Shattuck & University, 1950s
Shattuck & University, 1950s
Last week I walked into this apartment building where I used to live. I hadn’t been inside the building for many, many years. So it was like walking back into a dream.
As I walked down the hall to my apartment I half expected the building manager and his wife — this little old couple that lived next door to me — to pop their heads out of their door and say hi to me. Like they had done so many times before. But of course they didn’t. They’ve been long dead.
I walked into my apartment. My living room. And it was like walking back onto a stage where I had enacted thousands of dramas. I could almost hear the voices and see the faces of all those ghosts from dramas past.
I opened the door to the big walk-in closet where I had been storing hundreds of boxes of my stuff for the last 23 years. I had moved out of my apartment in 1995 and had hastily stashed all my stuff in the closet. And now here it was before me, like an artificially preserved time capsule of Ace Backwords 1995.
When I had moved into the building in 1982 I was 26. And still a boy really. Most of the people that lived there when I moved in were elderly. And now they’re all long dead. When I looked at the list of all the tenants on the front door I noticed only one person who had lived there when I was there was still there. This one guy who had been in his 30s when I first moved in. He was in his 70s now, with gray hair and walked with a cane. And now I was an old man, too.
As I walked out of the front door of the apartment building and walked down the street I suddenly felt like Rip Van Winkle. I had went to sleep as a young man. And had woken up as an old man. And all my friends were gone. And the town I had been living in had completely disappeared. In a blink of an eye.
I moved into this apartment building in 1982, age 26, and lived there for 13 years. During the last year I lived there, I started falling WAY behind on the rent. I was working on a very ambitious — and expensive — project. Recording, and pressing up a CD, a compilation of Berkeley street musicians. Along with publishing a big, fat magazine to go along with it. So I was using every penny I could get my hands on to produce the thing. And rent be damned.
Before that i had been a cartoonist for the previous 10 years. Which is one of the cheapest artistic mediums you could get into. I mean, with a dollar felt-tip pen, a dollar bottle of white-out, a piece of paper, and a 10 cent xerox, you could basically produce a piece of art that was suitable for publication in the slickest, glossy magazine in the world.
But music is like drugs. You always want a bigger hit. Better guitar strings, more powerful amplifiers, more expensive microphones. There’s no end to it. So by the time I finished the CD project I was a thousand dollars behind on the rent. I guess I was hoping the CD was going to be a big, big hit and i was going to be a big, big star. And I’d pay the rent that way. But it didn’t happen that way.
So I packed my stuff up into a big frame backpack, sublet my apartment to a friend of mine, and hit the streets. My friend would end up living there for the next 23 years. And in fact is still living there. Which is weird.
So I worked really hard for the next couple of years, and saved up a thousand bucks. And one day I walked into the office of the landlord on the first floor of the building. And dumped the thousand dollars on his desk.
The landlord was very surprised. “That’s the first time in all these years that any tenant has ever done THAT,” he said with a big smile on his face, as he counted up the money.
In part I did it so it wouldn’t cause any bad feelings towards the guy I had sublet to. But mostly I did it because I felt I had had such a great deal there for 13 years, I felt it was the least I could do.
But the weird thing is. Thanks to me and my subletter, that apartment has been successfully rented out, month after money, with no problems, uninterrupted, for 36 years. And counting.
But the weird thing is. If I tried to rent out an apartment today? My actual application, my resume, would look so sketchy on paper. That probably no landlord would rent to me. Ha ha.
I know this one guy — a longtime Berkeley street person — who was driving down University Avenue, and he was a little too drunk. And he decided to get even more dunk and purchase some more liquor at the liquor store on the corner. Unfortunately, when he tried to park his car, he made a sharp righthand turn and drove right up onto the sidewalk and right through the front window of the store, practically all the way to the cash register.
I guess that’s one way to keep from waiting on line.
This building on the corner of Shattuck and University is like a ghost to me.
In 1986 it was the office of the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper. And every semester the staff voted on what comic strips they’d run for the semester. And in 1986 I won the election. And it turned out to be a big break for me. Because I was able to quit my day job and spend the next 9 years working full-time as a cartoonist.
Then, 10 years later in 1996, I flamed out. Ran out of comic strip punchlines. Ended up homeless.
As fate would have it, this church group hired me to coordinate this art project making Christmas cards on a linoleum press. As fate would have it, their work space for the project was this little office in the basement of this building
So I set up shop down there for a couple months. And it was a great gig. I was a fairly renowned local Berkeley artist at that point. And most of my friends were brilliant artists. So we produced a beautiful batch of linoleum press Christmas cards. And they all sold like hot cakes. I had my vending table on Telegraph and they sold really well.
We would put 4 of the card designs on this tray. Run the paint over them with this paint roller. And then run the cards through the linoleum press. Then we’d hang all the cards on a clothes line so the paint could dry. Then we’d package the Christmas cards in sets of 10 which we’d sell for 10 bucks.
And they all sold. Because they were beautiful cards. And it was an amazing gig. It was literally like printing up money. Every time we printed a card we made a dollar.
And me and my co-worker Zach got really good at cranking out those Christmas cards as quickly as we could. We cranked them out like a machine on an assembly line.
The town of Berkeley has so many ghosts for me. I can’t walk by a building without flashing back to a zillion weird memories from the ethers of the past.
That was probably my greatest period as an adult. 1996, 1997, 1998. That was probably as close as I would come to being happy.
I lived in this apartment building on University Avenue in Berkeley for 13 years. 1982 to 1995. I had a studio apartment on the 2nd floor. That’s my kitchen window in the upper right corner.
I used to smoke a lot of pot back then. But I always got a little paranoid when I smoked pot in my apartment. Because the manager and his wife lived right next door to me. And I was paranoid that if they smelled my pot, they might report me to the owner of the building, who was extremely conservative, and I’d get evicted from my apartment.
Stan and Rose Mary was the name of the manager and his wife. They were a little, old gray-haired couple. He was about 70 and she was about 60. And pretty straight-laced. And back in those ancient days there were a LOT of strait-laced people who looked down on pot. It was definitely illegal back then, that’s for sure. And a LOT of people thought pot was just as bad as heroin or any other drugs.
So whenever I smoked pot in my apartment I’d always open up all the windows. And I’d blow the pot smoke out the window. Fan the smoke a little. And I never smoked by my front door, lest the pot smell leaked out to the hallway and into the manager’s front door.
For most of the years I lived there I was a pretty good tenant (aside from being a pot-smoking drug degenerate). But then in 1994 I got 4 months behind on my rent (I cleverly was sinking every penny I got my hands on, into recording and manufacturing a CD that I was convinced was going to be a big, big hit, but ended up barely breaking even).
So now I was DOUBLEY paranoid about Stan the manager. And I would dart in and out of my apartment hoping he didn’t catch me.
But then one day he caught me just as I was walking into my apartment.
“Uh, Ace, could I talk to you for a second about your rent?” said Stan.
Oh fuck! Busted!
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m four months behind on my rent. I guess if I can’t come up with some money pretty soon I’m gonna have to move out.”
“Ace, this is what i think you should do,” said Stan.
“Say what??” I said.
“That’s right. You should grow pot,” he said.
Now out of ALL the things I expected Stan the manager was going to say to me at that exact moment. That was probably just about the LAST thing I expected he’d say.
“Yeah, there’s a LOT of money in pot,” he said. “I’ve been growing it myself for years. And I even set up 8 other people around town with the grow-room equipment so they can grow it in their closets. And I supply them with primo seeds and plants to get them started. Then we pool the profits.”
“You’re kidding??” I said.
“Heck no I’m not kidding. Wait right here.”
Stan dashed into his apartment. And then came back with this big plastic container of green butter.
“We turn the buds into pot butter. This is pure THC. Then we turn it into edibles.”
Stan’s wife Rose Mary popped up behind him with a big smile on her face. “Here, Ace, try a couple of these,” she said, handing me two big oat meal cookies. “They’re from our latest batch.”
“Geez!” I said.
“But you might want to only eat half of that cookie,” she said, proudly. “They’re pretty strong.”
I guess I should have known. Stan often did walk around the building with a big, glassy-eyed smile on his face.
“I can set you up with all the grow-room equipment you need,” said Stan
It turned out Stan even subscribed to HIGH TIMES magazine and had seen my comics in there. Which is why he thought I’d be a good person for the job.
But it was the weirdest thing. It was like being strapped down into an electric chair to be executed. But then right before they pull the switch you get a call from the Governor, who not only gives you a pardon, but tells you you just won the Lottery.
But that’s the weird thing about living in those old apartment buildings. You just NEVER know what the people next-door are really doing behind closed doors.
This photo probably doesn’t mean anything to anybody else. But to me this was my home for 13 years. And there’s probably something universal and understandable about that. The whole concept of a “home.” This tiny bit of personal space that we get to claim as our own.
I lived there from 1982 to 1995. It was probably the most productive period of my life. I produced a helluva’ lot of artwork in that place. I published 10 issues of an underground punk rock tabloid. Drew over a thousand comic strips. Published 6 issues of a photo-calendar. Published about 60 issues of a monthly newsletter. Recorded a CD. God knows what else. The place was set up more like a factory to crank out product than a home. Ha ha. For a variety of reasons I decided to leave the place back in 1995. And my life was never quite as stable or productive ever again. I’ve been living on the fly pretty much month-to-month ever since. A solid home can be a stabilizing factor.
My favorite home — in fact the only place that ever really seemed like a home — was my childhood home from age 5 to 11. When I graduated from high school at age 17 one of the first things I did was hitch-hike back there to see the place. The people that were living there were very nice. They gave me a guided tour of all the rooms. Every room filled with memories.
There are always a lot of eccentric people living at these residential apartments. This old guy who lived on the floor above me was convinced his apartment was “haunted.” He’d leave a taperecorder recording all the haunted spots whenever he left the place. Then he’d play back for me the parts where he felt he had captured the sounds of the ghost talking. . . . Poor dear.
There was another guy, virtually every inch of his apartment was crammed with pet animals in cages. Birds and hamsters and rabbits and tarantulas and god knows what else. Turned out the guy had spent several years in prison. So now he had set up his home like he was the warden as he paced back and forth among his prisoners. . . That guy might have been a little beyond mere “eccentric.”
It’s so weird to me, personally, this photo. Remembering walking through those doors of that apartment building for the first time in 1982. Age 26. Just a boy, really. Now, standing in front of them 32 years later in 2014, a grizzled old man . . . This life is so much like a weird dream to me. Maybe that’s why I have this compulsion to try and capture it in photos, writing and art. It makes it seem temporarily real, and not just an ethereal, fleeting dream.