Christmas 2019

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Woke up 7 in the morning (long story). Christmas day. The only place open to get coffee is 7-11. So I head in that direction. Cut through People’s Park. There’s at least a dozen tents set up. They’ve been there all week. That’s one thing where the University always drew the line in the past — no tents or structures, and no overnight camping (10 PM curfew). I don’t know if they’re letting it slide because of the holidays. Or if they purposely want to turn the park into a rundown homeless shanty-town to justify tearing it down.

Get my coffee (guy in line in front of me buying a 24 ounce can of Olde English, off to an early start). Walk back up Telegraph. Pass various street people in different doorways. Some still sleeping. Some drying off their stuff. A couple guys lighting up a bowl, starting their Christmas cheer. And, of course, one guy panhandling me. . . The Ave is completely deserted except for street people. It’s like a homeless ghost town.

Now I’m sitting here drinking my coffee and thinking many, many thoughts. None of them particularly interesting. MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!!

It was a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time — and when you live on the streets there are many such places

I just had a slightly humiliating experience. One of those experiences where you feel like a bum. I just got rousted by three different cops. You KNOW you could be in big trouble when three different cops cars pull up, specifically to deal with you and nobody but you.

I’m hanging out drinking beer and charging my cellphone at one of my favorite late-night hang-out spots on the campus when it’s raining. This little nook of space in the basement of Dwinelle Hall. I’ve been using it for years and I’ve never had any problems because it’s usually deserted in the evenings, and especially deserted on the weekends. At least until now.

So around 9 o’clock I notice this cop car pulls up right outside (I’m in this little lobby area). And doesn’t leave. So I’m starting to get a little nervous. Finally this cop — this young black woman — comes in and confronts me. “We got a complaint that you’ve been lodging in here.” So I just figured somebody had complained that some weirdo bum had been hanging out in the building (there’s at least a dozen other homeless people that regularly hole up in the building when it’s raining — several of whom are a bit peculiar — and I probably got caught in the cross-fire.)

So I give her my ID card and she runs my name across the wire. And I figure after I’m cleared for not having any outstanding warrants she’ll let me go.

But then a SECOND cop car pulls up and a second cop comes into the building. It’s this Asian cop who got really heavy with me this one night a couple years ago. So now I’m really squirming, thinking I might be in hot water (turns out he was very cool and friendly and didn’t have an attitude towards me this time, thankfully). So he asks me a few questions. Then asks to see my cellphone. I give it to him. And he asks me several questions about my cellphone. Which is weird. So I’m trying to figure out what’s going on.

And then a THIRD cop car pulls up. So now I’m really thinking I’m fucked. He’s a big young white guy. And as he enters the lobby and approaches me he puts on these blue plastic gloves. And I’m thinking: “Is he planning on doing a full body search here??” Like what the fuck is going on? I was just sitting here minding my own business. And now all this. He’s asks me a few questions. Then he asks me about the jacket I’m wearing. Which is dark blue. “Is that jacket reversible?” he says. “I don’t know, I’ve always worn it this way,” I says. “Could I take a photo of you with your jacket reversed?” he says. “Sure,” I says. The jacket is tan when it’s reversed. He takes a photo of me and my jacket. And then goes back outside to his cop car.

So now I’m standing there in the lobby with the Asian cop and the black woman cop, feeling like a criminal. FBI’s most wanted list. (I also have a 6-pack of beer by my stuff, hidden in a black bag, two beers already drunk, four to go — so they can bust me for public drinking and haul me off to jail at any moment if they spot that, so I am a bit nervous).

“Am I in trouble?” I said to the Asian cop. Still perplexed by what’s going on.

“A student got her cellphone stolen and you match the description of the suspects,” said the cop. “White male, about 50, 6 foot, wearing a tan jacket, slightly balding.” (that hurt)

“That would be me,” I said.

(I’m realizing it’s just one of those deals where “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Which can happen often when you live on the streets. Because you’re usually in the wrong place.)

The big white cop comes back in and says, “Can I search through your backpack?”

“Sure,” I says. He pulls everything out of my backpack one by one. And then puts it all back in.

“Can I search you?” he says.

“Sure,” I says. “Is this how you do it?” I turn around and put my arms out by my side (I haven’t had a lot of experience with this sort of thing, thankfully).

“No. Put your hands behind your back.” I comply and he gives me the old frisk. Finds nothing. “Can I look through your bag, too?”

“Sure,” I says. Now I figure I’m fucked. “Thats just my 6-pack of beer. I was going to drink it later. I surely wouldn’t drink it here on campus property.” (he lies)

“What kind of beer is it?” asks the Asian cop.

“Racer 5,” I says.

“That’s good beer,” he says with a friendly smile.

“7.5% alcohol content,” I says.

(Fortunately I had put the bottle caps back on the two empties, so it looked like a full six-pack as long as he didn’t look too close.)

After a bit more chit-chat they say:  “Thanks for your cooperation.” And I grab my stuff and get my ass out of there and off the campus as fast as I can. With a big sigh of relief. But humiliated too. And now this once great hang-out spot is burned-out and off limits. Sigh.

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Someone mentioned that being offended is the new national past-time. I upped the ante by being offended by her offended-ness

Dude almost has the concept down. He’s got the cardboard matting, but he’s still sleeping on the cold sidewalk.

Right after I took the picture, this very righteous Berkeley women stopped and said to me:

“I often give a dollar to people like that.”

“I often do, too,” I said.

“Especially if I take their picture,” she said. Then she righteously walked off, having done her good deed for the day by helpfully suggesting that somebody else do a good deed.

PS. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if I’ve given out a hell of a lot more money to my fellow street persons over the years than this person ever did. Call it a hunch.

Every homeless person makes their own unique adjustment to the situation

 
One of the fascinating things to me about homeless people is how every one of them makes their own unique adjustment to it, depending on their particular personality and situation. Being homeless is such a round-hole-in-a-square-peg situation that you have to make all sorts of unusual adaptations to be able to function and exist within the larger society (some doing this better than others)..

This long-time homeless fellow has made a particularly unique adjustment. About 50, he’s been on the Berkeley street scene for the last couple of decades. While never really being a part of it. In all these years I’ve never seen him talk to another person. Always sits by himself. And spends most of his time walking around and around across the sidewalks of Berkeley, on his own particular route. Usually stopping from garbage can to garbage can, looking for food or whatever else he can find.

He seems to be completely self-sufficient and independent, living totally outside mainstream society. Or any society. Aside from his own personal universe. I’ve never seen him go into a store — or any building for that matter — and I sometimes wonder if he’s managed to carve out an existence without using money of any kind. Imagine pulling that off.

His other unique traits is that he apparently carries everything he owns with him every step he takes. He always has his bedding, matting and tarps strapped over his shoulder. While usually lugging several other big bags with his other possessions.

Like I said, every homeless person makes their own unique adjustment.

Rule Number One: NEVER throw a cigarette butt at a cop (inadvertent or otherwise)

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I offer up these savvy tips for successful street living, virtually free of charge.
Whenever I’m drinking late at night at this secluded spot on the campus — this second-floor balcony over-looked this trail below — I’ll think back to this time I was hanging out here 7 or 8 years ago.

I happened to toss my cigarette butt over the railing to the trail below. Something I normally don’t do. I loathe litter. But I was in a bad mood. It was after midnight and I had just drunk my last beer and smoked my last cigarette and I was flat broke and it was the middle of the winter and it was pouring rain. So now I was trapped on this balcony for the foreseeable future with no beer and no cigarettes and no nothing and my life was just a piece of shit that had amounted to nothing. So I was in a sour mood. So I just flung the cigarette butt over the railing in an act of defiance like “FUCK THIS WORLD!!”

Unbeknownst to me, there happened to be two cops walking on the trail below me. I don’t know if my cigarette butt hit the cops on the head. But at the least it must have come very close. Because the two cops immediately made a bee-line to where I was sitting on the balcony. And one of the cops was raging mad as a hornet. As if my tossed cigarette butt was an affront to his very manhood. And I — homeless degenerate lurking on the campus — represented everything vile and evil and wrong with our current society. In other words, he took it very personally.

“DID YOU THROW THAT CIGARETTE BUTT??” said the cop.

“Yes I did,” I admitted. The butt no doubt had the DNA of my saliva on it. So there was no way to avoid the rap.

“ARE YOU DRINKING??” said the cop.

“No. I already DRANK it all!!” I said, with real anger in my voice (I was still pissed about being out of beer).

“ARE YOU BEING A WISE-ASS??” said the cop.

“Not consciously,” I said.

So the cop started writing me up a $450 littering ticket.

“You’re not going to give me a littering ticket for one cigarette butt are you?” I said.

“I SURE AS HELL AM!!” said the cop, thrusting the little yellow citation at me.

So I ended up doing 45 hours of community service picking up litter and thousands of cigarette butts in the park to repay my debt to society. All because of that one lousy cigarette butt.

And it didn’t end there. That cop developed a personal vendetta against me. Every time I turned around he would show up. Catch me in the act of drinking in public. And hit me with a $250 “open container” ticket. He must have hit me with nearly 10 tickets over the course of the year. And one night he even gave me the flashlight treatment and hand-cuffed me and arrested me and hauled me down to the Berkeley police station where I spent the night in the drunk tank (the weird thing is I wasn’t even drunk at the time, I had just started on my first beer).

But then, over the course of the next year, over the course of all our interactions, I finally wore the cop down with my fabled charm. Or maybe he just forget what he was mad about me in the first place. And he actually started to feel friendly towards me. And whenever he’d see me he’d say “Hey Pete, how ya doin’?” with a beaming smile on his face. And we’d banter back and forth with a little friendly small-talk before we went our separate ways.

“Thumping the tub”

 

When I was plugging my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book (my book about homelessness) back in 2001, my publisher set me up with about 30 interviews with radio stations all across the country (and one in Canada). And that was like a fantasy come true. Because all my life I had watched the movie stars and rock stars and famous authors going on their media tours to plug their latest product (“thumping the tub” as Marlon Brando famously put it). And now I was one of them doing it myself. Albeit on a smaller scale. Most of the radio stations were smaller markets like St. Louis. So it wasn’t like I was doing Howard Stern or the Johnny Carson Show. But still it was a kick.

Though I came to dread doing them. For a number of reasons. Number one I was always nervous as shit, stage-fright and all that. The other thing was, I did the interviews over the phone, and mostly in the morning, and often very EARLY in the morning, due to the different time zones. I was living in my office at the time, and the phone would usually wake me up from a sound sleep. Often it was still dark outside. It was the producer of the radio show. And I’d have like 5 minutes to fix up a quick cup of coffee, and then I’d be on the air. Still half-asleep. And babbling off the top of my head to thousands of people out there in radioland. So most of the interviews weren’t very good. And to tell you the truth, I much prefer being the interviewER. It’s a lot easier to come up with questions than it is to come up with answers.

The other thing about the interviews that was a pain in the ass: I’d have to figure out where the D.J. was coming from on the fly. And try to adjust my answers to their schtick. For example, some of them were “shock jock” types, and they were just using me as fodder for their dumb jokes. So it was pointless to try and have a serious conversation. While others of them had serious attitudes about the homeless issue. Considered the homeless a blight on their cities, just a bunch of smelly bums and drug addicts. So they wanted to use me as an excuse to do their axe-grinding. And then there were the super-serious and sincere bleeding-heart liberal types, who wanted to use me to publicly sob and weep over the plight of the homeless. And then ask me about my big and grand solutions to this pressing social problem. Something I usually wasn’t very good at articulating at 5 in the morning.

So it was pretty much of a mess. But at least it sold a couple of books. And that’s show business I guess. I’ll be right back right after this important message. . . .

A fairly pleasant encounter with an Officer of the Law

 

It’s 9:30 at night and I’m just hitting the campus, carrying a 6-pack of beer (discreetly hidden in a black bag). When this cop happens to be walking right towards me (uh oh). Heavy-set guy. Looks like he’s maybe half-black, half-latino.

“You have a good night, Mr. Labriola,” he said as he passed me.

“You too,” I said.

“Hey, how did you know who I am?” I said.

“I’ve had at least a half-dozen interactions with you,” he said. “You were always very polite.”

“Oh,” I said. “You’ve got a better memory than me.”

“Ha ha,” he said.

“Well have a good night, cool cat,” I said.

“You too,” he said.

And I headed off to find a discreet place to drink my beer.

You know how it is. Some of my late-night interactions tend to be a bit of a blur in my mind. But it made me wonder. I like to think I’m a pretty inconspicuous person. But maybe I’m not as inconspicuous as I like to think I am.

*

I’m not anti-cop or pro-cop, by the way.  Being homeless, dealing with the cops is just like dealing with the rain.  It’s just one more Force of Nature that you have to deal with. And it’s really nothing personal. Usually.

One of my Facebook friends suggested that maybe the cop was familiar with me from reading about my exploits on my Facebook page or the internet. But one of the great things about being known by a pseudonym; it’s unlikely the cops would ever make the connection between “Ace Backwords” and my real name, the real person they deal with. And likewise, nothing would pop up if they happened to run “Ace Backwords” over the wire.

Cops, by the way, have a wide spectrum of opinions and attitudes about “the homeless.” Some are actually sympathetic. While others are outright hostile. Mostly I think they’re just weary and jaded about the whole thing. I mean for decades now, they’re the ones called in to deal with the problem. And they, more than anyone, know they have no solution. Other than to run the homeless off of one block. Only to have them turn up on the next block. 
 
There’s a weird bond — a weird connection — between the cops and the homeless street people. They’re one of the few indoors people that are privy to our world, after all. They work the street beat, just like the street people. And they’re among the few people that are out there with us after midnight. Rousting us at our campsites and hang-out spots, they’re more aware of how we actually live than most people. We’re like two competing teams — two competing armies — playing on the same playing field.

Ace reviews the reviewers

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Was just checking the amazon page for my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book and I happened to notice this one sour review from some brainy guy named Christopher Debraine. Which is just like me. 20 good reviews and I’ll always notice the one bad review. Ha ha. Anyways, ole Chris takes me to task for not offering enough savvy advice about how to deal with the court system and tickets and the legal aspects of homelessness.

“Do NOT buy this book if you are looking for a how-to, or a manual, or even a lot of advice.
What you get here is a collection of personal anecdotes(which are interesting and amusing in their own right), personal opinion and politics (which are less interesting, and sometimes downright obtuse), and a scattered handful of advice.
You get more from forming your own opinions after reading about his experiences than you do from his actual advice. also, he tends to gloss over things you’d think were important, such as handling vagrancy tickets. how did ace overcome his tickets? he “jammed the machine with a blizzard of paperwork, and they forgot about it.” … yeah.
Anyway, the sad fact is that not many books such as this exist, mainly because the kind of people who end up on the streets either never get their life together enough to write something (let alone get published), or have no interest in helping other people should they suffer the same fate.
In summary: interesting and amusing, but NOT informative.”

* * *

The anecdote he was referring to was the time when the judge said he wouldn’t fine me if I pleaded guilty to this pot ticket, I’d just have to go to this Drug Education class, but then it turned out the class cost hundreds of dollars to sign up for (bastard!) but I did manage to beat the ticket by signing up for the class and then blowing it off (so I didn’t have to pay money or have a warrant go out for my arrest). And I was smug about how I weaseled my way out of that one. So fuck Christopher and his sneering comment. (Chris is probably one of those guys who gets lots of tickets and we could all learn from his experiences by learning what NOT to do).

But it did make me wonder if it was a glaring omission to have not delved more deeply into that aspect of the homelessness experience. I didn’t for several reason:

1.) I myself, rarely got tickets, so I didn’t have many personal experiences to share. But that’s the point of my book. If you do it right, and follow a few basic common sense rules, you WON’T get jammed up by the courts. And that’s the BEST way to deal with it.

2.) The laws pertaining to homelessness vary so much from city-to-city and state-to-state — as well as how the courts apply those laws. So the advice I give you for how to deal with it in Berkeley, might be the exact WRONG advice for how to deal with it in Chicago.

I guess if I could give one all-purpose bit of advice it’s: DON’T ANTAGONIZE THE COPS. If you get on their bad side they can surely make your life miserable. And they can usually even run you out of town if they want to, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

The other advice is: If you’re getting a lot of tickets, it may be because you’re doing it wrong, and you might want to re-assess how you’re operating.

That said, there are basically three ways you can deal with your homeless-related tickets:

1.) Go to court and either pay the fine or sign of for community service (which is what I usually did, spending a week or two picking up cigarette butts in the park.

2.) Just blow off your tickets (which is how most street people deal with them). Eventually, they’ll turn into Warrants For Your Arrest. And eventually the cops will probably arrest you. And you can spend a week or two sitting on your ass in jail. And that usually clears the ticket. Or:

3.) You can fight your ticket in court. Plead not guilty to the ticket, and then they’ll set a court date for you to state your case. Hate Man used to do this all the time. And he almost always prevailed. Mainly because the cop who gave you the ticket usually doesn’t have the time to show up in court over such a trivial matter, and since the cop can’t give his side of the story, the judge dismisses the ticket. The down-side is, if you take it to court and LOSE, the judge will usually give you a stiffer penalty than if you had pleaded guilty, to punish you for wasting the courts time . . . Nonetheless, if you have a good understanding of how the law works, and feel you have a strong case (and having the advice of a lawyer also helps) you might want to consider this option.

There, Christopher. Are you happy now??

*

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Man versus Raccoon: A gripping tale in handy blog-like format

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Had an odd scene at my campsite last night. Got up there around midnight and my feral cats were eagerly waiting for me. So I dumped out a can of cat food into the cat food dish.

But before my cats were able to eat much of it, a goddamn raccoon showed up. Now I can barely afford to feed my cats. I can’t afford to feed the goddamn raccoons, too. But the raccoon doesn’t care about that, the theivin’ bastard. The raccoon reached out with his front paws and started pulling the cat food dish towards him. So I grabbed the dish and pulled it back to the cats. And the raccoon grabbed the dish again and pulled it towards him. And I grabbed the dish and pulled it back. So we’re locked in this weird tug-of-war over the cat food dish, pulling back and forth. Me and the raccoon. I’m whispering under my breath “Would you get OUT of here, you!” I can’t really shout at the raccoon and scare him away. Because that would just scare my cats away, too. And then the raccoon would just come back as soon as I got into my sleeping bag, and make off with the cat food anyways. So I was stuck in this bind.

And I felt strangely ridiculous. That I was stuck in this jam. And I couldn’t out-smart this dumb beast, the raccoon. I’m the human being after all, and on top of the food chain, supposedly. But the fact is, when you live in the deep, dark woods, you’re on THEIR turf. And all the wild critters in the woods have a distinct advantage over me. For example, they all have much better night vision than me. And they’re also much more agile when it comes to traversing the hilly terrain (and I have the black-and-blue marks on my body to prove it). And considering how much alcohol I’ve usually drunk by this point, they’re often more clever than me, too. So it’s their world, and i just live in it.

So finally I just conceded defeat and poured half the cat food in one dish, and the other half in another dish. And set up separate dining facilities for the cats and the raccoon. And they all commenced to eat in peace. The End.