I just ran into J.J., one of the REAL old-timers, survivors, of the Telegraph street scene. J.J. goes all the way back to the ’70s when he was a drinking partner with the legendary Gypsy Catano.
“Ace!! GOOMBAH!! How you doin’, my brother!!” said J.J..
Which is how he always greets me. I’m not even sure what “goombah” means. But J.J. is a Puerto Rican guy from New York City and he knows I’m an Italian guy from Passaic, New Jersey. So I guess it’s an East coast street thing. And I assume it’s a compliment (though maybe I should look it up just to be on the safe side, ha ha).
“How you doin’ J.J.?” I said.
“I just had my birthday. I just turned 73.”
“Well happy birthday, my man. I’m gonna be 63 next week.”
J.J. is a little guy. Still walks with a bit of a swagger, though it’s getting to be a bit more of a stagger at his advanced age. Wears a black eye patch (lost the eye about 10 years ago). But otherwise doesn’t look much different than he looked 30 years ago. For many years J.J. was a drop-dead street drunk. Drinking 24-7. Lurching down the Avenue with bottle in hand and unfocused eyes. Passing out in the gutters, etc. A guy you figured would NEVER make it to 40. But somehow he managed to right his ship. And here he still is years later. You just never know. What the fates have in store for any of us.
After some more small talk, J.J. headed off down the sidewalk, to buy some pot at the pot club down the block. And then off to his home, some little apartment in downtown Oakland, just below San Pablo. Where he’s lived quietly for many years. But he always comes back to Telegraph regularly to check in. Because this is his real home. And always will be.
As I watched J.J. walk off i regretted I didn’t take his photo. It occurred to me I might not get many more chances. Him or me.
We came up with the idea for the TELEGRAPH AVENUE STREET CALENDAR on a whim. Duncan was taking all these great photos of Berkeley street people. So I said: “Why don’t we publish them in a photo calendar. We could print up 200 copies. And if it didn’t sell we could just give them out as Christmas presents to our friends.”
And it seemed unlikely to sell. I mean, a “homeless pin-up calendar” (as the journalists wryly called it) hardly seemed to have much commercial potential.
But the first 200 copies sold out quickly. And the second printing sold out as well. And there was a weird buzz to the thing. We hit just the right tone of both serious and whacky. The first month (January) started out with a photo of street legend Gypsy Catano at his wedding ceremony in People’s Park. And the last month (December) ended with street poet Julia Vinograd reading a poem at Gypsy’s memorial ceremony. With a lot of interesting photos in between.
So we were giving people a glimpse into the daily lives of this strange tribe of people; street people.
So the next year we decided to publish a second issue of the TELEGRAPH AVENUE STREET CALENDAR. And it was one of those deals where you “push a buzzer expecting a buzz, and get an explosion.” We ended up getting our pictures on the front page of the local newspapers, and we got featured on the Dan Rather CBS National News. And we sold out 2,000 copies in Berkeley in just a month (and we would have sold more if we had had time to print up more copies).
So the next year we decided to put out a third edition of the TELEGRAPH AVENUE STREET CALENDAR. We weren’t sure at this point if we were just a One Hit Wonder or not, and had shot our wad. The Calendar was kind of a “novelty” item in a way (we ourselves considered it “high art”). But we felt it was worth taking another shot.
So I decided to prominently feature Hate Man in the third issue. Because he was one of the “stars” of the scene. And every scene has their stars. Even the homeless street scene. And i always had sort of a PEOPLE magazine approach to the project. Stars sell magazines.
So we ended up selling about 2,000 copies of that one, too. So now we were off and running. And we’d end up doing the damn thing for 15 years. And the project practically ended up taking over our entire lives. Until we finally burned out on it 15 years later. The End.
Gypsy Catano was a legendary Berkeley street person in the 1970s and 1980s. “Gypsy always reminded me of Charles Manson,” said my friend Vince. Gypsy was a cocky, swashbuckling little guy who walked with a swagger and the air of a charming rogue.
Gypsy was homeless back in the day when there was plenty of available housing in the Bay Area. “Gypsy was homeless because he wasn’t housebroken,” explained a girlfriend.
“I never dropped out,” said Gypsy. “I was never in.” Gypsy was born on the streets. And the street scene was his natural milieu.
One of Gypsy’s favorite panhandling routines was to have one of his friends stand on their hands while Gypsy worked the crowd like a carnival barker. “Help me get my down-and-out friend back on his feet!!”
Gypsy’s favorite thing to do was to drink and to fight. And when he was in a bad mood he could be a holy terror. And Gypsy was a natural leader who was usually surrounded by a gang of buddies. Some of whom were hulking lunatics who would crack your head open for kicks. So Gypsy could be a formidable force.
But he could also be very charming. And he often charmed normal, straight mainstream people who enjoyed Gypsy like an exotic pet. While Gypsy — ever the hustler — angled them as marks.
The first time I met Gypsy Catano in 1982 in People’s Park (his natural habitat) as he swaggered up to me I was struck by the malevolent, mischievous leer in his eye. And the home-made necklace around his neck that was made from the teeth of some wild animal. And he also had a fur stole wrapped around his neck. Gypsy suddenly grabbed the head of the fur stole and waved it in my face. It was the head of a dead dog. “I skinned the dog myself,” said Gypsy proudly. Then he did a puppet show pantimine with the dogs head for my amusement. “ARF ARF!!” he said, opening and closing the dog’s mouth.
Naturally, Gypsy Catano died a sudden and electrifying death. As befitting “as ye live so ye shall die.” If I remember right he choked on a chicken bone and had an epileptic seizure. Hundreds of people showed up for the memorial on Telegraph Avenue. A local newspaper covered the story and they were amazed that so many people, from all different walks of life, would show up to pay tribute to a guy who was basically a “homeless bum.”
This is long-time Berkeley street person Sunshine. And what a little dumpling of love she is.
One of Sunshine’s favorite routines — for years and years! — was to call 911 to call for an ambulance. She used to do it 3 or 4 times a week. For YEARS!!
We’d all be hanging out on the street scene. Next thing you know ambulances and fire trucks are rushing towards the scene. Siren blasting and lights flashing.
“What’s going on?”
And the paramedics would all go rushing towards Sunshine, who was on the street corner waiting for them. “What’s the problem?” “My tummy really really hurts. I feel really really sick.” So they’d strap her to the stretcher. And haul her carcass off to the hospital.
I’m not sure what the psychology of it was with Sunshine. I guess she liked being the center of attention. And having all these people rushing to help her. And sometimes she’d get a warm bed for a night at the hospital. So she’d pull this routine 3 or 4 times a week. For years.
It used to piss me off. Because I heard it cost the city something like $5 thousand bucks every time the ambulance came. So I hated the waste of it. But I guess the ambulance people didn’t care. They were getting paid
So anyways, one night I’m at my 25 cent book street vending stand. It had been a long hard day dealing with one customer after another. But it was 10 o’clock now. And things had finally quieted down. And I could finally start to relax. I poured myself a big cup of Olde English. And took a big hit off my joint. And just as I was kicking back and making myself comfortable, and turning my radio on to a nice relaxing radio station. I noticed good old Sunshine headed for the payphone right behind me.
“Oh no. She better not be. . . ”
Of course she was. Next thing I know my peace and quiet is shattered by sirens blaring. And lights flashing. And paramedics and cops rushing towards me. And Sunshine saying “My tummy really really hurts.”
And the whole mad scene went on for at least an hour (seemingly) before they finally hauled Sunshine’s carcass off to the hospital.
The next day I told Sunshine: “DON’T YOU EVER PULL THAT ROUTINE AT MY VENDING TABLE EVER AGAIN!!”
And out of respect — or fear — for me, she never did. Sunshine would always use the payphone at the next block.
There are all kinds of people on the street scene. If you are a student of human psychology you will find plenty of fodder worthy of study. You will meet many, many peculiar and one-of-a-kind characters. I’ll give you an example.
There’s a guy on the scene that we call Book Reading Guy. He got that name because, well, for years and years he sat under the awning of the People’s Park bathroom reading paperback novels all day long. And I mean ALL day long. He would show up early in the morning and start reading away. And he wouldn’t stop reading until 10 o’clock curfew at night when we all got kicked out of the Park. Then he’d walk a couple blocks to a doorway on Tele and Dwight where he crashed. Wake up in the morning. And start the whole thing all over again. Every day. Rain or shine. For at least the last 5 years.
After awhile you barely even noticed Book Reading Guy. It was like he was just part of the scenery. “There’s a tree. There’s a bench. There’s a rock. And there’s Book Reading Guy.”
He was an older black man. Probably in his late 50s. To call him mild-mannered and subdued would be an understatement. He never talked to anybody. Never made eye contact. Never put out any vibes. Just sat there quietly with his face buried in his book.
The only time I ever saw him get up from his chair was when some free food hit the Park. He’d jump up and get his share. And then go right back to his reading.
I admired him in a way. He never caused any problems. Always minded his own business. And never got involved in any of the madness that was always swirling around the Park (which is more than you can say for 90% of the people in this damn place)
For all I knew he was practicing a form of meditation — withdrawing from the outer world into the inner world of his imagination. He had made a peculiar adjustment, but it allowed him to exist and function in his own little niche. . . On the other hand, it seemed like a pretty severe and limited existence. But who knows.
Anyways, last week I showed up and Book Reading Guy was gone. And the groundskeepers were cleaning up blood from the ground. “The whole ground was covered with blood,” said Hate Man. “Book Reading Guy slit his own throat this morning. They rushed him off to the hospital.”
Everybody was shocked. This guy who never did ANYTHING. And then all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, he does something like THAT.
Last I heard, Book Reading Guy survived. After he was released from the hospital they took him to John George — the local nut house. I guess to try and figure out what to do with him next.
In a strange epilogue, a couple days later a big tree by the bathroom up-rooted and crashed into the building. Landed right near the spot where Book Reading Guy sat all day long. So that was weird. They say it was caused by all the heavy rain we’ve been having. But my theory is that when something violent happens, a lot of violent energy stays swirling around in the area on a psychic level. And that’s what toppled the tree. I’ve seen stuff like that happen over and over, over the years. So I believe it
This is me, 1991, Café Botega, age 35, probably in the best shape of my life. Hadn’t gotten into drugs or alcohol much (yet). And I had spent the previous 7 years as a bike messenger, and the next 5 running full-court hoops in the park 5 hours a day, every day. So I was a machine. I think modern man reaches his physical peak around 35. You look at the pro athletes’ statistics and their stats start dropping off around then. It’s like you’ve reached the top of the mountain and its all downhill from there. Ha ha. Cheer up, fellas
That was sort of a peak period for me artistically, too. 1991 (I’d have another peak in 1994 and then in 2001, and that would be pretty much it for me) (Darn!). I was reaching about a million readers every month with my comic strip. And I was getting featured on the frontpage of newspapers and on the TV news. So I felt like hot shit. Somebody even printed up a bunch of t-shirts with my cartoons on them and they were selling in malls in New Jersey (I remember thinking; “That’ll show all those bastards from my high school in Joisey that I wasn’t a loser after all!”). So it seemed like the sky was the limit.
It felt even stranger. More unreal. Because just a few years earlier I had been an acne-faced, homeless bum drifting along like a ghost on the mean streets of Skid Row in the Tenderloin district. With every reason to believe I’d spend my life there. So it felt sort of like Cinderella, where I half-expected at the stroke of midnight my royal carriage would turn back into a pumpkin. In truth, my life always seemed like a weird series of accidents that was happening to somebody else. With me as sort of the hapless observer of the whole spectacle. I’ve never felt like one of those “captain-of-my-fate” kinda’ guys, that’s for sure.
Like a lot of the idiots from my generation, rock stars were my role models. They were living the fabulous lives (suppposedly) that I was aspiring towards. I considered myself sort of a John Lennon-wannabe back then. And if you took John Lennon, R. Crumb and Charles Bukowski and threw them in a blender, that’s who I was kind of aspiring to be.
Every year I co-published a photo-calendar: The Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar. And it was kind of like putting out a rock album every year. It was sort of my statement about what my life had been about that year. Then when it was published it was sort of like a record release party. Then you got interviewed and reviewed by the press, and went out on sort of a promotional tour. So it was like living out one of my fantasies. And even though the calendar primarily documented the Berkeley street scene, it was also highly personal and even autobiographical in a way. Because it was basically a picture of what my world looked like through my eyes every year.
Another guy I was really fascinated with back then was the rock star David Bowie. Particularly how he constantly “re-invented” himself. He was like a car and every year he came out with a new and updated model of himself. I decided I wanted to never repeat myself artistically if I could help it. One year I published an underground newspaper. The next year I did a comic strip. The next year I wrote a novel. The next year I did photo-documentation. The next year I wrote and recorded music. Etc. It was exciting and it kept things fresh. But it was probably a disaster from a commercial point of view, from a career point of view. It was like every time I started to get a little traction in a certain field, I’d quit it and start completely over at zero in another field.
It also had an adverse affect on me, psychologically. All that David Bowie shit. I had this dumb idea that I could constantly completely revamp my personality. That there was no basic core to who I was. I felt I was like an actor who could just pick a different role to play every year. Like I could just pick and chose my character traits. Instead of my personality developing and progressing in a linear fashion, my psyche was more like a series of abrupt and jarring jump-cuts. Like one moment I’m starring in a sci-fi movie, the next moment its a horror movie, the next its a comedy, the next its a tragedy. Its probably more a form of schitzophrenia than anything else, what I was doing to myself back then.
Still . . . I don’t know about you guys, how you look back on your lives . . . but when I look back at my past selves I look back with a certain fondness. Sort of like how you might look at a “likable” character in a movie. Where you’re kind of rooting for the guy. Of course I’m rooting for myself. I’ve got a vested interest after all in whether I succeed or fail. Its me after all. At any rate, I sort of look back on myself as a lovable, but bumbling, well-meaning fool.
But I also look back at myself with a certain self-loathing, too. Like: “Oh fuck, its HIM again!” Because I think back on all the stupid and foolish things I did, and all those regrets. And plus its tiresome. I get tired of being myself. I mean, I’ve got to be myself 24 hours a day, and after all these years of being me I could use a break every now and then. A vacation from being me. You’d think they could set it up so we could be somebody else for awhile. A “Prince and the Pauper” kind of deal. Oh well. . .. I guess that’s why they invented drugs.
But mostly when l look back on my past selves I get this gnawing sense of incompleteness. It was like I was always rushing to get somewhere else. Like, where I was at was never enough and I was mostly focused on trying to get to some better place that never really existed. Like I never fully appreciated what was going on while it was going on. You know? Like when you’re on a long bus ride and you’re bored with looking out the window and you just want to get to your destination. That feeling. And yeah, yeah. Its quite true: “Tis better to travel well than to arrive.” But some times that attitude is hard to pull off.