned to the normal state of consciousness, anyway. It’s like winning the lottery while you’re dreaming; you can’t cash that check when you wake up. But anyway, I dug how the airplanes seemed to be going off in my brain while I was riding that first manic rush of the ‘shroom buzz. Fingers and Calvin were in the front seat as we barreled down Highway 101, looking back at me with this strange, leering grin on their faces. I suddenly realized that, behind their smiles, they were members of the Manson Family and that they were driving me off to the woods to sacrifice me in some weird and bloody satanic ritual. I gritted my teeth, fighting the urge to grab the steering wheel and run us off the road before I was murdered, and rode out that first manic wave of the shroom rush, hoping it was all just in my mind. But then, what isn’t? Calvin and Fingers continued to smile and talk as if nothing had happened.

We decided to drive 300 miles down to Berkeley to sell the 20 pounds of ‘shrooms that Fingers had collected. I still remember that crazy drive in Fingers’s beat-up old station wagon, packed with his worldly possessions, dirty laundry, etc. The car clanked and rattled and sparked; every bump in the road I thought the engine would fall out. There was a big hole in the floor by my feet and you could see the highway rushing by beneath us at 60 miles per hour. “Oh, and don’t lean on that door, Ace, it might fly open,” cautioned Fingers. The whole scene was like living out a scene from the Furry Freak Brothers. Fingers, behind the wheel with his cowboy hat, was Freewheeling Franklin. I was Phineas. And Calvin was Fat Freddy. He sat in the back seat drinking beer and gobbling down ‘shrooms.

By the time we got to Berkeley late that night, Calvin was seriously sick. He staggered out of the car and fell to the sidewalk, groaning in pain. “I-I’m paralayzed! I can’t move!” he gasped. “I think there was something poisonous in one of those ‘shrooms.”  Calvin paused dramatically.  “If I die right here, fellas, just put me in a cardboard box and dump my body in a dumpster.”

“Okay,” said Fingers. Instead we dumped him back in the back seat to sleep it off, and by the morning he was fine.

Fingers decided to park his station wagon alongside People’s Park and bag up the ‘shrooms in little plastic baggies. Me and Calvin went off down to Telegraph with his guitar to hustle up beer money singing ’60s rock songs on Sproul Plaza. Within 20 minutes, Fingers managed to get busted by the cops with the car-full of ‘shrooms, and hauled off to Santa Rita in handcuffs. A typical ending to a typical Fingers caper. Calvin and I spent the rest of the week waiting to find out about Fingers’s fate. 20 pounds of psychedelic drugs could be serious; like 5 years in jail, serious. But somehow, just before we were about to drive back to Arcata without him, the police released Fingers. “The cops mysteriously lost the evidence,” explained Fingers. Most likely, the cops were sick of dealing with Fingers, too. So the Furry Freak Brothers were back on the road, barreling back to Humboldt County.

Well, there were many more strange and mysterious misadventures with Calvin and company. This one Arcata cop took a bad disliking to Calvin, considered him the troublemaker and ringleader of the whole scene. Which was true in a way. So the cop kept arresting Calvin for this and that, usually locking him up for a month at a time, but it started to add up. The writing was on the wall. “That cop wants to put me in a cage for the rest of my life. He’s evil so he can’t stand goodness.” It wasn’t that Calvin was a trouble-maker — if anything he helped keep the fragile street family together; he was one of the few people on the streets who cared about somebody other than themselves. But drunken scenes were always spinning around him; fights and god knows what. Calvin was half-dead by this point, anyway. His skin was turning a mottled yellow from a shot liver. The party was just about over for Calvin. There was really nowhere else for him to go. But sometimes, on the streets, you gotta go anyway. So he hooked up with Fartin’ Martin, this wino/hippy from Czechoslovakia, and headed up to Portland. And the Arcata scene has been dead ever since he left. Shortly after, I packed up my shit and hitch-hiked back down to Berkeley for good.

Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to barrel-chested, guitar-playing, beer-drinking, Jesus-preaching Calvin. He’s probably dead. And if anyone deserves to be in Heaven, it’s him.