Yesterday, me and Charlie Cheapseats were hanging out with Hate Man in People’s Park, talking about the old days.
“When I first visited Berkeley in the summer of 1974 there was always a huge street scene happening on the Berkeley campus,” I said. “Back then it was hard to tell the street people from the students. ‘Hippie’ was definitely the style.”
“Yeah,” said Cheapseats. “Nowadays the campus is almost completely dead.”
“Yeah. There are just a few loner-type street people that mostly keep to themselves.”
“There used to be tons of street musicians, too,” said Cheapseats. “Remember that guy Rick Starr who used to croon those Frank Sinatra songs while singing into that fake plastic microphone?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And Larry the Drummer. He used to drive everyone nuts bashing away on those buckets all day long.”
“All those characters are gone. Whatever happened to Paul of the Pillar?”
“Even the Christian preachers don’t show up any more. They used to be surrounded by huge mobs of people heckling them. It was great entertainment. Like a Roman amphitheater where they threw the Christians to the lions.”
“Even that nut the Happy Guy is gone. The guy that used to stand on a bucket saying ‘Happy, happy, happy’ all day long.”
“And if you started heckling him, he would point his finger at you and shout, ‘CIA!! CIA!! CIA!!’”
“Remember the lower Sproul drum circle every weekend in the 1990s?”
Suddenly, Hate Man had had enough of our reminiscing.
“I hate your guts with all this talk about the old days!!” said Hate Man. “I wanna’ kill you. I hate people who constantly dwell on the past. I prefer to live in the present moment and appreciate what’s going on now. Instead of all this lame nostalgia for the good old days.”
I realized recently that, nowadays, I live in a permanent state of mourning for my past. I remember when I was a young man, this old guy once warned me about the danger of living in the past as you get older. “You can get stuck in a rut if you don’t keep evolving with the times,” he said. “You stop growing as a person. You turn into a fossil. You end up yearning for the return of the Good Old Days that will never come back.” . . . I never thought I’d fall for that trap. Because (in spite of my pen-name) for most of my life I was a very forward-looking person. Whenever I finished an art project, my first thought always was: “Yes. But the next project is going to be the Best Thing Yet!!” But then suddenly, a couple of years ago, it was like there no longer was a next project. . . *sigh*
“I knowdja’ mean, Hate Man,” I said. “It’s like that famous scene in the book ‘Be Here Now’ where Ram Das is constantly talking about his past adventures or his future plans. And his guru says: ‘The past and the future are an illusion. Only the present is real. Be here now. Live in the present moment. That’s where all the action is.’”
“Yeah,” said Hate Man.
“My problem is, I yearn for the past. I fear and dread the future. And my present moment usually sucks. So I got all the wrong bases covered.”
Hate Man chuckled at that line.
Now I’m sitting here looking back fondly at that conversation I had with Hate Man and Charlie Cheapseats in People’s Park. It seems like only yesterday . . . Actually, it was only yesterday.
I always get a wistful feeling when I walk by this corner. I’m so haunted by my past in a way. And a thousand random memories might pop into my brain. Some happy. Some funny. Some bizarre. Some heart-breaking.
Just now as I passed I was thinking about the Summer of 1982. Remembering dropping off a big stack of TWISTED IMAGE #1 — hot off the presses! — and leaving it with the other free newspapers by the front door of Cody’s Books. It was my first real success in the world, age 26. After mostly fucking up, up to that point. So it was a triumphant moment. And it was the first (and certainly not the last) time I would leave my mark on Telegraph Avenue. It was kind of like a dog marking his territory by urinating on the corner. I guess that’s what I was doing, dropping off a big stack of my newspapers on that corner (“I’M HERE, WORLD!”).
Or — like Billy Pilgrim traveling in time — my mind might suddenly fast-forward to December of 1990. And the CBS News film crew is there to interview me and Duncan about the latest issue of the TELEGRAPH STREET CALENDAR. And I’ll think back to all the characters that were on the scene back then. And wonder where they all went. And why the hell I’m still here. . .
And it’ll keep going back and forth like that in my mind. Until I finally get to the next block. And I can stop thinking about all that crap.
The first time I really got a taste of the Telegraph scene was in the summer of 1982 when I moved back to Berkeley from Eureka. For 3 months I lived with my friend Duncan in his dusty little hotel room on the 4th floor of the Berkeley Inn. The famous poet Julia Vinograd lived down the hall. And all sorts of weird and interesting people lived there.
The Telegraph Avenue scene was like a little village back then. A town within a town. And people talked about “the Telegraph community” with a straight face. There was cheap rent all over the place (Duncan was paying $110 a month for his room). So you had all sorts of people living there. Bohemians, artists, writers, people working low-income jobs, welfare cases, street crazies, druggies, etc.
You’d go out on the Ave and you’d see the same people every day. Hanging out at the coffee shops and the street corners and Sproul Plaza. And I guess that’s what gave it it’s “community” feel. There was a guy who rented out a little office on Bancroft and published a regular Telegraph newsletter — I forget the name but the sub-title captured the flavor of the scene: “Struggle and giggle.” And my pal Duncan published a little magazine: TELE TIMES: Telegraph Avenue’s Tight Little Monthly. And people on the scene were constantly launching new and weird artistic ventures, utopian ventures, revolutionary ventures. You name it.
Just about every street vending spot was jammed with street vendors back then, from Dwight Way to the campus. Selling their colorful hippie-esque arts and crafts. And tourists would flock to the Ave specifically to get a taste of that.
Most of the street vendors are gone now. There’s just an ever-dwindling hand full of oldtimers.
And most of the places that made Telegraph Avenue special are long gone too. Cody’s Books. The Med. Fred’s Market. Mario’s. Comics and Comix. Cafe Innermezzo. Shambala Books. Universal Records. The Reprint Mint. Shakespeare Books. And, of course, the Berkeley Inn.
Nowadays the scene is mostly just made up of the ever-growing hordes of college students. And homeless people. Which doesn’t make for much of a scene. But that’s the way the cookie crumbled.
It’s hard to believe it was 35 years ago. 1982. But when I do the math I guess it’s so. And most of the people from back then — “the Telegraph people” — are long gone, too. Which makes me wonder why I’m still here. . . I guess I’m too dumb to figure out anywhere else to go.
The other day I was walking down Shattuck and I ran into this guy I used to know way back when.
“How are you doing, Peter,” he said. (You know its a blast from my distant past when they refer to me by my given name “Peter.” To almost everyone else in the world I’m “Ace.”)
“I’m still alive,” I said with a smile. Gave him the thumb’s up and kept walking.
When I first moved to Berkeley from New Jersey in 1976 as a 19 year old boy, he was one of the first person I had looked up. We had went to high school together in Jersey. He had moved to Berkeley to be a hippie. And I guess I had too.
Back in 1976 he lived in a little stucco studio apartment on 10th and Dwight. It was night-time when I pulled up to his place in the bomb of a ’69 Chevy that I had somehow managed to drive cross-country before it finally fell apart. He welcomed me to Berkeley with a big smile. Lit a bowl of weed and passed it to me. Poured me a glass of burgendy. Put on some records from his excellent record collection (Beatles, Bowie, Dead, Stones, etc). Lit a fire in his fireplace.
I remember feeling like I was in a warm cocoon. For I didn’t know anything about the town of Berkeley — what was waiting for me in the darkness outside the cocoon of his apartment. And nobody in Berkeley knew who I was. Or that I was even there. So his little studio apartment was my entire world at that point. It was a cozy feeling.
I was full of dreams of glory, my youthful hopes and dreams. Wanting to make some kind of life for myself. Find my place in the world. Looking for love and adventures and everything else. You know how it is when you’re 19 and starting out, like a blank slate waiting to be filled. And having no idea what was waiting for me out there in this big ole world. But I was ready to give it my best shot. “Itching like a finger on the trigger of a gun,” as Paul Simon once sang in a song.
And now its suddenly 40 years later. My friend is now 61. He retired a couple years ago. Has a fat pension. Still a hippie after all these years. Still looks pretty much the same as he did in 1976, aside from his blonde ponytail being gray now.
But its so weird. Its like it was all starting. And you blink your eyes. And its almost over.
Several of my friends have chided me recently for my excess wallowing in “the Good Old Days.” And that stung a little. Because 1.) its true. And 2.) its a sign that These Old Days don’t measure up for me.
Part of it, I guess, is simply a symptom of growing old. As you push towards 60 you realize you have more past than future. So its natural to spend time looking back, fondly or otherwise, at one’s past.
But another part of it is that I might be done. Finished. Kaput. I once read a study that claimed that long-term stints of homelessness took 30 years off of one’s life expectancy. And while I take most of the numbers about The Homeless with a big grain of salt (because most of the numbers are pure bullshit) there’s probably a grain of truth to this one. For every homeless person that I know that’s 60 or older, I can name you five who died before reaching that age. So at age 57 I’m probably already 10 years post-dated.
Aside from fitting in the homeless demographic, I also fit in the artist and druggie demographics. Both of which are famous for premature burn-out. As an artist I always considered myself the mental equivalent of a professional athlete, a pro football player if you will. Pro footbal players exert such an incredible amount of physical energy in their 20s that they’re usually pretty much used up by the time they hit 30. It must be a weird thing to “retire” at age 30, but thats the game. And a large percentage of them have great difficulty ever finding a “second act,” if you know what I mean.
Likewise, the artist tends to push his psyche, his soul, his personality, his mind (whatever the fuck you call it) to the brink. In search of new ideas and new experiences and new ways to express them. Its a field that has always attracted its fair share of “shooting stars.” And part of the fun for the audience is watching the artist soar towards the heavens like fireworks, only to suddenly peak and explode in a dazzling array of colors, and then drift slowly back to earth.
I often say to myself (with an evil snicker): “I’ve still got a couple more tricks up my sleeve.” Heh heh. But the last couple years I’ve noticed myself coming up with all these artistic projects that I never quite get around to doing. I remember when I was young, how I used to burn, burn, burn. I felt like an unstoppable force. So yeah, sure, I pine for the Good Old Days