Sometimes I really don’t know what to say

Was just sitting on a bench on the campus when old Roberto sat down next to me.

“I got some good news,” he said. “I think I might finally be able to move into an apartment.” He paused for a moment and then said, “But it’s a little ironic. Because my lung cancer is really starting to act up. So I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Roberto rubbed his hand on his chest.

Sometimes I don’t know what to say.

Me and Roberto talked for a bit. It was one of those things where it started out a casual conversation and then suddenly wasn’t so casual. It was life-and-death stuff.

“It happens to everybody,” said Roberto. “Life comes to a bad end.”

“Well you know what they say,” I said. “Life is a lingering sickness cured only by death. But at least there’s a cure.”

“That’s pretty good,” said Roberto. “Who came up with that one?”

“Me,” I said.

“It happens to everyone,” Roberto said. Taking it philosophically.

“Sometimes it seems like 90% of the people I’ve known over the years are dead,” I said. “It makes me wonder why I’m still here. Everybody else is gone and yet I’m still here.”

“You drink all that beer,” said Roberto. “It pickles you. It preserves you.”

“Ha ha. I believe when we die we go to heaven. Or at least we’re reincarnated on a higher plane.”

“I hope so,” said Roberto.

“It’s got to be better than this life.”

“Yeah.”

I said goodbye to Roberto. As I was wandering off I wondered how many more times I’d see him. Or if I’d see him again. You never know.

Berkeley is a town full of ghosts to me

Every now and then I’ll pass this building on the corner of Telegraph & Dwight. And I’ll get a lump in my throat and feel like I’m gonna start crying. It’s where I met Duncan for the first time. Way back in 1978. It was a xerox shop back then. Krishna Copy. And I was making copies of some of my cartoons. And Duncan was at the xerox machine across from me making copies of the pages of this little 16-page zine he published, Tele Times. I can still vividly see the picture in my mind 42 years later.

I was 21 and just getting started with my life. I think I had only sold two of my cartoons at this point. And Duncan — even though he was a decade older than me and in his 30s — was just getting started with his life, with his artistic career (he had spent most of his 20s locked up in a mental asylum — “You’ll most likely spend your whole life in a mental asylum,” his shrink had told him). So Duncan was just getting started on his life too.

Duncan was the one who approached me. He had noticed out of the corner of his eye that I was xeroxing copies of original comic art. Just like I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was xeroxing off pages of a comics zine. “Ahh, would you be interested in letting me publish some of your cartoons in my magazine?” said Duncan.

So that’s how it started.

I’m not sure why it makes me want to cry when I think about it now 42 years later. I guess because life can just be kind of sad, how it all unfolds over the years. . . Or maybe it’s just because life can be such an overwhelming experience. You’re flooded with so many emotions. . . Sometimes you cry not because you’re sad. But because you’re just overwhelmed by it all.

The X-plicit Players

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I just passed Debbie and Nina of the X-plicit Players, slowly sauntering down Telegraph Avenue, side-by-side, just like old times. Aside from the fact that they were fully clothed for once. . . I don’t think I’ve seen them up here since Duncan’s memorial back in 2009.

They must be close to 70 by now. But they didn’t look much different than they did back in the day, aside from their hair being gray. They were clad in brightly-colored pastel-colored hippie clothes. Long flowing skirts, the layered look, etc. . . I don’t know if they recognized me as I passed by. They didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t acknowledge them (long story). . . Ladies and gentlemen, the X-plicit Players.

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Someone asked me about my “falling out” with the X-plicit Players.

Well, boys and girls, it all started in 1993. Me and Duncan had decided to prominently feature the X-plicit Players in the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar that year. So Duncan spent much of the year following them around with his trusty $30 Kodak Instamatic camera taking photos of them. As they frolicked around in public in the nude. So I had many interactions with them over the course of that year. The X-plicit Players. And they were always super friendly and super positive whenever they related to me.. They always had big smiles and plenty of hippie good vibes.

Then in 1994 I decided to record a CD — a compilation album of Berkeley street musicians. And I wanted a song by the X-plicit Players on the CD. So I had many more interactions with them. And again, they were always super friendly and super positive. Total grooviness all the way.

Then when the CD came out they all instantly turned on me. They HATED what I had done to the recording of their song on the CD. In fact they were righteously outraged. And now whenever they saw me, they were no longer super friendly or super positive. In fact they literally turned their noses up at the sight of me. Like I smelled like shit or something. They hated my guts.

And it really wasn’t even my fault.

When I recorded the X-plicit Players playing their music, they had two songs that I liked. This one song called “Let Them Be, Breast Free” (or something like that) (which was sort of their anthem advocating public nudity, an anthem for a generation yearning to expose their breasts in public — which was like their big Cause — with a capital C — they were going to save the world by liberating humanity from their body hang-ups — they REALLY believed that stuff, and it was a nice pleasant little ditty). And then they did this other song where they’re all blowing away on these diggery-doos. And it had a cool hippie vibe to it. So I wanted to use both songs.

The problem was: I only had space on the CD for one X-plicit Player song (like I said it was a compilation CD with 22 other street musicians). So I decided to combine the two X-plicit Player tracks. I’d use the first half of the “Let Them Be, Breast Free” song. And then fade it out. And then fade in the second half of the diggery-doo song. Wonderful.

The problem was. The guy who was my studio engineer for the recording of the CD, HATED the X-plicit Players. He was this 21 year old heavy metal kid who had put together a home recording studio in his apartment on Telegraph in Oakland. He had all this great recording equipment and actually knew how to use it. So I had talked him into collaborating with me on this CD project and using his recording equipment and recording expertise to record my damn CD (and to his credit he did a great job — the CD is well recorded, professionally recorded, and we jerry-rigged the whole thing together on a shoe-string budget).

But the problem — like I said — was that he had an intense dislike of the X-plicit Players. I’m not sure exactly why. He was offended and disgusted by their nudity. And he thought their music sucked too.

So the day came when we were going to mix all 22 tracks that we had recorded onto the master tape. Which we would then send to the company that was going to press up our CD. And we had to mix all 22 tracks in one afternoon.. Because I had rented out this big and expensive piece of recording equipment that we needed for the job from a local music store. And I had to return it at the end of the day.

So me and this 21 year old heavy metal kid are mixing down all the tracks on the master tape and laying them down in the sequential order that they’ll appear on the CD. One after another. And things are going fine. Until we get to the X-plicit Players track.

“I hate that track,” he said. “They suck. I don’t think they should be on the CD.”

So I have to talk him into mixing the track. But he’s dead set against it. Thinks it’s going to despoil the whole CD. But I was adamant. I really wanted the track on the CD. But he’s got me over a barrel. I have no idea how to use the recording equipment. So if he decides not to do it, there’s nothing I can do about.

Finally I talk him into doing it. So he mixes the two tracks together. But instead of artfully fading out and fading in the two tracks, he just makes an abrupt and artless cut from one track to the other. I ask him to re-do it so it sounds better. But he refuses. It was hard enough to talk him into doing it once. Let alone talk him into re-doing. And frankly, it was just a novelty track basically. It wasn’t like it was genius music or anything. It was just a little ditty. So what the hell.

But when the X-plicit Players heard the finished CD they were outraged. From their perspective I had butchered their masterpiece — “Let Them Be, Breast Free.” And they hated my guts ever after.

I’ll never forget when the guy who was the head of the X-plicit Players angrily confronted me. I tried to explain the situation to him. But he didn’t buy it. He felt it was inconceivable that I couldn’t get the 21 year old metalhead to do it the way I wanted. “But you’re ACE BACKWORDS!!” he said. Like I was some kind of great man, some kind of big hot-shot, who could just snap my fingers and get this kid to do my bidding. Sheesh.

The whole CD project was like that. Dealing with these crazy street musicians. All 22 tracks had weird back-stories to them, dealing with all of them. It’s a miracle I even managed to finish that project. Ha ha. Fucking musicians. 

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Christmas 2019

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Woke up 7 in the morning (long story). Christmas day. The only place open to get coffee is 7-11. So I head in that direction. Cut through People’s Park. There’s at least a dozen tents set up. They’ve been there all week. That’s one thing where the University always drew the line in the past — no tents or structures, and no overnight camping (10 PM curfew). I don’t know if they’re letting it slide because of the holidays. Or if they purposely want to turn the park into a rundown homeless shanty-town to justify tearing it down.

Get my coffee (guy in line in front of me buying a 24 ounce can of Olde English, off to an early start). Walk back up Telegraph. Pass various street people in different doorways. Some still sleeping. Some drying off their stuff. A couple guys lighting up a bowl, starting their Christmas cheer. And, of course, one guy panhandling me. . . The Ave is completely deserted except for street people. It’s like a homeless ghost town.

Now I’m sitting here drinking my coffee and thinking many, many thoughts. None of them particularly interesting. MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!!

“Telegraph people”

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Julia Vinograd passed away almost exactly a year ago today. And that got me thinking about “Telegraph people.” For Julia Vinograd was certainly one of the most renowned of the “Telegraph people.”

I used to see “Telegraph people” all the time back in the day. As I walked down Telegraph Avenue, I’d pass the same people, see the same faces, day after day, year after year, for decades at a stretch. Like the people who lived at the Berkeley Inn, or the other apartment buildings on the Ave, or lived in the houses and the boarding houses around the Telegraph area. And you’d see them day after day going about their daily business. And get to know many of them.

Or all the “Telegraph people” hanging out at all the coffee shops. The Berkeley old-timers at the Caffe Med. The younger, hipper crowd at Cafe La Botega and Wall Berlin.

Or you’d pass all the people who owned all the businesses on Telegraph, or the employees who worked in the stores and shops. Like Moe, the famous owner of Moe’s Books, forever slumped behind the cash register chomping on one of his cigars.

Or all the Telegraph street vendors, selling their colorful wares, set up at the same spots year after year, like a permanent part of the scenery.

Or all the whacky Telegraph street people, and the colorful self-created “Berkeley characters,” as well as all the street musicians and street performers and street orators that gave the Ave this feel of living street theater. Like the Hate Man — one of the more famous of the “Telegraph people,” and forever identified with the Telegraph scene (Hate Man would sometimes go years at a stretch without leaving the confines of Telegraph Avenue — “Everything I want is right here” — aside from regularly going to the courthouse in downtown Oakland to deal with his latest tickets, ha ha.).

When I first met Duncan — a quintessential “Telegraph person” — in 1978 he was publishing a little xeroxed magazine called “TELE TIMES: Telegraph Avenue’s Tight Little Monthly” to chronicle his little slice of the “Telegraph community.” And it really was like a community. Like this unique little village living within the larger confines of the city of Berkeley.

Tonight I walked back and forth down the 6-block radius that most people consider the “Telegraph scene.” The 6 blocks from the campus to 7-11. And I didn’t pass a single person I recognized. . . That’s just what it’s like now I guess.

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.

A long forgotten moment in 1992

 

I don’t know why, but I often get this feeling of wistful sadness when I look back on my life. Like this long-forgotten moment in 1992. Anthony, Yume, Hate Boy. And I’ll often get that feeling when I think of somebody that I knew who died. I’ll think back to the excitement of those times. How we were constantly rushing around chasing after something. Something that always seemed to be just out of reach. It was like life always seemed to be leading up to something. But then when the person dies, there’s sort of this empty feeling. Like it was all just leading up to death.

And this weird sense of incompleteness about so much of our lives. It’s like I rushed through my life cramming all these experiences down my throat, while never really digesting them. It seems like it should have added up to something more somehow. Something more than a barely understood, and mostly forgotten, dream.

And as an artist, always trying to capture and preserve the moment. While never sure why. This futile yearning to capture and relive the past. And there’s a photo of us, or a newspaper article of us, or a tape recording of us. And there’s the date on it. September 1, 1992, or whatever. . . As if I needed some kind of proof that it was real, and it actually happened, and I was there. Even as, one by one, the photos disappear, the newspapers end up in the trash, and the tape recordings wear out.

The spiritual types all say “live in the moment,” the eternal Now. The past is just a dream. The future never gets here. All that’s real is the present. Even as I’m haunted by my past in a weird kind of way.

Hate Boy

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There were several different “Hate Boys” over the years. Guys that were Hate Man’s primary side-kick and second-in-command. Sancho Panchez to Hate Man’s Don Quixote…. But Hate Boy was the first.
Hate Boy was an enigmatic fellow. He hit the Telegraph street scene around 1992 and hung around for a couple of years before he got run out of town.

Tall, lanky, and athletic, fairly handsome, I’d guess in his mid-20s when this photo was taken (but who knows, just about everything about him was a mystery). Hate Boy talked very little. Sat there with his Cheshire Cat grin. He mostly presented himself to the public by his ever-changing colorful costumes, and by his peculiar movements and mannerisms. Somewhat of an exhibitionist, he reminded me of a mime (he would sometimes wear white pancake make-up), or a slightly malicious court jester or joker. With a strangely aristocratic manner, like a rich kid on a lark. Often had a sly, mischievous smile on his face, like he was enjoying some secret inside joke. Possibly at your expense.

He adopted some of the Hate Man’s look, as well as some of Hate Man’s philosophy. So for awhile they were like a matching set. Hate Man and Hate Boy.

Hate Boy wasn’t a verbal person. The few times I tried to engage him in conversation he responded with terse, one-sentence answers. He never talked about his background (and to this day I don’t know anything about him, where he came from, what his real name was, what he had been doing before he became Hate Boy, and what he did afterwards). He never explained himself, or what he was aspiring to be, or what it all meant to him. He just presented himself as a living, breathing piece of performance art. This inscrutible work of avant-garde that people could project any meaning onto, or no meaning. As he danced across Telegraph like a zany ballerina (I have a set of photos of him spinning and piruetting and posing down the Ave).

When the Naked Guy started walking around naked, Hate Boy would often strip and join him on his romps, penis dangling in the breeze, his smile slier than ever. Hate Boy liked to shock and push the envelope. And eventually that got him in trouble. After a series of episodes where he grabbed at different co-eds crotches, he was banned from the area. And left town suddenly one day — possibly one step ahead of the law — never to return. And that was the end of Hate Boy. One more legend of Telegraph

Generally I enjoyed Hate Boy. He added some color and life to the scene. Projected this attitude that life was just a game, and there was nothing better to do than to play all day long, if you could get away with it

The building formerly known as Cody’s Books

 

Narayana has been hanging out by the old Cody’s Books building lately. She hangs there just about every evening, usually all evening. Sitting there leaning against the front door of the vacant building for hours, blankly staring out at her world. And at the end of the night she usually takes out her sleeping bag and crashes there. Often a couple of other street ne’er-do-wells hang out there, too, one on each side of her. And crash there at night. I’ll often pass them late at night on my way to the liquor store, laying there on the sidewalk in their sleeping bags like three bumps on the logs.

Like so much of my life these days, it’s a stark reminder of what once was, and now is. And such a bring-down from what once was. For many years Cody’s Books was one of the cultural centers of Berkeley. This dynamic hub of constant action and excitement. While today it’s mostly just the home for a couple of weary street people, sitting there killing time.

And for nearly 20 years, that Cody’s Books corner was one of my favorite hang-out spots. I used to half-jokingly refer to it as “my corner” (but half-serious, too). That corner was like my living room, my clubhouse, and my bar, as well as my work place.

When I pass that corner now it’s hard to even remember what it was once like. The countless dramas we enacted over the years on the stage of that corner. It’s so different now. It seems like it was all just a dream. A hallucination. Like it never really happened. It was nothing but a fading memory in the back of my mind.

A long forgotten day in 1992

 

This popped up on the internet today. This photo from some long-forgotten day in 1992. I was just starting to get to know Hate Man at that point. I had put him on the cover of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar 1992 (the 3rd edition of the series). I operated the calendar under the same premise that most magazines operate under: “Stars sell magazines.” And the street scene — just like the Hollywood scene and the sports scene and all the other scenes — has it’s stars, too. With Hate Man most definitely being one of them (PS. That issue sold well).

I was 36 at the time. I had been working at my comic strip full-time for 6 years at that point. But I was just starting to get pulled into the Telegraph street scene, because, frankly, it was more exciting than sitting at a drawing board all day long.

I started out as a voyeur of the Berkeley street scene, an on-looker, an outside observer, not really a part of it. But eventually I ended immersed in it, if not overwhelmed by it. Eventually I would be taking part in funerals and weddings and births and deaths and everything in between. An active participant and member of the tribe. My life would end up intertwined with all sorts of other people’s lives, in all sorts of bizarre ways. Something me and Duncan never really anticipated when we first started the calendar.

Me and Duncan were just burning burning burning back then. We were never short of ideas or mad-cap schemes. As well as the burning desire to pull them off.

At the time it never occurred to me that it would one day come to an end. I guess you rarely do at the time. Especially when everything is just starting up. And all the stories are only just starting to unfold. When I was young, it seemed like I had this huge expanse of time ahead of me. And then you blink your eyes, and all that time has come and gone.