San Francisco 1976: Sleeping by the Dock of the Bay

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If you squint your eyes real hard you can see me sleeping there in my sleeping bag. I actually had a real nice down bag back then.

It me today that I hadn’t been over to San Francisco in over 10 years. Even though it’s only minutes away, right across the other side of the Bay. And I suddenly felt an urge to visit my old haunts. Even as one of my Facebook friends cautioned me that “It might make you cry.” I guess San Francisco circa 2019 might be a bit of a bring-down from the San Francisco of my hey-day, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The first place I’d want to see — as if driven by some homing pigeon instinct — is my old camping spot on the Fremont Street off-ramp. It was a great spot, almost completely hidden away from the rest of San Francisco. And in the year I camped there I only saw 2 other people come back there the whole time. To get there you had to walk up the Fremont Street exit the wrong way. And then walk along this narrow grassy path on top of this steep hill — which was too steep for people to climb up from the street way below. So it was a completely secluded spot.

I camped right underneath the Bay Bridge. Put my pillow right up against the slab concrete pillar of the bridge. Way above my head I could hear the traffic from the bridge, the cars endlessly whizzing back and forth from San Francisco to Oakland. And I had a spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay, and beyond that the skyline of Berkeley and Oakland way off in the distance, and this big endless sky over my head. Years later when they built expensive condos on the street below me, a big advertising pitch was “the million dollar view.” Of course I had it all to my own back then, and for free.

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I dragged up a mattress to sleep on. And I even had a little campfire where I would cook up my hamburgers. Something I wouldn’t do now in a million years. But I had the place pretty much to myself. The homeless population was relatively small back then, and they mostly clustered around 6th St. and a couple blocks of the Tenderloin. So they rarely wandered down to my neck of the woods. Though my pal Fearless Frank would occasionally camp in the bushes by the Union 76 tower.
The area was mostly a wharehouse district. So after 6 in the evening when the workday ended, and on the weekend, it was like a ghost-town and I had the entire neighborhood pretty much to myself. It was the perfect spot for me to hang at when I was 19 (in retrospect the only thing it lacked was feral cats). It was a place where I could sit and lick my wounds, and see if I could formulate some kind of a plan for what to do with the rest of my life.

That would be the first place I’d visit if I ever went back to San Francisco. To see if the ghost of Ace Backwords Past was still lingering in the air.

(You can see my old campsite in this photo, it’s the strip of greenery on the right of the bridge, straight across from the Union 76 clock.)

The Exciting Adventures of FramptonMan

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Whenever a Peter Frampton song happens to pop up on the radio or the internet, it’s like I have an acid flashback to 1976. I was 19 and driving cross-country from New Jersey to California to be a hippie (that was the plan). I had this bomb of a ’69 Chevy that spewed a thick black cloud of exhaust for 3,000 miles. And an AM-FM radio that played all the hits of the day. And Peter Frampton was one of the guys who’s songs regularly popped up on my radio (the other songs I remember was “Dream On” by Aerosmith, “Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright, and the hated “Take It to the Limits” by the Eagles).

When I got to San Francisco, Peter Frampton was on the cover of ROLLING STONE that month. He was like the mega-star of the moment. And his live album was selling zillions of copies and setting records. So it was like Peter Frampton was “it” in 1976 (though not for long).

Anyways one of my big dreams at the time was to become an underground cartoonist. So I rented out this little room in this flophouse, the Empress Hotel (I think the rent was $15 a week) deep in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. And there was a little desk and a chair and I had my art tablet and my pens and pencils. And I worked on various comic strips that I hoped would bring me fame and fortune.

And one of the comics I was working on was this parody character FramptonMan — Peter Frampton as this do-gooder, crime-fightin’ superhero (I was hoping to cash in on the latest trends — pretty smart, huh?). And FramptonMan’s arch-enemy was the Stones Gang. Mick and Keith and the rest of the Rolling Stones as this underworld crime gang. In the first episode of my FramptonMan comic, Donny and Marie Osmond are doing their TV show and the Stones Gang bursts onto the stage with their electric guitars and executes Donny and Marie with heavy metal power chords on live TV. And that’s as far as I got with my FramptonMan cartoon. Thank God.

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So anyways one night I’m heading back to my room on the 3rd floor of the Empress Hotel. And as I’m walking down the hallway I passed these black guys who had been loitering around in the hallway. . And suddenly they all turned and run after. So I put it in high gear and went sprinting down the hallway towards my hotel room as fast as I could. I rushed into my room, and slammed the door shut. Only one of the guys managed to stick his foot in the doorway and wedge it in there before I could get the damn door shut. So now I’m pushing on the door to try and shut it. And they’re pushing on the door to try and open it. Like this crazy tug-of-war.

Finally they managed to over-power me and flood into my room. So now I’m suddenly dealing with that.

One of the guys stationed himself by the window as a look-out. One of the guys stationed himself by the door. And one of the guys grabbed my knife that was lying on my desk and puts it up to my throat (it was obvious they had done this sort of thing many times before because they were well rehearsed). The knife, by the way, was razor-sharp. I used it to sharp my pencils. And now it was pressed up against my adam’s apple.

The guy with the knife had a crazed, wide-eyed expression on his face and he’s sweating like crazy and he keeps ranting about how “MY GIRLFRIEND HAD JUST BEEN KILLED BY A MOTHERFUCKING WHITE GUY!!” I think that was his justification for killing me. So I was realizing that I could be killed at any moment.

The weird thing was — I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like that but — I wasn’t feeling any fear. It wasn’t that I was so brave. But that the scene was so bizarre and sudden and unexpected that my brain couldn’t even process what was happening. Like being in a state of shock. Meanwhile the other guys are rifling through my meager possessions for anything they could steal. While the other guy is contemplating whether or not he should slice my fool head off (and I could tell that part of him very much wanted to do that).

I remember at one point I actually had an out-of-body experience. It was like I rose to the ceiling of my room and I was looking down, dispassionately, at the whole crazy scene from that perspective. And then, for lack of anything better to do, I said to the guy with the knife: “Listen, can I show you something?”

“WHAT??” he said.

I pointed to my desk. “That.” I said. I cautiously walked over to my desk and picked up the piece of paper with the cartoon I was working on at the time. The FramptonMan cartoon. And I picked it up and held it in front of me sort of like a shield and said: “I just want to draw cartoons.” I guess it was my way of trying to appeal to our common humanity. He looked at the Frampton Man cartoon with anger and perplexion. And so we were all frozen in time and space for several moments like that. Until one of the other guys said:

“We got the stuff. Let’s go.”

The guy with the knife paused for a beat, like he was still debating the merits of to kill or not to kill. And then they all went rushing out the door and down the hall. And I breathed the biggest sigh of relief I had ever breathed, like, WHOOSH!!!

The weird thing is, of the stuff of mine they stole — a couple of bucks, my knife, a cheap radio — the only real thing of value I had was this really nice $100 down sleeping bag. And they didn’t bother to steal that.

And the other take-away was, from then on I NEVER used a knife to sharpen my pencils. I always used a little pencil-sharpener after that. And whenever I happen to hear a Frampton song on the radio or the internet I’ll remember that whole scene in the back of my mind.

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San Francisco days

One line that I often use that I stole from a Herb Caen column: “I don’t know if the Good Old Days were really better. But I was better back then.”

I lived and/or worked in San Francisco for about 8 years (1976 to 1984). And like many San Franciscans I started every morning reading Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s weird, but Herb Caen made you feel like we were all part of something. Part of this big, fantastic club that was San Francisco. You really felt like you were living in this special place back then. This golden city. Of course we had this smug sense of superiority that may or may not have been warranted. But mostly we just felt grateful that this place existed, and that we could be a part of it.

When I was a bike messenger in the 1980s I sometimes delivered letters to Herb Caen’s office in the Chronicle building on 5th and Mission. It was like he had his own private wing of the building. And he was important enough to merit that. I heard that when he switched from the Examiner to the Chronicle, he took something like half of the Examiner’s circulation with him. Ha ha. . .. . I never saw Herb Caen himself, just dealt with his legendary secretary. But the door to his office was open and you could sneak a peak into where he typed up his column every morning. And it was like being in the inner sanctum of San Francisco. Like going to see the Wizard of Oz himself.

Herb Caen actually even wrote some nice items about the S.F. bike messengers. Called us “whacky and wild and wonderful” or something like that. But that was Caen. He included everybody in his vision of San Francisco. From the top to the bottom of the society.

The end of the day at the bike messenger job

I remember this one time, it must have been around 1978. It was quitting time, well after 6PM and I passed my old dispatcher Charlie hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the Rocket Messenger building on 5th and Folsom with a couple of co-workers. They all had cans of Budweiser in their hands. Charlie looked weepy like he was going to start crying. Which was uncharacteristic. Usually Charlie was wise-alecky and cocky.

“I guess you heard what happened today.” said Charlie.

“No,” I said. “What happened?”

“It was her first day on the job,” said Charlie. “She was riding down Market along side a Muni bus. And she bumped into the side of the bus and was knocked off her bike. And she fell under the bus. The bus dragged her for 3 or 4 blocks before the bus driver even knew she was under there.”

“Holy geez,” I said. “What happened to her.”

“We’re gonna send her back to her family in Kentucky in a box.”

Charlie took a big hit off of his can of beer. And I continued walking down Folsom Street.


If you’re goin’ to San Fran-cis-co . . .

For about 9 years, from 1976 to 1984 I mostly considered myself a “San Franciscan.” I lived and/or worked in San Francisco during that period. And it was the center of my professional and social life.

You read Herb Can every morning and you felt you were a part of this special community. There was still a real charm and magic to San Francisco back then. It was filled with like-minded people like me, who had come from all over the U.S., drawn by this vision we had in our heads of what San Francisco was. And it largely lived up to that vision.

Nowadays, I haven’t been to San Francisco in years. I wonder if I’m missing out on anything.

I spotted this posted on a bulletin board and it made me wonder. . .

My harrowing encounter with the Moonies cult

Welcome to Moonieville.

We were talking about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, and Rajneesh, and the Brotherhood of the Sun, and the other religious cults from back in the days. And I was reminded of an experience I once had with the Moonies — the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s cult — back when I was a young lad

Back in the 1970s the Moonies used to send these hot young Moonie chicks out on the streets of San Francisco trolling for converts. They’d flirt like hell with you to get you to come to dinner at their big Victornian house in SF. Then, after a very nice dinner, they’d do a big sales pitch — while the chick is sitting next to you stroking your thigh and looking at you with goo-goo eyes — to get you to go with them to their farm in Boonville and join the Moonies cult. And after the big pitch they had these big school buses all revved up and waiting to take the whole crew up to the farm in Moonieville. “Won’t you PLEASE come??” implores the chick as she gives your body one last impassioned rub.

Then when they get you up there they take all your money and your possessions (it’s now the collective property of the Moonie commune) and you’re virtually trapped up there in the middle of nowhere.

Oh and the chick that was flirting with you informs you that they’re forbidden to have sex until they’re personally married by Rev. Moon in this big mass wedding ceremony.

I almost fell for it once myself. I was 19 and as dumb as they come. And the Moonie chick was VERY attractive.

The Hunchback of St. Anthony’s

Welcome to the Tenderloin.


I lived on the streets of San Francisco for a year back in 1976, age 19. And I spent a lot of time in the Tenderloin district. Which was an eye-opening experience for someone like me, having come from a fairly sheltered background.

Just about every afternoon I would eat lunch at St Anthony’s Dining Hall, the charity food joint, in the heart of the Tenderloin. And there would always be a long line of street people outside, waiting on line for their grub.

And the one guy I really remember was this guy I called the Hunchback. Because he was so hunchbacked his head was practically coming out of his belly. And he looked ANCIENT, like he was 100 years old or something. And he usually wore 4 or 5 ratty old overcoats. Classic streetperson.

The Hunchback slept, and lived, in this abandoned doorway about a half block up the street from St Anthony’s. So every afternoon he’d pick himself up from his doorway, and trudge down to St. Anthony’s for his lunch. He was so old you could practically hear his bones creaking as he inched down the sidewalk, pushing his shopping cart of possessions. Then when he ate his lunch, he would put his mouth a couple inches from his tray and shovel the food in.

Then he would trudge back to his doorway. Where he’d stay for the rest of the day and night. Until the next afternoon when he would repeat the whole process.

I don’t know how long the Hunchback had been living there in that doorway. But you got the feeling he had been there for a LONG time. And you got the feeling he would be there for as long as he had the strength to trudge down that half-block walk from his doorway to St Anthony’s. And after that? Who knows. He was near the end of the line.

At the time, it had never occurred to me that human beings actually lived and died like that. In city doorways. So I was learning many lessons they hadn’t taught me in my high school textbooks.


The Lusty Lady



Back around 1990 I used to know this beautiful young stripper. She was the girlfriend of a good friend of mine. So that’s how I got to know her.

She was about 19, with a wholesome, girlish beauty. She had big, glassy cat-eyes, and short but thick black hair, and long long legs. She was a number. Generally she dressed fairly conservatively when she wasn’t working. But — like a lot of off-duty strippers — she usually had this subtle, little extra dash of sexuality to her look that hinted at her possible availability.

She worked at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco. One of the hipper strip clubs (lot of women with tattoos and piercings). And we would sometimes have long conversations on the telephone, and she liked to titillate me with stories about some of the weird things her customers asked her to do (like pissing in a bucket or doing weird lesbian acts). I had worked at the Mitchell Brothers strip club when I was a young man (no, not as a stripper). So we had that mileau in common. So we would trade stories about some of the weird stuff we had seen. I was fascinated with the subject of sex back then and used to think about sex all the time (every now and then I could also think about sports, but that was about it).

We also both wrote columns for one of the more prominent punk rock zines of the times. So we had that in common, too. And we would exchange gossip about some of the local hipsters and scenesters that we both knew.

But I think the main reason she was interested in me was because I was good friends with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend — the one before her. And i think she sort of viewed the ex as a potential rival. So she would sort of ply me for information about her character (and potential weaknesses) in case she ever got into a cat-fight with the ex over the boyfriend, and needed some weapons in her arsenal. She was kind of Machivelian like that, viewed the people around her as kind of chess pieces on a chessboard, And you always sensed that her interest in you was tied into whether you were useful to her. She had a cute, girlish manner, but you could sense a definite hardness under the surface. Something I guess you needed to survive in her profession. With its underlying premise of: You can use me if I can use you.

Like a lot of young lovers, she and her boyfriend had their fair share of drama and spectacular fights. And sometimes they’d break up, and she’d be crying and wailing and imploring him to take her back. I think my friend could never get used to the fact that his girlfriend was a prostitute (she was too classy to be a streetwalker, but I think she usually had a string of sugar daddies lined up on the side).

Anyways, they finally had one last big fight and broke up for good. And that was the last I ever saw of her.

Until around 1998. I was walking across the Berkeley campus when this attractive, young co-ed stopped in front of me and said “Ace??” Turned out she was using the money that she earned stripping to put herself through college. Which I thought was admirable. So many of the women in that mileau get stuck in that sexual underground. And when they lose their sexual attractiveness they’re pretty much used up. But when youre beautiful and intelligent and full of ambition (like her) all sorts of doors open up to you.

We sat on a campus bench and talked about old times. Her ex-boyfriend — and my friend — had ended up killing himself. “I don’t know what I saw in that loser,” she said (like I said, she was a bit of a hardened case).

And we talked about the punk rock zine we used to write for. I ended up having a falling out with the publisher, concluded he was slimy and dishonest and disassociated myself with his magazine. But he had recently died, so the local punk scene was buzzing with glowing tributes and hagiography in honor of the allegedly great man. So she asked me if that had changed my opinion of him. “Hell no,” I said. “I still think he’s a dirtbag.” (I guess I’m a little hardened myself).

And that was the last time I ever saw her. I have no idea how her life turned out. But if I had to take a guess, I’d say she married some rich guy and lives in a suburb somewhere, and is a prim and proper and respectable middle-aged lady. And most of the woman at the local PTA would probably never guess about her colorful past history.



Welcome to 6th Street


For some reason tonight I’m thinking about this friend of mine, Fearless Frank, that i used to hang out with back in 1976 back when I was a 19 year old homeless bum in San Francisco.

One afternoon me and Fearless Frank were hanging out on 6th St. — the traditional Skid Row in every sense of the word. We were waiting to get a free meal at the Gospel Soup Kitchen on 6th St. If you sat through an hour-long sermon haranguing you for being a God-less sinner who would burn in hell if you didn’t believe in Jesus — they would give you a bowl of soup and a sandwich of unknown meat and a bunch of day- old pastries.

So me and old Fearless Frank are waiting outside on the sidewalk with the other bums for the soup kitchen to open. On 6th St. Skid Row. Which was a unique couple of blocks in its own way. Next door to the Soup Kitchen was a Glory Hole where people could meet new friends. And there were multiple porn stores where you could buy porn mags or masturbate to porn movies in 25-cent peep booths in deep shame. And there were a bunch of liquor stores and delis and flophouses. And even a couple of seedy bars and a discotheque where you could dance and score drugs. Plus several back alleys that you walked down at your own peril. WELCOME TO 6TH STREET.

So me and Fearless Frank are hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for the soup kitchen to open. And Frank notices this hubcap that was lying on the sidewalk. God knows what it was doing there. But this is Skid Row so you never know what kind of junk will be lying on the sidewalk.
So Frank just sort of gently kicks the hubcap from the sidewalk into the gutter. He meant no harm. Just clearing the pathway of the sidewalk.
Unfortunately this black guy, who just happened to be walking by, took great offense at this. He shouted at Frank: “WHY DID YOU JUST KICK THIS HUB CAP AT ME???”

Frank tried to explain that he meant no harm. But the guy could not be placated. “YOU MOTHERFUCKER YOU COULD HAVE HIT ME WITH THE MOTHERFUCKING HUB CAP!!!”

So now Fearless Frank is sort of cowering in fear. The guy picks up the hub cap and waves it right in Frank’s face. “YOU MOTHERFUCKER!!”

I’m just sort of standing beside Frank, not sure how to react. The one thing I remember, oddly, was that the guy was wearing a totally orange suit. Orange jacket, orange pants, orange wide-brimmed hat. And he was sweating profusely. As he waved the hub cap menacingly in front of Frank’s face.

Frank is backed up against a brick wall. And Frank is one of the nerdiest, wimpiest guys you could imagine. The classic campy queen. So you know he’s not going to fight back. He’s at the guy’s mercy.

Suddenly the guy takes the hub cap and smashes it against the brick wall. Inches away from Frank’s face. Then he throws the hub cap into the street. And stomps off in an angry, cursing rage. “MOTHERFUCKER!!!”

Me and Frank stood there. And looked at the indentation on the brick wall. That could have been an indentation on Frank’s face. And both sort of went:


And then we went into the soup kitchen and got some soup and sandwich and sermonizing.

Another day on Skid Row.



The Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion

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Back in 1976 when I first became homeless I used to hang out at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion with my crazy friend Fearless Frank. We used to eat lunch at St. Anthony’s Dining Hall with the other bums, then we’d walk a couple blocks to 5th and Market and hang out at the pavilion and watch the world go by.

There weren’t too many homeless street people in San Francisco back then. Believe it or not. And most of them got herded off to the couple blocks of skid row on 6th St. and the Tenderloin. So me and Fearless Frank stood out a bit as we sat there on a bench in our rags. Amidst the tourists waiting for the cable cars, and the business people from the financial district, and the rich people shopping at Union Square.

We were an odd pair, me and Fearless Frank. Because we didn’t have much in common. I was 19, he was 30. I was straight, he was gay. I was an acidhead and he was an alkie. But for whatever reason, we both hit it off. I think because we were both damaged. Even as Frank had given up on life and was going down. While i was still fighting to make something of my life and trying to pull myself up. But at that particular juncture we both intersected at the same level of damage. And that bonded us.

And we both had a weird, gallow’s humor, sense of humor about our plights. Both considered life to be absurd and ridiculous, and we could laugh about it, even when the joke was on us. We used to say:

“Would you like to adjourn to our luxury suite at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion?”

“Why surely. That strikes me as a simply marvelous and splendid idea.”

And we’d sit there on the bench — it was sort of like a balcony looking down on the plaza below —  like we had box seats to the latest grand opera. We’d watch all the people rush by. Talk about our lives. Gossip about the latest freaky scenes on the street scene. Just killing time basically. And we had plenty of that.

And it was an odd juxtaposition. Two bums at the bottom of San Francisco’s society sitting at a pavilion named after one of the richest movers-and-shakers at the top of San Francisco’s society. And it was like an inside joke between us how we’d always refer to it by its full name — “THE Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion” — in this very regal and stuffy tone. We’d imagine ourselves holding little umbrellas over our heads like uppercrust snobs, sipping on mint julips.

Life seemed so different to me back then at age 19. Like my life was mostly a blank canvas, with an endless expanse of time to fill it. As opposed to now at age 61, where the picture has mostly been painted, aside from little embellishments on the sides.