Back in the 1990s I used to like to hang out at the Eucalyptus Grove on the Berkeley campus. I’d bring my guitar and smoke pot and drop acid and sing my weird songs to the Cosmos. . . When I walk through there nowadays it’s like an acid flashback. And I’ll remember the person I thought I was back then. And all the people I knew back then. And all the weird dramas I was in the middle of back then. All gone now. And its like looking back on a movie about somebody else. Even as I know that person was me. He seems like somebody else. Somebody I was only vaguely acquainted with. Somebody I used to know a long time ago. But only remember a few hazy details about . . .
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.
I think about this a lot. Because its so odd to me.
I first started hanging out a lot on the Telegraph Avenue street scene around 1992. I had mostly spent the previous 10 years sitting at a little desk in a little room, drawing comics and publishing publications. But as I turned 35 I was starting to wonder: “Am I going to spend my whole life sitting at a desk??”
I was itching for some action. And the Telegraph street scene seemed like a good place to find it. Because it was a happening scene back then. I guess because of a convergence of different forces. The Grateful Dead tour was building to its peak. And the Rainbow Gathering and the Rainbow Family (so-called) was going strong. And Berkeley was a prime stop on those tours. So you had these bus-loads of fresh blood constantly being injected into the scene. And the local punk scene was also going strong, primarily centered at Gilman St., but with the residue constantly flooding up to Telegraph, and this new phenomenon, the “gutter punks.”
And the original ’60s generation hadn’t yet reached decrepitude. They were mostly in their mid-40s and still a force to be reckoned with. Along with the newer generations who were perennially drawn to Berkeley to get a hit off of that ’60s lineage.
So it was quite a stew of characters romping around old Telegraph Avenue back in Dem Days. I remember an endless sea of beautiful young men and women hitting the scene. And artists and writers and musicians and spiritual seekers of every stripe. Bohemians, for lack of a better word. And some of the most colorful and crazy and wild characters I had ever met. It was like every other person you met was this bizarre technocolor movie unfolding before your eyes.
And we all seemed so young and strong and indestructible (that wouldn’t last). It was mostly a light drug scene back then. Pot and beer mostly. With a little acid and crack cocaine on the sides. And speed and Ecstasy were just starting to come in strong from the Raver scene (the E-tards hadn’t yet replaced the acid casualties).
But the odd thing to me when I look back on it. Just about everyone from the Telegraph scene back then has come and gone. They’re all either dead or burned-out or moved on to other things. Except for me. For some weird reason I’m still here. And its not so much that I’m The Last Man Standing, but The Last Man Left Behind.
And I’ll constantly be doing the math in my head:
“1992 to 2018. That’s 26 years. And counting. . . ”
Probably the closest I ever got to experiencing Heaven was hanging out at the beloved Candy Store of my childhood. Whenever I got my allowance every week I’d walk straight downtown to the Candy Store. They had a wall full of all the latest comic books. The first couple of comics I bought were 10 cents. This must have been around 1962, age 7. Then they raised the price to 12-cents, where it stayed for most of the rest of my comic-buying career.
Superman and Batman were my first choices, always. And all the related books. Superboy, Justice League of America, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Legion of Superheroes, etc. But I’d also buy an occasional Green Lantern, Flash, Atom, Teen Titans or anything else with a hot cover. And if I could afford it I’d splurge and buy the big fat 25-cent Annuals.
After a couple years I got turned on to Spiderman, and completely switched over to Marvel. DC would always look hopelessly square after that. The Avengers were my favorite, with Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, etc.
And I’d always buy a candy bar to go with my comic book. 5-cents out the door. And I’d agonize over the decision: Chunkies versus Tootsie Rolls. Chunkies were better but Tootsie Rolls lasted longer (the old quality versus quantity debate).
Every now and then me and my buddies would sidle up to the counter of the Candy Store and order ice cold Cherry Cokes at the soda fountain. And we’d sit there on our stools, reading our comic books and feeling very worldly.
My family moved away from that town when I was 12. But when I graduated from high school at age 17, the first thing I did that summer was hitch hike back to my old childhood town. And the first place I went to visit was that great old Candy Store of my childhood. I couldn’t wait to buy a couple of comic books for old time’s sake, and sit there at the counter reading them while I quaffed an ice cold Cherry Coke.
So I was more than a little disappointed when I discovered that the beloved Candy Store of my childhood had been converted into a not-so-beloved Laundromat.
But at least I learned a valuable life lesson right off the bat:
Yesterday, me and Charlie Cheapseats were hanging out with Hate Man in People’s Park, talking about the old days.
“When I first visited Berkeley in the summer of 1974 there was always a huge street scene happening on the Berkeley campus,” I said. “Back then it was hard to tell the street people from the students. ‘Hippie’ was definitely the style.”
“Yeah,” said Cheapseats. “Nowadays the campus is almost completely dead.”
“Yeah. There are just a few loner-type street people that mostly keep to themselves.”
“There used to be tons of street musicians, too,” said Cheapseats. “Remember that guy Rick Starr who used to croon those Frank Sinatra songs while singing into that fake plastic microphone?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And Larry the Drummer. He used to drive everyone nuts bashing away on those buckets all day long.”
“All those characters are gone. Whatever happened to Paul of the Pillar?”
“Even the Christian preachers don’t show up any more. They used to be surrounded by huge mobs of people heckling them. It was great entertainment. Like a Roman amphitheater where they threw the Christians to the lions.”
“Even that nut the Happy Guy is gone. The guy that used to stand on a bucket saying ‘Happy, happy, happy’ all day long.”
“And if you started heckling him, he would point his finger at you and shout, ‘CIA!! CIA!! CIA!!’”
“Remember the lower Sproul drum circle every weekend in the 1990s?”
Suddenly, Hate Man had had enough of our reminiscing.
“I hate your guts with all this talk about the old days!!” said Hate Man. “I wanna’ kill you. I hate people who constantly dwell on the past. I prefer to live in the present moment and appreciate what’s going on now. Instead of all this lame nostalgia for the good old days.”
I realized recently that, nowadays, I live in a permanent state of mourning for my past. I remember when I was a young man, this old guy once warned me about the danger of living in the past as you get older. “You can get stuck in a rut if you don’t keep evolving with the times,” he said. “You stop growing as a person. You turn into a fossil. You end up yearning for the return of the Good Old Days that will never come back.” . . . I never thought I’d fall for that trap. Because (in spite of my pen-name) for most of my life I was a very forward-looking person. Whenever I finished an art project, my first thought always was: “Yes. But the next project is going to be the Best Thing Yet!!” But then suddenly, a couple of years ago, it was like there no longer was a next project. . . *sigh*
“I knowdja’ mean, Hate Man,” I said. “It’s like that famous scene in the book ‘Be Here Now’ where Ram Das is constantly talking about his past adventures or his future plans. And his guru says: ‘The past and the future are an illusion. Only the present is real. Be here now. Live in the present moment. That’s where all the action is.’”
“Yeah,” said Hate Man.
“My problem is, I yearn for the past. I fear and dread the future. And my present moment usually sucks. So I got all the wrong bases covered.”
Hate Man chuckled at that line.
Now I’m sitting here looking back fondly at that conversation I had with Hate Man and Charlie Cheapseats in People’s Park. It seems like only yesterday . . . Actually, it was only yesterday.
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.