Sunday evening on Telegraph Avenue

wp-1513394969039.
I’m sitting at the window seat at Pappy’s drinking a pint and watching the Telegraph street vendors pack up and feeling nostalgic. When this guy comes in the front door. He’s bundled up from the cold with a hat pulled down to his eyes and scarfs wrapped around his chin and a big, bulky jacket. He sees me sitting there and shouts:

“ACE! ACE! HOW YOU BEEN?”

“I’m doing alright,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“I’M FINE. I’M FINE! MAN I HAVENT SEEN YOU IN A LONG TIME!”

“That’s life,” I said.

“SO HOW YOU BEEN DOIN’?”

“I’m still alive,” I said.

“ANY DAY YOU’RE STILL ALIVE IS A GOOD DAY! BECAUSE WHEN YOU’RE 6 FEET UNDER THATS A GRIM DAY!”

“That’s for sure,” I agreed with him.

“MAN I HAVENT BEEN IN THIS PLACE IN AGES. I BOUGHT A LITTLE HOUSE IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. JUST ON THE BORDER OF OREGON BUT STILL IN CALIFORNIA. USUALLY THE FARTHEST SOUTH I GET IS SANTA ROSA. BUT I THOUGHT I’D COME TO BERKELEY FOR THE CHRISTMAS STREET FAIR.”

“You can’t beat the Telegraph Christmas Street Fair.”

“TOMORROW I MIGHT GO TO SANTA CRUZ FOR THE CANNABIS CUP FESTIVAL. THEY’LL BE GIVEN OUT ALL KINDS OF FREE WEED. I COULD REALLY LOAD UP!”

“Can’t beat that.”

“SO HOWS YOUR HEALTH HOLDING UP, ACE?”

“I’m healthier than I have a right to be.”

“I JUST TURNED 59. HOW OLD ARE YOU, ACE?”

“I’m 61. Respect your elders.”

“WE’RE OF THE SAME GENERATION, ACE. BONANZA AND THE RIFLEMAN AND ALL OF THAT. HEY! IS IT OK IF I LEAVE ALL MY STUFF HERE BY YOU? I WANT TO ORDER SOME FOOD.”

“I guess it’s OK.”

He goes up to the counter to order his dinner

I’m embarrassed to admit I have no idea who he is.

.

.

Christmas Eve 2008

 1916753_1279201885430685_6613585624139096571_n.jpg
Most of my Christmases are a blur in my memory.  But I remember the Christmas of 2008.  Or, more to the point, the Christmas Eve of 2008.

I was working at my 25-cent used books vending table on the corner of Telegraph and Haste.  My long-time pal B. N. Duncan was working his vending table right next to mine.   We’d been setting up our vending tables on Telegraph for nearly 20 years.

Now it was around 5 PM, Christmas Eve,  and the Telegraph  Avenue Christmas Street Fair was almost over for that year.  The other vendors were starting to pack up their tables as last-minute Christmas shoppers dashed about.  The party was almost over, giving a melancholy air to the proceedings.   It was a last-minute surge of energy before everyone gave up and went home to face their Christmases.  You could tell by the vendors body language whether it had been a good or bad season for them, sales-wise.  Some were visibly buoyant, counting their big wads of cash right in front of you.   Others, you could tell by their dispirited demeanor that they had bombed.  Christmas is the make-it-or-break-it time for most street vendors.  Some would be celebrating mightily tonight.  While others would be bracing for a dismal year.

Duncan and I had been on both sides of that coin.  For 15 years we co-published the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar.  And the week before Christmas was always our brutal moment of truth.  Finding out whether we had a hit or a bomb.  I can tell you, there’s nothing more painful than sitting at a vending table for hours watching customer after customer walk by, take a cursory glance at your product, turn their noses up and quickly move on.  Its a kind of death.  You sit there trying every sales trick in the book.

“Should I smile more at the customers?  Or should I play it cocky and laid back?  Is it this stupid shirt I’m wearing?  I just know I should have worn my good luck purple shirt!  Etc.”
.
Win or lose, Duncan and I would always celebrate on Christmas Eve as it all came to an end.  Bringing out the beer and cigarettes and toasting the greatness of us.  “Another successful Backwords and Duncan collaboration!”  Our much-repeated private catch-phrase.
.

Duncan had been in fading health for the last several years.  So I had a premonition that the 2008 Fair would be our last Telegraph Christmas Street Fair together.  In fact, Duncan would be dead within the next 6 months.  So I made a special effort to savor the moment.  I called him over to my table to share a beer.  Olde English 800, naturally.   And we quietly sat and smoked and made small talk as we listened to the Christmas music on my boom box.  I can’t remember much of the conversation.  Like I said, it was mostly small talk.  Duncan was so frail at that point, his speaking voice was labored.  He croaked out his sentences in a long, slow drawl.

fb_img_1490224731571.jpg

Mostly I kept thinking of all the years.  All the years.  Our first Christmas Street Fair back in 1990, for godsake.  Young and strong, with great hope for the future.  Embarking on this great adventure.  Wondering where it was all going to lead.  And now it occurred to me, it was almost over for Duncan.  It had all gone by so fast.  It was one of those moments that many people have when they hit 50 where you realize that life is a lot shorter than you thought it was when you were a young man . . .

“Well, I’m gonna pack up . . . and . .. uh… get my supplies for the  . . . uh…  night,” said Duncan.  That meant his usual nightcap that he bought at Fred’s Market:  a half dozen deviled eggs, a package of baloney, a chunk of cheddar cheese, some cottage cheese, two tall cans of Olde English, and a pack of Basic 100s.  A typical Duncan dinner.   Duncan stood up wearily.

“Merry Christmas, Ace,” he said.

“Merry Christmas, Duncan,” I said

I hung out at my vending table by myself for a couple more hours. Pounding the beers and enjoying the Christmas music on my radio.  I actually love Christmas music (as long as they only play it two weeks before Christmas). I love how you hear every genre of music. Rock, gospel, country, classical, church music, honky tonk music, the 50s, the 60s, etc.  Even punk rock.  Every genre has their Christmas music. My favorite Christmas song of all-time is the classical song Pachelbel’s Canon in D. And I lucked out that Christmas Eve. The city had hired a guy to play Christmas music on his classical guitar and he was set up across the street from me in front of Mario’s mexican restaurant. And right on cue he started playing Pachelbel. I actually started crying.  Tears running down my face.   What can I say. I’m a sentimental slob at the best of times. And at least you have an excuse on Christmas Eve.

About 15 minutes later I went over and threw 5 bucks in his guitar case. “That was beautiful!” I said. “Please play Paco Bell again!”

Later much to my delight, he played it again. I applauded deliriously from my vending table. “PACO BELL!” I cried. (I was a little drunk by this time)

I went over to the classical guitar player again and threw some more money in his case. “THAT WAS GREAT! OH MAN, PLAY PACO BELL ONE MORE TIME! PAH-LEEZE!”

“O-kay,” he said.

But I could tell he said it grudgingly. Later, in the middle of playing another song, he threw in a couple of bars of Pachelbel, before moving on to other songs, hoping that would placate me. I could tell he was getting annoyed by my constant requests, but I continued to yell out: “PLAY PACO BELL!  PLAY PACO BELL!!” (When I’m drunk I can turn into the asshole who stands in the frontrow yelling: “PLAY FREE BIRD!  PLAY STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN!” all night long.)

 

8538_630508586966688_1903164289_n-1.jpg.jpgThen Anthony showed up. He had his beat up old street guitar on his back. He whipped it out and played and sang a few bars of the Tubes song “White Punks on Dope.” It was like an inside joke between us. We went back about 20 years, me and Anthony. He had once been one of the best street musicians on the Ave. And his track on the Telegraph Avenue Street Music CD was one of the best tracks we had recorded back in 1994 (a smokin’ funk-rock track hot off the streets of Oakland). But we had both been through the mill over the years. Drugs and etc. But here we still were. Ready to party on one more Christmas Eve.

“Hey Anthony, do me a favor,” I said.  “Here’s 5 bucks. Go put that in the guitarist’s case and ask him to play Paco Bell. He won’t listen to me any more.”

Anthony dutifully trotted over there and then came back with a smile on his face.

“What’d he say?” I said.

“He said: ‘Please quit requesting Paco Bell.’ And he gave me 20 dollars to leave him alone.”

Anthony gave me his big, toothy Sly Stone smile and trotted off merrily, in search of 20 bucks worth of Christmas cheer.   ‘Tis the season of giving.

I realized I was being an asshole (eventually that realization dawns on me) and quit requesting Paco Bell.  I sat there quietly at my vending table, drinking my beer and smoking my cigarettes, and listening to Christmas music on my boom box, and thinking many, many thoughts.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

bn-duncan.jpg

 

The Telegraph Avenue Christmas Street Fair 2015

I often get melancholy during the Telegraph Avenue Christmas Street Fair.  Especially early in the morning when all the vendors are setting up their tables with this feeling of excited anticipation at the up-coming day . . .

For the 15 years that me and Duncan published the Telegraph Street Calendar, we were a fixture at the Christmas Fair every year.  I used to always get depressed during the Christmas season.  But the years we were doing the calendar, I was always so busy, working so hard, that I didn’t have time to get depressed.  And I loved how the season built up to a peak.  With every day that we got closer to Christmas, bringing more and more people to the Ave, and more and more of a shopping frenzy.  Until it finally peaked and exploded on Christmas Eve day.  When everything would suddenly die around 4 PM.  As everyone packed up to go home and start preparing for their holiday.

I don’t know exactly why I get so melancholy around the Telegraph Avenue Christmas Street Fair.  I guess because I wish that I could go back in time and do it all over again (and THIS time I’ll get it right, dammit!).

The thing I miss most of all:  Me and Duncan were in the middle of this big and very dynamic circle of friends back then (I’m pretty much a total loner nowadays).  And we used to bring out 5 or 6 extra chairs for our friends to hang out with us.  We used to joke that it was kind of like hosting “The Tonight Show.”  With Duncan as Johnny Carson.  And me as Ed McMahon, the side-kick.  And, one by one, our friends would show up — characters all of them — and take their place on the couch. And do their performances  . . .

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

.