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.


Fighting the laws of gravity

That’s my sleeping bag way down there in the middle of the picture.


I pulled another genius move last night. As many of you know, I camp in the Berkeley Hills. And I literally camp on the side of a hill.

So last night I go staggering up to my campsite around midnight. And I got my sleeping bag in a bag. But I put it down in the wrong place. And it went rolling all the way down the hill. Much to my chagrin.

Its pitch dark. And I’m drunk. But I made a heroic effort to find my sleeping bag. I blindly staggered down the hill. Slipping and falling into the rain-soaked mud on several occasions. But, to my credit, I didn’t break my fool neck.

So, after much pointless thrashing in the bushes in the darkness — and cursing the gods for the cruel fates they inflict on mortal men — I concluded it was hopeless. There was no way I could find my sleeping bag. So i staggered back up the hill. Falling into the mud several more times (several more loud curses at the gods, the bastards) and made it back up to my campsite. On my hands and knees.

Fortunately I had some ratty blankets stashed in the bushes. But lets just say it wasn’t the most comfortable night I ever spent. And at least Mini Scaredy, the feral cat, had the decency to sleep on top of me all night long to add an extra layer of warmth. And the next morning I retrieved my sleeping bag at the bottom of the hill and lived happily — if muddily —  ever after.



One of the annoying things about alcoholism


 This is one of the things I find really annoying about alcoholism. Its 2 in the morning. And I’m way drunk. But I manage to walk all the way up to my campsite in the Berkeley hills.

But as I’m approaching my campsite I notice these blurry flashing lights off in the distance. I can’t make out what they are. That’s odd. So I put my hands up to my face. And I realize:


So now its 2 in the morning, I’m drunk out of my mind, and I have to figure out what happened to my glasses. Usually they’re sitting there right on my face.  Wedged in there on my nose and hooked onto my ears. But now. Inexplicably. They’re gone. “WHAT HAPPENED TO MY GLASSES?” I think. Sadly.

Then. I remember. Dimly. From the alcohol-ridden recesses of my brain.  “About a half mile down the road. I grabbed my sweat shirt from my stash spot. And I bet I took my glasses off so I could pull my sweatshirt over my head. And I bet I left my glasses sitting there on the curb.”

A plausible theory.

So I rush back down the hill. Get to that very spot. And — lo and behold — there my glasses are. Sitting there on the ground. VICTORY!!

The whole stupid thing was a drag. But part of me is also thinking:  “I’m getting fat. I’m starting to get a beer gut. So this is a good thing. I ended up walking an extra half mile so I got some exercise and burned off some calories.”  Plus. This might make for an interesting anecdote on my Facebook page (and so I took out my cellphone and posted the whole stupid story on my Facebook page). So it’s all good.

Or maybe I just have an ability to rationalize anything.

But the bottom line is. Its now 3 am. And I still have to trudge a half mile back up to my campsite. But at least I got my goddamn glasses. The End.



My drinking is starting to get off the hook. I’ve been back in Berkeley for a month and I’ve been drunk every night. I’m not sure why.  I guess it’s the general emptiness of my life.  Trying to fill the space with something.

Normally I’m a functional drunk.  But every now and then I’ll push it too far and lose my sense of time and space.   Last night I was so drunk (two pitchers  and a pint of STRONG beer — Racer X, my favorite bar beer,  7.8% alcohol content, has a nice kick to it) that I fell down when I was reaching for the piece of cardboard that I use for a sleeping mat.  Toppled over and fell into a ditch.  I tried several times to stand up.  But it was hopeless  My equilibrium was off.   “Fighting against the laws of gravity,” is how I put it.  And losing.  So I wisely decided to sleep right there.  In the ditch.  And I had my cardboard to sleep on.  So it was actually quite comfortable.

Woke up a couple hours later.  And was sober enough to navigate my way up the hill a hundred yards to where I had my sleeping bag stashed.  I fed my feral cats — who had been waiting patiently for me to quit goofing around and get my goddam ass out of the ditch and feed them.  And then crawled into my sleeping bag and lived happily ever after.  Until the next morning when I woke up feeling like shit.

Beer and Pot

Marijuana jointI’ve been drinking in public just about every night for the last 15 years.  I don’t have an apartment and I’m too claustrophobic to drink in bars so thats what I do.  Drink under the stars as the gods of alcohol intended.  I like to pound a few at the end of the day to relax and unwind and/or get some kind of demented buzz going.   Usually I like to drink about 96 ounces of malt liquor every night over a five hour period.  Thats four 24 ounce cans of  Olde English malt liquor, 7.5% alcohol content so its about twice as strong as regular beer.  “More bang for the buck,” as they say.  And I often like to smoke a couple of joints in between beers to add a touch of surreality to the proceedings.

I don’t know if this makes me an alcoholic.  My line is: “I’m a drunk not an alcoholic.”  Because that sounds less clinical and definitive.  I consider myself pretty much of a functional drunk. Or, at the least, a semi-fuctional drunk.   I’m usually a quiet, happy drunk.  And I like people more when I’m drunk so that really helps.  But lately I’ve been beginning to wonder.


I got a little retarded last night. I was sitting on a dark, secluded bench on the Berkeley campus pursuing that chemically-induced state of happiness. Hoping to reach that coveted “I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck” state as I call it.   Now to keep from getting drinking-in-public tickets I’m pretty discreet.  I pour some of the beer into a coffee cup and then hide the rest of the can inside my backpack.  This ploy usually works, but not last night.  For some reason I put the can of beer into my pack up-side down.  Something I realized shortly after when I reached into my pack and everything inside was soaked with beer, as well as my pack reeking of beer.  A tragic waste of malt liquor.

So I take that as a sign to get the hell out of there.  I walk up to the end of the campus to this lighted spot where I can survey the damage, dry off my shit, and pound my last beer of the night.  So I take all my soggy stuff out of my pack and reach for the last can of beer, only to realize I had left it back at the bench along with my bag of cat food.  So I quickly pack up my stuff and rush back to the bench to get it before somebody grabs it.  Fortunately its still there.  So I go from being a complete idiot to a guy who’s still on top of things and has his act together.  So I pour the beer into the cup, reach into my pack to take out my Sony Walkman so I can listen to some tunes, only to realize I had left my radio at the other spot.  So now I’ve got to quickly pack up my stuff AGAIN and rush back up to that spot to get my radio before somebody grabs it.  But when I get there the radio is already gone.  Fuck!  I’m starting to feel like a ping pong ball rushing back and forth from one mess up to another.

I’m sure there’s a moral to this story, but I’m not sure I want to know what it is.


     I don’t know where my life is going.  And I guess I just don’t care anymore.  Friday, noon, drinking my first cup of coffee trying to wake up, smoke a fat joint which adds a surreal element to my groggy morning hangover.  What the fuck am I doing?  Getting stoned first thing in the morning.  I was never a “wake-and-bake” kinda’ guy.  Once I start smoking pot that just finishes that day in terms of accomplishing anything or getting anything done.  “Another day shot to hell,” I often joke at the end of another mis-spent night.  So normally I try to hold off until 5 in the evening before I start drinking and getting stoned.  So that gives me about 10 hours during the day to take care of business as a semi-functional human being.  Once I get stoned its like I turn into another person.  I get introverted, find the most simple social interactions to be bizarre.

Like waiting in a long line when I’m stoned  —  I start tripping on the back of the head of the guy in front of me, all these movies popping out of my mind about all  the people in the store who are crammed around me.  Me — nervously fidgeting and darting glances all across the room  —  stoned out of my mind, trying to “act normal” and failing to do so.  I make some joke to the cashier woman working behind the counter, realize she doesn’t understand a word I’m saying and that I’m babbling about a subject that would makes sense to no one aside from my THC-ridden brain.  Stagger out into the street with a goofy smile on my face.  Suddenly I pass someone who trips me into a rage. I seethe with murderous thoughts as I glare over my shoulder at the perpetrator.  Then I’ll be overwhelmed by a deep sadness and pangs of guilt.  I’ll start working on the issue in mind like a psychological puzzle (whats WRONG with me? etc).  I stagger to Hate Camp, quickly survey all the people hanging out, making that instant —  and crucial  —   decision as to where I’m going to sit, trying to avoid sitting between the cross-fires of two warring camps, for instance, or trying to avoid proximity to the boring guy who immediately attaches himself to me and peppers me with his non-stop dull prattle, or trying to avoid the crazy one who will quickly disrupt any peaceful or interesting conversation I am having with someone else, or avoiding the five people who will immediately hit me up for a smoke the second I take out my pack of Basic 100s. So there’s a lot of thought involved just with the simple task of finding the right place to sit in People’s Park.  Usually I have pretty good luck wih my seating arrangements. I got 4 or 5 places I like to sit, in my usual back-against-the-wall position (or in this case, my back against a tree and me surveying the action in front of me  —   I have a fear of people sneaking up behind me).  So then I’ll sit there for several hours getting more and more stoned and drunk.  Lately I’m into rolling these joints that are like two-thirds bud and one-third tobacco  —  slipping into this cozy, creamy buzz.  If the conversation is good, I’ll liven it up like a Johnny Carson talk show. I know how to moderate a discussion  — its one of my few gifts.  And once I hit on a good subject  —  it can be deeply spiritual, philosophical, or psychological, or it can be something hysterically funny  —   I know how to play out and explore the theme.  I can dominate the discussion with my insights (so-called) or I can steer it around the circle, coaxing everyone to get in their two cents.  If the conversation is dull I’ll put on my headphones and shades and space out in this inner world of musical symphonies.  Sometimes I’ll be overwhelmed by emotions, other times I’ll be studying the bass lines by some black cat on a Motown record.   Last night I was listening to this song by Heart, “These Dreams,” that they were hyping as this ethereal, celestial song, so I’m listening to the first half of the song as a critic — “Hmm, sort of interesting, nice little chord there and I kinda’ like how it shifts into the second verse from a songwriting-construction point of view,” and I’m just sort of analyzing it from a thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down point of view, and I’m just about to change the channel because the song is OK but nothing to write home about, then the song kicks into the hook and its so beautiful I’m crying and crying and tears are running down my face, and then after I stop crying I go back to critiquing the song like a music critic —  Do I like this song or not?  —   and then I’m thinking: “Fuck, the song is so beautiful I burst into tears, what more do I want from a song, ths song is OK, okay?”  Like I gotta’ shut up the critical chatter in my brain that is always judging everything. Then another song will come on the radio and its the perfect song for the moment, a George Thorougood song or a Beatles song or something.  And I’ll space out for another half-hour in this musical cocoon in my head.  Suddenly I’ll snap out of my reverie, pull the headhones off, look around, try to remember where I am sitting and how I got there.  Its like coming out of a foggy dream.  And then I’m staggering down the street trying to avoid bumping into the pedestrians that are coming at me from every direction.  “Darn, now I have to deal with stupid reality again!” I’ll often think.  Then I’m standing on line in a brightly-lit neon store (most likely buying yet another beer) and I’m trying to conceal the manic grin that keeps sneaking onto my face, and wondering when they were gonna’ start coming after me with the butterfly nets . . . .

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.

wp-1595293476542.jpgSome 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.