Turf wars and territorial pissing among the denizens of the streets

Be it ever so humble there’s no place like hangout spots.

Human beings are a territorial creature by nature. And homeless street people are no exception. The problem is that street people don’t have any personal territory to call their own. They live in the public spaces after all. You indoor people have the walls of your houses and the fences around your yards to clearly delineate your personal territory. But no such line exists for street people. So it’s a source of constant problems.

But there is a certain protocol that most street people respect. For example if some guy has been sleeping in a particular doorway every night, most (but alas not all) of the street people on the scene will respect that that’s his personal campsite. And not camp there. And a similar protocol governs hangout spots. If somebody hangs out at the same spot on the sidewalk every day, that’s generally accepted as their spot. Though it can get a little hazy. Somebody might consider a favorite panhandling spot to be their personal spot. But someone else might consider it first-come-first -served and they got there first so now it’s their spot. So like I said the lines are not clearly drawn. But these conflicts are usually resolved in a calm and reasonable manner; i.e. the one who is bigger and stronger and more vicious and capable of beating the other person’s ass usually prevails.


Which brings me to my latest conflict. There’s a homeless street person who’s been hanging out on the Berkeley campus for the last 20 years. And he’s got his own personal hangout spot (and I respect his space). And I’ve got my own personal hangout spot (and he respects my space). And we’ve coexisted all these years with no problems. Until recently.

Now I have a favorite hangout spot on the campus that I’ve been using for years. I usually only use it in the evening when that area is mostly deserted. And it’s a great spot. It’s secluded. It has an awning to protect me from the rain. And best of all it has an outlet where I can charge my cellphone. But that was also the source of this recent conflict.

It turns out about 6 months ago this guy got a laptop. So now he’s been eyeballing my hangout spot — and that outlet — with serious intent, as a spot where he can plug in his laptop. And whaddaya’ know, I show up one night and there he is flopped out at my hangout spot with his laptop plugged into the outlet. I figure it’s probably just a one-night thing. So I just let it slide and go off and find another hangout spot.

But whaddaya’ know? The next night there he is AGAIN at my hangout spot. So I go up to him and explain to him, in a very reasonable voice, that I’ve been using this hangout spot for many years, and it’s a very valuable spot to me, and there’s simply no room for two bums at this spot. He nods his head in agreement and seems to understand.

But whaddaya’ know? The third night there he is AGAIN hanging out at my hangout spot.

So now I’m realizing this guy is planning to make this HIS permanent hangout spot. And this guy is like the classic ne’er-do-well layabout. Once he attaches himself to a hangout spot he’s there ALL the time. He’s basically spent the last 20 years doing nothing but laying around, taking up space. Which is fine — everyone in this life is on the level that they’re on. But the problem is, now he is taking up MY space.

So the next night I’m ready for him. I’m sort of hiding around the corner. And when I hear him coming I rush over to the spot right before he gets there, and say to him: “This is MY hangout spot. And there’s not room for TWO! Now GO away and STAY away!!”

He turns on his heels and leaves. And apparently he got the message. Because for the next 6 months peace and harmony reigned in the world of Ace Backwords.

Until the other night. When I showed up at my hangout spot. And whaddaya’ know? There he is again flopped out at my hangout spot. He’s lying on his back on his matting with his leg crossed, and all of his stuff dumped out around him, and his laptop plugged into the outlet. And he’s like some guy leisurely enjoying a swell evening in the comfort of his personal living room.

I look down at him, glaring at him, not saying anything. He looks up at me and says cheerfully “How are ya’ doin’?”

“How are YOU doing!” I said with a sharp edge in my voice.

“I’m doin’ just fine,” he said. “How are you doin’?”

I didn’t say anything for a couple of beats. Just continued to glare at him. And then I turned and stomped off. And I hoped he got the message and it refreshed his memory about our previous confrontation 6 months ago.

But then the next night? Whaddaya’ know? There he is AGAIN.

So now I’m realizing I have no choice. I either take action. Or else my favorite hangout spot is now his favorite hangout spot.

So I said to him: “Dude, this is MY hangout spot.”

“I realize that,” he said.

“Well if you realize that then why are you here hanging out here at my hangout spot??”

“Well let me explain,” he said.

“No. Let me explain first and you can explain second,” I said. “The next time I catch you at my hangout spot, I am going to go to your hangout spot when you’re not there. And I am going to dump all your stuff into the creek. Do you understand me?”

“I hear you,” he said.

And I turned on my heels and stomped out of there.

And I hope he DID understand me. Because I WILL do it.

The perennial search for an asshole-free zone


Sometimes I find people very easy to hate.

So it’s 8 o’clock and I’m hanging out at one of my favorite late-night hangout spots on the Berkeley campus — this little niche of space away from everything. And I’m sipping on my beer and listening to music on headphones and working on some stuff on the internet.

When this person is suddenly standing in front of me. He’s some nut. One of my “fellow street people.” And he starts babbling at me. But I can’t understand a word he’s saying (did I mention he’s a nut??). But from his gestures I can tell he wants to plug his cellphone into the outlet that I am using.

“NO!!” I said forcibly. “I don’t want any company. I just want to be alone. There are plenty of other outlets right down there on the plaza that you can use.”

But does this dirtclod respect my wishes and respect my space?? HELL NO. He pulls out his cellphone and some chords and starts doing various inexplicable gestures (so as usual I’m contemplating that age-old question: ” Is he a nut?? Or is he on drugs?? Or is he just an asshole?? Or some strange combination of the three??”).

I stand up and glare at him. Give him the ole Ace Backwords Death Stare. Hoping I can scare him off with my chest-pumped-out Cowardly Lion routine. But he’s completely oblivious. Continues to fumble around with his cellphone and a bottle of something in his hand. I imagine in my mind how satisfying it would be to just punch him in the head right now with all my force, and watch his useless bulk bouncing around on the concrete. But, alas, there are laws against that.  Plus, he’s just as big as me and probably 30 years younger. So maybe he could take me. Plus I’m getting too old for this shit anyways. And punching people in the head — as satisfying as that might be in the moment — can sometimes turn out to be counter-productive (so I’m gaining a modicum of wisdom and maturity in my old age).

So instead I quickly pack up my stuff, give him one last death glare, and then stomp off.

But that’s what it’s like in Berkeley EVERYWHERE nowadays. EVERY square inch of space is being contested by SOMEBODY!!

Now I’m actually hanging out at a better spot. My eternal motto is: “It’s a big world. And the point is to occupy a part of it that doesn’t include the asshole.” THE END

One of my favorite late-night hang out spots


For many years this was one of my favorite late-night hangout spots on the Berkeley campus. It was a very secluded spot. And it had an awning to protect me from the rain. And it even had an outdoor outlet so I could charge my cellphone and post crucial late-night drunken babble on my Facebook page. So the spot was ideal for my needs.

For a couple years they were doing construction on that wing of the building and it was blocked off from the public. And the building was completely vacant. So I had the entire area all to myself. Which is how it should be in a perfect world.

You see, when you live on the streets, you crave these little pockets of privacy. Because generally you live in public and you endure constant public scrutiny. So you truly cherish these little spots where you can get a little privacy.

But then two years ago my happiness — and my privacy — was shattered when a University employee set up his office in one of the rooms right by my beloved hangout spot. Bummer.

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It sucked because he could look out of the window of his office and see me sitting there several feet away, doing all the quasi-illegal things that the average homeless street person does during the course of their evenings. Even worse, one phone call from the guy to the cops could get me permanently rousted from the spot.

So the whole dynamics of my once-private hangout spot had instantly been changed.


Even worse. This guy, instead of just being in his office during normal business hours — like I assumed — he was in there virtually ALL the time!! He’d be in there after midnight on a Tuesday night. He’d be in there on the weekends. He’d even be in there on the holidays. He’d be in there on Christmas Eve for crissakes.

So every night, when I approached my once-cherished late-night hangout spot, as soon as I saw the lights were on in his office (yet again!!) I would trip out into this mindless rage.

“KILL KILL KILL!! It’s HIM!! What is he DOING in there?? Does he work 24 hours a day?? Why doesn’t this dude get a LIFE!!”

I’d constantly have to remind myself: “Ace, get a grip. He’s a valued University employee. While you’re a useless bum getting drunk and babbling on Facebook. He has more of a right to hang out at this spot than you.” (so I’d be forced to concede that killing him wasn’t a viable option)

And I could understand this on an intellectual level. But an animal level. On a gut level. It was like a primal territorial turf war. For many years I had claimed this space as mine. But now this guy — this interloper — had come along and taken it from me. So I was displeased. As well as disgruntled, dismayed, and discombobulated.

Eventually I got to meet the guy. We’d occasionally run into each other when I was walking toward the spot. And he was walking in and out of the front door. And it turned out he was a nice guy, a friendly guy. He was a bland sort of middle-aged, mid-level, corporate drone employee. And occasionally we’d briefly chat and exchange pleasantries.

“So what are you doing here hanging out on the Berkeley campus?” he asked me, pleasantly.

“Oh I’ve been hanging out on the campus for years,” I said. “For many years I worked for the Daily Cal the campus newspaper. I used to do a daily comic strip.”

(I would sometimes name-drop this little tid-bit when talking to UC employees and UC cops to convey the impression that I wasn’t just a useless bum hanging out on the campus, but that I was also a useless bum who had some kind of tenuous connection to UC Berkeley. I was part of the “UC Berkeley community” (so-called).

“Oh really? What was the name of your comic strip?” he asked.

“Twisted Image,” I said.

“Oh wow. Are you Ace Backwords?” he said.

“Yes I am,” I admitted.

“I’ve been following your work for many years!” he said.

He shook my hand vigorously. He was happy to meet me. As well he should be.

So that changed the dynamics of my relationship with the guy. I was happy that he was supportive of me and probably wasn’t going to call the cops on me. But I was also nervous that he knew who I was and knew more than a bit about my life. And that knowledge could come boomeranging back at me at some point in a painful way.

But mostly we just accepted each other’s presence at the spot. And co-existed.

But one weird thing was: Every time we chatted he always seemed to have a nervous look in his eye. Like he was paranoid about me. Which was weird. Because he was the UC employee. And I was the bum. And he was the one who had standing, not me.

But then I noticed another odd thing. Late at night people would often knock on the window of his office. And he would get up and open the locked front door of the building and let them in.

Eventually I figured out what was going on. He — and the other people — were secretly LIVING in the offices. That’s why he was nervous and paranoid about me. He was afraid I might alert the authorities and bust HIM!!

I had to laugh at the irony. The delicious role-reversal. Because usually I, as homeless street person, was the one who was paranoid about being rousted and busted.

Anyways, the reason I’m thinking about this stuff now is because the other night I just noticed his office was vacant. It was the beginning of the new school year. And evidently the University had moved him to a new office. He was gone.

So, once again, I now had the space all to myself. Thank God. And once again, for no apparent reason, I had prevailed. The End (at least for now).



The Cody’s corner




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.