I often feel a real nostalgia for the Telegraph Avenue back when we were publishing the Telegraph Street Calendar (1989 to 2004). There was a real magic to the scene for me back then. Mostly the people. There were so many dynamic and colorful and whacky and talented people back then. It gave the Ave this carnival and festival feeling. So many of the people were like walking cartoon characters. And that was often reflected in their cartoonish names. The Rare Man. Bubble Lady. Hate Man. The Naked Guy. Pink Man. Etc.
And then there was Richard List, the Plop Artist guy. So named because he would literally plop his artwork down in public spaces. He’d often make these bizarre and whacky “sculptures” out of found objects. Bicycle parts, mannequins, and most famously, toilets, which he would spray-paint bright silver and other day-glow colors.
His Plop Art perfectly captured the feel of Telegraph back then. This expression of zaniness and color for the sheer hell of it. And when asked why he did it, he himself would concede “I really don’t know myself why I do what I do.”
For many years he took over the vacant Berkeley Inn lot, and plopped his mad creations down there, in what he dubbed the “New Sense Museum” (pronounced “nuisance” — ha ha).
Richard was unpretentious and never took himself seriously. And his art usually inspired a bemused reaction from passer-bys, like: “What the hell is THAT?? And how did it get THERE??” His work was a nice bit of color and imagination in an often gray and drab world.
I miss his Plop Art. And I miss so much of the other things from that long-gone period in time and space.
Yesterday, me and Charlie Cheapseats were hanging out with Hate Man in People’s Park, talking about the old days.
“When I first visited Berkeley in the summer of 1974 there was always a huge street scene happening on the Berkeley campus,” I said. “Back then it was hard to tell the street people from the students. ‘Hippie’ was definitely the style.”
“Yeah,” said Cheapseats. “Nowadays the campus is almost completely dead.”
“Yeah. There are just a few loner-type street people that mostly keep to themselves.”
“There used to be tons of street musicians, too,” said Cheapseats. “Remember that guy Rick Starr who used to croon those Frank Sinatra songs while singing into that fake plastic microphone?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And Larry the Drummer. He used to drive everyone nuts bashing away on those buckets all day long.”
“All those characters are gone. Whatever happened to Paul of the Pillar?”
“Even the Christian preachers don’t show up any more. They used to be surrounded by huge mobs of people heckling them. It was great entertainment. Like a Roman amphitheater where they threw the Christians to the lions.”
“Even that nut the Happy Guy is gone. The guy that used to stand on a bucket saying ‘Happy, happy, happy’ all day long.”
“And if you started heckling him, he would point his finger at you and shout, ‘CIA!! CIA!! CIA!!’”
“Remember the lower Sproul drum circle every weekend in the 1990s?”
Suddenly, Hate Man had had enough of our reminiscing.
“I hate your guts with all this talk about the old days!!” said Hate Man. “I wanna’ kill you. I hate people who constantly dwell on the past. I prefer to live in the present moment and appreciate what’s going on now. Instead of all this lame nostalgia for the good old days.”
I realized recently that, nowadays, I live in a permanent state of mourning for my past. I remember when I was a young man, this old guy once warned me about the danger of living in the past as you get older. “You can get stuck in a rut if you don’t keep evolving with the times,” he said. “You stop growing as a person. You turn into a fossil. You end up yearning for the return of the Good Old Days that will never come back.” . . . I never thought I’d fall for that trap. Because (in spite of my pen-name) for most of my life I was a very forward-looking person. Whenever I finished an art project, my first thought always was: “Yes. But the next project is going to be the Best Thing Yet!!” But then suddenly, a couple of years ago, it was like there no longer was a next project. . . *sigh*
“I knowdja’ mean, Hate Man,” I said. “It’s like that famous scene in the book ‘Be Here Now’ where Ram Das is constantly talking about his past adventures or his future plans. And his guru says: ‘The past and the future are an illusion. Only the present is real. Be here now. Live in the present moment. That’s where all the action is.’”
“Yeah,” said Hate Man.
“My problem is, I yearn for the past. I fear and dread the future. And my present moment usually sucks. So I got all the wrong bases covered.”
Hate Man chuckled at that line.
Now I’m sitting here looking back fondly at that conversation I had with Hate Man and Charlie Cheapseats in People’s Park. It seems like only yesterday . . . Actually, it was only yesterday.
Just about every day I’m thinking, in the back of my mind, that Cody’s Books is going to be re-opening, any day now, and it’ll be a dynamic cultural center, just like it was back in the old days.
And Duncan is gonna come back. And co-publish another issue of the Telegraph Street Calendar. And we’ll set up our vending table right in front of Cody’s Books. Just like the old days.
And Ray Winters — that crazy old Zen hippie — will set up his vending table right next to ours. Selling his hand-made Star Sticks and hackey-sacks, and preaching his crazy wisdom to anyone who’s willing to listen, in between smoking his marijuana.
And the flower shop will be right across from us. With all the beautiful flower girls selling their beautiful flowers.
And the Caffe Med will re-open so we can buy a small to-go coffee for a buck and a quarter (and endless 50 cent refills).
And Hate Man will pull up with his beloved shopping cart Gilda (named after Gilda Radner). And set up Hate Camp at Bench One and Bench Two on Sproul Plaza. And bring out the Hate Man drum circle every night, and make such a racket you can hear it for 20 blocks, and all the beautiful young street chicks in their gypsy hippie and gutter punk clothes will be dancing along. Just like in the old days.
And all the weird and wild and colorful people — known back then as “the Telegraph street characters” — are putting on their performances on every street corner.
And I’m young and strong and have a full head of hair and a dynamic artistic career in front of me, and the sky is the limit, anything is possible, and the only limits is my imagination, and that’s not much of a limit.
And in the back of my mind, I keep thinking those days are going to be coming back now. Any day now. Soon . . .