HOMELESS AND HIGH
by DENIS JOHNSON
Issue of 2002-04-22 and 29
Posted 2002-04-15

I arrived penniless in Berkeley in February of 1973, at night, dropped off on Telegraph Avenue by a woman driving around in her commune's Volvo.

By this time, the era of peace, love, and flowers had overripened into madness. Destitute youngsters without any idea of how to take care of themselves, hundreds of them, poured up and down the Ave near the campus in a state of crazed exhaustion, kicking along through rubbish as in the aftermath of a generalized panic or some major disaster, looking hideous in the orange light of street lamps.

Fortunately for people like me, charity abounded in Berkeley. Every day, two churches gave out, between them, a free lunch and a free dinner, without any preaching. Nobody starved who was willing to wait in a line three blocks long to get a cup of reconstituted chocolate milk and a peanut-butter sandwich on white bread. Elsewhere, there was also a free shower. It was a regular single-size shower, but, as long as one more person would fit, you just jumped in naked and started washing, no matter how many were in there or what gender they were.

I was a snob, and refused to beg on the street, but I wasn't above panhandling for the Berkeley Free Clinic, where I was given a small locked coin box each morning and sent out into the streets, for a commission of thirty per cent, which generally amounted to a dollar or two by day's end. Occasionally, I worked for an entrepreneurial hippie with a pickup truck who needed help with light hauling jobs he'd contracted for. He paid a couple of dollars an hour, and gave me any books we happened to find among the junk that we took to the dump. Once, I got the multivolume "A Pictorial History of the World War Two Years" and sold it for four-fifty, the largest single sum I made while living in Berkeley. Another time, I mowed an old lady's tiny lawn in exchange for breakfast, which she cooked and served me in the kitchen of her tiny home. It seemed to me an exotic transaction, but for her it was just like the Great Depression.

My highest ambition was to put together enough capital to get a quart of beer, a joint, a sandwich, and some kind of room for the night, all in the same day. On one occasion, I did grub up enough change to get drunk on discount beer and still pay for lodgings at a youth hostel, but its atmosphere felt very much like a jail's—homoerotic and quivering with suppressed violence. Still, as a young man convinced that everything that happened to him was something he'd someday write about, one night in such an atmosphere wasn't too horrible.

The rest of the time, I camped roofless in the hills. Nobody disturbed me. When I left in the mornings, I bunched my sleeping bag under a bush; it was always there when I came back in the evenings. When it rained, I had to go back down to the Ave and shelter under awnings with a miscellany of street types who had also been driven from their burrows. It was cold, it was wet, nobody had any money, nobody had enough drugs except one young man known as Goldfinger, who always carried a spray can of gold paint and a sock that he'd douse with the contents and breathe through deeply. His hands and nose and mouth were golden.

And that's how, on the Ave, we drank up the dregs of the sixties. We didn't feel desperate but, rather, unfettered; there was a sense that we'd broken the bonds of mindless materialism and hypocritical conformity and were now just naturally floundering around until the new shape of human freedom manifested itself. Actually, I think we were all just depressed, at the very least. Probably some of us were out-and-out psycho. And the drugs weren't helping.

Looking back, from the perspective of a middle-class, middle-aged man, I see that the dynamic, which we thought of as free of hassles and hangups, was pretty much that of the average canine kennel. Women were always greeted as follows: "Hey, what's happening, got an old man?" If they had no old man, you then said, "Wanna ball?," or "Wanna get high?"

As a pickup line, "Wanna ball?" never worked. "Wanna get high?" was sometimes successful. I never used it. During my travels up and down the West Coast, I didn't hook up with any women at all, because, in my opinion, I never had enough drugs for anybody but myself.

For me, this was just an interlude. Within a couple of months, I'd left the maniac road and was sleeping on clean sheets at my parents', in Phoenix, and working a job. Shortly after that, I headed back to college, where I stayed for as long as they'd have me.