It was a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time — and when you live on the streets there are many such places

I just had a slightly humiliating experience. One of those experiences where you feel like a bum. I just got rousted by three different cops. You KNOW you could be in big trouble when three different cops cars pull up, specifically to deal with you and nobody but you.

I’m hanging out drinking beer and charging my cellphone at one of my favorite late-night hang-out spots on the campus when it’s raining. This little nook of space in the basement of Dwinelle Hall. I’ve been using it for years and I’ve never had any problems because it’s usually deserted in the evenings, and especially deserted on the weekends. At least until now.

So around 9 o’clock I notice this cop car pulls up right outside (I’m in this little lobby area). And doesn’t leave. So I’m starting to get a little nervous. Finally this cop — this young black woman — comes in and confronts me. “We got a complaint that you’ve been lodging in here.” So I just figured somebody had complained that some weirdo bum had been hanging out in the building (there’s at least a dozen other homeless people that regularly hole up in the building when it’s raining — several of whom are a bit peculiar — and I probably got caught in the cross-fire.)

So I give her my ID card and she runs my name across the wire. And I figure after I’m cleared for not having any outstanding warrants she’ll let me go.

But then a SECOND cop car pulls up and a second cop comes into the building. It’s this Asian cop who got really heavy with me this one night a couple years ago. So now I’m really squirming, thinking I might be in hot water (turns out he was very cool and friendly and didn’t have an attitude towards me this time, thankfully). So he asks me a few questions. Then asks to see my cellphone. I give it to him. And he asks me several questions about my cellphone. Which is weird. So I’m trying to figure out what’s going on.

And then a THIRD cop car pulls up. So now I’m really thinking I’m fucked. He’s a big young white guy. And as he enters the lobby and approaches me he puts on these blue plastic gloves. And I’m thinking: “Is he planning on doing a full body search here??” Like what the fuck is going on? I was just sitting here minding my own business. And now all this. He’s asks me a few questions. Then he asks me about the jacket I’m wearing. Which is dark blue. “Is that jacket reversible?” he says. “I don’t know, I’ve always worn it this way,” I says. “Could I take a photo of you with your jacket reversed?” he says. “Sure,” I says. The jacket is tan when it’s reversed. He takes a photo of me and my jacket. And then goes back outside to his cop car.

So now I’m standing there in the lobby with the Asian cop and the black woman cop, feeling like a criminal. FBI’s most wanted list. (I also have a 6-pack of beer by my stuff, hidden in a black bag, two beers already drunk, four to go — so they can bust me for public drinking and haul me off to jail at any moment if they spot that, so I am a bit nervous).

“Am I in trouble?” I said to the Asian cop. Still perplexed by what’s going on.

“A student got her cellphone stolen and you match the description of the suspects,” said the cop. “White male, about 50, 6 foot, wearing a tan jacket, slightly balding.” (that hurt)

“That would be me,” I said.

(I’m realizing it’s just one of those deals where “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Which can happen often when you live on the streets. Because you’re usually in the wrong place.)

The big white cop comes back in and says, “Can I search through your backpack?”

“Sure,” I says. He pulls everything out of my backpack one by one. And then puts it all back in.

“Can I search you?” he says.

“Sure,” I says. “Is this how you do it?” I turn around and put my arms out by my side (I haven’t had a lot of experience with this sort of thing, thankfully).

“No. Put your hands behind your back.” I comply and he gives me the old frisk. Finds nothing. “Can I look through your bag, too?”

“Sure,” I says. Now I figure I’m fucked. “Thats just my 6-pack of beer. I was going to drink it later. I surely wouldn’t drink it here on campus property.” (he lies)

“What kind of beer is it?” asks the Asian cop.

“Racer 5,” I says.

“That’s good beer,” he says with a friendly smile.

“7.5% alcohol content,” I says.

(Fortunately I had put the bottle caps back on the two empties, so it looked like a full six-pack as long as he didn’t look too close.)

After a bit more chit-chat they say:  “Thanks for your cooperation.” And I grab my stuff and get my ass out of there and off the campus as fast as I can. With a big sigh of relief. But humiliated too. And now this once great hang-out spot is burned-out and off limits. Sigh.

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A fairly pleasant encounter with an Officer of the Law


It’s 9:30 at night and I’m just hitting the campus, carrying a 6-pack of beer (discreetly hidden in a black bag). When this cop happens to be walking right towards me (uh oh). Heavy-set guy. Looks like he’s maybe half-black, half-latino.

“You have a good night, Mr. Labriola,” he said as he passed me.

“You too,” I said.

“Hey, how did you know who I am?” I said.

“I’ve had at least a half-dozen interactions with you,” he said. “You were always very polite.”

“Oh,” I said. “You’ve got a better memory than me.”

“Ha ha,” he said.

“Well have a good night, cool cat,” I said.

“You too,” he said.

And I headed off to find a discreet place to drink my beer.

You know how it is. Some of my late-night interactions tend to be a bit of a blur in my mind. But it made me wonder. I like to think I’m a pretty inconspicuous person. But maybe I’m not as inconspicuous as I like to think I am.


I’m not anti-cop or pro-cop, by the way.  Being homeless, dealing with the cops is just like dealing with the rain.  It’s just one more Force of Nature that you have to deal with. And it’s really nothing personal. Usually.

One of my Facebook friends suggested that maybe the cop was familiar with me from reading about my exploits on my Facebook page or the internet. But one of the great things about being known by a pseudonym; it’s unlikely the cops would ever make the connection between “Ace Backwords” and my real name, the real person they deal with. And likewise, nothing would pop up if they happened to run “Ace Backwords” over the wire.

Cops, by the way, have a wide spectrum of opinions and attitudes about “the homeless.” Some are actually sympathetic. While others are outright hostile. Mostly I think they’re just weary and jaded about the whole thing. I mean for decades now, they’re the ones called in to deal with the problem. And they, more than anyone, know they have no solution. Other than to run the homeless off of one block. Only to have them turn up on the next block. 
There’s a weird bond — a weird connection — between the cops and the homeless street people. They’re one of the few indoors people that are privy to our world, after all. They work the street beat, just like the street people. And they’re among the few people that are out there with us after midnight. Rousting us at our campsites and hang-out spots, they’re more aware of how we actually live than most people. We’re like two competing teams — two competing armies — playing on the same playing field.

After midnight you can’t always let it all hang out


When you live on the streets you’re accutely aware that a different set of rules comes into play after the stroke of midnight. I’ll give you an example.

Last night at around 20 after midnight I headed up to my campsite in the Berkeley hills. Half-way there I decided to rest my drunken bones at this bench in front of the Campus Eye Clinic. I hadn’t even been sitting there for a minute — hadn’t even had time to take out my goddamn cellphone — when three cop cars suddenly come barreling towards me and three cops come rushing at me.

Even worse, one of the cops is this guy who hates me for some unknown reason. I had had an extremely unpleasant encounter with him a couple months ago in a similar after-midnight situation where he really gave me the third degree and tried his darnedest to come up with some reason — any reason — to slap the handcuffs on me and lock me up in the old hoose-gow for the night.

So my mind is racing to try and think of what I might have done wrong to get myself in trouble this time (after a beer or 12 I’m not always keenly aware of the fine line between decent, normal civilized behavior and criminally aberrant acts).

But when two of the cops went rushing by me and into the Eye Center I quickly guessed what the problem was. Somebody had probably accidentally set off the burglar alarm. And I just happened to be Suspect A sitting there like a chump in front of the joint.

The cop that hated me asked me a few questions, asked for my I.D., ran my name over the wire, and managed to contain his contempt to a reasonably professional level. And after about (a LONG) five minutes the cops signaled I was in the clear. So I grabbed my pack and made my exit stage-left up the road with a big sigh of relief.

Only to have the cops call after me “HEY YOU!! HEY YOU!!” and I’m thinking “Oh God NOW what??” The cop called out “You dropped one of your cards from your wallet when you took out your I.D.”

I trotted back, grabbed my card from the cop and said “Thanks men!!” Good law-abiding citizen that I am, and they, after all, are there to serve and protect and retrieve my cards.

But that’s the thing about after midnight. You can easily get in trouble simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And when you live on the streets, there are a LOT of wrong places and wrong times.


My heroic confrontation with The Man


We were talking about dealing with the police. And how it can help if you can look at it from the police’s perspective. If only to keep one step ahead of the police. Now Berkeley isn’t the easiest town for the police to work in. I’ll give you an example.

Back in the day I used to store all my vending stuff in this City building across the street from where I set up my vending table. I started storing my stuff there when I got hired by the City to do this art project. And when the project ended, I just kept storing my stuff there because nobody noticed that the project had ended. And it was great, it was so convenient having all my stuff stashed right across the street from where I set up. And they had this big, locked gate in front of the building so nobody could get at my stuff.

So anyway, one night around midnight I was drunk and stoned out of my mind, like I often was back then, and I wisely figured it was time to pack up all my crap and get the hell out of there. So I carry my vending stuff over to the City building, climb over the gate, jump down on the other side, and stash my stuff in this outdoor garage area where I kept it. And I grabbed this big bag of other stuff that i also stashed there to take with me.

But as I was jumping back over the gate to the sidewalk — and this was almost a scene right out of a classic comedy — I happened to land right in front of these two cops who just happened to be casually walking down the sidewalk.

Now naturally the cops were startled when this dark and shadowy figure came jumping over the gate of a locked City building, after midnight, carrying a big bag of stuff, most likely drunk and stoned out of his mind, and landing practically right on top of them. So the police had every right to ask me a few questions. Like, what the fuck are you doing, boy?? So I had some ‘splaining to do.

But then, these other people, who also happened to be walking by, saw me getting rousted by the cops (The Man!!). And they immediately surrounded the cops and began angrily pestering the cops with questions. Like: “Why the hell are you fucking cops hassling this poor innocent guy, man!!” They’re doing the righteous Berkeley activist “Fuck The Police” shtick that was popular in certain Berkeley circles back then. But fortunately, right before one of them was about to voice the dreaded P-word and REALLY escalate the situation, I was able to calm the situation down.

“No, no, everything’s cool,” I said. “The police are just asking me a few questions.” And, under the circumstances, they had every right to do exactly that.

And I managed to explain the situation to the cops. And we all managed to live happily ever after without anybody getting beaten or tased or locked up in a little cage. THE END



Life amongst the riff raff


I had an odd scene the other night.  One more odd scene in a seemingly endless series of odd scenes.  I’m hanging out in People’s Park  around 11 o’clock.  Drinking my beer as usual.  It’s an hour after park curfew.    And all of us bums are supposed to be out of the Park by 10.  But I’m enjoying watching some Youtube videos on my cellphone.  And the oldies channel on the radio is playing some great tunes.  So I’m in no hurry to get off my ass.

Suddenly these two cops swoop down on me from behind.  Give me the ole’ flashlight-in-the-face treatment.  Ask for my ID.  Run my name across the wire.  “Last name Labriola.  L as in Lincoln . . .”  Etc., etc.  I guess they want to make sure I’m not a degenerate or a criminal or have outstanding warrants.  I’m being real fake obsequious.

“Oh man, I’m sorry!” I said.  “I had no idea it was after curfew!  I was distracted by these Youtube videos.”  Etc. etc.

When in truth I’m just trying to distract the cops from noticing the cup of beer sitting at my feet like a ticking time-bomb.  Just that one little cup could turn into a dreaded $240 “open container” ticket.  Or if the cops are in a bad mood, they might even handcuff you and drag your ass off to the city jail for the night.  Which has happened to me once before at this very spot.

But then one of the cops said something odd:

“Ah, don’t worry.  We’re not here to hassle people like you.  We just want to get the riff-raff out of the Park.”

I sort of chuckled to myself as I shuffled off to find another, more private, place to finish my beer.  I was smug that I managed to fake my way through the situation. . .  And here I thought I was among the riffiest of the riff-raff.   I guess I’m a higher class of bum than the general riff-raff.  Ha ha.