Every homeless person makes their own unique adjustment to the situation

One of the fascinating things to me about homeless people is how every one of them makes their own unique adjustment to it, depending on their particular personality and situation. Being homeless is such a round-hole-in-a-square-peg situation that you have to make all sorts of unusual adaptations to be able to function and exist within the larger society (some doing this better than others)..

This long-time homeless fellow has made a particularly unique adjustment. About 50, he’s been on the Berkeley street scene for the last couple of decades. While never really being a part of it. In all these years I’ve never seen him talk to another person. Always sits by himself. And spends most of his time walking around and around across the sidewalks of Berkeley, on his own particular route. Usually stopping from garbage can to garbage can, looking for food or whatever else he can find.

He seems to be completely self-sufficient and independent, living totally outside mainstream society. Or any society. Aside from his own personal universe. I’ve never seen him go into a store — or any building for that matter — and I sometimes wonder if he’s managed to carve out an existence without using money of any kind. Imagine pulling that off.

His other unique traits is that he apparently carries everything he owns with him every step he takes. He always has his bedding, matting and tarps strapped over his shoulder. While usually lugging several other big bags with his other possessions.

Like I said, every homeless person makes their own unique adjustment.

Thursday morning at the downtown Berkeley BART station

Image may contain: sky and outdoorOdd scene in front of the Shattuck BART station just now. I’m walking by and I notice these two black guys are angrily jawing back and forth at each other. And it’s just about to get physical. They’re like chest-to-chest, and they both put up their dukes and they’re just about to start punching each other. . . When this black woman steps in between them and says rather firmly: “EXCUUUSE ME!!” She’s bigger than both of them. So they both wisely turn and walk the other way.

But the funny thing is: The woman just kept right on walking. She got on the escalator and went downstairs to board the BART train. I had assumed that she must have known one of the combatants, which was why she was breaking it up. But she just happened to be walking by, and on her accord stepped right into the the middle of it to prevent a fight from breaking out. Ha ha.

I thought that was pretty cool.

An awkward encounter at McDonald’s

It’s 3 in the afternoon and I just woke up. Hung over beyond belief. Haven’t even washed up yet (restrooms on the campus closed for weekend). Trying to choke down a 2 dollar McDonald’s hamburger and get some life-saving coffee in me. When I hear those 4 words I dread.

“Are you Ace Backwords?”

He’s a young guy, early 20s. “I read your book in the library. It practically saved my life.”

He’s standing over me talking away. Nice guy. And I’m flattered. Soft-spoken (thankfully). But I can barely hear him. And I can barely follow what he’s saying. And I’m in no shape for socializing. Plus I’m embarrassed. Whatever high opinion he had of me from reading my book is now probably slightly lowered. I tell him I really can’t talk right now. But he starts telling me a story about something that happened to him in People’s Park the other day. Then he asks if he can buy me anything. “I owe you one,” he says. “I’m fine,” I says. After a bit more awkward exchanges he leaves with a big smile on his face.

Brushes with greatness at McDonald’s.

More misadventures waiting on line at the good ole Dollar Tree


Image may contain: one or more people and people standing

Sometimes it’s the little things that can get to you. So I’m waiting on line at the Dollar Tree. A LONG line. Only one register open. When another cashier suddenly shows up and opens up a second register. “I’ll take the next person on line,” she announces.

But these guys behind me on line — these three young Asian guys — cut in front of me and prepare to put their groceries on the counter ahead of me.

I don’t know if I was being petty. But I was in no mood for this shit. So I said: “It’s the next person in line. You can’t cut in front of me.”

They stood there for about 5 seconds. Staring at me blankly. And most definitely not retreating. I don’t know if they didn’t understand English. Or didn’t understand the concept. Or just didn’t care. So I reiterated my position.


I don’t know if they understood English. But they definitely understood my facial expression. Which said loud and clear: “If you dare to put your groceries on the counter ahead of me, they won’t be staying on that counter for very long.”

They got the message and moved on back behind me.

But they ended up getting the last laugh. Most of the people waiting on line ahead of me moved over to the second register. Leaving the first register almost deserted. So the Asian guys waltzed over to that register. And they got their groceries rung up, and they were out the door, while I was still waiting on line.

Sheesh. Sometimes you can’t win. But at least they won playing fair and square.

One of my favorite memories of Craig



I remember one of my favorite Craig memories. It was 1994, and I decided to record a compilation CD of street musicians. And Craig was one of the first people I approached for the project. For Craig was the quintessential street musician after all. Braying out his songs to the midnight moon with his battered street guitar as he belted out druggy versions of every Rolling Stones song you could think of. And wiith all the anguished, tormented soul that Craig was famous for.

The recording sessions for the CD took place in this abandoned bank building on Shattuck & Bancroft. A friend of mine who worked for City Hall had given me the key to the building. And we set up a make-shift recording studio in there (great acoustics inside the bank vault but you sure don’t want that big round door to shut and lock on you).

I had invited about 20 street musicians for the first session. And when I showed up early that morning to unlock the building Craig was already there waiting for me, with a big smile and his guitar slung over his shoulder. Craig was so excited about the project he had gotten up at the crack of dawn to get there first. Or, more likely, he had been up all night doing speed and hadn’t even gone to bed yet. At any rate we were both thrilled at this once-in-a-lifetime chance at playing at being rock stars. And who knows maybe we’d get lucky and come up with a hit record — stranger things have happened. Or at the least maybe we’d get one of out songs played on the radio (we actually managed this one).

The two engineers with the recording equipment hadn’t shown up yet. So me and Craig took our guitars into the men’s room — where you get that great echo-y sound — to warm up. Craig went through his repertoire of Stones songs. And they sounded great. And for the first time I started to think that maybe this crazy project of mine — this crazy pipe dream (literally) — was actually going to work. I had a cheap-ass tape-recorder and i recorded Craig singing and playing in that dark and dank men’s room (most of the sockets in the building didn’t have light bulbs). And one of these days I’m gonna have to dig up that tape. It’ll probably make me cry.

When we got all of our recording equipment set up Craig was the first person we recorded. He had written an original song that was a parody of an Alice Cooper song that he titled “The Ballad of Isy Jones” (Isy Jones was one of Craig’s many street aliases — Sic Pup was another). He had reworked Alice Cooper’s lyrics into a dark and zany first-hand account of life on the streets (and jails) of Berkeley. I was proud of Craig — he had come up with a weird little underground classic. And Craig’s ravaged singing voice let you know he had lived out every line of the lyrics of the song, and then some.

When the recording sessions finally came to a close well after midnight, me and Craig and Monk (another crazy street rocker who could have been Craig’s brother from another mother) were hanging outside the building on the dark sidewalks of Shattuck. We were all definitely buzzed. But when I pulled the keys out of my pocket to lock up the building, the blotter acid in my pocket also came flying out and fluttered off in the wind.

“Oh fuck!” I said.

“What’s the matter?” said Craig.

“I just dropped my acid on the sidewalk.”


So the three of us are down on our hands and knees fumbling around on the dark sidewalk of Shattuck Avenue looking for that strip of acid.

“Found it!” said Monk.

Monk popped the acid in his mouth. And then happily bounded off down the street. And me and Craig bopped off in the other direction.

Just one more night in a seemingly endless expanse of nights on the streets of Berkeley. And we were all young and strong and just crazy enough to love the whole mad misadventures of our mad, mad lives.

That’s how I’ll always remember Craig. Bounding off down the street with his guitar slung across his back, off to his next adventure on the streets of Berkeley.


A young woman on Shattuck Avenue



Somebody posted this one on the internet the other day.

She was a somewhat mysterious woman who hung out on Shattuck for a month around 1999. Sometimes she’d be with her shopping cart. Other times I’d spot her late at night, all by herself, sitting on the sidewalk, dressed in an expensive skirt and high heels as if she was going out on the town (or possibly hooking), with a suitcase along side her.

She had a boyfriend with facial tattoos who seemed in a constant rage. Giving him the impression of an angry clown.

I asked her on a couple of occasions if I could take her photo. And I took a series of them (this one was the best). I gave her a couple of bucks and copies of the photos in exchange.

Never imagining it would later be immortalized by Crumb.








More Ghosts of Berkeley Past


This building on the corner of Shattuck and University is like a ghost to me.

In 1986 it was the office of the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper. And every semester the staff voted on what comic strips they’d run for the semester. And in 1986 I won the election. And it turned out to be a big break for me. Because I was able to quit my day job and spend the next 9 years working full-time as a cartoonist.

Then, 10 years later in 1996, I flamed out. Ran out of comic strip punchlines. Ended up homeless.

As fate would have it, this church group hired me to coordinate this art project making Christmas cards on a linoleum press. As fate would have it, their work space for the project was this little office in the basement of this building

So I set up shop down there for a couple months. And it was a great gig. I was a fairly renowned local Berkeley artist at that point. And most of my friends were brilliant artists. So we produced a beautiful batch of linoleum press Christmas cards. And they all sold like hot cakes. I had my vending table on Telegraph and they sold really well.

We would put 4 of the card designs on this tray. Run the paint over them with this paint roller. And then run the cards through the linoleum press. Then we’d hang all the cards on a clothes line so the paint could dry. Then we’d package the Christmas cards in sets of 10 which we’d sell for 10 bucks.

And they all sold. Because they were beautiful cards. And it was an amazing gig. It was literally like printing up money. Every time we printed a card we made a dollar.

And me and my co-worker Zach got really good at cranking out those Christmas cards as quickly as we could. We cranked them out like a machine on an assembly line.

The town of Berkeley has so many ghosts for me. I can’t walk by a building without flashing back to a zillion weird memories from the ethers of the past.

That was probably my greatest period as an adult. 1996, 1997, 1998. That was probably as close as I would come to being happy.



Part of the scenery

img_20170713_153148.jpgOne of the weird things about homeless street people. They become like part of the scenery. There’s that street light.  There’s that bus bench. There’s that store front. And there’s that homeless guy hanging out at his spot on the sidewalk with his dog.  You see them every day. So after awhile you get to feel like you know them. Even though you don’t really know them.

Like this guy. And his dog. I must have passed him and his dog a thousand times as I walked down Shattuck.  He was always set up at his hang-out spot on the sidewalk in front of Half Price Books. He’s been hanging out there every day for years. And him and his dog are a perfect match. A matching set.  They’re the very definition of “laconic.” Neither of them hardly ever move from their spot. And when they did move, they moved slowly. They were almost like a public statue.  And then at the end of the day they’d move about 10 feet to their crash spot in the doorway of Half Price Books where they’d sleep for the night. Wake up the next morning.  And start all over again.

He seemed like a fairly friendly sort.  People would often stop and chat with him as they strolled down Shattuck.  And his dog was quite popular, too.  Got a lot of pets, a lot of attention, from the passerbys. Every now and then he would take out his acoustic guitar,and jam out some bluesy kind of instrumental stuff, and he had some nice skills on the guitar.

You could tell he had a lot of miles on him, probably in his late 50s, and had been through many a rough winters and was kind of on his last legs.  So I wasn’t particularly surprised when he suddenly disappeared last winter.  You noticed his absence immediately.  For, like I said, he was part of the scenery.  And now a piece of it was missing.  Word went out that he had died. So they made a make-shift shrine in his honor at his hang-out spot. They put flowers and candles and heart-felt eulogies. “I miss you and your dog Grinder so much, Rick!!”

But then a month later he returned to his spot. He wasn’t dead after all.  He was having some health problems and had been temporarily put up in a hotel. So it was like Mark Twain. “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But now he’s been missing again lately for the last 2 months. So who knows.  Nothing stays the same for very long in this life.  Even things that seem like they had been part of the scenery forever.