All methed up

 

I remember this one time, I had been binging on crystal meth for a couple of days straight, and I happened to be walking across Sproul Plaza later that evening. And I drank the last bit of water in this bottle I was carrying (always important to stay hydrated!!) and tossed the bottle into a nearby garbage can. This guy, who happened to be sitting in the shadows on the Sproul steps, said to me: “Hey man, you shouldn’t be tossing your bottles into the garbage can. You should put them in the recycling bin.” . . . I was just about to tell the guy to mind his own fucking business, when I realized that there was no one sitting there. It was just a shadow. I had hallucinated the whole thing.

Another time, during another meth binge, I was lying on my back on my bed listening to the radio. It was a news show, and the broadcaster was reporting all about this latest news story that was all about me, Ace Backwords. And he was reporting on different things I had done that day, as well as speculating on different problems and complications I was dealing with in my life. It went on like that for about 20 minutes. I laid there listening to the radio broadcast in rapt fascination. I knew the radio wasn’t actually on and I was hallucinating the whole thing. And yet I could hear the whole thing as clear as a bell. As real as anything. It was like somehow my brain was picking up a radio frequency from some other dimension of reality.

Meth hallucinations were different than acid hallucinations — which sometimes had this pure and almost quasi-spiritual aspect to them. Meth hallucinations were more eerie and witchy and occult-like. I’d sometimes hear this weird cacophony of sounds just off in the distance in the wind, like the sound of dark angels and doomed spirits singing this haunting music.. It was like maybe you were accessing parts of your psyche that you weren’t meant to be accessing. . . Or maybe you were just accessing your brain cells going snap, crackle and pop.

One of my last memories of Craig

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I remember one of the last times I saw Craig. It was late in the evening and he was standing in front of the Annapurna head shop (“Since 1969!!”) on Telegraph. I could tell he was stoned out of his mind. He was hurking and jerking and sort of piruetting around in circles like a wind-up toy with a crucial piece broken.

“How ya doing, Craig,” I said.

“Not good, Ace” said Craig flailing his arms in the air. “The clerk at Annapurna’s is calling the cops on me.”

I looked in the front door of Annapurna’s and could see that the clerk behind the front counter was doing precisely that. “Why is the clerk at Annapurna calling the cops on you?” I said.

“Ooooh. I DON’T KNOW!! The last time I was in there I caused some kind of scene and they permanently banned me. I forgot about the ban and just went back in there again and I got all confused when I tried to make my transactions.”

“What was the transaction?” I said.

“I forget'” said Craig. His face was contorted and in some kind of distress. He threw his hands up in the air and started pacing back and forth. “It was all a big misunderstanding.” Then he burst out laughing.

“Oh,” I said.

“I went back in there multiple times to try and straighten things out but the clerk just kept gettin’ more and more confused and freakin’ out on me for no damn reason!!”

“Oh,” I said.

Craig’s brains had become permanently scrambled from speed. I had known Craig since 1994. And now it was 2007. He had been a legendary speed freak even back then. It was a big part of his self-image as sort of a Keith Richards-wannabe rocknroll outlaw romantic street poet drug addict. I was a John Lennon-wannabe myself with my own drug demons, so what could I say.

“Maybe you should get out of here before the cops show up,” I said.

“No I need to go back in there and buy something at Annapurna’s,” said Craig.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t KNOW! I FORGOT!!” Craig threw his hands up in exasperation and confusion. Then started laughing again.

Back in the old days Craig used to get high. But then he’d come back down. Come back down to earth. But then Craig got high this one time and never came back down.

I think it was that one last fatal speed binge that did him in. One of the biggest speed dealers in town had recently ODed. And since the rent on his studio apartment was still paid up until the first, this whole pack of speed freaks — including Craig — had descended on his apartment like a horde of locusts. And moved in, systematically selling off all of his stuff and using up his huge stash of speed. And I think all that speed finally drove Craig over the bend.

So nowadays you’d often find him in the middle of the street babbling nonsense non-stop. Or laughing hysterically for no reason. It was really sad to see. Because Craig was basically a really good guy. But that’s life on the streets. Some people hit the streets with some kind of deep wound in their souls. And then the streets just tear them apart.

“Well I better get going,” I said.

“Hey Ace,” said Craig. “Would you give me a hug?”

“Well sure,” I said.

We embraced standing there on Telegraph in front of Annapurna the head shop. And Craig held onto me tight for just a couple of extra beats. Before he finally released me.

It was an odd request. We had never hugged before after all. But I just figured it was one more goofy thing that Craig did. He was almost always in a goofy head space now.

“You take it easy Craig,” I said.

“YEAHHH!” he said.

And he started laughing. That kind of loon laugh where things are so fucked up all you can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. One thing I’ll say about Craig, he never lost his sense of humor right to the end.

I could see two cops walking in our direction so I made a hasty exit. And I didn’t think more about the encounter. Just one more surreal interaction with crazy ole Craig.

Until a short while later. After Craig had jumped in front of a train. And I thought about that hug. I think Craig had realized he was fucked. Doomed in a way. It’s hard to get through life when a person’s brains are permanently scrambled. And they’re sort of beyond help. And all they can really ask for is a good hug before they walk off the plank.

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One of the last really good comic strip ideas I came up with

When the punchlines start punching back.

 

I was a cartoonist for 20 years. And one of the last really good ideas I came up with before I burned out on the gig was: I decided to do a series of comic strips. And I’d do a different drug while I was drawing each comic strip.

I’d start out the first panel of each comic strip like: “Its 9 PM and I just dropped that acid and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . .” or “Its 9 PM and I just smoked this crack cocaine and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . . ” or  “Its 9 PM and I just snorted this heroin and I’m starting to work on this comic strip. . .”

And so on. And I’d draw these series of comic strips while being under the influence of all these different drugs. Crystal meth, pot, alcohol, and so forth.

It was a great idea. Because I could not only illustrate the affect of these drugs on my mental processes. But also the affect on my motor skills as I physically drew the comic strips.

The problem was: I ended up doing all the drugs. But I never got around to drawing up all the comic strips.

I guess they don’t call them “pipe dreams” for nothing.

Image result for "ace backwards"

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The meth-od to my madness

 

https://mattalltrades.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/snortt.jpgI remember this one night when I was tweaking on crystal meth. And I suddenly realized I had lost a $20 bill.

So I spent the next several hours obsessively combing through every square inch of my apartment looking for that $20. To no avail.  Earlier in the evening I had been looking through a big stack of newspapers in the corner. So I cleverly thought:   “Maybe I dropped the $20 in between the newspapers while I was reading them.” So I spent several hours meticulously leafing through every page of the newspapers. That killed a couple of hours.

Then I thought: “Maybe it fell out of my pocket when I was walking from the Ave to my apartment.” It’s around 3 in the morning by this point.  But I decided to go outside to the streets in search of the missing 20 dollar bill. So I spent the next several hours obsessively re-tracing my route in search of the money.  No luck.

I continued on in this basic mode for many, many more hours. Late into the night and into the next morning.  In between snorting the next lines of meth.  Coming up with ever-new and more ingenious theories as to how I might have lost the $20. And then searching, searching, searching everywhere. Until — finally — I collapsed in exhaustion.  And then slept like a rock for the next 15 hours.

The next morning when I woke up. I remembered I had spent the $20 on the crystal meth.

Crystal meth really is a stupid drug.

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People who died

 

Remembrances of people past from good ole’ Uncle Ace.

Wayne-With-No-Brain got his nickname because he burned out his brains on speed.  You’d often see him shuffling around like a zombie late at night, dressed in rags, his eyes like two pieces of burned coal, staggering from nowhere to nowhere.  Near the end of his life, Wayne got straight and cleaned up his act.  Some agency got him a little room in Oakland. You’d see him on the Ave and he was always wearing a brightly colored, brand new tie-dye t-shirt.  And he did part-time work for one of the street vendors, helping them load and unload their vending stands.  But it was a little too little too late.  “The doctors told me I got two kinds of cancer,” he told me.  “I got a brain tumor and lung cancer.  So its kind of a double-whammy.  They told me there’s nothing they can do and I got one month left to live.”  “Man, how are you dealing with that?”  I asked.  “Well, I do get a little depressed some times late at night when I’m lying on my bed.  But what can you do.”  That was the last time I saw Wayne.

Frannie had been on the scene a long time.  She was probably around 50 but she still looked very cute and girlish.  “Cute as a bunny,” is how people described her.  She seemed pretty solid at first, but then I think she got into substances a little too much and it was like over-night she became daffy.  You’d see her sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by her big piles of stuff mindlessly pawing at her possessions (Frannie was famous for being a pack-rat who compiled big piles of stuff everywhere she went, usually piles of brightly-colored pastel-colored clothes, which was her trademark, and other tweaked out flotsam-and-jestsom that she’d find on the streets).  One day somebody told me that Frannie was in the hospital with some kind of disease.  And that was the last we saw of her.   I’d look at the spot in the Park where she always camped, and now she was gone.  And it was like she had just gone “POOF!” in a puff of smoke.  That’s often how it is on the streets.  Here one moment, then gone.

The Bubble Guy was in his 40s.  But he always reminded me of a big kid.  A lot of street people are like that.  Perpetual 17-year-olds.  Bubble Guy wasn’t so much an outlaw as a prankster.  He was the guy in high school that would blow up mailboxes with cherry bombs.  And he never out-grew this sort of outsider hostility towards mainstream society.  Gruff but congenial, with a sardonic sense of humor.  For many years Bubble Guy had a cute girlfriend with sad, puppy-dog eyes who followed him around silently everywhere he went.  Bubble Guy got his nickname because he had this soap-and-water-and-wand kit where he’d make these huge bubbles.  He’d stand on the balcony of the Student Union Building and blow these beautiful bubbles into the air while we did our Hate Man drum circle below.  The bubbles were multi-colored and sparkled and twinkled as they floated gracefully in the sky, adding a magical touch to many nights on the scene.  And when he was done he’d always dump his excess soapy water into the Sproul fountain, which turned the fountain into a huge bubble bath.  The campus authorities hated that, because they had to clean out the fountain every time, but for some reason it took them years to figure out who the culprit was.  And Bubble Guy ended up getting banned from the campus. . . The last time I saw Bubble Guy I remember shaking his hand and I was shocked that the skin on his hand was as hard as a rock.  It was from some kind of disease.  I guess the disease got him.  Because that was the last time I saw him.

Stairway was a street musician in his early ’60s.  He had been on the street scene for a long time.  He kinda’ looked like Santa Claus with cowboy boots and a Southern drawl.  He was a hardcore alcoholic who would get the shakes in the morning if he didn’t have that first beer waiting for him to calm him down.  One time he was sitting on the bench in the Park and he had just opened a fresh 40 when a cop swooped down out of  nowhere and gave him a ticket.  That didn’t faze Stairway in the least.  But when the cop started to pour out Stairway’s 40 he went ballistic.  “NO!! YOU BASTARD!!  YOU WORTHLESS COCKSUCKER!! GIMME’ THAT BOTTLE!!”  He actually lunged at the cop and tried to wrestle that beer out of his hands, like it was his very life-blood itself.  I thought the cop was going to taze Stairway, but I guess the cop could tell that Stairway was just old and feeble.  But man did Stairway curse that cop out the whole time the cop was writing up the ticket. . .  I remember another scene on that very bench.  I don’t know what caused it — I think Stairway was refusing to share his beer with this young gutter punk ne-er-do-well.  So the punk cold-cocked Stairway.  Punched him right in the head.  Stairway went down like a sack of shit.  Laid there face-down on the ground for some time, until some of his drinking buddies finally helped him back on the bench.  The street scene can get sordid like that, especially the alkie segment of it. . .  Stairway was sort of a bullshitter.   Always making up stories.  Though more blarnie than con-man.  “I was good friends with Lowell George,” Stairway often mentioned.  “I wrote half the songs on the first Little Feat album and recorded with them in the studio.”  Stairway told his stories so many times, I’m sure he believed them.  He wasn’t a great guitarist — generally he’d learn one or two lines and a couple of chords from a song, and then just scat-sing the rest of it.  But when Stairway showed up with his guitar and his 40s you knew the street party was going to get rolling. . . . The last winter in Berkeley finally got to him.  He’d pass out in his sleeping bag and lay there all night through a pouring rainstorm.  On top of that, he’d usually piss himself in his sleep.  So those wet, cold nights finally wore him out.  Shortly after Christmas when he got his SSI check, he bought a plane ticket to go back to North Carolina to see his family one last time before he died.  Which is how it went.

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Drugs and alcohol

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Drugs?  I’ve tried ’em all.  And I’ve gotten pleasure from all of them.  Aside from downers, opiates and pain-killers. Which just made me groggy and bored.  Had minor flirtations with crystal meth and crack cocaine.  Unitl I realized the high wasn’t worth the damage. As well as the annoying Laws of Diminishing Returns (the more you did them, the less you got from them)

Did about 300 LSD trips, from age 17 to age 40.  At one point I thought acid was a kind of spiritual medicine that was expanding my consciousness.  Eventually concluded it was garbage that was scrambling my brains.

Pot I started smoking when I was 16, and kept smoking until I quit about 3 years ago. I would go through long periods where I’d smoke pot every day.  Or I’d go for years without smoking it. Or I’d smoke it semi-regularly.  I mostly liked pot because when I played music it made it sound better, deeper, more emotional.  But pot often turned on me.  It could make me hideously introspective.

Alcohol, I started drinking when I was 16.  And immediately liked it.  I’m mostly a beer-o.  But when I was 19 I spent a year drinking burgundy (I thought there was something “bohemian” about drinking red wine).  I mostly considered booze a goof. It shuts off my mind and stops me from doing so much goddamn thinking (my brains is kind of wired as a Meaning Machine and it’s constantly regurgitating data.  But the booze shuts that part down and gives me some relief).  Some of the best times in my life have simply been sitting across from a friend and slowly getting schnockered together, as the hours got more and more golden.  Just sitting and talking really.

For most of my life I was a “weekend drinker.”  Go out with the boys (and girls) on a Friday night and tie on a good one.  Get a little wild. . . . What turned me into an “everyday drinker” was when I started doing the street vending job full-time.   I’m an extremely shy, self-conscious person.  So I found the non-stop dealing with all the customers to be very painful, awkward and draining.  But after pounding a couple quick cans of OE I’d start to lighten up.  I began to actually enjoy talking with people.  In a weird way, the alcohol made me a nicer, friendlier person.

I once went four years where I was completely straight.  1997 to 2001.  That was the only period of my life where I wasn’t taking one substance or another.  Probably not coincidentally, that was one of the happiest and productive periods of my life.  I had s clean line in my head back then.

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Human relationships

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Human relationships can be funny.

For years there’s been this one guy who I regularly pass by as I’m walking around the streets of Berkeley.   We always say hello to each other.  He always say:

“Hello there, Ace.  How are you doing today?”

And I always say, “How  you doin’, my man.”

Then we exchange brief pleasantries, and then go on our separate ways. . . .

I have no idea who he is.  Or how I got connected to him.  Evidently, in the distant past, I had some kind of brief exchange with him.  And then, for the next 5 years, I’m kind of required to say hello to him every time I pass him on the street.   Weird how that stuff happens.  He’s a nice guy.  So I’m always friendly.  But its just a little weird to be connected to somebody that I have no idea how, or why, we ended up connected.

Do you guys get stuff like that, or is it just me?

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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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Drugs, drugs and drugs

(Originally published February 18, 2005)

The Berkeley street scene is just getting crazier and crazier. The drug of choice these days is crystal meth, washed down with cheap malt liquor. Crystal meth is cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s deadly.  It short-circuits the mind in record time. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Is it that our minds are such a burden we want to shut it off by any means? Crystal meth deranges the mind.  It’s not like the speed of the old days, which was mostly just a body drug. You’d get this high-powered, vaguely euphoric buzz, like you’d just drank 10 cups of coffee with no jitters, just pure, smooth energy, which is what we always want, right? More energy. Of course, 10 hours later the j-j-j-jitters would hit, and after two days with no sleep you’d crash like a motherfucker; end up sitting on the sidewalk like a piece of cement for about a week. This dulled out, sanded down thing.  But that was the speed of old.

Today’s crystal meth — I don’t know if they’re mixing it different or what, god only knows what kinda’ lethal chemicals they slip in the mix — but today’s crystal meth is more of head drug. It goes right to your head, and to your soul even. You hallucinate — and not just from the sleep-deprivation like the days of old. Crystal meth is sort of like a bad acid trip; it’s sort of “spiritual” but it takes you to this eerie occult kind of realm. From just beyond the swirling cacophony of swelling street noises you hear this eerie celestial chorus, like haunted angels sweetly singing off in the distance.

One night, in the midst of my own moronic speed binge, I tossed a soda can into the garbage can. This guy sitting on the steps said to me “Hey, you should recycle the can.” I started to respond when I realized their was nobody there, it was just a shadow on the steps. I had hallucinated the whole thing.

After four days without sleeping, I finally crashed. When I woke up 4 hours later, I laid there on my bunk and it was like I was listening to a radio broadcast of this disc jockey on the radio talking about me. It was clear as a bell. Only there was no radio on!  The voice was coming from my own brain. But it was more like my brain was picking up a radio signal from some other dimension of reality. I laid there for ten minutes listening to the hallucinatory radio broadcast in rapt fascination. I’ve heard about crazy people who “hear voices.” Who knows what that meth stuff does to the chemicals of your brain? I mean, normal so-called reality is weird enough, ain’t it?

Anyway, after just a couple months of minor league bingeing, I had a certified nervous breakdown. I’d walk down the street weeping to myself. The littlest thing could set me off. I snapped to my so-called senses in the nick of time. I’ve been pretty much clean and sober for several months now.

Others aren’t so lucky. Legendary speed freak Jizzy Smith has finally snapped. He used to shoot up a big shot of speed and then rant and rave and hurk and jerk for hours on a stretch. But then, the next day he’d come down. Now, he’s out there in the ozone all the time. Tonight he was on the steps of the campus raving at the top of his lungs “THIRTY FIVE YEARS IS THE OPTIMAL YEAR FOR MOTHERFUCKERS! LET THE ELECTORAL GO TO PRISON I ALREADY DID MY TIME! COCKSUCKERS DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO EAT! LET THEM MAKE THEIR OWN BABIES!” On and on.

“I remember when you used to be able to have a normal, rational  conversation with Jizzy,” said this one street chick. “And now he is just GONE.”

Jizzy got high one time too many, and now he’s not going to come down. His brains are permanently scrambled. And that’s sad.

Down the Ave, all the street people are huddled under the awning of Amoeba Records trying to keep out of the rain. This fat, crazy chick keeps fucking with everybody. She grabbed at my head as I passed by. Finally, the other bums ran her off the scene with a derisive chorus of “QUACK QUACK QUACK!” Sort of like pigeons pecking at the pariah of the pack. This young ne’er-do-well gave her a hard kick in the ass for good measure to send her on her way. Then the ne’er-do-well vented his energy by going berserk on a bicycle locked to a pole, kicking it and stomping it into a pile of twisted metal. Typical. All these useless street people flopped out on the sidewalk with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no place to put their energy, except into trouble.

Ten years ago, there was still a remnant of the “hippie/counterculture” vibe to the Berkeley street scene. Kind Rainbow hippie brothers and sisters looking to expand their consciousness with pot and acid, to groove with the cosmos. It was all bullshit I guess, but at least they believed in SOMETHING even if it was false. Too bad that turned out to be such a dead end. Today’s street people believe in nothing. They come to Berkeley looking for nothing but drugs and free food. Which at least is real, but what the fuck. They are mostly the product of broken homes or no homes. Walking down Telegraph Avenue is like walking through a gauntlet from hell. Panhandlers and fuckers and nuts invade your space with every step.  Like I always used to say:  “We had a better class of bums back in my day!”  Ha ha.

Earlier, I passed this one street person, and his dog on a leash lunged after me as I walked by, barking and flashing his fangs and straining to reach me. It’s hideous. I know these streets weren’t designed to be LIVED ON. Yet here are all these people living on them nonetheless. Most of them, they add nothing to the community, and take away with their mere presence, which is mostly noxious. They are the equivalent of trash on the sidewalk that you’d want hauled off to the dump. That’s the EFFECT. And yet they’re human beings, too, and they’re caught in the crunch of a bad situation that mostly is not of their own making. And their lives are so miserable already, the last thing I want to do is heap more abuse on them. Christ, you can’t help but feel sympathetic, even as another part of you is disgusted, even as another part of you says: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I was flopped out alongside them once already. And I’m a prime candidate to end up back there again.

And yet, when I first hit the Berkeley street scene back in 1993, there was more of a bohemian and intellectual, and even magical, flair to the scene. One of the guys I hung out with, the legendary Hate Man, was a former reporter for the New York Times. Another guy, Scooter, had graduated from Yale and was doing post-graduate work in Rabbinical Studies (in other words, not your average, typical homeless street people). And there was a crew of brilliant young painters who were also part of the scene, regularly creating colorful chalk-drawing masterpieces on the sidewalk. And brilliant musicians and poets would regularly join us during our nightly drum circles and jam along with us. Beautiful young hippie and punk chicks would dance along. My friend Duncan would document it all with his camera. And I’d record the music with my 4-track. The scene reminded me of Andy Warhol’s whacky art scene in the ’60s. After midnight, the city landscape was like our own private playground for our weird art happenings. It was like a movable piece of performance art. Street theater of the bizarre. I was proud to say I was “from the streets.”

But nowadays, there’s nothing left but the dregs. And me. It’s like being surrounded by a camp of drunken, feuding hillbillies. Am I just waxing nostalgic here? “Back in MY day we had a better class of bums.” Maybe. But maybe not.

It all started to change around 1996 when the first wave of Gutter Punk kids flopped out on the sidewalk. They mostly didn’t do ANYTHING.  They’d just sort of sit there all day like they were waiting for something to happen.

Nowadays, the mob of street people flopped out on the sidewalk is growing bigger every day. Like a plague, or a growing cancer. This dark shadow that is descending on the land, growing darker every year, like some ominous sign of a future that will very soon be here among us.

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The Ballad of Isy Jones

The Ace Backwords Report
(journal entry) February 4, 2007, SUPER SUNDAY!!!

10196_630508033633410_1476375477_n.jpgI have this almost unbearable sadness in me now. I wonder if its finally taken ahold of me for good. This battle I’ve fought all my life.

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Isy Jones’s death last month — jumping in front of a train in final, permanent, agonizing torment — was like some final nail in my coffin.

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I can’t help thinking of that period — 1993 and 1994 — which I always look back on in my mind’s eye as an endless sunny, summer day. We were all young and strong and full of hope for some glorious Future that we were sure was just around the corner if we could just hot-wire the thing. Hot-wire Reality.
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Now, 13 painful years later, I sit back and watch all the people dying horrible, agonizing deaths, one after another. Its like we’re getting picked off, one after another. And I’m next. I look at the list of names on the TELEGRAPH  STREET MUSIC CD — Anthony, Monk, Comatoes, Charles, Zack, Duncan, Isy, etc — and watch them wiping out, one after another. Coming to bad ends.
You wonder if you’re under some kind of curse.
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I’m vaguely haunted by my last interaction with Isy (Am I fated to end all these games — all my “relationships” — on a losing note, an unresolved note?).
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It was around December 9th (as I count the days backwards, as I always do, realize its already been almost 2 months, as the memory of Isy and everything that he once was, rushes into the Oblivion of the past)…Isy, on his own accord, has approached me and eagerly offered to buy me a $20 bag of chrystal meth if I’ve got the dough. He’s got it all lined up.
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“This isn’t going to be a complicated deal?” I ask, as I always ask with Isy, from painful past experiences, having wasted 6 or 7 hours waiting around on a dark street-corner, only to get burned by Isy, on “simple, easy deals” Isy had set up before. So I tend to stress that point before I get into a weird “situation” with weird people, and Godknowswhat (factor in the generally deranging power of chrystal meth, and the fact that virtually every person involved in “the deal” is angling to burn you, plus the cop/paranoia/arrest factor, plus the generally complicated nature of ANY free-lance entrepenuerial enterprise of commerce involving more than 4 people (3 of whom are insane, including me) in complex patterns of social behavior — and you have all the ingredients for a “complicated” situation.
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“No, I’ll be right back! I got it all set up in the Park!” insists Isy, with that air of frantic urgency that Isy always got when involved with all things chrystal methamphetamine (arms jerking up in the air as he talked, etc.)
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“Okay,” I said, making that fateful, and sometimes fatal, commitment of pressing the $20 bill into Isy’s hand (Flashing on the memory of another time I had slipped Isy a bill in similar circumstances, Isy walked off and returned 6 hour later, empty-handed,alas, but at least he returned my bill THAT time — a minor miracle in itself — but what was odd was the bill itself — it was crumpled and wrinkled almost beyond belief, with this strange, glossy sheen to the surface, as if Isy had been frantically rubbing and carressing and folding and unfolding the bill non-stop, with enormous finger pressure for the entire 6 hours the bill was stuffed in his pocket.).
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About 15 LONG minutes later, Isy did in fact return.
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“Lets for for a walk,” he said
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“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: “Oh no! Not generic white powder AGAIN!”) or whether some strange, new complication has arisen calling for a private strategy session and a Re-thinking of Our Options.
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“Did you get it?”
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“Yeah, i got it,” said Isy. “Lets go somewhere and let me snort a line for scoring for you.” (Isy’s original plan, his original proposal, was that he had $20 and if I kicked in my $20 we could BOTH split a really good deal. But, as I said, unexpected complications often developed when going from step A to step B in most methamphetamine transactions.) Isy handed me the little bag of meth as we walked side-by-side down the street, as I quickly eyed the size and feel of the bag, sizing up the amount and the potential quality before I quickly jammed it into my pocket. Like I said, suspicion and paranoia runs rampant at this crucial juncture of the transaction, as well as the thought (always in the back of my mind)that one false, or merely unlucky move, could bring the unwanted presence of the cops, which could change the course of my life for the next couple months, if not the next couple years. So I’m always eager for this crucial part of the transactions — for the money to change hands, and for the drugs to change hands — to go as quickly as possible. I’ve now got the bag in my pocket, which I’m compulsively fingering to re-assure myself that I haven’t lost it, or that the contents aren’t spilling out (zip-lock working A-OK?) and I’m so close to home and I’m already hungering in anticipation of that magic moment when I finally get safely back to my office and take that first big hit, with all the promise of satisfaction and well-being and euphoric energy and sensual pleasure (what the hell, sometimes that shit actually works — why do you think people are going to jail for it?).
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But now — darn, darn, darn!! — this unforseen complication has arisen: involving taking the little bag of highly illegal drugs out of the safety of my pocket and into public view, and then daintily measuring out a line (How much is that greedy bastard Isy gonna take?!) hopefully without spilling a drop of the precious little contents (Its rarely enough anyways) and then nervously tapping my feet during those perilous moments when Isy (he could give a fuck) is Doing Drugs in Public. (Though, in retrospect, I wonder if all this feverish outlaw excitement is part of the big appeal of drugs. I noticed I completely stopped smoking pot right around the time they de-criminalized it and you could just go buy it at all the cannabis clubs — somehow that killed the buzz.).
“Man, I hate this shit,” I muttered, letting Isy know I wanted this part of the transaction to be as short-and-sweet as possible.
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We’re both making slightly manic small-talk as we walk side-by-side down the street. I’m nervous and giddy with hopeful anticipation at the prospect of actually getting HIGH (my life has been so low lately, for so long), and, of course, we’re both trying hard to “act normal” — which flies in the face of our normal, abnormal behavior. We sing a few odd lines from songs by Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones (in retrospect, I guess it should have been “This could be the last time . . “). And I say: “It’s a whacky world, Isy.” An inside joke between me and Isy, told and re-told during the course of many previously-shared scenes of whackiness over the last 13 years on the scene. Ahh, the things we have seen, me and Isy. Two damaged, fucked-up, but eminently soulful, bums on the streets of Berkeley. Sheesh. (If you could look at some of the real-life movies that played out from behind our eye-balls you probably wouldn’t believe some of the scenes. For people like Isy live at that juncture where the surreal, the crazed, the bizarre, the demented,and the horrific, is the norm. (Too bad these scribbled journals are the closest I can come to capturing those eye-ball movies).
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Isy leads me around the corner and up the steps to the side porch of the First Presb Church. We both sat down on the floor, our backs resting against the church building. It was a fairly safe spot,we were blocked out of the sidewalk traffic, and we’d be able to spot anybody coming from any direction before they got to us. Isy — as crazy as he was — was a genius in that sense. In the middle of the most crowded city street, he could ALWAYS find some little covey-hole, some safe little haven, where you could get high. A skill no doubt honed with animal grace by thousands and thousands of previous drug-related manuevers in the urban jungle. (Reminiscing after his death, virtually every person on the Berkeley street scene had cherished memories of “getting high with Isy” or “going to jail with Isy.” And often, both. And its with a painful, poignant feeling that I realize I am chronicling the last of what was a long, long line — a lifetime — of “getting high with Isy” episodes. If there was a Tweeker Hall of Fame, Isy Jones would certainly be a first-ballot inductee.
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“Lets be quick about this,” I whispered, handing Isy the tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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“Gimme your lighter, Ace.” He took my lighter and rolled it over the bag of meth, crushing the little rocks into a snortable powder. (“So THATS how you do it!” I thought. Previously, I had taken the meth out of the bag and crushed them with an exacto-knife — sometimes causing parts of the rock to go ping-ing off the mirror and into the un-seen distance — always fun searching for those long-lost crumbs of meth, two days later, when you’re down to your last line. But leave it to Isy: the Expert. He was in fact the expert on all things Drugs. He had virtually dedicated his life to the pursuit, the study, and the consumption, of drugs.)
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Isy quickly poured out a line. “Gimme a dollar, Ace.” Isy expertly rolled up the bill and took a big, nostril-burning snort. AHH!
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Isy handed me back the little bag of meth. “Give me back my dollar, too,” I said, a little too quickly. And I always felt bad about that, regret it. Because it was a cheap thing to say. But at this point, I had already given Isy $20, and now HE was the one getting high, and I STILL didn’t know how much was in the bag or if I’d gotten burned — still hadn’t had a chance to take a good look at my little, covert prize. So, at the LEAST, I wanted my dollar back. But its weird how these mundane interactions take on more of a resonance — and this haunted feeling — because they’re your LAST interactions with the guy. Its like I’m magnifying them. Searching for clues at the scene of the crime.
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We quickly got up and scurried down the steps. (And now, every time I pass that spot by the First Presb Church, I flashback to that last time with Isy, sitting there, crushing the meth with my lighter, etc. and I say a little prayer for Isy, repeat my mantra for Isy, for his spirit, wherever its roaming across the Universe, in whatever dimension.)
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Isy was strangely subdued as we walked back to the Ave. I could feel the heaviness of his spirit. He wasn’t his usual, herky-jerky self. In retrospect, I think he already knew. He had already made up his mind. He knew this was The Last Time. Of course, I didn’t know. To me it was just one more mundane afternoon on Telegraph, in a seemingly endless expanse of them, dating back to 1993 — the Ace and Isy show. Isn’t it weird how we always think its going to last forever? I didn’t think any more of it as Isy walked off and disappeared down the street, one more time. Until later.”Where’d you and Isy go?” said Psycho Joe with a leering, knowing grin on his face.
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“Nowhere,” I said. All the nosy bums on the corner had been watching the interactions between me and Isy — the whole crazy dance — and they all knew. Which was embarrassing. Because crystal meth is a degenerate drug. And I was embarrassed that everyone knew about my degeneracy.
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“Its a good thing you left,” said Psycho Joe. “Because while you were gone the cops were just here busting those guys hanging out in the corner.” (Which just shows you how slim your margin-of-error can be on the streets).  But now that I think of it, the other thing I always thought about whenever I walked back-and-forth with Isy in the middle of these drug scenes, was: I always thought about the ghosts of all the great Drug Outlaws Past. Isy — the Keith Richards wannabe. And me — the John Lennon wannabe. And I’d think of all the exciting books and magazines and records we had read and listened to. William Burroughs. Jim Carroll. Lou Reed. The New York Dolls. Iggy Pop. Jim Morrison. William Blake. GG Allin, man! On and on. All the great drug heroes of our youth. And all the exciting descriptions of their drug use. Mind-tripping to all these strange and taboo realms of reality. And the whole outlaw mystique that we bought into, hook-line-and-sinker. And the whole desperate need to just simply feel GOOD. To feel happy, to feel sensual pleasure, to feel contented, to feel love, to love and be loved. In a world that mostly seemed to offer pain, emptiness, and unfulfillment. Except for this fleeting thing we could sometimes grasp in a little, tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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But mostly it was the feeling that we’d blown it, that we’d been conned, that we’d walked down this False Path and we had walked too far beyond the point where we could make that U-turn back to safety (wherever THAT was, in what direction THAT was, God knows where; safety; sheesh.). And that what we were doing was just a tired re-tread of that whole ’60s trip. Which by now had been done to death — like a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy. Scoring drugs. Doing drugs. The whole so-called excitement of the drug subculture. But here we were, one more time on that doomed loop — me and Isy.I went back to my office, snorted up the speed, and masturbated for 48 hours. It was a reasonably good deal. (And, in retrospect, I think Isy had set up the deal because he wanted to pay me back for the times he had burned me in the past, like he wanted to clear the karmic slate before he left this plane.)
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I finally woke up on Thursday with a splitting headache. I emerged from my hole and went back up to the Ave. I had $5 in my pocket that I wanted to give to Isy as a tip.
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Rick was holding a little potted plant, and Fat Bill said:
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“. . . and we can plant it in People’s Park in Isy’s favorite spot where he always liked to hang out.”
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“What?” I said.
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“Didn’t you hear? Isy stepped in front of a train yesterday morning. . . “
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And the worst thing is: you never get to say good-bye. Its just over. Phppt. Like an anti-climactic ending to a movie. Or more like God suddenly, and inexplicably, just snips the movie right in the middle. And the screen goes blank. The End.
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But one things for sure: I sure as fuck couldn’t give Isy the $5 now. And I felt especially guilty about the “Gimme back my dollar” crack. And my mind immediately started racing through the quickly-fading memories of my last interaction with Isy, searching for SOMETHING. Wondering if it was somehow my FAULT. Survivor’s guilt. Or if there was something I could’ve done differently. Or if I had at least had had the chance to give him his goddam $5 . . .
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But it always seems to end like that for me. These loose ends, with these loose interactions, with all these loose people, that I can never quite tie together.
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Like when my friend Linda the painter had died earlier in the year last summer — that wretched year of 2006. My last interaction with her, after 24 years of friendship, was when she left a message on the answering machine of my phone:
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“Ace, why didn’t you stop and talk to me when we passed on the street the other day? Are you mad at me? Please give me a call some time . . .” I was just busy and in a hurry. A million things in this haphazard life going on in a thousand different directions in space and time. Pulled a thousand different ways. When I finally got around to calling Linda back 2 months later, her phone was disconnected. She was dead.
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I cried for Linda as I walked down the street. This aching, piercing sadness in my heart.
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And I cried for Isy later that night as I walked down the street. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.
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“I was up for 14 days / Would have done a couple more / Got hauled off to Santa Rita / Third bunk from the floor . . . “
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