The rain in May falls mainly on the pained


So it’s midnight and I’m at this sports bar nursing this beer for as long as I can, waiting for a break in the storm so I can make a mad dash to my campsite for the night. When I realize there ISN’T going to be a break in the storm. So I pack up my stuff and plunge out into the rain.

It’s POURING rain. The third day of a four-day storm. And I’m completely unprepared to deal with it. It’s the LAST thing I was expecting. A full-blown middle-of-the-winter type storm at the end of May. After surviving five months of winter storms it’s the LAST thing I was expecting this close to June. And it’s like one of those double-shock endings at the end of a horror movie. After experiencing horror through the entire movie, the horror is finally over and you finally can relax. And then they hit you with the double-whammy shock ending.

I race to the campus where I’ve got some blankets stashed in the bushes — periodically stopping to curse the gods at the top of my lungs. To get to my stuff I’ve got to walk down this steep incline that is covered with mud and slippery as ice. Of course I lose my balance and fall into the mud, slathering the side of my jacket and pants with mud. I let out a scream of anguish and rage that they could probably hear all the way to Oakland.

My blankets are stashed in one garbage bag — in the winter I always double and triple-bag them to keep them dry but I wasn’t prepared for this storm. So of course they’re soaking wet now. I stagger to a nearby doorway — cozy and well-hidden — crawl into my soggy blankets and immediately fall asleep.

Have this weird nightmare. I’m in anguish and I’m trying to explain to my friends that the only relief from my psychological despair is to get drunk (brief reprieve from my nightmare as I spend some time petting this beautiful multi-colored purple and green cat — a recurring theme in my dreams).

Wake up around 7. It’s just getting light. And, unbelievably, it’s STILL pouring rain. The wind is pushing the rain all over my stuff. It’s like waking up from one nightmare into another nightmare.

I pack up all my stuff. Head back up the muddy incline. Slip again, smashing and crushing one side of my umbrella. So the morning is off to a wonderful start.

Stagger down the trail. Hear a car approaching me from behind. And I know instinctively. It’s a cop car. The cop car passes by me slowly, the cop eyeing me with suspicion the whole way (sometimes it seems like I’m acting out scenes from the futuristic novel BRAVE NEW WORLD).

It’s summer break so all the buildings on the campus are locked. But then I get an incredible break. As I pass Wheeler Auditorium I notice a well-dressed woman peering out of one of the front doors. She’s probably waiting for a friend, preparing for an up-coming event. “Could I use the restroom?” I ask. “Sure,” she says. And just like that I’m inside a nice warm and dry building.

I go to the first floor men’s room. Wash all the mud off the side of my jacket and pants. Then I go back out and loudly shut the front door (so the woman will hear it and think I left the building) and then sneak down to the basement men’s room and spend an hour peacefully reorganizing myself. I even shave and trim my goatee and shampoo my hair so that I look reasonably presentable to my fellow humans.

As I leave the building I noticed it’s finally stopped raining. And I have that “the-worst-is over” feeling. So now I’m thinking a hot cup of coffee and a fresh apple turnover at the local bakery would really hit the spot. And I’m feeling strangely exhilarated. And just mad enough to be looking forward to experiencing another crazy day on the planet Earth.

Against all odds, the sun actually peered out from just behind all the dark clouds. And apparently, life will go on.


Looking back fondly on the year that was, 2017, from the Ace Backwords perspective




JANUARY: Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States of America.

JANUARY: Massive rainstorms across the state of California — one of the wettest Januarys on record — result in the end (at least for the time being) of the Drought.

JANUARY: As predicted by virtually all the polls, political pundits, and media experts, Hillary Clinton wins the presidency by a landslide in an alternate universe.

FEBRUARY: Milo Somethingorother — a boring political gadfly who apparently makes a living saying stupid things to upset people — attempts to give a speech on the Berkeley campus and is shut down by massive protests, violence, fires, and destructive of property.

FEBRUARY: The Mario Savio Free Speech Plaza is officially re-named the No Free Speech For Fascists or People Saying Stuff I Disagree With Plaza.

MARCH: Rightwing Conservatives attempt to hold a rally in downtown Berkeley, and are met with massive resistance and street-fighting violence, and the likes of “Moldy Locks,” the “Stickman,” and Antifa get their 5 minutes of fame.

MARCH: Taco Bell opens up a franchise in Berkeley. Millions rejoice.

APRIL: Legendary Berkeley street person, the Hate Man, transcends.

APRIL: Ace Backwords takes yet another, in a seemingly endless series of, selfies.

APRIL: The feral cats continue to mostly lay around and goof off.

APRIL: I finally decide to cut off the goofy wings on the sneakers I had been wearing for months.

APRIL: Life goes on.

APRIL: People’s Park makes it to 48 years old.

APRIL: President Trump continues to govern the land with a firm, even hand.

MAY: The liberal media continues it’s fair and balanced coverage of the Trump presidency.

MAY: One final casualty of the long and wet Rainy Season of 2016-2017 (ended up with a total of 37 inches in Berkeley): A water-logged tree on the Berkeley campus collapses and dies.

MAY: Ace Backwords continues to slack off and fade away.

JUNE: Fatty the feral cat, is banished from the tribe after losing a territorial pissing war with Mini Scaredy, the alpha female of the tribe.

JUNE: Two of the guys who had been running the ill-fated Ghost Ship wharehouse, are arrested and charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 36 people killed in the fire during a rave.

AUGUST: People’s Park, for all its faults and shortcomings, still remains as a fairly cool place.

AUGUST: Feral cats, mostly still just goofing off.

AUGUST The city of Berkeley honors the great man, that asshole Hate Man.

AUGUST: Julia Vinograd is spotted on Telegraph Avenue.

SEPTEMBER: Mini Owl, the beloved one-and-a-half year old feral cat, disappears never to be seen again. *sigh*

SEPTEMBER: An unexpected visitor shows up at my campsite.

SEPTEMBER Record heat wave in the Bay Area with temperatures reaching 108 in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Berkeley street people handle the situation with their usual aplomb.

SEPTEMBER: Ace Backwords is honored with a plaque, a statue, and a set of commemorative dinner plates.

SEPTEMBER: Milo Whatshisname heroically returns to Berkeley, and, thanks to about a $million dollars worth of police protection, is finally able to give a 20 minute speech on Sproul Plaza, where he mouthed some dull slogans and canned one-liners to a rapt audience of about 30 people.

SEPTEMBER: Berkeley reaffirms its commitment to free speech, though it wasn’t actually free since it ended up costing the City about a $million.

SEPTEMBER: Further proof of the existence of God.

SEPTEMBER: Against all odds, Fatty the feral cat manages to sneak back to my campsite and resume her rightful position as a member of the tribe.

OCTOBER: Feral cats? Still slacking off.

OCTOBER: The Baby Boomer Generation continues it’s long and impressive march on the way to oblivion.

OCTOBER: Major media mogul Harvey Weintein creates yet another multi-media sensation and inspires a new movement in America..

OCTOBER: Massive wildfires in Northern California cause incredible tragedies. *sigh*

OCTOBER: Super hero movies continue to rake in big bucks at the box-office, proving that the genre is no flash in the pan.

OCTOBER: The cats finally decide it’s time to quit slacking off, to get organized, and take bold, direct action.

OCTOBER: Donald Trump’s popularity soars during the Halloween holiday.

OCTOBER: Moo Cat — the elder statesman of the feral cat tribe — turns 9 years old, but remains as ornery as ever.

NOVEMBER: Senator Al Franken makes one joke too many.

DECEMBER: Christmas 2017 comes and goes, and it looks like another year is pretty much shot to hell. HAPPY NEW YEARS everybody!!












Dealing with the rain (and being dealt with)


When you’re homeless in the winter, the rain is a constant pain in the ass.  It is a constant battle.  And one wrong play can fuck you up for days and weeks to come.  Right now we’re in the middle of a two-week storm that’s already dropped 4 inches of rain, with more to come.

Generally, I camp in the hills when its dry.  And camp in a doorway when its wet.  I have a perfectly-scoped out doorway that I’ve been using for years during the rainy season.  The doorway is in the basement in the back of this building on the campus, and its a fire exit so it’s always locked —  so there’s never any people using it.    And the path to the doorway leads to a cul-de-sac  — so there are never any pedestrians or (more importantly) cops on bicycles going by.  Perfect.

Tonight I can’t decide which route to take.  Hills or doorway.  I greatly prefer the hills.  And I don’t like to over-use the doorway (for fear of getting rousted and losing the spot).  On the other hand, I don’t like getting caught way up in the hills in the middle of a sudden and torrential downpour, either.  So I’m agonizing over the decision.  The weather report has been predicting a half-an-inch of rain coming in, but its mostly just been occasional drizzles off and on.  So I’m starting to wonder if the projected storm is just a paper tiger.  I relentlessly monitor all the weather reports all day long.  Trying to stay one step ahead of the weather.  But no matter how hard you try to stay on top of it,  once you’re in the middle of major storm it’s like being in a little boat in the midst of a raging ocean storm.  You get buffeted back and forth and the best you can usually do is hold on for dear life.   Lately I’ve been averaging about 4 hours of sleep a night.  That’s the first thing that starts wearing down your mental and physical sharpness.  Sleep deprivation.

9:00 PM:  I hang out with Hate Man and the boys at People’s Park for an hour, shooting the shit, smoking cigarettes, polishing off my 40 of OE and generally enjoying the creamy buzz that comes from 100 ounces of malt liquor circulating through my metabolism.  Mostly I’m just killing time trying to get a feel for which way the weather is going to turn.

10:00 PM:  It’s starting to sprinkle, so I head to Dwinelle Hall on the UC Berkeley campus to get out of the rain.  There’s an outlet in the hallway in this out-of-the-way spot in the basement.  So it’s a good spot to plug in my cellphone, charge my batteries and scroll away on the internet for an hour or two.

12:30 AM:  “Excuse me, sir, wake up.”  I look up and there’s a cop standing over me.  “I know you’re just trying to get out of the rain, but you’re not allowed to sleep in campus buildings.”

“Oh man, I’m sorry,” I said.  “I was just trying to charge my cellphone.”

The cop takes my ID and reads my name over the wire.  “Have you been drinking?” asked the cop.

“Yeah,” I said.  Generally this is an admission that I don’t like to make to the cops.  But I immediately realize it is the right move to make in this instance.  Because, 1.)  It lets the cop know I’m being sort of honest with him and not trying to bullshit him. And 2.) the cop is now spinning it as guy-drinks-a-little-too-much-on-a-Friday-night-and-accidentally-falls-asleep, as opposed to the more aggregious homeless-bum-sneaks-into-a-campus-building-after-midnight-and-tries-to-camp-overnight.  It’s interesting because, as drunk and groggy as I am, I am acutely gauging the nuances of every word I utter. My mind is working  like a computer in these instances.  Because — as anyone who’s been reading the papers these days is well aware of —  any interactions with cops can instantly go from minor irritation to major ramifications with one small  misplay.

“How long you been in Berkeley?” said the cop.

“About 40 years,”  I said.  “I bet that’s longer than when you were born.   Yuk yuk.”  (I’m doing my “I’m-just-a-good-American-just-like-you-officer” routine)

“Yep, that’s true,” said the cop.

The cop hands me back my ID and I walk out the door.  “I apologize.  This is embarrassing,” I said, all humble and shit.  But as I walked off into the night I was more pissed than embarrassed.  Generally, the cops will give you one warning before they give you a ticket for camping.  And now I’ve blown my one warning when I wasn’t even trying to camp.

1:00 AM:  The sky seems like it’s starting to clear, and even the moon is coming out.  So I decide to take a chance at camping in the hills.  Of course my two feral cats — Moo Cat and Blondie — are waiting for me, meowing wildly.  My blankets are stashed in a garbage bag behind a tree.  They’re a little soggy from yesterday’s storm, but serviceable.  I feed the cats two big cans of food and instantly fall asleep.


3:30 AM:  I’ve got a couple of hours to kill, so I go to one of my favorite hang-out spots on the Berkeley campus; the Chavez Study Center.  There’s an awning to protect me from the rain.  And there’s even an outdoor outlet to plug in my cellphone.  But, much to my chagrin, the lights are on inside the building and there are a bunch of Asian college students studying away on their laptops.  So that kills that idea.  I feel a strong urge to shout at them:  “FOR GOD’S SAKE!!  I KNOW YOU NEED TO MAINTAIN YOUR 3.9 GRADE AVERAGES BUT ITS 3 IN THE MORNING ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WHY DON’T YOU GO OUT SOMEWHERE AND HAVE A LIFE!!”  But, fortunately, I’m no longer very drunk by this point.  So I wisely keep my mouth shut.  For once.  Instead, I walk around the corner to this private cul-de-sac, and curl up and sleep right on the floor.  The concrete is cold and hard.  But I’m so tired, I sleep as comfortably as a baby.

No automatic alt text available.
5:45 AM:  The McDonald’s on Shattuck and University opens up at 5  so I decide to go down there for coffee and to get inside a warm, dry building for awhile.  As I trudge down Center Street I spot a young homeless woman huddled in a doorway.  And I feel this ache of sadness for the tragedy of it all.  But then I remember that I’m homeless, too, and wonder who  should be feeling sorry for whom.  But my situation is a little different.  I’m one of the few people who is out on the streets by choice.  I have plenty of options at this point, but after 10 years of sleeping outside, the streets are kind of my natural mileau and I’m more at home on them than I am when I have an actual home.  Oddly

7:00 AM:  As I head up University Avenue to drop some stuff off at one of my stash spots,  I spot 20 boxes of pizza that have been carefully set out in front of the Dominos Pizza place.  No doubt leftover pizza they’re free-boxing from last night.  Sausage, pepperoni and ham pizza.  I grab two boxes.  The early bird gets the pizza!  My cats are going to go nuts for this.  They’re meat and cheese freaks.

Peter Labriola's photo.

Kitties in the Mist (and the rain)



 It’s been raining for the last 3 days so I haven’t been at my campsite.  There was a brief respite last night, so I thought I’d chance it.  My two feral cats — Moo Cat and Blondie — had been patiently waiting for me for 3 days at the foot of the trail to my campsite.
 When I got within fifty yards of them I heard Moo Cat off in the distance in the darkness, making this loud, wailing, meowing sound.  Sort of desperate and hopeful sounding at the same time.  Like:  “IS THAT REALLY YOU??  WE’RE OVER HERE!!  FEED US!!  FEED US!!”

I called back the sounds I usually make around them so she’d recognize it was me:  “BIG FAT CAT!!  COME AND GET YOUR FUD!!”

I broke out two big cans of catfood and a big bag of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving.  Which they gobbled down eagerly.

I slept peacefully (aside from one weird dream) for 4 hours until the rain woke me up at 2 in the morning.   I quickly packed up my campsite and fled in the general direction of civilization.  And here I am.

The Rain

(March 29, 2012)

Decided to stop smoking pot for awhile, smoked up my last roach.  “That’s that,” I said.  Then this guy Lenny gives me a big dime bag of buds as a gift.   I can’t win even when I’m winning.

It rained non-stop all day yesterday.  I sat for hours last night at my old spot, my old corner at Cody’s Books under the awning.  Trapped by the relentless rain.  At first I was digging it.  The rain was  a great excuse to hang out at my old spot and drink several cans of Olde English malt liquor.  Plus, for once, nobody would be coming at me, bothering me, everybody else was running for cover to get out of the rain so the rain provided this real cozy coccoon.  I started having flashback memories of all the past scenes I ‘d had here from 1982 to 2009.  All the great and weird moments.  But after awhile the movies in my head ended and I returned to the present moment.  Sitting in a doorway, a homeless bum in the rain.  Periodically I would scream at the top of my lungs: “FUCK!!”  To blow off some steam.  That was an enjoyable release.  Plus, the sound was mostly drowned out by the battering pitter-patter sound of the relentless rain.  And plus, nobody was going to brave the rain to come over and tell me to shut the fuck up and stop screaming “Fuck.”  So I had a free pass.

Thats probably why Lenny — this aging homeless hippy potdealer —  on his own accord offered me a bunch of buds as I passed.  He was in the adjacent doorway and he probably heard me shouting “Fuck” and wanted to mellow me out.  I remember telling the blonde steet kid he was hanging with “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” and he gave me a nice hippy hug.  Its weird to get suddenly hugged by a stranger. But ya gotta take your kicks where you find them.  I gave Lenny $7 for the weed — he was being generous to me so I’m being generous to him, that bit.

“Get yourself something to drink,” I said.

“I don’t drink,” said Lenny.

“No, I mean get yourself a cup of coffee or something,” I said.

(See, Lenny the pothead was turning it into an anti-alcohol thing.  There’s this whole controversy on the streets, the drunks versus the stoners debate.)  (Don’t even get me started on the speedfreaks versus the crackheads debate.)  (Let alone the Grateful Dead versus Metallic debate.)

Then I staggered down the street with my sleeping bag and blanket in a garbage bag slung over my shoulder.  Staggered to my secret doorway on the campus which I’ve been using as my “rain crashspot” the last two winters.  Its an ingenious spot, right in the middle of the campus but perfectely hidden at a cul de sac. So bicycle cops never ride through and spot you.  Its the back entrance to the basement of this building.  So in the last two years there’s never been a person around when I’m crashing there.  I was congratulating myself last night on how clever I was to have found such a great crash spot.   Then this morning as I’m packing up to get out of there at 7 in the morning before anyone else shows up (always one step ahead of the fucks, me, Ace Backwords) a cop car goes cruising by just as I emerge from my spot. Did he see me? Fuck.  So much for that spot.  That’s life on  the streets.


How Karma Works

Surviving On The Streets: How To Go Down Without Going Out(Originally published December 14, 2002)

Yesterday was the first big storm of the rainy season. It rained in sheets — cold, icy sheets — for 24 hours straight. And it’s still raining today, with 3 more days of heavy rain in the immediate forecast.

Rain is a source of dread for the street people.You can see it in their faces as they huddle under awnings and doorways; that vibe of steely resignation. And the first few storms always seem the worst, because you’re discombobulated. By the middle of the season you sort of get in sync with the rhythm of the thing. And then the last few storms of the season are the worst, because by that time you’re just sick of the whole grind and craving the sun of summer.

Last night we hung out under the porch of the Student Union building. A bedraggled band of urban campers we were, with our wet pants and wet socks and wet backpacks. Mostly we sat there, grimly, smoking our cigarettes, and smoking pot, and trying to think of something to talk about. (The talk of the day was a newspaper story about a couple that had just won the Lottery twice in one day, something like a trillion to one odds, they’d been buying $20 worth of tickets every day for the last 15 years, something like “$120,000 spent until they finally hit the jackpot, and then TWICE in one day, unbelievable!” — this is the kind of stuff the street people talk about when we’re huddled under an awning all night watching the non-stop rain pour down.)

So today, Saturday, I was feeling particularly bedraggled, because on top of everything else, the rain wiped out the Telegraph Street Fair, which is the peak of Christmas sales. So we had to pack up our vending table and our fabulous “Telegraph Street Calendar 2002” and just hope that next weekend, the last weekend before Christmas, it doesn’t rain, too, and completely wipe us out.

So I’m standing on the corner with my half-broken umbrella, in my wet, soggy clothes, and no money in my pocket. And this middle-aged, suburban housewife-looking woman comes out of this expensive store with her Christmas shopping. She’s about 35. Perfectly coiffed, every hair in place, even with the storm. And she’s got on an expensive rain jacket, and she’s got a nice plastic rain-hat on, and she’s got a big, expensive umbrella. She is PREPARED for the rain. She probably has to only brave the storm for the 30 feet it takes her to walk from the warm, dry store to her warm, dry car, and then into her warm, dry suburban home. But she’s PREPARED, man, and she’s not gonna get a single drop of icky rainwater on her warm, expensive skin. Except that she rushes off the curb to cross the street to get to her car, and she steps right in this big, huge puddle. I mean, she plunged in there almost all the way up to her knee. And I burst out laughing because it was so funny — here she’s taking every possible precaution to stay dry, and now she’s soaking wet anyway. HAW HAW (I admit I have a cruel sense of humor). And the lady hears me laughing and she turns and gives me a look, and if looks could kill, I’d be dead. But she probably figures there’s laws against suburban house-wives beating bedraggled street people to death with her expensive umbrella. So she thinks better of it and rushes off down the street, dragging her soaking-wet pant-leg behind her.

And I turn around to head up the street with a big smile on my face, and this bus goes blasting down the Ave and hits this big puddle of water and splashes it right up into my face and all over my shirt, like getting hit directly in the chest by tidal wave. And I’m sputtering and coughing and cursing. And all the people who had seen me laughing at the lady are now openly laughing at me. And, in truth, I didn’t find it nearly as funny.

But in a way it was great. Because we always get our karmic payback sooner or later; usually there’s just more of a time-lag between the karmic cause and the karmic effect. So at least I had gotten it over with.