I was trying to figure out how long it’s been since I spent the night inside sleeping on a bed. . . It was May of 2015. . . So, according to my calculations, I’ve gone 1,398 days in a row sleeping outside . . . I’ve been out here so long, the Steph Curry Golden State Warriors hadn’t even won their first championship the last time I slept in a bed.
By life probably seems a little odd to some people.. . .
I think about this a lot. Because its so odd to me.
I first started hanging out a lot on the Telegraph Avenue street scene around 1992. I had mostly spent the previous 10 years sitting at a little desk in a little room, drawing comics and publishing publications. But as I turned 35 I was starting to wonder: “Am I going to spend my whole life sitting at a desk??”
I was itching for some action. And the Telegraph street scene seemed like a good place to find it. Because it was a happening scene back then. I guess because of a convergence of different forces. The Grateful Dead tour was building to its peak. And the Rainbow Gathering and the Rainbow Family (so-called) was going strong. And Berkeley was a prime stop on those tours. So you had these bus-loads of fresh blood constantly being injected into the scene. And the local punk scene was also going strong, primarily centered at Gilman St., but with the residue constantly flooding up to Telegraph, and this new phenomenon, the “gutter punks.”
And the original ’60s generation hadn’t yet reached decrepitude. They were mostly in their mid-40s and still a force to be reckoned with. Along with the newer generations who were perennially drawn to Berkeley to get a hit off of that ’60s lineage.
So it was quite a stew of characters romping around old Telegraph Avenue back in Dem Days. I remember an endless sea of beautiful young men and women hitting the scene. And artists and writers and musicians and spiritual seekers of every stripe. Bohemians, for lack of a better word. And some of the most colorful and crazy and wild characters I had ever met. It was like every other person you met was this bizarre technocolor movie unfolding before your eyes.
And we all seemed so young and strong and indestructible (that wouldn’t last). It was mostly a light drug scene back then. Pot and beer mostly. With a little acid and crack cocaine on the sides. And speed and Ecstasy were just starting to come in strong from the Raver scene (the E-tards hadn’t yet replaced the acid casualties).
But the odd thing to me when I look back on it. Just about everyone from the Telegraph scene back then has come and gone. They’re all either dead or burned-out or moved on to other things. Except for me. For some weird reason I’m still here. And its not so much that I’m The Last Man Standing, but The Last Man Left Behind.
And I’ll constantly be doing the math in my head:
“1992 to 2018. That’s 26 years. And counting. . . ”
The street scene can get a little brutal at times at times. Last night I was hanging out with this friend of mine on a bench in People’s Park for about an hour. Just hanging out talking.
And then the next day I happened to run into him again. “How ya doin’,” I asked.
“How am I doin’?” he said. “This is how I’m doin’.”
He pulled off his hoodie. He had these big metal staples stapled into the back of his head.
“Gee-ziz!” I said. “What happened?”
“About a half hour after you left the Park last night this guy snuck up behind me and whacked me on the head. I don’t know what he hit me with but it was hard. I just got back from the hospital.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“The guy is a total psycho. He’s been stalking me for the last 6 months. He’s beat me up 5 times already. He keeps claiming I owe him money. He’s trying to extort money out of me. That’s his basic gig.”
Of course it occurred to me that if I had hung out on that bench for another half hour, I, too, might have ended up with big metal staples in the back of my head.
There are so many crazy people on the street scene. It can be like walking through a minefield. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I still have all my limbs and some of my brains.
The Telegraph Street Calendar 2004 was the 15th, and final, issue of the series. It ran from 1990 to 2004. And, from a personal view, I was 33 when we started and 49 when we ended. So when we started I was a young man, and when we finished, well, I was no longer a young man. So it spanned a pretty significant portion of my life.
One of the reasons we started the Telegraph Street Calendar was that we felt the media mostly portrayed “the homeless” in a stereotypical manner. Either as “noble victims” or “trouble-making bums.” First and foremost, Duncan and I wanted to present the street people as individual people. And we looked at the street scene the way an anthropologist might study any particular tribe. In fact, street people aren’t really all that different than any other group of people (though they certainly have their distinctive elements). Street people eat and sleep and shit and piss and socialize and work (well, some of the time) and raise children and pets just like any other group of people. My standard line used to be: “The street scene is just like high school, except with rattier clothes and less teeth.”
We rarely had any trouble coming up with a unique theme for each issues. Because the street scene used to change dramatically on it’s own every year. Due to the transcient nature of street-people and the ever-shifting circumstances of street life. Some years stand out in my mind like colorful, zany, sunny days. Whereas other years have a darker and more tragic resonance. The whole project was very much like publishing a yearly Yearbook of the Telegraph street scene. And as Duncan and I hawked the latest issue at our vending table in front of Cody’s Books, the latest arrivals to the street scene would often check in with us, as if we functioned as sort of a Chamber of Commerce for the street people.
At any rate, the whole project was a pretty bizarre adventure that thrust me into places and situations that I never in a million years expected to find myself in. As they say. It was a trip, mon!
Here are a couple of the characters that were featured in that last issue.
I first started spending a lot of time hanging out on the Telegraph Avenue street scene back in 1991. It was an amazing scene for me back then. All these amazing, colorful, dynamic, bizarre and brilliant characters.
What’s weird is: Just about everybody who was hanging out on the scene back then (aside from me and Hate Man) is long gone. They all moved on. Or died.
And yet I’m still here. 25 years later. So I keep wondering: How did that happen?
One of the depressing things about the street scene: It tends to weed out the cool people over the years. When you’re young, you’ll meet a lot of dynamic young people on the streets. Bohemians. Artists. Musicians. Adventurers who are attracted to the wildness and freedom of the streets. And interesting people experimenting with alternative lifestyles.
But over the years, the ones that have something on the ball, tend to move on from the streets. They get married. Start families. Get jobs and careers. Find homes. And the wild ones — the adventurers — eventually tone down as they age. Or burn out (plenty of those). And all that’s left on the street scene is mostly just the dregs. The ones who are on the streets because they have nowhere else to go. And nothing else to do.
Well. Another depressing blog from ole’ Ace Backwords. Ha ha.
A cop recently asked Hate Man: “What are you doing?”
“I’m working on my books,” said Hate Man.
“What do you mean you’re working on your books?”
“During the course of the month I loan out money to dozens of people. And a bunch of other people have regular tabs with me. So on the first of the month I have to tabulate all the numbers to see where I’m at.”
“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard!” laughed the cops.
The cop was dumbfounded at the idea that a 79-year-old homeless guy basically operated as sort of a communal trading post for the street scene. And that dozens of street people would run up tabs with Hate Man, many of them for hundreds of dollars.
Some people are often surprised to find that street people pretty much operate just like most other people and the other facets of society. In truth, the streets are just like high school, except with rattier clothes and less teeth.
Saturday morning, and I push my shopping cart full of books to the corner of Telegraph and Haste to set up my fabulous 25-cent book vending table. Okie Joe — that little hillbilly hippie from Oklahoma — shows up, drunk or stoned or coming down from two days of jaggley speed. He’s crying and raving at me, herking and jerking; that horrible, discordant speed “high.” All that useless (I was going to say “energy” but its more just) movement and gear-grinding. So many of these street people are like children. Demented, pointless children. Okie Joe is raving at me and Jaguar: “You’re mah FAMILY! You’re mah BROTHERS! Mah real flesh-and-blood brother put a knife to mah throat and fucked me in mah ass!” Gee, sorry, bro’. Okie Joe is crying. Raving.
I’m trying to set up my book table this morning — its like constructing your own mini-book store amidst the swirling madness of the congested weekend crowds. Plus, the “endless socializing” with all the other street people who have nothing better to do, apparently, than to “hang out.” Crazy Seymour Lowman sits down at my table while I’m dealing with a hundred different things. He keeps asking me inane questions in that slow, grating, toothless drawl of the burned-out, brain-scrambled, former speed freak. “Hey.. Ace!.. do.. you ..know.. where ..I ..can ..get ..a ..cigarette?” “Hey ..Ace! ..Whatchoo’ ..got ..there?” “Hey ..Ace! ..Do ..you ..know ..how ..much ..the ..drinks ..cost ..at ..the ..donut ..shop? ..I ..sure ..wants ..me ..a ..drink!” “Hey ..Ace! ..Are ..you ..sure ..you ..don’t ..got ..a ..cigarette?”
Then Blossom shows up — sour, middle-aged, do-nothing Blossom — she sits at the table alongside Crazy Seymour. I’m lifting heavy boxes of books out of my shopping cart and crawling around on my hands and knees on the sidewalk trying to sort the books into piles and sections. Crazy Seymour and Blossom sit there at my table, and in between their inane interruptions, they sit there looking down at me, watching me, like they’re at the opera in their balcony seats, or like they’re at the zoo and I’m a monkey in a cage performing for their amusement. As I’m sweating away, I imagine the conversation they’re having: “Gee, wouldja’ lookit’ that? What’s Ace doing?” “Gee, I dunno, I think it’s something called ‘work’.” “‘Work’? What’s that?” “I think that’s when you move around a lot and do a bunch of stuff and then they give you money.” “O-o-oh!”
They are like demented children. I often have a thought in my head at moments like this: “Now I see why people invented stores and moved into them.”
Later that afternoon, Flugle shows up on the corner. He’s another crazy little tweaker. Last week there was an item about him in the police blotter section of the local paper. Apparently, some guy got out of his car to urinate and Flugle jumped into his car while he wasn’t looking. Tooled around town on a joyride for awhile until he was finally caught and charged with grand theft. Just another day in the life. Now, he’s on the corner with his bicycle and his sleeping bag, making a big production, doing a big pantomime, of setting up all his shit all over the corner while he raves and rants his nonstop wingnut babble. Junkie Jake shows up at our table for awhile, in between recycling enough cans and bottles for his next fix. “I’m going to steal Flugle’s bicycle,” says Jake to Duncan. And, sure enough, the second Flugle’s back is turned, Jake steals his bike, takes off down the street on it. Flugle is now in a rage, confronts Duncan. “You let Jake use your table as a cover to steal my bike!” Duncan says, “I had nothing to do with that.” I’ve learned to keep out of the junkie shit. Jake was probably stealing the bike to make up for the bike that Flugle had earlier stolen from him, which they had both stolen from a third party, to pay for the junk they had been stolen from a fourth party (quite possibly the owner of the bike who had stolen it from Jake in the first place). It all just goes around in circles. But sometimes, it’s like there’s a big wave of bad drugs that hits the streets, and every other street person is winging out. At other times I think it’s just that we’re going through a complete breakdown of the social order. But then I think: Breakdown from WHAT? I never remember it being very ordered in the first place.
Speaking of disorder, Mick Amok shows up later that night, drunk or wired on pills; either too drunk or not drunk enough. Slurring his words. Making his soppy pronouncements. “It’s all over for me, Ace! I’m not gonna make it! I’m falling apart!” He’s been rehearsing his death scene for the last 8 years at least. His “pity” act. His “you-should-feel-sorry-for-me-and-the-least-you-can-do-is-give-me-money-to-buy-another-beer-on-my-deathbed” act. He’s been drinking and drugging non-stop for the last 30 years, and now he’s falling apart. Who would have guessed? Gee, why weren’t we WARNED about something like this?!
Earlier, Mick Amok had told Duncan that when he was away from the vending table, he — Mick Amok — had saved the table, protected it with his very body, from these four ruffians — “FOUR I tell you, and that’s the honest to God’s truth!” — who were going to smash it up. The appropriate response, of course, is: “Why, Mick! How can we ever repay you for this selfless act of heroism? Why, the least we can do is give you several cigarettes and buy you a nice, big beer. And then, maybe tuck you into your sleeping bag with warm milk and cookies!” And yet, somehow that response is not yet forthcoming from either me or Duncan, much to Mick Amok’s obvious chagrin and annoyance.
He’s so transparent that it’s painful to watch. And there’s a part of him that knows that I know. And at that point he gets even more maudlin and sad and sloppy beyond belief. It’s an act. Yet it’s all too real.
Mick Amok goes across the street and bums $5 off of Theodore; this nice, hard-working, dreadlocked black guy who makes knit hats at his table and who has a big smile for everyone (I have no idea how he does it). Mick comes back to our table gushing at the wonderfulness of it all! Gets himself a to-go burrito at La Fiesta which he licks down to the last drop of gravy. Literally.
Then he goes into Cody’s Books to use the restroom, only Duncan is waiting in line ahead of him. “Duncan, its an emergency! Let me go in front of you!” But its ALWAYS an emergency with Mick Amok, and he ALWAYS wants something from you, and his baby act gets less and less appealing coming from this 53-year-old man. And his boy-who-cried-wolf act has been played out a thousand times too many already.
So he comes out of Cody’s, stands in front of me, pulls up his jacket dramatically.
“Wouldja’ look at this!” he announces. He’s pissed all down his pant leg. All he needs is to be out here wearing diapers and the whole baby act would be complete. These street people, they are completely regressing back to being pathetic, bratty, deranged children. It is a hideous act to watch. After a lifetime of welfare checks and charity free food joints, their baby act has festered in their psyches to the point where there is no adult left in them. They are self-indulgent children that demand you indulge them.
“Would you LOOK at that!” Mick Amok announces again. The point is (as always): “Look how helpless and needy I am! Why, surely, YOU’LL help me! By giving me this, that, and the other thing, hopefully starting with a buck-twenty-five for another Steel Reserve Malt Liquor.”
And its an “act”, yes, but its become so engrained in his psyche, this baby act, that its become real. For he really and truly IS falling apart and dying in front of you. But I’M not gonna wipe his ass for him (literally or figuratively). Because it just means he’ll be back tomorrow demanding you do it again. And again and again. For there is no end to his baby act.
Duncan later tells me: “I don’t care. I’ve gotten cold and heartless. I just wasn’t going to let Mick Amok go in ahead of me after I had waited to use the restroom.”
And that’s Mick Amok’s act in a nut-shell. This emotional blackmail: “Endlessly help me, or else you’ll feel guilty when I die (or piss myself).”
But he’s cried wolf so many times in so many mind-numbing variations, that we simply DON’T care anymore. We can’t AFFORD to care. He’s simply not worth caring about. This guy who doesn’t lift a finger to help himself, but somehow wants YOU to help him.
Mick Amok crawls down onto the sidewalk, curls up on his side in the fetal position that he craves.
“C’mon, pardner,” I call down to him. “Get up here and sit in my chair. I’m going off to scrounge.” Come sit up here with the big people, the grown-ups. I’ll get you a nice high-chair, Mick, and a bib, and maybe a toy, a rattle, for you to play with.