The Perils of Piss Jars

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For nine years (1998 to 2007) I rented out a little office in the legendary Koerber Building (Ramparts magazine, KPFA radio station, and many others had previously rented out offices in the building). . . $115 a month rent. And for nine years I secretly lived in my office (it was against the law, it was zoned for business and not residential, but I’m an outlaw, man. . . or at the least a border-line criminal).

Anyways I had just moved into the building in 1998. And I was trying to be as discreet and secretive as possible. For my big fear was that if they manager or the owner of the building found out I was secretly living in my office they’d give me the boot and I’d be back to being homeless and sleeping in the bushes or in doorways — a fate worse than life itself. So I was really trying to mind my P’s and Q’s.

So to avoid detection that I was living in my office, instead of using the restroom down the hall 30 times a day, I would urinate in a “piss jar” — this big gallon water bottle that I used. And then deposit the contents in the restroom toilet down the hall, every couple of days when the jar got full of piss. I was being discreet, you dig?

Then one night in 1998 — I think I’d only been secretly living in my office for about 2 months at this point — it’s around 2 in the morning. And the building is virtually empty aside from me (everyone else — the normal people — worked a 9 to 5 at their offices and then split). So that was the perfect time for me to take my gallon jug of piss and empty it in the restroom  (I’m playing it cool as usual).

Only SOMEHOW I managed to drop my gallon piss jar on the floor of the hallway. I forget how it happened. But I dropped it. And all I could think was “YOU STUPID FUCKING ASSHOLE!!” Especially when the cap to my bottle came off and all of my bright yellow urine began spilling out onto the floor of the bright red carpet of the hallway.

So now, suddenly, it’s 2AM. And I’m no longer “discreet.” In fact, I’ve just made a big fucking yellow stain on the bright red carpet.

So now I’m in a panic. There’s a big puddle of my personal urine that I’ve just dumped onto the hallway carpet of this nice pristine office building. I’m exposed. And in a very vulnerable position.

The only thing I could think of doing was getting a whole bunch of rags and getting down on my hands and knees and try to mop up as much of the urine as I could. 

Then I got a bucket of water and dumped that on the carpet. To try and clean up the urine smell. And I then I dumped a whole bunch of liquid hair shampoo on the mess. That was the only kind of cleanser I had at my disposal. So I’m scrub scrub scrubbing over and over.

And I spent HOURS on my hands and knees vigorously rubbing and massaging and wetting and drying and scrubbing that plot of carpet in the hallway of the Koerber Building. In the hopes of concealing my terrible blunder. I think it was 4 in the morning when I finally gave up and collapsed in a heap in my little office that I was still sleeping in (at least up to that point).

The first thing in the morning when I woke up I rushed out to assess the damage. You could still see the remnants of the wet spot. But when I stuck my nose in it, it didn’t smell of urine. And gradually the stain faded away. And I lived happily ever after for another 9 years in my office until I finally got thrown out. The End.

Rip Van Backwords

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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.

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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.

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Sublet It Be

 

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Welcome to dee Hotel California.

 

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.

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Drink druvers

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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.

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More Ghosts of Berkeley Past

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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.

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High times on University Avenue

 

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.

Uh oh.

“Grow pot.”

“Say what??” I said.

“That’s right. You should grow pot,” he said.

“Say what??”

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.

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Be it ever so humble. . .

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.”

Ace Backwords's photo.

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.

 

 

University Avenue

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I lived in a studio apartment on University Avenue in Berkeley for 13 years.  1982 to 1995.

It was a pretty big place; kitchen, bathroom. big livingroom, and a big walk-in closet where I threw a mattress and used as my bedroom.  It was a pretty funky place, typical bachelor pad, more like a teen boy’s clubhouse than anything.  I had a big beanbag chair in the livingroom, and psychedelic posters on the wall, and this beautiful female mannequin that I used to dress up in different outfits and hairstyles.  For a couple of years I had women living with me, and they immediately transformed it into a “home,” if you know what I mean.  Doileys on the end-tables, and fresh flowers and stuff like that.  But left to myself it was just a place to work (my art studio), to eat and sleep, and hang out with my guy friends.

When I first moved in in 1982 the rent was $125 a  month.  Which was pretty much the going rate back then, it wasn’t considered any kind of deal.  But the landlord was this  old guy who didn’t like any kind of changes (thankfully for me) and didn’t raise my rent for 10 years.  So it became more and more of a deal as the years went by.  Nowadays you could probably rent the place out for over $1,000 a month.  Which is shocking when you think of it:  that rents would go up TEN TIMES in just 30 years.  But such is the tragedy of our times, and we have millions of homeless and dispossessed to show for it.

The owner, Mr. Williamson, was this gruff old guy in his 70s.  He had lived on University Avenue all his life.  In fact, when he was a boy there used to be cable-cars going up and down University and he lost one of his legs in an accident with one of them.  Had a prosthesis, one of those fake legs.  And it gave the impression that Mr. Williamson had given his body and soul to University Ave.  He was kind of an intimidating guy; he’d sort of bark and shout at you.  But then I realized he was just hard of hearing, practically deaf, which was why he shouted at people.  And I’d shout right back when I talked to him.  Which I enjoyed.   He always had sort of a secret smile when I came down to visit him in his office, I think because I was one of the few people he could actually talk with and understand.  Still, I’ve always had this weird paranoia about dealing with my landlords.  Even though I’ve always been on good terms with all of them, and they’d all probably rent to me again in a second, I always have this deep-seated fear whenever I would go down to pay the rent on the first, that they were suddenly going to shout at me:  “AH HA!  WE’RE FINALLY ON TO YOU.  WE FINALLY REALIZED YOU WERE NO DAMN GOOD ALL ALONG!!  NOW PACK YOUR BAGS AND GET OUT OF MY BUILDING!!  NOW, BOY!!!”  (I should probably see a psychiatrist about these issues)

People used to always whisper: “Mr. Williamson, he’s a millionaire!”  And that really meant something back then.  But you’d never guess that from his demeanor.  His clothes looked like he’d bought them at a Good Will 30 years ago.  And his cramped little office was covered with dust, and piles of papers that looked like they’d been sitting there for 30 years.  And he banged out your receipt on this decrepit old manual typewriter.  His son was always trying to get him to switch to one of them new-fangled electric typewriters.  But like I said, he was set in his ways.

He even refused to put locks on the frontdoor of the building the first 10 years I lived there.  Believe it or not, the building was wide open 24 hours a day.  And that was not uncommon back then amongst residential hotels.  There was no reason to back then.  Because the world Out There wasn’t threatening.  There was a commonly-accepted social order back then.  I remind myself of that — that unlocked front door —  when I think I’m maybe just wallowing in rose-colored nostalgia about the Good Old Days.  Things really were different back then.

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When I first moved into the place back in 1982, it was mostly elderly, retired people who lived there.  Which was fine by me.  I like a nice, quiet place to live.  There used to be a bench down in the lobby where some of the old people would hang out.  I’d catch snatches of their conversation as I passed, and the one thing they mostly seemed to always talk about, their favorite conversational gambit,  was their various physical ailments.  “Gosh, my rhumetism is acting up lately!”  “With me its my arthritis.  It hurts like crazy whenever I do this!”  “Oh, you don’t even want to get me started  about my persistent painful rectal itch!”  On and on.  I thought: “Boy.  I got something to look forward to in my old age.”

The other funny thing about old people is how their faces sometimes get frozen in certain modes.  Like this one old lady, she always had this look like she was sucking on lemons.  A look of total disapproval.  About everything.  Everytime she looked at me, it felt like she was going to shout at me: “I do not approve of you!!”

There was this other little old man who used to hang out  in the lobby.  Mild-mannered little duffer with a little pot-belly, sort of built like a pear.  Reminded me of Mr. Peabody.  This one day he was sitting there on the bench wearing this black, sleeve-less, David Bowie t-shirt.  Of all things.  I doubt he even knew who David Bowie was.  You got the feeling he was completely out of clean clothes and that was the last clean shirt in his drawer.  But it was one of the funniest visual images I have ever seen.  Sort of like a living cartoon character.

The weird thing was, over the 13 years I was there, all the old people would disappear one by one.  Until finally, by the time I moved out,  there was mostly young people living there.  The little old woman who lived next door to me — it was whispered she was an “alcoholic” —  I think I only saw her twice in all those years, passing her in the hallway.  But that’s the weird thing about those residential hotels.  You can live side-by-side in close proximity with people for decades and not even know they were there.  I didn’t know any of the people that lived in my hall.

Though its a weird story about the apartment right across from mine.  Right before I had moved in, the guy that lived there committed suicide.  His body laid on the floor for two weeks before they noticed the smell and discovered him there.  His body left a permanent stain on the floor.  But here’s the weird part.  The next guy who moved in there was pretty weird.  I passed him a couple times and he always had an intense, haunted look in his eyes.  One time I was coming in the front door right after him, and he purposely (seemingly) slammed the door in my face.  I was told he was a Viet Nam vet or something. It was obvious he was an intense, pent-up, strange dude.  Anyways, the dude ended up having a heart attack and died on the floor almost on the exact same spot where the other guy had died.  One day the manager said to me: “Do you smell something strange in that apartment?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So they broke into his apartment and there was his body lying there.  What are the odds of that happening twice in a row? I always believed in the concept of haunted houses after that.

The building manager and his wife were a charming old couple that lived next door to me, so I had many dealings with them over the years.  Stan and Rose Mary.   Stan was pushing 70, Rose Mary was pushing 60.  Which seemed ancient to me back then.  Not so much nowadays when I’m pushing 60 myself.  Stan had white hair and a white mustache and a twinkle in his eye and he was light on his feet for an old guy.  You could tell he had been a handsome, athletic man as a young guy.  One time he actually sat down with me and showed me his scrapbook from his glory days, full of these yellowing old newspaper clippings.  Stan had actually been, among other things, a circus acrobat when he was younger.  And he proudly showed me old photos of him, shirtless, doing his circus stunts.  I could tell it was a thrill for him to share with me these relics from his past.  And over the years, Stan and Rose Mary both sort of adopted me, and started treating me more like a son than a tenant.

Rose Mary was a sweet and daffy old lady.  She reminded me of Gracie Allen, the comedienne on the old “Burns and Allen” show.  As much as I liked her I used to sometimes dread getting cornered by her when I was going in or out of my apartment.  Because she could talk your ear off.  One of those people who could talk for 20 minutes as one big, run-on sentence.  A non-stop talker.  Making it awkward to escape. I mean, it seems rude when you suddenly turn and leave right in the middle of a sentence.  But it was always the middle of a sentence with Rose Mary.  Ha ha.  She was such a doll, really,  And if I had had more sense, I would’ve spent more time talking with her.  But I was always in a hurry back then.  At one point she came down with cancer, went through chemo-therapy, lost all her hair, and her face looked haggard and awful. I figured she was a goner for sure, getting cancer at her age.  The big C was still seen as sort of a death-sentence back then.  But she recovered and went on to live another 10 years.

Stan and Rose Mary were the perfect building managers, because they got along with everybody and left everybody alone to do their thing.  They even got along with Gladys, the building busy-body.  I’d regularly hear Glady’s knocking on their door, at all hours, to complain about so-and-so who was doing something-or-other.  Until finally, in exasperation, Stan said quite firmly:  “Gladys, would you go fuck yourself!”   Glady’s squawked:  “MY WORD!”  and went stomping down the hallway in search of someone else to complain to.

As much as I liked Stan and Rose Mary, I was always slightly paranoid around them, too.  Because they were the managers and they could kick me out if I fucked up.  I constantly worried that they might catch me smoking pot in my apartment, smell the pot and rat me out to Mr. Williamson.  So I’d open up all the windows and blow the pot smoke out the window.  I figured if gruff old Mr. Williamson ever got wind of this, he’d call the FBI and have me arrested as a drug addict. I was even paranoid someone might spot my copy of High Times magazine that came in the mail every month.  Things were different back then.  Like I said.

I remember one time I was a couple months behind on my rent.  I ran into Stan in the hallway and told him I might have to move out of the building because I was broke.   Stan said:  “For god’s sake, Peter (he was one of the few people in Berkeley who still called me by my real name, who knew me back in the day before I got engulfed by the “Ace Backwords” thing).  What you need to do is start growing pot!”

“Say what?”  I said.

“You heard me,” said Stan.  “You should start growing pot!  There’s big money in pot!  I’ve been growing it myself for years.  I’ve even got eight other people in town who are working for me.  I set them up with all the grow-room equipment in their closets, and supply the primo seeds and plants.  And then we all pool our earnings.”

“You’re kidding!”  I said.

“Heck no,” he said.  “Here, let me show you something!”  He rushed back into his apartment and came back with this big tub of butter.  “This is pure THC pot butter,” he said.

Rose Mary popped up right behind him and handed me a couple of cookies.  “You should try these, Peter.  This is from a batch I just baked this morning!”

“Gee.  Thanks,” I said.  Somewhat stunned.

“But if I were you I’d only eat half a cookie.  They’re pretty strong,” said Rose Mary with a giggle.

Turned out Stan even subscribed to High Times.  Ha ha. It occurred to me old Stan often did have a glassy-eyed smile on his face.  You just never know what respectable old people are actually doing in the privacy of their own homes.

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