The last day at my vending stand

 

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I remember my last day at my vending table on the Cody’s Books corner. It was right before Thanksgiving, 2009. … 

My friend Duncan had died 5 months earlier. And it just wasn’t the same without my old vending partner. Plus, the ruthless Telegraph mogul Ken Sarachan had recently bought the Cody’s building. So all the signs said that the party was over. And it was time to pack up my pop stand.

A big rainstorm was forecast to come in that afternoon. And you could feel it coming in the air. So I quickly packed up all my vending stuff before I got soaked. As I went to grab my cardboard “25 Cent Books” sign a huge gust of wind suddenly hit and sent the sign flying in the air down Haste Street. I considered running after it and trying to save it as a memento. But it seemed symbolic. Let it go. Cast your fate to the wind. One part of my life was ending. And a new part of my life would soon be beginning. Whatever that would be.

I managed to get all my vending stuff packed into my shopping cart just as the rains hit. This sudden outburst of pouring rain. I forget if there really were explosions of thunder and lightening. Probably not. But that’s how it seems in my memory. This sudden explosion of rain pounding down on the pavement.

I put a plastic tarp over my shopping cart, and stashed it in the corner under an awning, then ran to this doorway on Telegraph to get out of the rain. The doorway of the Kingpin Donuts shop, boarded up and vacant at the time. And I stood there by myself as the rain came crashing down. People were running up and down Telegraph frantically trying to get out of the rain.

And I suddenly started laughing. This loon laughter. Not quite hysterical, but almost. That kind of laughter where you’re so overwhelmed by emotion it just bursts out of you. And it’s not much different than crying. Laughing and crying are the same thing at that point.

And I thought back to all the memories of all the years at that vending table. 19 years ago when we had first started. With such great hopes. And now 19 years later it had come to an end. And I was overwhelmed by this flood of memories. It was like the tape of my life was on fast speed. And all the scenes rushed by me. One after another. All the dramas at that corner over all those years. The triumphs and the tragedies. The lives and the deaths. And it was almost too much for my brain to take it. Just overwhelmed by all the things I had experienced, it was mind-boggling.

And I stood there in that doorway. As the rain came crashing down. Laughing and crying and blubbering to myself. 

And that’s how that ended.

My heroic confrontation with The Man

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We were talking about dealing with the police. And how it can help if you can look at it from the police’s perspective. If only to keep one step ahead of the police. Now Berkeley isn’t the easiest town for the police to work in. I’ll give you an example.

Back in the day I used to store all my vending stuff in this City building across the street from where I set up my vending table. I started storing my stuff there when I got hired by the City to do this art project. And when the project ended, I just kept storing my stuff there because nobody noticed that the project had ended. And it was great, it was so convenient having all my stuff stashed right across the street from where I set up. And they had this big, locked gate in front of the building so nobody could get at my stuff.

So anyway, one night around midnight I was drunk and stoned out of my mind, like I often was back then, and I wisely figured it was time to pack up all my crap and get the hell out of there. So I carry my vending stuff over to the City building, climb over the gate, jump down on the other side, and stash my stuff in this outdoor garage area where I kept it. And I grabbed this big bag of other stuff that i also stashed there to take with me.

But as I was jumping back over the gate to the sidewalk — and this was almost a scene right out of a classic comedy — I happened to land right in front of these two cops who just happened to be casually walking down the sidewalk.

Now naturally the cops were startled when this dark and shadowy figure came jumping over the gate of a locked City building, after midnight, carrying a big bag of stuff, most likely drunk and stoned out of his mind, and landing practically right on top of them. So the police had every right to ask me a few questions. Like, what the fuck are you doing, boy?? So I had some ‘splaining to do.

But then, these other people, who also happened to be walking by, saw me getting rousted by the cops (The Man!!). And they immediately surrounded the cops and began angrily pestering the cops with questions. Like: “Why the hell are you fucking cops hassling this poor innocent guy, man!!” They’re doing the righteous Berkeley activist “Fuck The Police” shtick that was popular in certain Berkeley circles back then. But fortunately, right before one of them was about to voice the dreaded P-word and REALLY escalate the situation, I was able to calm the situation down.

“No, no, everything’s cool,” I said. “The police are just asking me a few questions.” And, under the circumstances, they had every right to do exactly that.

And I managed to explain the situation to the cops. And we all managed to live happily ever after without anybody getting beaten or tased or locked up in a little cage. THE END

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Rocker

This photo of Rocker popped up out of the blue the other day. It’s possibly the only photo of Rocker that exists in the world. Aside from his many, many mugshots.

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You meet a lot of weird people on the street scene. People like me, for instance. Part of it is, people that are so weird that they can’t fit in with any other scene often end up on the street scene by default. Because ANYBODY can be on the streets. It’s one of the wonderful things about the bottom strata of society — it’s all-inclusive. Anyways, I was thinking the other day about this one particular street person who was on the Berkeley street scene for awhile back in the day. Went by the name Rocker and Prime Time and P.T. . . He was a particularly weird fellow. Most people who had interactions with Rocker are probably trying to forget him. But for some reason I often remember people like him and wonder what happened to them.

I met some really great people hanging out with Hate Man over the years. Hate Camp always attracted brilliant artists, writers, thinkers, talkers, intellectuals, spiritual seekers, and bohemians of every stripe.

But I also met some of the WEIRDEST people I have ever known at Hate Camp.

One of the best things about Hate Camp was that it was all-inclusive. Virtually ANYBODY was welcome to hang out with Hate Man, so long as they followed a few simple rules of Hate Camp protocol.

But one of the worst things about Hate Camp was that it was all-inclusive. The dregs of the street scene — who were rejected by all the other scenes that they tried to be a part of — were drawn to Hate Camp. Because, quite simply, Hate Camp was one of the few scenes that would accept them, and wouldn’t reject them out of hand. So you ended up with the misfits of the misfits of the street scene.

One of the odd characters who was drawn to Hate Camp was this guy named Rocker (and he was definitely off his rocker).

Rocker had red hair. I think he was in his 20s when he first showed up, fresh-faced (at least at the beginning) with blandly-normal All American Boy looks. If you passed him on the streets you wouldn’t think twice about him. Unless you looked closer into his eyes (which were crazed). Or heard him talk (which he did constantly).

Rocker’s favorite pastime was to go up to strangers and insult them, harass them, and harangue them. He’d come staggering up to you with his ever-present 40 of malt liquor in his hand (Steel Reserve, I think), and if you were a bit overweight he might call you a “fat pig” to your face. Or if you were an attractive co-ed he might say “let me see your cunt, girlie.” He was a real charmer, Rocker. Not surprisingly, Rocker got beat up on a regular basis. To the point where I wondered if Rocker actually ENJOYED getting beat up (maybe that explained it).

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And the cops regularly hauled his ass off to Santa Rita, often hog-tied and strapped to a stretcher. (I once asked Officer Jones — the Telegraph beat cop — how he could stand to continually have to deal with a specimen like Rocker. Jonesy looked at me and smiled and said: “Are you kidding? Rocker is one of our best customers.” Ha ha.)

I didn’t know anything about Rocker”s background. But one rumor was that his psyche had been permanently twisted out of shape by witnessing his father dying in some horrific fashion. His father had committed suicide by blowing himself up with explosives. Or something like that. Who knows. But Rocker had certainly been bent out of shape by some one-shock-too-many. He was “out there” in a way that he would never come back from.

So Rocker would regular inflict his obnoxious trip on the people of Hate Camp. Who, of course, famously had more of a tolerance for “expressing negativity” than most scenes. But Rocker pushed the hatefulness to the limits. He would often scream the same obnoxious and insulting lines over and over (especially as he got drunker and drunker). And he would make insulting comments to people who were passing by Hate Camp.

So Hate Camp would pack up and move to another spot on the campus to get away from him. But Rocker would follow them. So Hate Camp would pack up and move again. Sometimes this weird game of hide-and-seek went on all night long. With Rocker searching and Hate Camp trying to hide from him (One trick Hate Camp learned over the years was they could often ditch Rocker by heading up a hill. Rocker had bad legs. I think somebody had broken his legs at least twice, and he walked with a noticeable gimp, and found hills difficult to navigate.)

As much as he drove Hate Man crazy with his endless harangues, Rocker had a real respect for Hate Man. Hate Man might have been one of the few people Rocker had any kind of real relationship with (his nickname for Hate Man was Super Tramp, which was a good one). Rocker certainly had no friends. He always came onto the scene alone. And left the scene alone.

FB_IMG_1520098748970.jpgI had one significant encounter with Rocker. One day he came up to our vending table and started haranguing and insulting Duncan. He wouldn’t let up. Wouldn’t get out of Duncan’s face. Finally Duncan couldn’t stand it anymore. So Duncan bolted out of his chair and attacked Rocker. So they’re sort of rolling around on the sidewalk wrestling. And Rocker managed to kick Duncan in the face. And broke Duncan’s glasses. So I picked Rocker up off the ground and ran him down the street.

The next day Rocker shows up at our vending table AGAIN. Supposedly to apologize (he kept repeating how “sorry” he was for breaking Duncan’s glasses). But when I repeatedly told Rocker to GO AWAY he refused to leave. His “apology” was just an excuse to continue to harangue us.

So I got up and gave Rocker a hard shove to the chest that knocked him backwards and to the ground (like I said, Rocker had bad legs and he went down like a bowling pin).

Rocker picked himself up and came after me. It was, as they say, on. Duncan had this big rock that he kept in his “donation” cup to weight it down. So I picked up the rock and threw it at Rocker as hard as I could. And i hit him right in the chest from point blank range. Rocker gasped in pain. For a second I thought he was going to lose his balance and crumple to the ground. Instead he turned and staggered down the street, wincing in pain.

Later that evening when I passed by the Caffé Med I spotted Rocker sitting in the window seat, rubbing his chest, in obvious pain.

So the next day I’m bracing myself for the possibility of an on-going war with Rocker. Its one of the worst things about living on the streets. You get into these kind of ugly confrontations with these street lunatics. And it can turn into an on-going vendetta that goes on for months. Or years.

But the next time I saw Rocker he just laughed about it. Rocker, after all, was in the process of destroying himself. So he didn’t take it personally when somebody helped him along with the process. Ha ha.

Rocker actually had a fairly robust sense of humor. And laughed often and from the belly. This lunatic laughter. He had an appreciation for the absurdity of human existence. And was particularly amused and mirthful when he found out that something terrible had happened to somebody. And even when it had happened to him.

Eventually, Rocker ended up getting arrested so many times that they permanently banned him from the Telegraph area.  I haven’t seen him, or heard anything about him, in over 15 years. . .  It’s possible he went on to bigger and  better things. Though probably not very likely.

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25-cent books

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Needless to say, the only constant is change.

This photo reminded me of when I used to run my 25 cent used book vending table on Telegraph Avenue. I had a donation cup on my table, to spare me the wear-and-tear of having to deal face-to-face with all my customers (I’m on the shy side). And the cup would constantly get filled up with coins.

I was usually busy working away at my work station about 10 yards away from the table, repairing the damaged books.  But I always kept a sharp eye out for that donation cup (in case anybody got any bright ideas about walking off with it). And every 15 minutes or so I’d get up and take all the dough out of the cup.  It was always filled with bills and lots of change. So that was fun. It was like magic. All this money, constantly materializing our of nowhere. I called it “selling books by the pound.”

Anyways, by the end up of the day I’d usually end up with about 100 dollars in change. So week after week, month after month, all that change would really start to pile up.  I’d literally end up with garbage bags full of coins.

So once a month I’d have to separate all the quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. And put them in money rolls so I could exchange them at the bank for bills.

I stopped doing my 25 cent used book vending table in 2009. But 8 years later I still have a big box full of quarters, 500 dollars worth of quarters, stashed in my storage locker.  It’s like a load of bricks.   I just never got around to rolling them up and taking them to the bank.  But one thing that annoys me when I think about that.  That 500 bucks is probably worth considerably less now, 8 years later, than what it was worth in 2009.  Because of inflation.  Which hardly seems fair.  I worked hard for that money.  So why should it be worth less now just because I’m thrifty and saved it?

Ha ha. I really am kind of nutty.

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Food is love

 

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Off to the races.

It’s a battle to keep coming up with all the food for my feral cats every day. But I really enjoy it and get a lot of pleasure out of it. So I guess I’d call it more of a game than a battle. And in the 10 years that I’ve been feeding the little rugrats, there’s only been 2 or 3 days when I didn’t have enough food for them. On those days they looked at me like: “What the fuck, dude??” So I had to patiently explain to them that, no matter how many times they meowed at me, I still wasn’t going to be able to materialize any cat food out of thin air. But almost every other day I stuff them full of food.

Today I fed 5 big cats for $1. That’s the ideal. I like to keep the cat food budget at under $2 a day, or about $50 bucks a month. The feeding session started last night. Moo Cat was waiting for me at the foot of the trail by the road. And she really scored this time. I had a leftover dish of pasta from this Italian restaurant with big chunks of chicken slathered in this rich, gooey cheese sauce. As I was getting the food out, Moo Cat kept rubbing against my legs and purring loudly. And when I put the food down on the ground, Moo Cat was so excited she jumped right into the dish. Ha ha. I had to sit there along side her while she was eating to keep the raccoons from bullying her off the food. I work hard enough to get the food. I’m gonna make sure the damn cats get it!

In the morning the regular crew — Scaredy Cat, Mini Scaredy, and Mini Owl — were waiting at my campsite for their breakfast. They usually start meowing at me to wake up and feed them before it’s even light (and to hear them crying you’d think they were starving to death!). As much as I spoil my cats, this is the one area where I draw the line. You drink as much beer as me every night, you’re gonna wake up when you damn well feel like it. So I’ll pull my blankets over my head to drown out their anguished pleas and go back to sleep. But they’ll keep pestering me — their favorite trick is to sit right on top of my head — until I finally drag my carcass into an upright position.

Scaredy Cat always jumps right on top of my backpack where I keep the food. And I have to patiently explain to her that I can’t get the food out until she gets her fat ass off my backpack. First course today was a ground-scored chicken calazone. They went nuts for that (I think my cats have a little Italian in them). And then some leftover McDonald’s scrambled eggs and a sausage patty that someone had left on top of a garbage can (it’s amazing how much discarded food there is in this town). Then I dumped out some dry cat food (I buy a big bag of it at Safeway’s every month at bulk prices so it only costs pennies per serving). And for final course I opened up a 15 ounce can of mackerel that I get for a buck at the Dollar Tree. The salty, oily juice that comes with the mackeral is one of their favorite things to eat and they always go for that first, and lick up every drop. They’re not crazy about the mackerel, but they’ll eat it. I also had a carton of milk that I had found in a discarded bag lunch. And they lapped that all up, too.

Then Fatty showed up off in the distance. She’s afraid to come within 30 feet of my campsite because Mini Scaredy doesn’t like her and always runs her off. So I flung her a couple of ham-and-cheese sandwiches that I had ground-scored. That should keep her busy until the other cats were done eating. Then I took Fatty the leftover dish of food that the other cats didn’t want.

Then Moo Cat showed up off in the distance (like Fatty, she’s been banished from the tribe). So I brought her a plate of food. And again I had to stand guard while she ate because the wild turkeys were lurking and they’d run her off the food if I wasn’t there. Then Mini Scaredy came trotting over. She was already stuffed with food, but she wanted to run Moo Cat off the food just out of spite. Ha ha. So I had to shoo her off (poor ole Moo Cat, she gets shit from every direction).

And that pretty much ended the feeding session for today. But you can bet they’ll all be waiting for me again tonight.

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When me and Duncan used to do our vending table in front of Cody’s Books, our friend Christeen — who lived in the apartment building next door — used to often bring us food in the evening. Christeen loved to cook, and she was a great cook, so she’d bring us these delicious home-cooked meals. Food for the street people.  Feeding the feral humans as it were. And she even developed this pulley system, where she could lower the dishes of food (wrapped in tin foil) down to us from her 4th floor apartment on a rope. And when Christeen’s head was hanging out the window of her apartment, looking down at me, I’d often get this image in my head of: “Rapunzel, throw down your golden home-cooked dinners!!”

Christeen always reminded me of this book title I once saw. “FOOD IS LOVE” (and you know what they say, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”). I always thought that’s how Christeen looked at food. As an expression of love. And I guess that’s the deal with me and my goddamn feral cats, too.

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Sunshine

 

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Sunshine on my shooo-ders makes me happy . . . .

This is long-time Berkeley street person Sunshine. And what a little dumpling of love she is.

One of Sunshine’s favorite routines — for years and years! — was to call 911 to call for an ambulance. She used to do it 3 or 4 times a week. For YEARS!!

We’d all be hanging out on the street scene. Next thing you know ambulances and fire trucks are rushing towards the scene. Siren blasting and lights flashing.

“What’s going on?”

“Sunshine. Again.”

“Oh.”

And the paramedics would all go rushing towards Sunshine, who was on the street corner waiting for them. “What’s the problem?”  “My tummy really really hurts. I feel really really sick.” So they’d strap her to the stretcher. And haul her carcass off to the hospital.

I’m not sure what the psychology of it was with Sunshine. I guess she liked being the center of attention. And having all these people rushing to help her. And sometimes she’d get a warm bed for a night at the hospital. So she’d pull this routine 3 or 4 times a week. For years.

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“Hmmm. . . Let’s see. I could take the bus to the hospital, which is only about 15 blocks away, and get there faster than if I called an ambulance. And it would save the city $5,000 . . . NAH! I’m taking the ambulance!”

It used to piss me off. Because I heard it cost the city something like $5 thousand bucks every time the ambulance came. So I hated the waste of it. But I guess the ambulance people didn’t care. They were getting paid

So anyways, one night I’m at my 25 cent book street vending stand. It had been a long hard day dealing with one customer after another. But it was 10 o’clock now. And things had finally quieted down. And I could finally start to relax. I poured myself a big cup of Olde English. And took a big hit off my joint. And just as I was kicking back and making myself comfortable, and turning my radio on to a nice relaxing radio station. I noticed good old Sunshine headed for the payphone right behind me.

“Oh no. She better not be. . . ”

Of course she was. Next thing I know my peace and quiet is shattered by sirens blaring. And lights flashing. And paramedics and cops rushing towards me. And Sunshine saying “My tummy really really hurts.”

And the whole mad scene went on for at least an hour (seemingly) before they finally hauled Sunshine’s carcass off to the hospital.

The next day I told Sunshine: “DON’T YOU EVER PULL THAT ROUTINE AT MY VENDING TABLE EVER AGAIN!!”

And out of respect — or fear — for me, she never did. Sunshine would always use the payphone at the next block.

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“Just let it all go”

 

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Ray at his vending table in front of Cody’s Books.

 

Ray set up his vending table right next to ours, every weekend for 15 years. And we couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more kind-hearted neighbor.

Ray sold hand-made “Star Stix” juggling sticks, and hand-sown hackysacks, and later computer-generated paintings at his vending stand. And everything he sold was always of the highest quality.

Ray was a big, strapping Nordic guy, about 6-foot-3. He was one of those guys who adopted the peace-and-love hippie “mellow vibes” persona in the late ’60s, and never deviated from it over the decades. So as big as he was he made a point to never be aggressive or macho, and, if anything he was a little on the fem side, and he had this girlish giggle that he’d often do.

Periodically Ray would disappear into his pick-up truck to take a couple of big hits of pot (“always the highest quality”). Then he would return to his vending table, turn on his boom box to KFOG, the hippie radio station, and dance around to the music while he played with his Star Stix and hackysacks (Ray was an excellent athlete).

A lot of Ray’s trip was in reaction to his father, who was this incredibly rich CEO of some big corporation. When Ray would describe his father he sounded like one of the worst persons on earth, this mean-spirited miser, and this wrathful God of thunder who had to dominate, bully or destroy everyone in his orbit. And a lot of Ray’s hippie-dippie trip was an attempt to be as opposite of his father as he could.

 

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Ray, letting it all go in People’s Park.

 

One of Ray’s favorite things to do was talk. And he loved nothing more than to deliver non-stop lectures on religion and spirituality. He loved to take the role of the wise spiritual master bestowing his great wisdom to his eager and breathless students. Which could get annoying. Because, as neighbors, we were a captive audience. And Ray had a tendency to appoint himself to this lofty position of the spiritual master, and you as the student that he would strive to elevate up to his high level. And I have a bit of an ego myself. And I don’t remember ever agreeing to adopt the lower position that Ray had appointed me to. So every now and then I couldn’t resist popping Ray’s balloon. Which wasn’t too difficult to do.

Ray would often say things like: “In true spirituality there is no such thing as higher or lower. Everything is equal and one. . . And I learned that from studying the HIGHEST form of Zen.”

Or.

“The truly enlightened person NEVER judges or makes judgments about other people. . . Unlike those lousy Republicans and lawyers who are constantly judging other people!!”

(I respected Ray’s spirituality as coming from a very pure and authentic heart. But lets just say his wisdom didn’t always come directly from his brain.)

Ray’s favorite line — endlessly delivered with a deep sense of gravitas as if it explained all — was: “Just let it all go!!”

“To attain real wisdom and spiritual enlightenment you have let go of all mental and intellectual concepts. Just LET IT ALL GO!!” And Ray would lecture for hours on this subject.

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To which I couldn’t resist sometimes adding: “Ray. Maybe you need to let go of the concept of letting it all go.”

But in spite of Ray’s tendency to be a bit over-bearing and long-winded (he usually prefaced his sermons with the phrase “I’ll be brief” — which he rarely was) there was a real innocence and purity to Ray’s spirituality that I genuinely respected.

One of Ray’s most cherished dreams was to set up this world-wide commune of hippie artists and musicians where we all worked together and played together and danced together. “And we would never need money because we would all share everything equally!!” He had this whole utopian dream of creating this world-wide community of peace and love that would transform the world into heaven on earth. He fervently believed in this vision. And was constantly trying to enlist others into joining his crusade.

Of course sometimes I couldn’t resist adding: “Ray. Maybe you should see if you can get along with living with one roommate first. And then you can build it from there to your world-wide commune.”

During the weekdays when he wasn’t at his vending table, Ray would work at his apartment making his vending products. And in the evenings as he worked he liked to smoke pot and drink vodka. “I get some of my deepest and profound spiritual revelations from drinking vodka,” he once told me. “And by the time I finish the fifth of vodka I can hear God talking directly to me.” And I believed him.

Around 2005 the house in Alemeda where Ray lived for many years got sold. And Ray bounced around for awhile, barely keeping a roof over his head. Finally Ray saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail for the paradise that he envisioned Hawaii to be. The glory days of Telegraph hippie street vendors had passed — most of us were just scraping to get by at this point. So Ray packed up all his stuff, sold his truck, and headed off to Hawaii with all the child-like enthusiasm in which he embarked on all of his life’s adventures.

I remember Ray’s last evening on Telegraph when he packed up his vending table for the last time and headed off into the sunset. I was the only person there to see him off. In spite of being so gregarious and sociable, Ray was actually a loner at heart with very few close friends. So I was the only person there to see him off. We shook hands and I wished him all the best and then he was gone.

True to his nature, Ray had let it all go, had let go of all of his vending stuff, his signs and display material and various bric-a-brac, which was in a big free-box on the sidewalk. I couldn’t resist grabbing a bunch of it for mementos, which I still have to this day stashed in my storage locker.

What can I say. I have a hard time letting things go.

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Street fights

I remember one of the first fights I got into on the street scene.  Actually, it was more of a confrontation than an actual fight.

It was 1997.  And me and Duncan used to set up our vending table on Telegraph Avenue every day.  We were in the middle of a big social scene back then.  So we’d often bring out 5 or 6 extra chairs for our friends to sit in so they could hang out with us while we were wiling away the hours doing our vending thing.  That usually worked out pretty good.  Because most of our friends were pretty cool people.  But every now and then, one of our friends would invite one of their friends to hang out with us.  Somebody that we really didn’t know.  That’s when things could sometimes get sketchy.  Because, as you probably can imagine, there are more than a few sketchy characters on the street scene.

That’s how this guy named Beedy came to be sitting there with us, hanging out at our vending table one afternoon.

Now Beedy was a vicious, little guy.  He had shot a guy with a gun once.  And he had done time in San Quentin.  And he hung out with a pretty rough crowd.  So he had a fearsome reputation as a heavy-duty guy that you wouldn’t want to mess with.  He also had a nasty, little mouth.  And as he sat there with us, he kept making all this sneering, mocking comments about “cartoonists and artists.”  I forget exactly what his comments were.  But as a cartoonist and artist myself, I began to take his comments personally.  So I politely asked Beedy to leave our vending table.

Beedy said:  “I can sit here if I want.”

I corrected him:  “No you can’t.”

So I got up and stood behind him and pulled his chair out from under him.  Beedy went straight down on his ass.  WAP!  He immediately jumped back up, mad as a hornet, and started throwing punches at me.  So now we’re dancing around, sparring like boxers, feigning punches at each other.

Now, the problem I have with fighting, in general, is that I generally start out with a burst of righteous anger.  And that fuels me into combat mode.  But after a couple of minutes I start to feel ridiculous.  Like, what the hell am I doing dancing around in public throwing punches, with all these people watching me.  So I start to feel like a fool.  And that saps the killer instinct needed to maintain a good fighting stance.  So I’m generally lousy at fighting.

At any rate, my friends quickly got in the middle of me and Beedy and broke up this fight.   Beedy dashed off.  But not before he turned around and pointed his finger menacingly at me and shouted:  “I’M GONNA’ GO TO THE PARK AND PAY A COUPLE OF NIGGERS 20 BUCKS TO COME OVER HERE AND KNOCK YOUR VENDING TABLE OVER!!”  And then he dashed off in the direction of the park.

So now we were in the middle of a situation.  “It’s on,” as the saying goes.

I considered packing up our vending table.  We sort of felt like sitting ducks, sitting there on the street corner (Telegraph & Haste for those of you keeping score at home).  But I figured that would send out the wrong signal.  That we’re scared.  Intimidated.  Backing down.  I figured this was going to be an on-going situation, so we might as well sit tight, see how it plays out and get it over with.

About a half hour later, this guy I know named Reggie comes rushing towards our vending table.  “Hey Ace.  I gotta’ tell you.  Beedy just came up to me and offered me 20 bucks to knock over your vending table.  I told him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Beedy.  Ace and Duncan are friends of mine!  I’m not gonna’ do that!'”

“Hey, man, thanks for the tip, Reggie,” I said.

So then I told Duncan, “Listen, I’m going to go across the street to the Café Innermezzo to get a cup of coffee.  Hold the fort.”  And that’s what it felt like.  Like we were the cavalry at Fort Apache waiting for the onslaught of the Indians on the warpath.

The Café Innermezzo was an ideal spot for a look-out.  Because it had a big picture window facing in the direction of the park.  So I could see if anybody was rushing towards our vending table long before they got there.  Lo and behold, I soon spotted Beedy himself rushing down the Avenue on the other side of the street.  He rushed by our table and kept going.  I decided to see where he was going.  So I darted out of the Innermezzo and followed him down the Ave.

Beedy darted into Fred’s Market.  And I darted in right behind him.  I darted off to a side aisle where I was out of view, wondering how I was going to play this one.  Beedy grabbed some food and a soda and rushed up to the counter.  I darted right behind him on line.   Beedy was excitedly talking to Fred who was working the cash register, when he turned around and suddenly saw me standing there right behind him.  His face blanched with shock and surprise.  And the tell-tale look of fear in his eyes.  I mean, it’s unsettling when you vow to wreak violence upon somebody, and then you turn around and there the person is standing right behind you.  Which was exactly the message I wanted to send to Beedy:  See how easily I can sneak up behind you and get you if I really want to?   Beedy paid for his items and rushed off down the street.

Later that evening, we’re all hanging out on a bench on the campus, when a mutual acquaintance of both Beedy and me walked up to me and said: “Hey Ace, Beedy feels real bad about what happened today.  He wants to apologize to you.”

“Sure,” I said.

Beedy sidled up to me and said: “Hey Ace, I’m really sorry about what happened to today.  Can I buy you a beer?”

“Oh man, you don’t have anything to apologize for,” I said.  “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just one of those things that happens sometimes.”  I said this because it was a way for both of us to save face.  Reasonable heads prevailed and we resolved the thing without it turning into an on-going war.  Sometimes you get lucky in that way. Most of the shit people get in fights about on the streets, it’s almost never really worth it.  Beedy and I shook hands.  And that was the end of that one.

*                                    *                                                   *

Looking back on that whole period, now that I think of it,  it reminds me of something.  I went through a period when I was a young man, for several years, where I was absolutely fearless.  I feared no man.  I didn’t even fear death.  At the time, I firmly believed that death was just shedding the physical body and merging with the Godhead.  So what was there to fear about death? I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  And that knowledge gave me a fearlessness and an absolute confidence in every situation.

I don’t have the feeling so much anymore, nowadays.  And, to tell  you the truth, I kind of miss it.

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Like an endless river of books floating downstream

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The Half Price Books recycling bins were always loaded with treasures.

For over a decade I ran a 25-cent Used Books vending table on Telegraph Ave.  It was a great gig.  I went through thousands and thousands of books every week.  I described it as:  “selling books by the pound.”  I had dozens of sources for my books. But one of my prime sources were the 5 or 6 recycling bins that Half Price Books put out on the curb twice a week.

I’d wait until Half Price Books closed for the night at 11.  Then I’d pull up with my huge Berkeley Bowl shopping cart and start loading up with books.  The bins would be loaded to the brim with unbelievable treasures.  Everything from last year’s best sellers to the classics of literature to $100 coffee table books.  As well as plenty of drek, too.  The trick was to sift through every book as quickly as possible, all the while making the lightning quick decision with each book:  “Will this book sell for a quarter?”

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I had a basic system:  Paperbacks in one stack. Hardcovers in another.  And coffee table books in another.  I’d hit the bin with the least amount of book in it first.  And then I’d precariously stack the crap books that I didn’t want alongside the bin.  Once I had an empty bin, that simplified things.  Because I could then take the reject books from the next bin and just toss them into the empty bin.  And I’d methodically work my way down the line of bins like that.

Further complicating things:  Half Price Books tore the covers off of all the books.  The reason they did that was:  If they DIDN’T, book hustlers would find the books and try to re-sell them at all the other used book stores.  Which was a tremendous waste of time for the book stores.  Having the same used books boomeranging back at them dozens of times. .  .  So, as I’m sorting through all the books I’m also doing a mix-and-match, trying to find the covers that go with the books (later I’d scotch-tape the covers back on the books).

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A rare shot of me at my 25-cent book stand. Note the industrial-size tape-dispenser to my left.

I had it down to a science.  Usually it would take me about 2 hours to go through all the bins.  And by one in the morning the 6th bin would finally be empty.  Then I’d dump all the reject books stacked alongside the first bin into the now-empty sixth bin.  Having come full-circle.  Quickly clean up any other messes I might have made, leave the corner spotless, and trudge off with my jam-packed shopping cart, bungee-corded with the over-flowing books, like a noble hunter returning from the forest with his hard-earned treasures.

But there could sometimes be complications.  Worst of all was when passerbys happened to notice me:  “HEY, LOOK AT ALL THEM GREAT FREE BOOKS!!”  And they’d inject themselves like a monkey wrench right into the middle of my careful organized machine.  And total chaos and confusion would ensue (so much for my “system”).

One guy I particularly dreaded was this extroverted street person with a guitar who, in his insatiable need for attention, would call out to every person who passed by and invite them to join in on the fun.  Before you knew it, it’s this huge party with books getting tossed around everywhere and my nice, neat piles becoming strewn across the sidewalk.  Plus, inevitably, a huge mess for me to clean up afterwards.

Adding insult to injury, it used to drive the manager at Half Price Books into a frenzy.  Because people would get indignant at THEM when they realized all these books were being trashed.  “That’s just, like, WAY uncool, Half Price Books, taking all of this great literature and dumping them into the garbage!!  I, after all, am a book-lover!!”  They just didn’t understand the reality of the book biz. It’s like the day-old produce at the grocery store.  They have limited shelf space, and they have to make room for the endless waves of new books.

So the manager got pissed at ME for drawing all the attention to the operation.  So she began dumping liquids of unknown origin on the bins of books in a futile attempt at discouraging me.  But I was making a hundred bucks a day off those book. So nothing less than an armed guard or a court-ordered subpoena would have kept me from those bins.

Anyways, this morning I happened to pass by those recycling bins.  And it all came back, like the memory of a half-forgotten pleasant dream.  All those nights standing out there by myself on a lonely street corner . . . Well after midnight under the moon and the streetlights.  The streets quiet and peaceful, for once. As I sifted through all the immortal words from all the great and non-great authors down through the ages of history.

One odd and ironic epilogue to my 25 Cent Books vending table. When Ken Sarachan — the businessman who owns half of Telegraph Avenue — bought the vacant Cody’s Books building, I decided it was time to retire my 25 Cent Book table. But I told Ken how much my customers loved my vending table. And I recommended to him — half-jokingly — that he should re-open the Cody’s building as a 25 Cent bookstore. Would you believe it? He actually took my advice and opened up a 25 cent book store . . .  I swear. I must be the only homeless bum in the history of homeless bums where multi-millionaire businessmen actually take my savvy business advice. Go figure.
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