I do this thing constantly — and I’m not sure it’s a healthy thing — where I’m constantly thinking about people that have died. They’ll just pop in my head for no reason. “Remember Mott? . . Chip . . Annie . . Robin . . Bubble Guy . . Soup . . Harold . . David . . Craig . . Teddy. . Claire . . Vince . . Yumie . . Duncan . . Hate Man . . .?”
I don’t know why I do it. Maybe its a way of trying to understand the mystery of death. Or maybe its a way of AVOIDING thinking about death — if I keep their memory alive it’s like a part of them is still alive.
As I get older this world seems less and less solid and less real. When I was younger the world seemed more solid and real (you’d think it would work the other way around). And I think its because so many people I know have died. They just disappeared, and its like they never really existed in the first place. And maybe I don’t really exist. Maybe I’m just a ghost temporarily trapped within human flesh.
Of the 7 billion people on the planet (or is it 8 billion? we’re multiplying so fast its hard to keep track) almost all of us will be completely forgotten within 200 years. Entire ancient cultures are completely forgotten — the kings and great men of their ages now little more than dust, gobbled up like all of us, by the endless expanse of eternity.
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.