Berkeley is a town full of ghosts to me

Every now and then I’ll pass this building on the corner of Telegraph & Dwight. And I’ll get a lump in my throat and feel like I’m gonna start crying. It’s where I met Duncan for the first time. Way back in 1978. It was a xerox shop back then. Krishna Copy. And I was making copies of some of my cartoons. And Duncan was at the xerox machine across from me making copies of the pages of this little 16-page zine he published, Tele Times. I can still vividly see the picture in my mind 42 years later.

I was 21 and just getting started with my life. I think I had only sold two of my cartoons at this point. And Duncan — even though he was a decade older than me and in his 30s — was just getting started with his life, with his artistic career (he had spent most of his 20s locked up in a mental asylum — “You’ll most likely spend your whole life in a mental asylum,” his shrink had told him). So Duncan was just getting started on his life too.

Duncan was the one who approached me. He had noticed out of the corner of his eye that I was xeroxing copies of original comic art. Just like I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was xeroxing off pages of a comics zine. “Ahh, would you be interested in letting me publish some of your cartoons in my magazine?” said Duncan.

So that’s how it started.

I’m not sure why it makes me want to cry when I think about it now 42 years later. I guess because life can just be kind of sad, how it all unfolds over the years. . . Or maybe it’s just because life can be such an overwhelming experience. You’re flooded with so many emotions. . . Sometimes you cry not because you’re sad. But because you’re just overwhelmed by it all.

One of my last memories of Craig



I remember one of the last times I saw Craig. It was late in the evening and he was standing in front of the Annapurna head shop (“Since 1969!!”) on Telegraph. I could tell he was stoned out of his mind. He was hurking and jerking and sort of piruetting around in circles like a wind-up toy with a crucial piece broken.

“How ya doing, Craig,” I said.

“Not good, Ace” said Craig flailing his arms in the air. “The clerk at Annapurna’s is calling the cops on me.”

I looked in the front door of Annapurna’s and could see that the clerk behind the front counter was doing precisely that. “Why is the clerk at Annapurna calling the cops on you?” I said.

“Ooooh. I DON’T KNOW!! The last time I was in there I caused some kind of scene and they permanently banned me. I forgot about the ban and just went back in there again and I got all confused when I tried to make my transactions.”

“What was the transaction?” I said.

“I forget'” said Craig. His face was contorted and in some kind of distress. He threw his hands up in the air and started pacing back and forth. “It was all a big misunderstanding.” Then he burst out laughing.

“Oh,” I said.

“I went back in there multiple times to try and straighten things out but the clerk just kept gettin’ more and more confused and freakin’ out on me for no damn reason!!”

“Oh,” I said.

Craig’s brains had become permanently scrambled from speed. I had known Craig since 1994. And now it was 2007. He had been a legendary speed freak even back then. It was a big part of his self-image as sort of a Keith Richards-wannabe rocknroll outlaw romantic street poet drug addict. I was a John Lennon-wannabe myself with my own drug demons, so what could I say.

“Maybe you should get out of here before the cops show up,” I said.

“No I need to go back in there and buy something at Annapurna’s,” said Craig.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t KNOW! I FORGOT!!” Craig threw his hands up in exasperation and confusion. Then started laughing again.

Back in the old days Craig used to get high. But then he’d come back down. Come back down to earth. But then Craig got high this one time and never came back down.

I think it was that one last fatal speed binge that did him in. One of the biggest speed dealers in town had recently ODed. And since the rent on his studio apartment was still paid up until the first, this whole pack of speed freaks — including Craig — had descended on his apartment like a horde of locusts. And moved in, systematically selling off all of his stuff and using up his huge stash of speed. And I think all that speed finally drove Craig over the bend.

So nowadays you’d often find him in the middle of the street babbling nonsense non-stop. Or laughing hysterically for no reason. It was really sad to see. Because Craig was basically a really good guy. But that’s life on the streets. Some people hit the streets with some kind of deep wound in their souls. And then the streets just tear them apart.

“Well I better get going,” I said.

“Hey Ace,” said Craig. “Would you give me a hug?”

“Well sure,” I said.

We embraced standing there on Telegraph in front of Annapurna the head shop. And Craig held onto me tight for just a couple of extra beats. Before he finally released me.

It was an odd request. We had never hugged before after all. But I just figured it was one more goofy thing that Craig did. He was almost always in a goofy head space now.

“You take it easy Craig,” I said.

“YEAHHH!” he said.

And he started laughing. That kind of loon laugh where things are so fucked up all you can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. One thing I’ll say about Craig, he never lost his sense of humor right to the end.

I could see two cops walking in our direction so I made a hasty exit. And I didn’t think more about the encounter. Just one more surreal interaction with crazy ole Craig.

Until a short while later. After Craig had jumped in front of a train. And I thought about that hug. I think Craig had realized he was fucked. Doomed in a way. It’s hard to get through life when a person’s brains are permanently scrambled. And they’re sort of beyond help. And all they can really ask for is a good hug before they walk off the plank.



Rip Van Backwords







Last week I walked into this apartment building where I used to live. I hadn’t been inside the building for many, many years. So it was like walking back into a dream.

As I walked down the hall to my apartment I half expected the building manager and his wife — this little old couple that lived next door to me — to pop their heads out of their door and say hi to me. Like they had done so many times before. But of course they didn’t. They’ve been long dead.

I walked into my apartment. My living room. And it was like walking back onto a stage where I had enacted thousands of dramas. I could almost hear the voices and see the faces of all those ghosts from dramas past.

I opened the door to the big walk-in closet where I had been storing hundreds of boxes of my stuff for the last 23 years. I had moved out of my apartment in 1995 and had hastily stashed all my stuff in the closet. And now here it was before me, like an artificially preserved time capsule of Ace Backwords 1995.







When I had moved into the building in 1982 I was 26. And still a boy really. Most of the people that lived there when I moved in were elderly. And now they’re all long dead. When I looked at the list of all the tenants on the front door I noticed only one person who had lived there when I was there was still there. This one guy who had been in his 30s when I first moved in. He was in his 70s now, with gray hair and walked with a cane. And now I was an old man, too.

As I walked out of the front door of the apartment building and walked down the street I suddenly felt like Rip Van Winkle. I had went to sleep as a young man. And had woken up as an old man. And all my friends were gone. And the town I had been living in had completely disappeared. In a blink of an eye.


Memories are made of this



I might have told you this story:

Back in the 1970s Janis Ian had this hit song “At 17” — this maudlin ballad about how miserable she was when she was 17.  “At 17 I learned the truth.” They played it on the radio all the time back then. And I distinctly remember the many times during my senior year in high school — Class of ’74 — when I’d be driving around town with my high school buddies. And I would cringe every time that damn song came on the radio. Because I was 17, too, and having a horrible 17th year myself. And in my memory, that song was like one of the soundtracks to my senior year in high school.

So I was surprised when I looked up the song on the internet a couple years ago.  And discovered “At 17” hadn’t been released until 1975, a year after I graduated from high school.



Rubber bands



It’s funny, the odd things that jog your memory. . .

Hate Man hated to spend money on things.  Just about the only thing he spent money on was tobacco. He must have spent a thousand bucks a month on tobacco.  For himself and for anybody at Hate Camp who wanted a smoke (“25-cents for rollies.  50-cents for Slims.  Or PUSH!”).  And in his later years he got on food stamps, which he mostly used to buy his beloved Haagan Das ice cream, or half-and-half and big bags of sugar for his coffee.  But just about everything else, Hate Man scrounged, dumpster-dived, or bartered.

And there were certain items he was always on the look-out for.  Like rubber bands.  Hate Man had zillions of little packets of stuff amidst his mounds and mounds of stuff. So he always needed rubber bands to clasp the stuff together. So for years, whenever I was walking around town, if I happened to spot a rubber band lying on the sidewalk, I’d pick it up and bring it back to Hate Man.

But now, Hate Man has been dead for four months.  And yet to this day, every time I spot a rubber band on the sidewalk, I’ll momentarily stop for a split-second and think of picking it up and bringing it to Hate Man.  And it’ll remind me of Hate Man.  I’ll think: “Hate is dead now. He sure won’t be needing any rubber bands wherever he is now.”

But it’s funny. Out of all the possible things I could remember Hate Man for.  It’s rubber bands, of all things, that constantly remind me of him.  I suppose I should have mentioned it in my eulogy to Hate Man.

“Hate Man was a great man. And he used many, many rubber bands during the course of his lifetime.  Rest in peace, Hate Man, you hateful old bastard!”



Thinkin’ ’bout a girl that I used to know… 2002_11_17

Ace Backwords's photo.

Wake up this morning at 6 AM, Sunday morning. Something always melancholy and wistful about Sunday mornings. Nothing ever happens on Sunday mornings…

There’s an almost unbearable sadness to it all. Like something is happening (life) that is so unbelievably incredible, but there is just something missing, some important, mysterious piece that prevents you from appreciating it; prevents you from making sense of it. Maybe that’s why I cling to these past memories. It’s this sense of something important slipping away — my life, pissing away — while something important goes down the drain. Something missing. Always. What IS that tantalizing something? I want to go back in time and do it all over again (and THIS time I’ll get it right!)

I have 2 odd memories of Kerry. 1995. I’m in Arcata. The town is still fresh and exciting.  I hadn’t yet walked down the same five streets, five hundred times and realized there was nothing there. So my mind was excited with possibilities and potential. I’m walking past the parking lot of the Co-Op, by the Ride Board. And I pass a hippie school bus full of Dead Heads and Rainbow Children. And they’re associated in my mind with: KERRY!!  So they fascinate me. They’re the in-group I want to join. Later, a year later, I’ll look at them and see grubby, dysfunctional bums. But, at that moment, they had a certain magic, as if at any moment, Kerry would come walking out of that bus, in her sexy, hippie gypsy Rainbow clothes, with her hemp jewelry and her smile of love and sex, and she’d dance over to me and hug me and love me.  Forever. And I scrutinized each face of every hippie street person. But none of them were Kerry. It was a sunny day, in my mind’s memory.  And then, little Hippie Boy Lenny comes out of the bus — not Kerry but a FRIEND of Kerry’s. A fleeting connection to Kerry. And I ask him how she’s doing (“She’s back at her Mom’s house in Southern California, working as a waitress at Denny’s. She wants to quit her job and go on the Dead tour…”). Dying for every detail about KERRY!, even as I’m playing it cool, as always. And then Lenny is gone — grubby little rip-off Lenny with his golden locks and angelic face, like a pint-sized, 24-year-old Robert Plant from Long Island. And I walk down the sunny, pointless Arcata street, alone as always.

And yet, somehow, that mundane little memory, that fleeting, hazy image in  my mind, sums up that whole year, 1995. That whole period. Like when a song comes on the radio and it transports you back into your past like a Time Machine, and all the memories and moments come back…

And my other Kerry memory from that period is: I’m in the shower in the morning, that crude, cement little shower stall — no bigger than a box — on the second floor down the hall from my lonely hotel room at the Greyhound Hotel. Somehow I remember the feeling as being sweaty, feverish, even as I’m in the steamy wet shower — the hard water pounding on my chest. And the weird thing was, in the year I lived there, I would never see any of the other tenants on the floor, even as there were 7 or 8 of us. It was like a ghost town. A haunted house. You wouldn’t even HEAR them in their rooms. We were quiet to the point of being the walking dead. Ghosts. Ashamed to be seen. But I’d be in the shower every morning, preparing to go out on a date with a girl who was never there.  And, for some reason, I’d often think of Kerry when I was in the shower in that pointlesss lonely town of Eureka at the end of nowhere. And I’d wonder where Kerry was at that moment. And what she was doing. And why I was here and she was always somewhere else, a thousand miles away. My one heart’s desire. And somehow it was her fault that I had ended up here. She could have lifted me up to superstardom (if only). And instead I had crash-landed to this welfare hotel in the middle of zombie nowhere. And I would think about Kerry and the whole dream of being loved and being cool and successful and all the missing pieces in my life, as I stood in that lonely concrete shower stall.

And somehow, that banal memory sums up that whole period. Autumn. The end of 1995.

And now I think of this morning, Sunday morning, 6 AM when I woke up and started thinking about Katie and I wrote these words. Was it just 4 hours ago? Or 40 years? It’s all gone…

“Thinkin’ ’bout a girl that I used to know…I closed my eyes, and she slipped away…”