Probably the only real “rules of the streets” is: Whatever You Can Get Away With

Which reminds me of one of those inscrutable Zen koans of street life: “He who hesitates is lost. But look before you leap.”

I sometimes laugh when I hear somebody use a phrase like the “rules of the streets.” In fact just about every street person I know is operating under their own particular set of “rules.” I’ll give you an example:

Last weekend there was this big event on the Berkeley campus. And they bussed in all these high school kids for some kind of big convention. Anyways later that Sunday evening I was hanging out in the lobby of the building where they had the event. The event is over now, and all the kids are long gone, on the bus headed back home. So the building is pretty deserted and I got the place all to myself. When this janitor walks by and she plops this really nice, expensive rain jacket on the bench right near where I’m sitting.

I immediately figure out the most likely scenario. One of the kids spaced out and forgot to take their jacket. Then when the janitor was cleaning up after the event, she discoved it.. And now she’s leaving it here in the lobby on the off chance that the kid comes back for it.

Now I have my own particular ground-scoring “rules” when it comes to situations like this. Usually I’ll wait a couple of hours before I grab it, just in case the owner does comes back for it. Then at the end of the evening — when the thing is most likely just going to end up dumped in the garbage — I’ll grab it with a clean conscience.

So I’m sitting there for about an hour, sort of eye-balling the rain jacket out of the corner of my eye, like the great prize that it is. When my pleasant reverie is suddenly shattered. This other street person happens to walk by, sees the rain jacket, and grabs it, and walks off with a big happy smile on his face. . . Oh well. So much for THAT score.

Dude obviously has his own set of ground-scoring rules.

Hate Man wins again


Ran into Hate Man on Telegraph Avenue last night.  He had just found a $12 gift card from Cream, this local joint that sells delicious ice cream sandwiches.  Hate Man is one of the all-time great “scroungers” and “ground-scorers” when it comes to finding cool stuff.  I have a line:  “If something falls on the sidewalk on Telegraph, there’s a good chance either Hate Man or me will find it.”  (I’m a pretty good scrounger myself)

So, to make a long story duller, Hate Man went down to Cream to have them run the gift card to see if it was still valid (you never know when you find a gift card, it could already be spent).  Lo and behold.  IT WAS STILL GOOD!  So Hate Man now has 12 dollars worth of delicious ice cream sandwiches coming at him in his forseeable future (did I mention Hate Man has a major sweet tooth?  He puts 30 packets of sugar in every cup of coffee).

Moments later I happened to run into Hate Man on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, and he told me the whole wondrous story.  “Hate Man,  can I take your picture?” I said.  “Yes,” said Hate Man.  And I did!  So the story has a happy ending!  For a change.

Though the photo turned out a little blurry.  So that’s fucked up.


2002_11_12: The Art and Science of Ground-Scoring

Today was a typical day for Ace Backwords: Professional Homeless Person.  My morning started walking down Shattuck: spotted half of a fancy fruit-filled croissant sitting on an unoccupied table at an outdoor cafe’;  grabbed it ($1.50 value) and scarfed it down as I walked down the street.  Up the street I spotted a to-go cup of coffee sitting on a ledge by the BART station.

“Is that yours?” I said to the black guy sitting about 10 feet from it (just to be on the safe side).

“Hell no,” he said.

“Great!” I said, grabbing it.

“Are you actually gonna drink that?” said the black guy with disgust.  “You don’t know who drank from that!”

“Hell yeah I’m gonna drink it,” I said, happily.

I heard the guy and the black chick he was sitting with laugh derisively as I left.  I turned around and gave the chick a happy thumbs up and she smiled back like she’s thinking:  “Them crazy-ass white folk!”

The coffee was two-thirds full, still warm, and mixed with chocolate ($1.75 value).

I went to the Med, found today’s Chronicle in the bin below the dirty dish hamper (50-cent value), and I also spotted an untouched thick sausage on the top plate in the hamper, the remnants of a just-eaten eggs breakfast.  I quickly stashed the sausage ($2.50 value) in between the pages of my newspaper so the grouchy guy that works at the front counter who hates me (and hates just about everybody else on the planet) doesn’t see me.  I take a seat in the back at a table with a full cup of coffee on it ($1.20 value), which is one of my regular gigs — the guy comes in like clockwork twice a day, orders a cup of coffee to claim a table while he reads his paper, and then leaves without taking a sip out of his coffee.  I sit there, read my paper, eat my sausage, and drink my coffee.  A typical Ace Backwords breakfast.

I scrounge around a bit on Telegraph, find a box of cheap paperbacks that have been discarded at the Library Annex Bookstore — I’ll sell them at my 25-cent vending table on Saturday ($10 value).  Up the street at the Campus Textbook Store, I find 20 expensive hardcover books in the recycling bin — I’ll sell them later at Moe’s Used Bookstore ($15 in cash, and $25 in trade-slip value).

Later around noon, on the steps of the campus I find a barely-touched discarded container of chili-beef cheese fries, still warm; they’re curly fries, my favorite!, with melted cheddar cheese mixed in ($3.25 value).  Up ahead, I find a to-go salad that a student has left, for somebody like me, on the side of the top of the garbage can.  I’m not interested in the salad, but I pick out the delicious strips of Monterey jack and cheddar cheese as well as the hardboiled egg and avocado half ($1.50 value).

As I’m walking along I pick up about 10 crumpled cigarette packs that I spot on the sidewalk, and peel off the coupons on the side — I’ll trade those with HateMan later for 2 cigarettes (50-cent value).

Walking by the Innermezzo I don’t spot much in the way of discarded food on the table, but I see a slice of  bakery-fresh bread on one unoccupied table.  I dart in and grab it (50-cent value) before anyone sees me, and feed it to the pigeons around the corner. (I’ve developed a strange identification with the pigeons, and the other city-critters, who are likewise walking around the city streets, ground-scoring and table-diving.  The other day, shortly after a fierce rainstorm, I was walking across Sproul Plaza and I spotted an untouched fajita sandwich sitting on top of a garbage can.  Just as I was about to grab it, this huge white seagull came soaring down like a bomber-pilot right in front of me and grabbed the fajita in his beak just as I was reaching for it.  The gull u-turned back up towards the heavens making his getaway without even skipping a beat, the fajita hanging out of his mouth, until another seagull dive-bombed him, swooping alongside him and grabbing the food out of the first gull’s mouth in mid-air.  It was an awesome display of aerodynamics and ground-score thievery!)

I know some people are really squeamish about the whole idea of eating other people’s leftovers.  “Germs” and all that stuff.  And I don’t necessarily recommend this.  But in my defense, I’m very careful what I eat; if it’s not 100% fresh I won’t.  In fact, my cardinal rule is:  If you’re not sure, DON’T.

And this too: I may be a bum, but at least I’m not bumming off of anybody else:  I don’t get a welfare check, and I don’t eat at the charity food kitchens.

But the weirdest thing is:  I’m actually eating BETTER than when I used to have an apartment and buy my food.  Nowadays, virtually everything I eat is restaurant fresh, bought and cooked that day; as well as being more expensive than anything I could afford to pay for myself, even at the peak of my earnings.  Weird.

Sure, people give me weird looks sometimes, like I might get germs or cooties. Some people have funny attitudes about the germ stuff. I often think of Jim Carroll’s story in Basketball Diaries.  The junkies are all sitting around in a shooting gallery, sharing a rusty old spike that’s probably been used by every case of hepatitis in lower Manhattan.  After they all shoot up the smack, Carroll offers his junkie friend a hit off the bottle of Coke he’s drinking.  The junkie takes the Coke and wipes off the top of the bottle with his hand before he takes a drink from it.  Germs.

Around 2p.m. I sat on a park bench smoking a cigarette, and, for kicks, I tallied up the total of today’s ground-scores so far: $63.20.  And the day was still young.  Before, I used to work at a job, to get money, to pay for the stuff I wanted. Nowadays, I just go directly to the source.  I guess its kind of like a river flowing by: you stick your hands into the flowing river and see what kind of fish you can pull out.