Another casualty of the Winter of 2017

TIMBER!!

On this day in 2017 this big tree on the Berkeley campus collapsed and died. It was a casualty of the brutal rainstorms of the winter of 2017. We ended up getting 38 inches of rain that year — about 15 more than usual. The tree got water-logged and rotted out and died.

And it was symbolic to me. Because a week earlier Hate Man had collapsed and died, too. Another water-logged victim of the winter of 2017. A mighty tree and the mighty Hate Man. Gone gone gone.

Then they buzz-sawed the tree into a big pile of sawdust and left it sitting there. And whenever I looked at it I felt this weird synchronicity. Because Hate Man too had been reduced to a pile of cremated ashes.

Craig

 

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I was hanging out at my usual spot by the Cody’s Books corner when Craig walked up to me and said, “Hey Ace, are you interested in buying a 20 dollar bag of meth? If you got the dough, I got it all lined up.”
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“This isn’t going to be a complicated deal?” I asked.
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I always asked that question with Craig. From painful past experience. Having waited around for 6 or 7 hours on a dark street corner waiting for Craig to get back from one of his other “simple easy deals.”
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“No, I’ll be right back! I got it all set up in the Park!” insisted Craig, with that air of frantic urgency that Craig always had when involved with all things crystal methamphetamine (arms jerking up in the air as he talked, legs pacing back and forth, etc.). “I got a 20 myself. And with your 20 we could get a big sack and split it.”
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I hesitated for a moment and then said, “Okay.” As I made that sometimes disastrous commitment of pressing the $20 bill into Craig’s hand.
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As Craig bopped off towards the Park, I flashed on the memory of another time and a similar circumstance when  Craig walked off with my 20 dollar bill. Only to return six hours later, empty-handed, alas. But at least he returned my bill THAT time — a minor miracle in itself.  But what was odd was the bill itself. It was crumpled and wrinkled almost beyond belief, with this strange, glossy sheen to the surface of it. As if Craig had been frantically rubbing and caressing and folding and unfolding the bill non-stop, with enormous finger pressure for the entire 6 hours the bill was stuffed in his pocket. Crystal meth is a strange drug.
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About 15 LONG minutes later, Craig did in fact return.
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“Lets go for a walk,” he said
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“So how’d it go?” I asked as we walked down Haste Street, still not sure if he’d hand me back my bill (in God knows what condition) or the drugs (in God knows what amount and/or quality) or whether some strange, new complication had arisen calling for a private strategy session and a Re-thinking of Our Options. “Did you get it?”
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“Yeah, I got it,” said Craig. “Lets go somewhere and let me snort a line for scoring for you.”
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Craig handed me the little bag of meth as we walked side-by-side down the street. I quickly eyed the size and feel of the bag, sizing up the amount and the potential quality before I  jammed it into my pocket. I’m eager to get this transaction over. You can go to jail for this stuff after all. And annoyed by the unexpected complication of sharing a line with Craig (evidently he hadn’t had a $20 after all, so this was his way of getting a little something out of the deal).
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“Man, I hate this shit,” I muttered, letting Craig know I wanted this part of the transaction to be as short-and-sweet as possible.
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We’re both making slightly manic small-talk as we walk side-by-side down the street. I’m nervous and giddy with hopeful anticipation at the prospect of actually getting HIGH (my life has been so low lately, for so long), and, of course, we’re both trying hard to “act normal” — which flies in the face of our normal, abnormal behavior. We sing a few odd lines from songs by Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones (in retrospect, I guess it should have been “This could be the last time . . “). And I say: “It’s a whacky world, Craig.” An inside joke between me and Craig, told and re-told during the course of many previously-shared scenes of whackiness over the last 13 years on the scene. Ahh, the things we have seen, me and Craig. Two damaged, fucked-up, but eminently soulful, bums on the streets of Berkeley. Sheesh. (If you could look at some of the real-life movies that played out from behind our eye-balls you probably wouldn’t believe some of the scenes. For people like Craig live at that juncture where the surreal, the crazed, the bizarre, the demented, and the horrific, is the norm.)
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Craig led me around the corner and up the steps to the side porch of the First Presb Church. We both sat down on the floor, our backs resting against the church building. It was a fairly safe spot, we were blocked out of the sidewalk traffic, and we’d be able to spot anybody coming from any direction before they got to us. Craig — as crazy as he was — was a genius in that sense. In the middle of the most crowded city streets, he could ALWAYS find some little covey-hole, some safe little haven, where you could get high. A skill no doubt honed with animal grace by thousands and thousands of previous drug-related manuevers in the urban jungle. (Reminiscing after his death, virtually every person on the Berkeley street scene had cherished memories of “getting high with Craig” or “going to jail with Craig” And sometimes both, getting high AND going to jail with Craig). If there was a Tweeker Hall of Fame, Craig would certainly be a first-ballot inductee.
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“Lets be quick about this,” I whispered, handing Craig the tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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“Gimme your lighter, Ace.” He took my lighter and rolled it over the bag of meth, crushing the little rocks into a snortable powder. (“So THAT’S how you do it!” I thought. Previously, I had taken the meth out of the bag and crushed them with an exacto-knife — sometimes causing parts of the rock to go pinging off the mirror and into the unseen distance — always fun searching for those long-lost crumbs of meth, two days later, when you’re down to your last line. But leave it to Craig: the Expert. He was in fact the expert on all things Drugs. He had virtually dedicated his life to the pursuit, the study, and the consumption, of drugs.)
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Craig quickly poured out a line. “Gimme a dollar, Ace.” Craig expertly rolled up the bill and took a big, nostril-burning snort. AHHH!
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Craig handed me back the little bag of meth. “Give me back my dollar, too,” I said, a little too quickly. And I always felt bad about that, regret it. Because it was a cheap thing to say. But at this point, I had already given Craig $20, and now HE was the one getting high, and I STILL didn’t know how much was in the bag or if I’d gotten burned — still hadn’t had a chance to take a good look at my little, covert prize. So, at the LEAST, I wanted my dollar back. But its weird how these mundane interactions take on more of a resonance — and this haunted feeling — because they’re your LAST interactions with the guy. So it’s like I’m magnifying them. Searching for clues at the scene of the crime.
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We quickly got up and scurried down the steps (and now, EVERY time I pass that spot by the First Presb Church, I flashback to that last time with Craig, sitting there, crushing the meth with my lighter, etc. and for a moment I’ll think about ole’ Craig).
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Craig was strangely subdued as we walked back to the Ave. I could feel the heaviness of his spirit. He wasn’t his usual, herky-jerky self. In retrospect, I think he already knew. He had already made up his mind. To me it was just one more mundane afternoon on Telegraph, in a seemingly endless expanse of them. Isn’t it weird how we always think its going to last forever?
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Craig walked off and disappeared down the street.
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”Where’d you and Craig go?” said Psycho Joe with a leering, knowing grin on his face.
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“Nowhere,” I said.
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All the nosy bums on the corner had been watching the interactions between me and Craig — the whole crazy dance — and they all knew. Which was embarrassing. Because crystal meth is such a degenerate drug. And I was embarrassed that everyone knew about my degeneracy.
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“Its a good thing you left,” said Psycho Joe. “Because while you were gone the cops were just here busting those guys hanging out on the corner.” (Which just shows you how slim your margin-of-error can be on the streets).
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As I walked back towards my office, for some reason I started thinking about the whole mystique of the drug scene. Craig was kind of a Keith Richards-wannabe. And I was kind of a John Lennon-wannabe. And we had both bought into that whole trip. I thought about all the drug-related books, records and magazines of our youth that we had both avidly consumed. William Burroughs. Jim Carroll. Lou Reed. . Iggy Pop. Jim Morrison. William Blake.  All the great drug heroes of our youth. And all the exciting descriptions of their drug use. Mind-tripping to all these strange and taboo realms of reality. And the whole outlaw mystique that we bought into, hook-line-and-sinker. And the whole desperate need to just simply feel GOOD. To feel happy, to feel sensual pleasure, to feel contented, to feel love, to love and be loved. In a world that mostly seemed to offer pain, emptiness, and unfulfillment. Except for this fleeting thing we could sometimes grasp in a little, tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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I holed up in my office for 48 hours, snorting the speed and obsessively making these weird collages. Crystal meth has this bad combination of affects. It makes you incredibly stupid.  And it gives you this incredible amount of energy to act out your stupidity. So it’s a double whammy. The collages I would make while I was tweeking are a prime example. I would cut out all this photos from magazines and scotch tape them together into bigger pictures. I would reshape and alter the photos with my scissors and pens  and I could create virtually any picture that I could conger up from my demented imagination. And they’d be layered with all these layers of scotch tape, which made them glisten and shine under the electric lights adding a surreal affect. At some point, the collage would actually look incredibly beautiful. But as I got more and more wired I’d get more and more obsessive. If the photos weren’t lined up EXACTLY right, if they were a fraction of a millimeter off, I would re-cut the picture and re-line it up, and re-tape it, over and over. For hours. In an attempt to get it EXACTLY right. Until finally the collage was nothing but a big hopeless mess.
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So I’d toss it in the garbage and start on a new one.
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Anyways, after 48 hours of this non-stop manic stupidity holed up in my office, I finally collapsed in a heap and slept for a whole day.  I finally woke up the next afternoon with a splitting headache. I emerged from my hole and went back to the Ave looking for Craig. The meth had turned out to be pretty good, so I wanted to give him a 5 dollar tip for his trouble.
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When I got to the Cody’s Books corner I noticed Psycho Joe was talking with Fat Bill. Joe was holding up a little potted plant.  “And we could plant it in People’s Park,” he said, “and plant it right in Craig’s favorite spot where he always liked to hang out.”
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“What are you talking about?” I said.
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“Didn’t you hear?” said Fat Bill. “Craig stepped in front of a train yesterday morning.”
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I walked down the street feeling dizzy and stunned. My mind immediately started racing through the quickly-fading memories of my last interactions with Craig, searching for something, anything. Like holding each word we had said under a microscope.  Searching for clues. Was there anything I could have done differently?? Everything seemed very real and very unreal at the same time.   Nothing made sense. Well, one thing I was sure about. I wouldn’t be able to give Craig that goddamn 5 dollars.  That’s for sure.
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Death of an anonymous street tramp

originally posted in 2007)

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We got the news the other day that Mott died. For a half hour, Mott was the gossip of the day. And then, he’s forgotten. It’s amazing how quickly people are forgotten. Mott was another one of those guys who’s been “on the scene” for at least the last 20 years. A face in the the crowd. “There goes good ole’ Mott.” And then, suddenly, its: “There went good ole’ Mott.

Death becomes a drum-beat that gets louder and louder as you get older.

At first, when you’re young, the deaths are spaced out years apart. But as you get older, they’re months apart. Then weeks apart. Then . . .

Pretty soon its almost like every day you’re hearing about somebody you know dropping dead. Its not so much shocking — the reaction you get when you hear somebody died. It’s more like a “Huh? What the fuck?” reaction. Like when something peculiar happens and the mind can’t quite wrap itself around the subject.

This weird reaction to death. Where it seems so weird, AND so normal. All at the same time.

Mott was this scruffy little guy, almost dwarfish in his stature. I always pictured him as “Pig Pen” — the “Peanuts” character. Every now and then, like on the first after he cashed his SSI check, Mott would look neat and clean — new clothes, hair-cut, etc. But within days he’d be back to his naturally dirty look. Disheveled hair. Scraggly beard. Tooth-less. Weird stains on his torn jacket.

Mott was the classic hobo. The classic street-tramp look. The harmless little troll sitting under the bridge. He was one of those archetypal street people — you couldn’t picture Mott existing anywhere but the streets. One of those guys who never “dropped out.” Mott was never “in” in the first place.

Mott was a nice guy. Even Hate Man called him “sweet.” A lot of people had a secret soft spot for Mott. Even the bullies that picked on him, who Mott just shrugged off with a “That’s just how people are, whataya’ gonna’ do, Ace,” shrug of the shoulders. With no sense of bitterness or need to retaliate. Mott was one of those guys who accepted whatever life gave him, was grateful for any scrap he got, and never complained when he got the short end of the stick. Which was often.

The last time I saw Mott he was lying on the sidewalk on Bancroft and Telegraph.  He wasn’t passed out, but he couldn’t get up.  He was surrounded by three paramedics who were getting ready to load him into the ambulance.

When we heard Mott was in the hospital, we thought of getting a card and all signing it. But we never quite got around to it. Which somehow summed up Mott’s life. Typical. You cared. But not that much. Or maybe it was just the “solitary tramp” side of Mott that always kept you at a distance. Like . . . Mott himself was more comfortable watching the doings of humanity from a quiet place in the bushes. He knew what the fate was for the trolls who ventured too close to civilization.

“Hey there, Ace, how ya’ doin’,” was Mott’s quietly chipper greeting as we passed (many, many times) on our sidewalk routes. He had the bearing of a wary, scraggly puppy that had been beaten too many times, and yet could still cautiously and eagerly warm to the friendly overtures from others. Just a good guy, Mott. One of those guys defeated a thousand times by life, but never really defeated. Always bounced back. Had more soul than a lot of people.

One time, Mott came up to me and said: “Ace, two months ago I stole 50 cents out of your donation cup when nobody was looking. I been meanin’ to pay you back. Here’s a dollar.”

That was Mott. He didn’t have to tell me, after all. And 99% of the other bums on the street scene wouldn’t have. A good guy, Mott.

And yet still, when I think of Mott — or when I think of most people I know who died — there’s this sort of empty feeling. Like: That’s IT?? Mott tramped and bounded and stumbled and staggered and strutted (even Mott) through life. Then, like a wind-up toy that ran out of ticks, it toppled over on the sidewalk one day and laid there, silently. Done.

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People who died

 

Remembrances of people past from good ole’ Uncle Ace.

Wayne-With-No-Brain got his nickname because he burned out his brains on speed.  You’d often see him shuffling around like a zombie late at night, dressed in rags, his eyes like two pieces of burned coal, staggering from nowhere to nowhere.  Near the end of his life, Wayne got straight and cleaned up his act.  Some agency got him a little room in Oakland. You’d see him on the Ave and he was always wearing a brightly colored, brand new tie-dye t-shirt.  And he did part-time work for one of the street vendors, helping them load and unload their vending stands.  But it was a little too little too late.  “The doctors told me I got two kinds of cancer,” he told me.  “I got a brain tumor and lung cancer.  So its kind of a double-whammy.  They told me there’s nothing they can do and I got one month left to live.”  “Man, how are you dealing with that?”  I asked.  “Well, I do get a little depressed some times late at night when I’m lying on my bed.  But what can you do.”  That was the last time I saw Wayne.

Frannie had been on the scene a long time.  She was probably around 50 but she still looked very cute and girlish.  “Cute as a bunny,” is how people described her.  She seemed pretty solid at first, but then I think she got into substances a little too much and it was like over-night she became daffy.  You’d see her sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by her big piles of stuff mindlessly pawing at her possessions (Frannie was famous for being a pack-rat who compiled big piles of stuff everywhere she went, usually piles of brightly-colored pastel-colored clothes, which was her trademark, and other tweaked out flotsam-and-jestsom that she’d find on the streets).  One day somebody told me that Frannie was in the hospital with some kind of disease.  And that was the last we saw of her.   I’d look at the spot in the Park where she always camped, and now she was gone.  And it was like she had just gone “POOF!” in a puff of smoke.  That’s often how it is on the streets.  Here one moment, then gone.

The Bubble Guy was in his 40s.  But he always reminded me of a big kid.  A lot of street people are like that.  Perpetual 17-year-olds.  Bubble Guy wasn’t so much an outlaw as a prankster.  He was the guy in high school that would blow up mailboxes with cherry bombs.  And he never out-grew this sort of outsider hostility towards mainstream society.  Gruff but congenial, with a sardonic sense of humor.  For many years Bubble Guy had a cute girlfriend with sad, puppy-dog eyes who followed him around silently everywhere he went.  Bubble Guy got his nickname because he had this soap-and-water-and-wand kit where he’d make these huge bubbles.  He’d stand on the balcony of the Student Union Building and blow these beautiful bubbles into the air while we did our Hate Man drum circle below.  The bubbles were multi-colored and sparkled and twinkled as they floated gracefully in the sky, adding a magical touch to many nights on the scene.  And when he was done he’d always dump his excess soapy water into the Sproul fountain, which turned the fountain into a huge bubble bath.  The campus authorities hated that, because they had to clean out the fountain every time, but for some reason it took them years to figure out who the culprit was.  And Bubble Guy ended up getting banned from the campus. . . The last time I saw Bubble Guy I remember shaking his hand and I was shocked that the skin on his hand was as hard as a rock.  It was from some kind of disease.  I guess the disease got him.  Because that was the last time I saw him.

Stairway was a street musician in his early ’60s.  He had been on the street scene for a long time.  He kinda’ looked like Santa Claus with cowboy boots and a Southern drawl.  He was a hardcore alcoholic who would get the shakes in the morning if he didn’t have that first beer waiting for him to calm him down.  One time he was sitting on the bench in the Park and he had just opened a fresh 40 when a cop swooped down out of  nowhere and gave him a ticket.  That didn’t faze Stairway in the least.  But when the cop started to pour out Stairway’s 40 he went ballistic.  “NO!! YOU BASTARD!!  YOU WORTHLESS COCKSUCKER!! GIMME’ THAT BOTTLE!!”  He actually lunged at the cop and tried to wrestle that beer out of his hands, like it was his very life-blood itself.  I thought the cop was going to taze Stairway, but I guess the cop could tell that Stairway was just old and feeble.  But man did Stairway curse that cop out the whole time the cop was writing up the ticket. . .  I remember another scene on that very bench.  I don’t know what caused it — I think Stairway was refusing to share his beer with this young gutter punk ne-er-do-well.  So the punk cold-cocked Stairway.  Punched him right in the head.  Stairway went down like a sack of shit.  Laid there face-down on the ground for some time, until some of his drinking buddies finally helped him back on the bench.  The street scene can get sordid like that, especially the alkie segment of it. . .  Stairway was sort of a bullshitter.   Always making up stories.  Though more blarnie than con-man.  “I was good friends with Lowell George,” Stairway often mentioned.  “I wrote half the songs on the first Little Feat album and recorded with them in the studio.”  Stairway told his stories so many times, I’m sure he believed them.  He wasn’t a great guitarist — generally he’d learn one or two lines and a couple of chords from a song, and then just scat-sing the rest of it.  But when Stairway showed up with his guitar and his 40s you knew the street party was going to get rolling. . . . The last winter in Berkeley finally got to him.  He’d pass out in his sleeping bag and lay there all night through a pouring rainstorm.  On top of that, he’d usually piss himself in his sleep.  So those wet, cold nights finally wore him out.  Shortly after Christmas when he got his SSI check, he bought a plane ticket to go back to North Carolina to see his family one last time before he died.  Which is how it went.

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