Gina is a long-time Berkeley street person. Completely bat crazy. Doesn’t so much talk in English but makes these weird animal sounds.
I remember one New Years Eve we’re all hanging out on the sidewalk outside Larry Blake’s right after midnight, ringing in the new year. Everybody buzzed and mellow. And Gina starts coming on to this guy, caressing him and hugging him. It’s New Years Eve and everybody’s getting a little loose after all. And suddenly she grabs hold of the guy by the hair and won’t let go and starts screaming “RAPE! RAPE! RAPE!” Ha ha. And for a second — as they’re violently grappling back and forth and he’s frantically trying to escape from Gina’s clutches — everybody thought she was fending off this guy who was trying to rape her. . . Fortunately — before people started beating the poor guy’s ass — people figured out what was going on.
One time I was hanging out at my vending table listening to the radio on my boom box. And the song “Angel is a Centerfold” by J. Geils came on — this song about this guy who’s dismayed to find out that his high school girlfriend had become a porno model. Gina happened to be passing by and when she heard that song she came charging over at me with a big crazy smile on her face: “THA’S MAH’ FAVORITE SONG!!” she said. And she stood there by the radio, singing/yelping along to the song and laughing like a loon.
Gina always made me a little nervous because she was so unpredictable. She was like a wild animal. She’s wasn’t a bad person really. Just really damaged and “out there.” She has some kind of brain damage, and most likely coupled with childhood trauma and abuse. You meet all kinds of unique and unusual people on the street scene, that’s for sure.
Human beings are a territorial creature by nature. And homeless street people are no exception. The problem is that street people don’t have any personal territory to call their own. They live in the public spaces after all. You indoor people have the walls of your houses and the fences around your yards to clearly delineate your personal territory. But no such line exists for street people. So it’s a source of constant problems.
But there is a certain protocol that most street people respect. For example if some guy has been sleeping in a particular doorway every night, most (but alas not all) of the street people on the scene will respect that that’s his personal campsite. And not camp there. And a similar protocol governs hangout spots. If somebody hangs out at the same spot on the sidewalk every day, that’s generally accepted as their spot. Though it can get a little hazy. Somebody might consider a favorite panhandling spot to be their personal spot. But someone else might consider it first-come-first -served and they got there first so now it’s their spot. So like I said the lines are not clearly drawn. But these conflicts are usually resolved in a calm and reasonable manner; i.e. the one who is bigger and stronger and more vicious and capable of beating the other person’s ass usually prevails.
Which brings me to my latest conflict. There’s a homeless street person who’s been hanging out on the Berkeley campus for the last 20 years. And he’s got his own personal hangout spot (and I respect his space). And I’ve got my own personal hangout spot (and he respects my space). And we’ve coexisted all these years with no problems. Until recently.
Now I have a favorite hangout spot on the campus that I’ve been using for years. I usually only use it in the evening when that area is mostly deserted. And it’s a great spot. It’s secluded. It has an awning to protect me from the rain. And best of all it has an outlet where I can charge my cellphone. But that was also the source of this recent conflict.
It turns out about 6 months ago this guy got a laptop. So now he’s been eyeballing my hangout spot — and that outlet — with serious intent, as a spot where he can plug in his laptop. And whaddaya’ know, I show up one night and there he is flopped out at my hangout spot with his laptop plugged into the outlet. I figure it’s probably just a one-night thing. So I just let it slide and go off and find another hangout spot.
But whaddaya’ know? The next night there he is AGAIN at my hangout spot. So I go up to him and explain to him, in a very reasonable voice, that I’ve been using this hangout spot for many years, and it’s a very valuable spot to me, and there’s simply no room for two bums at this spot. He nods his head in agreement and seems to understand.
But whaddaya’ know? The third night there he is AGAIN hanging out at my hangout spot.
So now I’m realizing this guy is planning to make this HIS permanent hangout spot. And this guy is like the classic ne’er-do-well layabout. Once he attaches himself to a hangout spot he’s there ALL the time. He’s basically spent the last 20 years doing nothing but laying around, taking up space. Which is fine — everyone in this life is on the level that they’re on. But the problem is, now he is taking up MY space.
So the next night I’m ready for him. I’m sort of hiding around the corner. And when I hear him coming I rush over to the spot right before he gets there, and say to him: “This is MY hangout spot. And there’s not room for TWO! Now GO away and STAY away!!”
He turns on his heels and leaves. And apparently he got the message. Because for the next 6 months peace and harmony reigned in the world of Ace Backwords.
Until the other night. When I showed up at my hangout spot. And whaddaya’ know? There he is again flopped out at my hangout spot. He’s lying on his back on his matting with his leg crossed, and all of his stuff dumped out around him, and his laptop plugged into the outlet. And he’s like some guy leisurely enjoying a swell evening in the comfort of his personal living room.
I look down at him, glaring at him, not saying anything. He looks up at me and says cheerfully “How are ya’ doin’?”
“How are YOU doing!” I said with a sharp edge in my voice.
“I’m doin’ just fine,” he said. “How are you doin’?”
I didn’t say anything for a couple of beats. Just continued to glare at him. And then I turned and stomped off. And I hoped he got the message and it refreshed his memory about our previous confrontation 6 months ago.
But then the next night? Whaddaya’ know? There he is AGAIN.
So now I’m realizing I have no choice. I either take action. Or else my favorite hangout spot is now his favorite hangout spot.
So I said to him: “Dude, this is MY hangout spot.”
“I realize that,” he said.
“Well if you realize that then why are you here hanging out here at my hangout spot??”
“Well let me explain,” he said.
“No. Let me explain first and you can explain second,” I said. “The next time I catch you at my hangout spot, I am going to go to your hangout spot when you’re not there. And I am going to dump all your stuff into the creek. Do you understand me?”
“I hear you,” he said.
And I turned on my heels and stomped out of there.
And I hope he DID understand me. Because I WILL do it.
I sometimes laugh when I hear somebody use a phrase like the “rules of the streets.” In fact just about every street person I know is operating under their own particular set of “rules.” I’ll give you an example:
Last weekend there was this big event on the Berkeley campus. And they bussed in all these high school kids for some kind of big convention. Anyways later that Sunday evening I was hanging out in the lobby of the building where they had the event. The event is over now, and all the kids are long gone, on the bus headed back home. So the building is pretty deserted and I got the place all to myself. When this janitor walks by and she plops this really nice, expensive rain jacket on the bench right near where I’m sitting.
I immediately figure out the most likely scenario. One of the kids spaced out and forgot to take their jacket. Then when the janitor was cleaning up after the event, she discoved it.. And now she’s leaving it here in the lobby on the off chance that the kid comes back for it.
Now I have my own particular ground-scoring “rules” when it comes to situations like this. Usually I’ll wait a couple of hours before I grab it, just in case the owner does comes back for it. Then at the end of the evening — when the thing is most likely just going to end up dumped in the garbage — I’ll grab it with a clean conscience.
So I’m sitting there for about an hour, sort of eye-balling the rain jacket out of the corner of my eye, like the great prize that it is. When my pleasant reverie is suddenly shattered. This other street person happens to walk by, sees the rain jacket, and grabs it, and walks off with a big happy smile on his face. . . Oh well. So much for THAT score.
Dude obviously has his own set of ground-scoring rules.
So it’s 8 o’clock and I’m hanging out at one of my favorite late-night hangout spots on the Berkeley campus — this little niche of space away from everything. And I’m sipping on my beer and listening to music on headphones and working on some stuff on the internet.
When this person is suddenly standing in front of me. He’s some nut. One of my “fellow street people.” And he starts babbling at me. But I can’t understand a word he’s saying (did I mention he’s a nut??). But from his gestures I can tell he wants to plug his cellphone into the outlet that I am using.
“NO!!” I said forcibly. “I don’t want any company. I just want to be alone. There are plenty of other outlets right down there on the plaza that you can use.”
But does this dirtclod respect my wishes and respect my space?? HELL NO. He pulls out his cellphone and some chords and starts doing various inexplicable gestures (so as usual I’m contemplating that age-old question: ” Is he a nut?? Or is he on drugs?? Or is he just an asshole?? Or some strange combination of the three??”).
I stand up and glare at him. Give him the ole Ace Backwords Death Stare. Hoping I can scare him off with my chest-pumped-out Cowardly Lion routine. But he’s completely oblivious. Continues to fumble around with his cellphone and a bottle of something in his hand. I imagine in my mind how satisfying it would be to just punch him in the head right now with all my force, and watch his useless bulk bouncing around on the concrete. But, alas, there are laws against that. Plus, he’s just as big as me and probably 30 years younger. So maybe he could take me. Plus I’m getting too old for this shit anyways. And punching people in the head — as satisfying as that might be in the moment — can sometimes turn out to be counter-productive (so I’m gaining a modicum of wisdom and maturity in my old age).
So instead I quickly pack up my stuff, give him one last death glare, and then stomp off.
But that’s what it’s like in Berkeley EVERYWHERE nowadays. EVERY square inch of space is being contested by SOMEBODY!!
Now I’m actually hanging out at a better spot. My eternal motto is: “It’s a big world. And the point is to occupy a part of it that doesn’t include the asshole.” THE END
I fucked up. I got too drunk last night and forgot to take my sleeping bag to my campsite (uh duh). Shivered all night long under two ratty blankets. Woke up in the morning with the chills, couldn’t get warm. Had some kind of fever. And my entire body ached like somebody had worked me over with a 2-by-4. Laid there in a stupor at my campsite until 2 in the afternoon.
After much effort, I was finally able to hoist myself upright to a sitting position. When I stood up I was so dizzy I thought I was going to topple over. . . Dumped out a huge dish of cat food for my goddamn feral cats. And then SLOWLY packed up my campsite. Took me a half hour to pack up. It was like I was in slow motion. Then I staggered down to the campus, stopping several times to rest.
And just my luck, a big 4-day rainstorm is just heading in. Which can be tough enough to deal with even when you’re on top of things. Let alone when you’re as sick as dog and barely have the strength to stand up. The entire campus is locked up for the Christmas break. So I’m desperately trying to figure out where I can hole up indoors for awhile and ride out this sickness before I get soaked by the rain and really break down.
And then I got a huge break (there is a God!). Virtually every door on the entire campus is locked. But I somehow managed to find the one door that was inexplicably and miraculously left unlocked. The backdoor of Dwinelle Hall. I curled up on this rug, hidden behind a barrier. And slept until 5:30 in the evening. And here I am.
I hid inside Dwinelle until 10 PM when it was finally late enough to hit the secret doorway on the campus that I crash at when it rains.
Managed to dump out my blankets and sleeping bag and curled up there in the doorway as the rain started coming down. But I was so sick, I couldn’t stay asleep for more than 5 minutes at a time. And then I’d wake up and spend eternity tossing and turning back and forth — alternating between shivering from the fever, and then sweating like a pig from being too hot. Until I finally managed to get another 5 minutes of sleep. Then I’d wake up again and repeat the same pattern. Over and over. All night long. Which seemed to last forever. I remember looking at my cellphone at one point and it was 2 AM. And I was wondering if this night would EVER end. And the weird thing was, during my 5 minutes of sleep I would dream the same dream over and over and over. All night long. This banal, pointless scenerio — I forget what it was. But I kept repeating it in my dreams over and over. The same pointless dream. All night long. Like being stuck in this endless tape loop. It was like a form of mental torture. And I remember thinking: “Wouldn’t it be horrific if my brain got permanently stuck in this weird loop and I got trapped in this nightmare state for the rest of my life?” Stranger things have happened to people’s brains.
But the worst thing was, as I laid there tossing and turning all night long, that horribly inane song by Ringo Starr — “The No No Song” — kept going through my head. Over and over. All night long. I couldn’t shut it out. “No no no no I won’t sniff It no more. I’m tired of waking up on the floor.” It was like an endless hallucination. Sheesh. God I hate that fucking song.
Now it’s morning and I’m sitting somewhere in a daze. And I’m almost beginning to feel like a human being again. So I think the worst is over. Knock knock . . . . .. .
As many of you know, the University has plans to destroy People’s Park in 2020, and replace it with student housing. I have always been a fierce critic of the University in this regard. But for a moment I’d like to address the other side of the coin: The street people of People’s Park.
The main reason that People’s Park has been able to survive all these years is because of the strong support it’s always enjoyed from the majority of Berkeley residents. But there’s every reason to believe that support has been waning in recent years. Whenever the subject of People’s Park comes up these days, invariably someone will chime in: “Pave that damn Park. It’s nothing but a cesspool of drugs, crime and bums!!”
Whether or not that sentiment is true — and it’s obviously an exaggerated caricature — that is the public perception in many quarters. And we urgently need to change that perception if People’s Park is to survive.
In fact, many Berkeley residents feel unwelcome and unsafe in People’s Park. You street people that consider People’s Park your “home”? That’s fine. But you better start welcoming the rest of the Berkeley community into “your” home if you want it to survive much longer. Because it’s just as much “their” home, too.
I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about: For many years the Telegraph Avenue street vendors met in People’s Park every morning to sign up for their vending spaces and take care of business. Recently they moved out of People’s Park and now set up every morning on the corner of Telegraph & Channing. Why?? After one too many ugly scenes with one too many ugly People’s Park street people, they decided: “Fuck this place!” And moved out of the park.
This is exactly what I’m talking about. Many people who once supported the park no longer support the park. And we desperately need to start winning these people back to our side if People’s Park is going to survive.
I’m not trying to bust anybody’s chops here. And as a long-time homeless person myself, I’m the last person to be posting anti-homeless screeds. But this is the reality we face as People’s Park now teeters on the verge of destruction. If People’s Park is going to survive, we all need to up our games. Are we going to be remembered as the generation of Berkeley street people that LOST Peoples Park. I hope not.
Several people warned me it might rain on Tuesday. I checked the weather forecast and they said strong chance of rain on Tuesday. I reminded myself I better start preparing in case it rains on Tuesday.
So last night I’m awoken from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. My blankets are soaking wet. “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON??? ITS RAINING!!! . … Oh. Right. It’s Tuesday.”