Regina

One of the unsettling things about the street scene.  You often see people disintegrating, practically right before your eyes.

I was thinking about this street chick I used to know.  Let’s call her Regina.  When she first hit the Telegraph scene in 1992 she must have been around 16 years old.  Cute as a bunny.   This adorable, red-headed, little waif.  Right out of Little Orphan Annie.  And she was an orphan, too.  Raised by adoptive parents in a nearby suburb.

Like a lot of orphans, Regina had “issues.”  Abandonment.  Rejection.  Low self-esteem.  Unworthy of love.  The usual.  But the real root of Regina’s tragedy was this “woe is me” attitude.  “Things never work out right for me,” was her eternal mantra.  An attitude that tends to perpetuate itself.

Regina had already had her first kid by age 16.  Which she put up for adoption.  Another pattern that tends to perpetuate itself.

Then Regina fell madly in love with this cute, hippy-boy acid dealer named Paul who tooled around on a skateboard.  He was following the Grateful Dead tour.  Regina was convinced that Paul was the answer to all her problems.  The solution to this state of unrequited lovelessness that she wallowed in.  “Paul, Paul, Paul.”  For awhile it seemed like the relationship was going to work out.  But, well, you guessed it.

Of course, Regina was crushed when the relationship fell apart.  Never really recovered from it.  Regina was one of those people where their latest tragedies were kind of like their favorite hobby.  It was one of her few interests.  Her problems.  That and drugs.  Periodically Regina would try and roust herself from her downward spiral.  But it was like she was an empty vessel who lacked the inner resources.

The thing I most remember about Regina was this blank look that was often on her face.  Her eyes were like two buttons that radiated no light.  She reminded me of the Raggedy Ann doll.  Pliable and wispy with no solid foundation.  And she had this constant neediness.  That she could never fill.

The last time I saw Regina was around the winter of 1999.  I ran into her on a street corner on Shattuck Avenue.  Her front teeth were missing.  Some asshole had punched them out after Regina burned him on a speed deal.  “Oh well,” said Regina with a hapless, toothless smile.  “At least it helps me when I’m panhandling because I look so pitiful.”

Periodically I would get Regina updates.  “Regina’s living in San Francisco in the Mission.” . . .  “Regina’s a junkie and a prostitute.” . . .  “I saw Regina sleeping in this back alley, she looked really skinny.”

And then, after awhile, there were no more Regina updates.

.

The Polka Dot Man

 10799_10152535555407005_5858930990262106405_n.jpg
The Polka Dot Man, 1982

.

For whatever reason, Berkeley has always attracted it’s fair share of weird characters.   I often wonder why there are so many nutty people in Berkeley.    Is it that, for some reason, the nutty people are drawn to Berkeley??  Or is it that something about Berkeley drives people nutty??  Who knows.  I’m too nuts myself to figure that one out.

.

One of the many strange characters is a guy who was known for many years as the Polka Dot Man.  The Polka Dot Man has been bizarrely displaying himself on the Berkeley campus since the early 1980s.  He would sometimes go years without talking, like a deaf mute.  Often he’d sit unmoving for hours at a stretch in weird postures.  In a newspaper interview, he said he originally slipped into this catatonic state while tripping on LSD in a Texas jail.  He became fixated with the drain-hole of the urinal, staring at it for hours.  And that was how he got locked into the “polka dot” concept.  For years he wore a bizarre, clown-like costume covered with polka dots.

The Polka Dot Man existed in this weird mute-deaf-dumb catatonic state for many years.   Then one day he was sitting on the sidewalk in front of a building that happened to catch on fire.  This fireman started screaming at him: “GET UP!! GET UP!!!”  For some reason, the fireman yelling at him, ordering him to get up, pulled him out of his catatonic state.  He began talking normally to people again, and was relatively normal for several years after that.

The human mind is a peculiar thing.

10563212_936083349742542_1596752134078312800_n.jpg
The Polka Dot Man, circa 2016

.10500343_936089533075257_7536959139778912816_n.jpg10444545_936086806408863_4455880467427480565_n.jpg

.

.

.

.

.

.

Crack cocaine

 

One of the worst things about drugs is all the sketchy people and sketchy scenes you end up dealing with.  Even worse, its highly likely that you, yourself, are one of the sketchiest.

I remember one summer in 1994 when I went through a minor crack cocaine binge (not my finest hour).  When I finally came down from the crack (we ran out) I realized that there was this person in my apartment who, only moments earlier, I had considered one of my best friends in the world (my affection for her knew no bounds when the cocaine was ringing the endorphin bells in my brain exactly right — that golden gong).  But now I realized I wasn’t exactly sure who this person was.

She was a fairly attractive 19-year-old mullatto chick who was six month pregnant and she was angrily pacing back and forth in the living room of my apartment saying over and over:  “If that Mike don’t get back here in the next 15 minutes with that crack I’m gonna get me a gun and go down and rob the 7-11 on the corner and get me my own damn crack!”

The next thing I remember, it’s me and Mike and m’lady barreling down Telegraph Avenue at 3 in the morning in a virtually empty AC Transit bus, on our way to McCarthur Blvd. in Oakland.   The master plan — which thus far was unfolding flawlessly — was  to hopefully hook up with some guy who’d been hanging out on the roof-top of this hotel building.  And he could introduce us to this other guy who knew this other guy who had just scored a shitload of dynamite shit that was directly off the plane from Bolivia.

And then things started getting sketchy . . . .

 .1907635_890641304286747_6829602642315112277_n.jpg
10171691_890641187620092_4038385066755873232_n-1.jpg.jpg

 

A Ghost Story

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of death.  Maybe because by the time I was 20 I had already had loaded guns put up to my head, and knives up to my throat, and had come within a flick of the wrist of dying.  So death was like a daily companion to me.  It wasn’t just an intellectual concept I played around with.  I don’t know if it gave me a certain gravitas.  But it made me aware at a young age that death could come at any moment, in a blink of an eye.  So you might as well start preparing for it. I think a lot of people, they kind of block out and  repress the subject of death.  Then, when they’re old and on their death bed, it suddenly hits them all at once.

I remember  the first time I really experienced death.  The first time you experience death, it’s kind of like losing your virginity.  Popping your death cherry.  Going through all that for the first (but by no means the last) time.  My friend David McCord committed suicide right before Christmas of 1994.  29 years old, he jumped in front of a train.  David was one of those guys who was born depressed, seemingly.  He lived in a constant state of depression.  When I first met him in 1982 he was this baby-faced high school punker with a mohawk.  12 short years later he was dead.   When we got the word of David’s suicide we were all stunned.  “Shocked but not surprised,” is how one friend put it.  In retrospect it seemed almost inevitable.

Anyways, a couple of weeks after David’s death I was going through a big pile of mail.  I used to get 200 letters a month back then, so it would often pile up for a month before I got around to opening it.  So I was stunned when I came across a letter from David in the pile.  I opened it up with trepidation.  He had mailed the letter a couple weeks before he died.  It was a fairly mundane letter.  “How you doing?  Send me a copy of your latest newsletter when you get a chance.  Nothing much happening here in Chico, etc. . . ”  He had even enclosed an SASE so I could easily write him back.  But I sure couldn’t write him back now.  I stared at that letter for a long time.  It was eerie.  Like getting a communique from the Other Side.  Like David was calling out to me from some twilight zone where departed souls passed through.

I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious.  But I believe all that stuff about the After Life, and ghosts, and spirits, and haunted houses, and sacred spots, and netherworlds.

Shortly after David’s death, Mary and I decided to go out and get drunk and have our own private eulogy for our departed friend David.  Sort of an Irish wake (David was half-Irish, half-Jewish).  The weather that night was gray and drizzly and foggy.  Like the setting for a cheesy  horror movie or something.  You half expected Jack the Ripper to jump out of an alley-way at any moment.  We decided to go to the Bison Brewery, this legendary pub on Telegraph Avenue, to pound a few.  As we walked down the Ave we passed this grizzled-looking street person in a ratty trenchcoat who was panhandling in the drizzle.

“Spare any leftovers?” he said as we passed.

“Sure,” I said.  I handed him the leftover to-go Chinese food I was carrying.

“Thanks,” he said.  “I just got into town.  I just got off a train.”

Mary and I continued walking towards the Bison Brewery.  But after about a half a block, I stopped and looked at Mary and said:  “That’s weird.  Did you hear what that guy said?  ‘I just got off a train.'”

“Yeah, that’s a weird coincidence,”  said Mary,  “considering David just got killed by a train.”

“You don’t suppose . . . ” I said.

We both turned and looked back towards the street person.  But he had disappeared.  He had seemingly disappeared into the mist.  Or maybe he had went off to eat his Chinese food.  But it was eerie.  Like we had just seen a ghost.  Like the spirit of David had come back to earth to say good-bye to us one last time before his soul went off to wherever souls go off to after they die.   And a shiver went up both of our spines.

And throughout the evening, as we drank and talked about David,  we’d periodically think back to that street person in the trenchcoat who had just got off a train.  And that shiver would go up our spines again.

.

.

The last days of the Duncan

 

 

I was thinking of one of my last interactions with Duncan.  Must have been  the summer of 2009.  This guy was working on a documentary about the Naked Guy and he had used a bunch of the photos Duncan and I had taken in 1993.  So Duncan was screening a rough edit upstairs at Christeen’s apartment.  Duncan was in terrible health by this point.  It was agonizing watching him creaking up and down Telegraph. His body had betrayed him.  He was locked into that descending spiral that I had seen some of my other elderly friends get locked into:  his stays at the hospital kept getting longer, and his stays out of the hospital kept getting shorter.

Anyways, it was night time. I was across the street working my vending table on Haste and Telegraph.  The spot of so many past triumphs for Duncan and me over the years.  Could it have really been 30 years?  Remembering when Duncan had lived across the street at the Berkeley Inn.  Before it burned to the ground in an arson fire in 1986.  The barren, vacant lot being sort of a sad symbol of what had once been, and what our lives were becoming.

Duncan came out of Christeen’s apartment building and waited for a cab.  He had been living in a motel for the last week.  Some welfare agency had set him up with an apartment in downtown Oakland, but it was on the second floor and his legs were so bad he could no longer climb the stairs.  So they had temporarily set him up in a Berkeley motel.  And his life was like that now.  Like a relentless regression.  His situation getting narrower and narrower.

 

 

img_20170531_201912.jpg

I could tell he was in bad shape, so I went across the street to see if there’s anything I could do.  Duncan  had his back to the apartment building as he waited for the taxi, leaning against the wall for support.  The dark shadows and shifting street lights played across his face adding an eerie and urgent intensity to his facial expression.  As Duncan broke down for one  of the few times that I knew him, broke through his usual stoney reserve and English stoicism.  “I’m scared!”  he blurted out in a jumble of words  Almost on the verge of panic.  “I’m really scared that I’m not going to be able to make it!”  He seemed almost hysterical.  Like he was being driven to madness by his suffering. And I could tell it wasn’t just the fear of death (which is heavy enough) that really scared him. But the fear of dying.  The fear of losing control of his life, and all the terrifying uncertainty that went with that.

I ran across the street and fetched an extra folding chair for Duncan to sit on while he waited.   The taxi drove by and I ran out into the street to flag it down.  As Duncan was staggering into the backseat of the cab I slipped him a $20 in case he needed anything.  My attempts at “help” seemed so futile in the face of the hopelessness of Duncan’s situation.

It’s weird how my memory works when I think back on it now.  I remember  things like a vivid snapshot in my mind.  Duncan leaning against the wall of that apartment building.  The look on his face.  I can still see it clearly in my mind.fb_img_1490224731571.jpg

Duncan’s dead now, of course. And even the apartment building he was leaning against is gone.  Burned to the ground in another fire. And it seems now like the whole thing wasn’t even real. It was just a hallucination.  Nothing is left of the whole episode aside from my fading memory.  And soon, I’ll be dead, too, and even that fleeting memory will be gone.  And it’ll be as if it had never even happened in the first place. . . .  I suppose  you could take a nihilistic message from all this. “Everything ends up as dust in the end.” But there’s a strangely up-lifting message, too.  Like, no matter how bad life gets, no matter how bad the suffering, it’ll all be over soon.  And it’ll be as if it had never even happened in the first place.   Its like nothing is solid or real.  Not even the buildings.  Its all just a hallucination.

But there was an amusing epilogue to the story.  The next morning I was still worrying like crazy about Duncan. Had he made it to his motel room in one piece?  Was he dead or alive?  What new and terrible crisis was he in the midst of?  So I popped my head into the Café Med to see if he was around.  And there he was, sitting at a table with his friend Richard, heartily eating away at this huge breakfast.  A typical Duncan breakfast.  Ten sausages, four eggs, toast, orange juice, plenty of coffee.  Not a care in the world. Or at least temporarily oblivious. As if the whole scene last night had just been a bad dream.  It was so Duncan.  That was one of the last times I saw him on Telegraph.  And that’s how I like to remember him.

.

.

Berkeley

 

588828I first came to Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  I had just graduated from high school, age 17, so I decided to hitch-hike cross-country from New Jersey to California to visit my older sister and her hippie boyfriend who were living in Berkeley at the time.  They were living on Benvenue Avenue, just a couple blocks from where Patty Hearst was living with her boyfriend right before she was kidnapped by the SLA.
.

It took me about 5 rides to get to Chicago.  And then this long-haired hick from Kentucky gave me a ride all the rest of the way to Berkeley.  The hick from Kentucky spoke with a deep, southern drawl.  “I’m goin’ to Loz Angel-EEEZ to git’ me a job as a radio disc jockey!” he said, in a voice like Jethro Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.  I sounded possible, but unlikely.

I distinctly remember as we were riding through the salt flats of Utah, they announced on the radio that Richard Nixon had just resigned from the Presidency.  Somehow that seemed symbolic.  Like I was taking my first steps out into the real world of America, and America as I had known it had just changed into something completely different.

 1167488_706875095996703_2016167045_o.jpgI distinctly remember hitting Telegraph Avenue for the first time.  We were tooling down the Avenue in his station wagon and I was amazed to see all these hippie street vendors lined up on both sides of the street, selling their hippie wares.  In fact, the whole city seemed like wall-to-wall hippies.  A town full of hippies!   Berkeley:  “The town that time had forgotten.”  It was like slipping into a time warp, or an alternate dimension of reality.

The Kentucky  hick stuck his head out the window while he was driving down Telegraph, and his tongue was practically hanging out of his mouth drooling like a cartoon character as he exclaimed:  “HOT DAMN!  Wouldja’ lookit’ all them hippie chicks with no bra-SSEIRES on their TITTIES!!”

I thanked the hick from Kentucky for the ride, grabbed my frame backpack, and plunged into Berkeley for the first time.  This sea of hippies.Twenty years later, when I, myself, had become a Telegraph street vendor, I’d often think back to those first moments in Berkeley in the summer of 1974.  And I’d see some young kid hitting the Ave for the first time and I’d feel like I was in some kind of strange time loop.

I spent about 30 years living in Berkeley.   Near the end it started getting really weird.  Like I could see ghosts  on every single block. I couldn’t go anywhere in the town of Berkeley without remembering some weird scene that I’d gone through  at that spot, years and years ago.  I’d walk by the Amherst Hotel on Shattuck, and I’d remember knocking on the front door in 2006, finding out that my friend Linda had just died. . .   Then I’d look across the street at the movie theater and remember when Duncan and I had put together a big art exhibit there back in 1994 . . . Every block was like that. Like an endless acid flashback.

wp-1490472011460.jpg

 In 2010, at age 54, I started working as a bottle-and-can recycler.  It was grueling work, but it kept a wad of bills in my pocket.   One afternoon I was pushing my shopping cart full of cans down University Avenue and I passed the apartment building I had lived in for 13 years.  I had first moved in there in 1982.  As I stared across the street at the front steps of the apartment building, I could almost see my 26 year old self walking in that front door for the first time in 1982. . .    Then I watched my 54 year old reflection in the windows of all the stores as I trudged down University with my shopping cart full of cans. . .

It got to be like that.  Ghosts every where I went.

There was a period of years in the ’90s where I almost felt like I embodied the best of Berkeley.  That I was some kind of Berkeley icon, even.  I had the long, hippie hair, and the neatly-trimmed beard.  And I had these round, dark John Lennon shades that I used to wear.  And when the sun hit the shades just right you could see these rainbow-colored peace signs on the lenses.  I was doing this hip, underground, Berkeley-esque comic strip at the time that was appearing every day in a local Berkeley newspaper.  So it was like I was projecting my aura all across the town.  And I was co-publishing a photo calendar about the Telegraph street characters that was a local hit.  And I was getting interviewed by all these newspapers, and radio stations, and TV stations.  Different art groups were offering me thousands of dollars in grants to produce my latest artistic projects.  And art galleries were displaying my stuff at their exhibits.  So it was a heady period.  Sometimes I would even secretly crow to myself:  “I dominate Telegraph Avenue!”  Even though, in the back of my mind, I always knew that Telegraph — and the streets in general — always dominated you in the end.

891569_630502623633951_1590677567_o-2.jpg.jpg

The whole Telegraph scene seemed like a magical, bohemian circus back then.  And the town of Berkeley generally seemed proud of it, and celebrated its zany, quirky, eccentric charm.  So it was a bit of a shock to me around 1999, when all the local newspapers  started writing headline articles about; “What’s Wrong With Telegraph Avenue?”  And the same people who had been celebrating me just 10 years ago, now seemed to be blaming me.  Like it was my fault that there were all these “bums” and “street people” that were ruining their nice, little shopping district.  Suddenly, I had come to embody all that was bad about Berkeley.

Life is like that, I guess.  Endless loops and time warps.   And ghosts.  Plenty of those.

 

.

Drugs, drugs and drugs

(Originally published February 18, 2005)

The Berkeley street scene is just getting crazier and crazier. The drug of choice these days is crystal meth, washed down with cheap malt liquor. Crystal meth is cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s deadly.  It short-circuits the mind in record time. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Is it that our minds are such a burden we want to shut it off by any means? Crystal meth deranges the mind.  It’s not like the speed of the old days, which was mostly just a body drug. You’d get this high-powered, vaguely euphoric buzz, like you’d just drank 10 cups of coffee with no jitters, just pure, smooth energy, which is what we always want, right? More energy. Of course, 10 hours later the j-j-j-jitters would hit, and after two days with no sleep you’d crash like a motherfucker; end up sitting on the sidewalk like a piece of cement for about a week. This dulled out, sanded down thing.  But that was the speed of old.

Today’s crystal meth — I don’t know if they’re mixing it different or what, god only knows what kinda’ lethal chemicals they slip in the mix — but today’s crystal meth is more of head drug. It goes right to your head, and to your soul even. You hallucinate — and not just from the sleep-deprivation like the days of old. Crystal meth is sort of like a bad acid trip; it’s sort of “spiritual” but it takes you to this eerie occult kind of realm. From just beyond the swirling cacophony of swelling street noises you hear this eerie celestial chorus, like haunted angels sweetly singing off in the distance.

One night, in the midst of my own moronic speed binge, I tossed a soda can into the garbage can. This guy sitting on the steps said to me “Hey, you should recycle the can.” I started to respond when I realized their was nobody there, it was just a shadow on the steps. I had hallucinated the whole thing.

After four days without sleeping, I finally crashed. When I woke up 4 hours later, I laid there on my bunk and it was like I was listening to a radio broadcast of this disc jockey on the radio talking about me. It was clear as a bell. Only there was no radio on!  The voice was coming from my own brain. But it was more like my brain was picking up a radio signal from some other dimension of reality. I laid there for ten minutes listening to the hallucinatory radio broadcast in rapt fascination. I’ve heard about crazy people who “hear voices.” Who knows what that meth stuff does to the chemicals of your brain? I mean, normal so-called reality is weird enough, ain’t it?

Anyway, after just a couple months of minor league bingeing, I had a certified nervous breakdown. I’d walk down the street weeping to myself. The littlest thing could set me off. I snapped to my so-called senses in the nick of time. I’ve been pretty much clean and sober for several months now.

Others aren’t so lucky. Legendary speed freak Jizzy Smith has finally snapped. He used to shoot up a big shot of speed and then rant and rave and hurk and jerk for hours on a stretch. But then, the next day he’d come down. Now, he’s out there in the ozone all the time. Tonight he was on the steps of the campus raving at the top of his lungs “THIRTY FIVE YEARS IS THE OPTIMAL YEAR FOR MOTHERFUCKERS! LET THE ELECTORAL GO TO PRISON I ALREADY DID MY TIME! COCKSUCKERS DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO EAT! LET THEM MAKE THEIR OWN BABIES!” On and on.

“I remember when you used to be able to have a normal, rational  conversation with Jizzy,” said this one street chick. “And now he is just GONE.”

Jizzy got high one time too many, and now he’s not going to come down. His brains are permanently scrambled. And that’s sad.

Down the Ave, all the street people are huddled under the awning of Amoeba Records trying to keep out of the rain. This fat, crazy chick keeps fucking with everybody. She grabbed at my head as I passed by. Finally, the other bums ran her off the scene with a derisive chorus of “QUACK QUACK QUACK!” Sort of like pigeons pecking at the pariah of the pack. This young ne’er-do-well gave her a hard kick in the ass for good measure to send her on her way. Then the ne’er-do-well vented his energy by going berserk on a bicycle locked to a pole, kicking it and stomping it into a pile of twisted metal. Typical. All these useless street people flopped out on the sidewalk with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no place to put their energy, except into trouble.

Ten years ago, there was still a remnant of the “hippie/counterculture” vibe to the Berkeley street scene. Kind Rainbow hippie brothers and sisters looking to expand their consciousness with pot and acid, to groove with the cosmos. It was all bullshit I guess, but at least they believed in SOMETHING even if it was false. Too bad that turned out to be such a dead end. Today’s street people believe in nothing. They come to Berkeley looking for nothing but drugs and free food. Which at least is real, but what the fuck. They are mostly the product of broken homes or no homes. Walking down Telegraph Avenue is like walking through a gauntlet from hell. Panhandlers and fuckers and nuts invade your space with every step.  Like I always used to say:  “We had a better class of bums back in my day!”  Ha ha.

Earlier, I passed this one street person, and his dog on a leash lunged after me as I walked by, barking and flashing his fangs and straining to reach me. It’s hideous. I know these streets weren’t designed to be LIVED ON. Yet here are all these people living on them nonetheless. Most of them, they add nothing to the community, and take away with their mere presence, which is mostly noxious. They are the equivalent of trash on the sidewalk that you’d want hauled off to the dump. That’s the EFFECT. And yet they’re human beings, too, and they’re caught in the crunch of a bad situation that mostly is not of their own making. And their lives are so miserable already, the last thing I want to do is heap more abuse on them. Christ, you can’t help but feel sympathetic, even as another part of you is disgusted, even as another part of you says: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I was flopped out alongside them once already. And I’m a prime candidate to end up back there again.

And yet, when I first hit the Berkeley street scene back in 1993, there was more of a bohemian and intellectual, and even magical, flair to the scene. One of the guys I hung out with, the legendary Hate Man, was a former reporter for the New York Times. Another guy, Scooter, had graduated from Yale and was doing post-graduate work in Rabbinical Studies (in other words, not your average, typical homeless street people). And there was a crew of brilliant young painters who were also part of the scene, regularly creating colorful chalk-drawing masterpieces on the sidewalk. And brilliant musicians and poets would regularly join us during our nightly drum circles and jam along with us. Beautiful young hippie and punk chicks would dance along. My friend Duncan would document it all with his camera. And I’d record the music with my 4-track. The scene reminded me of Andy Warhol’s whacky art scene in the ’60s. After midnight, the city landscape was like our own private playground for our weird art happenings. It was like a movable piece of performance art. Street theater of the bizarre. I was proud to say I was “from the streets.”

But nowadays, there’s nothing left but the dregs. And me. It’s like being surrounded by a camp of drunken, feuding hillbillies. Am I just waxing nostalgic here? “Back in MY day we had a better class of bums.” Maybe. But maybe not.

It all started to change around 1996 when the first wave of Gutter Punk kids flopped out on the sidewalk. They mostly didn’t do ANYTHING.  They’d just sort of sit there all day like they were waiting for something to happen.

Nowadays, the mob of street people flopped out on the sidewalk is growing bigger every day. Like a plague, or a growing cancer. This dark shadow that is descending on the land, growing darker every year, like some ominous sign of a future that will very soon be here among us.

.

.

Synchronicity: Part 1

.

There’s a weird synchronicity to life.  Its like there’s this mysterious Unseen Hand that is manipulating all the events from behind the scenes.

It was July 25, 2009 and I was walking to the hospital to visit my best friend, B. N. Duncan, for the last time (he was on his death bed, literally).  As I walked to the hospital I was listening to my transistor radio and all the news stations were talking about the actress Farrah Fawcett who had just died.  That was the big news of the day.

About two hours later I was walking back from the hospital.  I was completely drained.  It had been a wrenching experience.   Watching my best friend in the process of dying right in front of my eyes.

As I walked down Telegraph I passed these two little black kids who were playing in their front yard, talking to each other.  “Did you hear?  He just died?” said one of kids.   I stopped in my tracks, swiveled my head around.  How did he know???  “They just announced on the news that  Michael Jackson had just died.”

 Ohhhh.   I stood there for a second.  I felt like I was hallucinating.

  •                                    *                                          *                                                   *

A couple days later, me and Duncan’s sister, Elaine,  are at Duncan’s storage locker.  We’re trying to sort  through all of Duncan’s crap in this outdoor courtyard.  Trying to figure out what to do with his hundreds of boxes of stuff.  His “life’s work”

“We had better pack up early today,” said Duncan’s sister, who is kind of psychic.  “I think its going to rain.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.  “It never rains in July.”

But sure enough it started to sprinkle.  So we packed up, and then I walked up to People’s Park in the drizzle to hang out with Hate Man.

Hate Man was hanging by the bulletin board at the far end of People’s Park facing Bowditch Street.  I had blown up Duncan’s obituary from the Oakland Tribune on an 11-by-17 xerox and posted it in the middle of the bulletin board.   And Hate Man was reading the obituary.  Suddenly — and  I swear to God with Hate Man as my witness — this huge and brightly-colored rainbow appeared in the sky.   The rainbow went from one side of People’s Park to the other.   And the bulletin board was centered exactly right in the middle of the rainbow.  And the photo of Duncan’s face from the newspaper article was exactly centered in the middle of the middle.   It was as if Duncan’s face was staring right up  at the rainbow.  As if he had conjured it.   As if he had staged this fantastic farewell to the town he loved.

  •                               *                                         *                                                    *

The Hindus believe that when a person dies, his spirit lingers for several weeks in the area where they lived.   Before they finally merge back with the cosmos.  And for a couple of weeks the person’s spirit can bless his friends and curse his enemies and just sort of stir up a little mishief for old time’s sake before he says good-by to planet earth and this mortal coil.  And I kinda’ believe that.  It seems plausable.  And I’ve witnessed several eerie examples of that when friends of mine had died.

Anyways, later that night I was trudging up to my campsight up in the Berkeley hills.  There was a big rock concert at the Greek Theatre, this outdoor stadium, and the music was wafting in the air.  It was this cosmic, celestial song about soaring in the “atmosphere.”   I recognized the song from this alternative radio station that sometimes played it.  As I passed these women coming out of the concert I asked them:  “Do you know who this band is?”

“Its Death Cab for Cuties,” she said.

And it was perfect.  Because that cute old guy Duncan was soaring through the atmosphere in his death cab on his way to the Next Life at that very moment.  If you wrote scenes like that in a movie it would be hokey and unbelievable.  But real life is weirder than any movie I’ve ever seen.  That’s probably why I almost never go to movies.

.

.

Hate Man makes it through another winter storm

793905_591907890826758_488391201_o.jpg
Hate Man — former New York Times reporter turned legendary Berkeley street character.

 

798306_591907604160120_63209259_o-1.jpg.jpg
Hate Man, as ready as ever for another winter on the streets.
61189_556101121074102_1611394905_n-1.jpg.jpg
The ever-resourceful Hate Man drying out his tarp after a brutal winter rainstorm. We got an inch of rain last night, but Hate stayed dry thanks to his specially rigged set up of tarps. He only got soaked when he suddenly had a craving for his beloved (or is it behated?) Haagan Das ice cream at around midnight and braved the storm to walk the 4 blocks to 7-11. Thats Hate Man for you.
23904_556075794409968_397921662_n-1.jpg.jpg
At age 76 Hate Man has more energy and enthusiasm than 90% of the people who hang out in Peoples Park.
417065_556654224352125_1995139473_n-2.jpg.jpg
Hate Man at the center of his universe at Hate Camp in Peoples Park.

 

 

252345_556083324409215_137800540_n.jpg
Nap time.

 

.

.
.
.

The sidewalk circus

March 11, 2008Google Earth street view of 2400 Telegraph Avenue Berkeley

The streets are a stage.  A circus.  A freak show.  Or a clown show.

The other day it rained.  So Food Not Bombs set up under the awning of Amoeba Records on Telegraph Ave.  This local wing-nut  — I call him Crash Helmet Dude because he always wears a shiney, silver crash-helmet on his head —  got into a weird scene.  He’s an ass and I got into a low-level violent confrontation with him once at Hate Camp on the campus a couple years ago.  I forget what started it, probably him grabbing too many slices of pizza from our table.  Hes a classic grub and mooch. I remember tossing his bicycle at him, and him circling around me making crazy, threatening sounds.

I don’t know what his ethnicity is.  He looks like a bad cross between White, Puerta Rican, and Mongolian. He’s got thick, coke-bootle lens glasses that accent his crazed bug-eyes.  He’s a bum with attitude.  A weasel, okay?  He made his presence felt immediately on this day, by bumping into me as I waited on line, as he reached for the box of day-old bananas.  Grabbed as many as he could carry.  Flits around you like a ball of nervous energy.

Anyways, he set his lunch on top of this portable plastic garbage can in front of the tattoo shop.  One of those things with a lid, like the blue recycling bins.  And, of course, he’s got 5 times as much food as he can eat laid out on top of the lid.  Day-old sandwiches and fruit and bread and a heaping plate of Food Not Bombs food.  And he’s standing there stuffing it into his face, in between his manic, nervous, high-pitched patter (which you can never quite understand, and don’t wanna’ take the trouble to find out).

But then  — as usual with this wing-nut  — a complication develops.  A worker from the tattoo shop comes out and wants to put a bag of their garbage into their garabage can.

Crash Helmet Dude is righteously indignant, as always.  He’s just standing ther minding his own business trying to enjoy his lunch.  And this asshole wants to put garbage into their own garbage can.  It is The Clunky Street Person scenerio yet again.  Some bum, who shouldn’t be living there in public in the first place, who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing.  But it is always the other party who is the offensive one.  Who is the offending party.  The classic bum-with-attitude scenerio.

Crash Helmet Dude stands there in outraged disbelief.  Then he starts pacing around the garbage can like a headless chicken.  He can’t believe this oaf is actually asking him to move all the food he has carefully arranged on top of their can.

Wise-guy Fernando is standing nearby. And he starts braying at Crash Helmet Dude in a mocking tone.

“Clown show!  HA-HA-ha-HAH!!”

“Clown show!  HA-HA-ha-HAH!”

He repeats this about 5 or 6 times right in Crash Helmet Dude’s face, accenting the mockery with a leering grin and a machine-gun blast of HA-HAs,  Elmer Fudd-style.

“Hey, fuck you, man!” squawks Crash Helmet Dude.  So now the two of them are jawing back and forth.

Meanwhile, the tattoo worker is still standing there with his bag of garbage.

“C’mon, man, you gotta’ move your food.”

I forget what happened next.  I think Fernado flipped the lid up and splattered the food all over the sidewalk.

Now, Crash Helmet Dude is really mad.  He’s buzzing around like a hornet and moving towards Fernando in a threatening manner like he’s going to start throwing punches.

“Go ahead and swing on me,” says Fernando with his leering smile.  “So I have an excuse to beat your bitch ass. C’mon.  Do it!  You’re nothing but a clown show.  HA-HA-ha-HAH!!!!”  They start dancing around , feinting punches at eachother.

Then the tattoo guy gets into it.  Tells Crash Helmet Dude he’s got to clean up the mess. So it keeps escalating.  Crash Helmet Dude is righteously indignant, so he takes the garbage can and knocks it into the middle of the street.  Cars are veering to avoid hitting it.   Then he  knocks another garbage can into the street.  A woman from the tattoo shop comes out and starts yelling at Crash Helmet Dude.

“I guess you can see why he always wears that crash helmet,” I said to Fernando.  “People are always trying to bean him over the head.”

Then, one of the Berkeley activists (a tree-sitter) gets into the middle of it, and I don’t know if he’s trying to play at being the big Hippie Peace Maker or if he’s giving Crash Helmet Dude a stern lecture about his civic duty.  But it just keeps going from bad to worse for Crash Helmet Dude.  Its like a Curious George misadventure.  An endless regression.  Now, somebody else is yelling at him, threatening to call the police.

“Go ahead and call the police, you fucking assholes!” yells Crash Helmet Dude in a manic squawk.   Now he’s flitting all over the place like he’s defending himself from attacks from every direction and trying to rouse an offense. He jumps out into the middle of the street, right in front of a big, on-coming street bus.  Which slams on the brakes just in time and comes to a screeching halt inches away from Crash Helmet Dude, who looks momentarily stunned, and then resumes his headless chicken routine.

I look up and notice Fernando is sitting inside the Caffe Med at the window seat, like he’s got front-row seats at a play, with a big smile on his face, enjoying the street theatre that he helped instigate.

Now, Crash Helmet Dude is across the street with all his food set up on the sidewalk  But somebody is hassling him over there.  Then two cops start walking towards him real slow.  Crash Helmet Dude starts backing away slowly, waving his umbrella in front of himself like a sword.  Then, he starts back-pedalling faster, until he’s running around the corner.  With the cops in hot pursuit. So now we’ve got a Keystone Kops routine.  Soon, there are cop cars fanning out in every direction, circling around the block in pursuit of Crash Helmet Dude, public enemy number one.

Meanwhile, Fernando comes out of the Caffe Med and says to me with a smile.  “Hey, isn’t that Crash Helmet Dude’s bicycle that he left there by the pole.  Thats a pretty nice bike.  I know somebody that could really use a bike like that.  HA-HA-HA-HAH!!”

Its so weird, some of these wing-nut street people.  They come to these free meals like Food Not Bombs, and all they have to do is shovel the food into their faces.  They don’t have to buy it.  They don’t have to cook it.  They don’t have to clean up afterwards.  All they have to do is sit there and eat it.

And some of them can’t even do that right.

Caffe Mediterraneum 2476 Telegraph Ave. Berkeley, CA

 

*

*