When I first moved to California in 1976, age 19, I lived in San Francisco for the first three years, living on the streets or in Skid Row flophouse hotel rooms. A bed and a sink with the bathroom down the hall.
Then in 1979, age 22, I moved to Berkeley and rented out this studio apartment for $115 a month. I remember thinking: “My first studio apartment! My first real home of my own!”
It was a funky, dusty old place. But it had a big livingroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, another little room with a closet, and a small backyard.
I put a mattress on the floor in a corner of the livingroom and slept there. And I set up a make-shift drawing board in the kitchen (actually it was one of those ironing boards that folds out from the wall and I turned it into a drawing table). And I began to send my mad artistic missives out to the world on a regular basis. I had a big “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” poster taped to my wall. Hunter S. Thompson was one of my role models back then. God help me.
Above my drawing board on a shelf, I remember I had 7 or 8 manila folders of the different artistic projects I wanted to do. The comic strips I wanted to draw. The books I wanted to write. The albums I wanted to record. Etc. And those folders would get fatter and fatter over the months as I filled them up with my latest mad ideas. I was a young man seething with ambition back then. And over the years I would end up completing just about every one of those projects.
I had a little black-and-white TV and I put it in the little room in the back. One of my distinct memories of this period was watching the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson NCAA Finals on TV. They were college kids back then, about the same age as me. It was like we were all young and all starting up our lives.
I had a way with cats even back then. There was a neighborhood cat who roamed around the apartments. One day she curled up in the corner of my little back room, and popped out a litter of kittens. Much to my surprise.
This woman named Felicia lived in the apartment two doors down from me. Felicia was about my age, and even poorer than me. Felicia was one of those people who sort of made an art out of “celebrating” life. If you know what I mean. She was always finding reasons to celebrate the day. “It’s Tuesday and the sun is shining! A toast to the great us!” she’d declare, and then she’d pop open a couple of bottles of Dos Equis and we’d clink glasses. As poor as she was, she always managed to scrape together a little pot. And she’d always buy good bottles of beer if she could get away with it. We liked to hang out together in our apartments and get stoned and play guitars and sing. Felicia would light these little scented candles, and she’d have fresh-cut wild flowers in vases and she’d have these hippie-type ornaments hanging by her windows — these little chimes that made tinkling, magical sounds when the wind was blowing. And she’d usually have just enough food in her cupboard to scrape together some delicious quesadillas or something like that. “A toast to delicious quesadillas!” It had never really occurred to me at the time that life was something to celebrate. I mostly looked at life as something to endure. So I learned something valuable from ole’ Felicia.
I made a garden in the backyard. Grew tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, baby carrots and 10 pot plants that grew to about 6 feet tall. But I didn’t know anything about growing pot, about how you’re supposed to separate the male plants from the females to make the buds. So I ended up smoking a helluva’ lot of leaf that year. In fact I didn’t know anything about gardening period, aside from putting the seeds in the dirt, dumping some fertilizer on it, and watering it every day. The tomatoes turned out pretty good, the cucumbers were OK but a tad bitter, but the baby carrots were absolutely delicious. They were as sweet as candy. They were so good, these little Vietnamese kids that lived next door to me, age 4 and 5, were always asking me for some of my carrots (you KNOW vegetables turned out good when even little kids want to eat them!).
I remember thinking at the time: “My first real home. Its not much. Its kind of funky and its nothing to write home about. But at least its a start in the right direction.”
If I had known at the time that that studio apartment would turn out to be one of the nicest places I’d ever live at, I probably would have shot myself right there. Ha ha.