Sunday, December 8, 2002

Broken 'Jukebox'
Former Fisherman's Wharf musical icon only lives in street now

Before he disappeared, he was the Automatic Human Jukebox, that famous Fisherman's Wharf street performer from the 1970s and '80s who once compared his popularity to that of the Golden Gate Bridge.

His wacky act, where he popped out of a phone booth-sized cardboard box and played the trumpet, was featured in San Francisco guidebooks and mentioned in Penthouse magazine and the Wall Street Journal. He also appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show," "Charles Kuralt on the Road" and "To Tell the Truth."

Now, after years of anonymity, the trumpet-playing, anti-establishment hippie Grimes Poznikov has reappeared -- at a dump in the southeast sector of San Francisco. There, Poznikov lives under a rotting baby grand piano that is covered in a heap of clothes, blankets, liquor bottles, naked Barbie dolls, suitcases and a tattered American flag.

Poznikov's photo appeared last week with a Chronicle article about city efforts to clean up an illegal dumping ground that also has become a homeless encampment near the Caltrain railroad tracks. Property owners have agreed to start sweeping out the area Wednesday. His photo prompted an outpouring of concern from longtime residents who recognized Poznikov despite his graying and matted hair and beard.

"It's sad to learn that he now is forgotten and living on the streets," wrote resident Don Grimes, who used to take his visiting nephews to watch Poznikov's act near Aquatic Park because the family surname matched the street artist's first name. "He did play a part in creating San Francisco memories."

For more than a decade, people inserted money in a slot in Poznikov's famous "jukebox" so he would play them any tune by request -- and the more you paid, the longer he played. He also offered running commentary on everything from the legalization of pot to President Ford to the Mideast crisis.

But Poznikov stopped playing to tourists in the 1980s.


One morning this week at Poznikov's campsite, the former Automatic Human Jukebox crawled out from under his piano when he heard his name called by a Chronicle reporter. He seemed dazed by the sunlight and oblivious to the stink of urine and trash around him. He was dressed in women's clothing.

Pointing to a missing front tooth, which he said police knocked out during one of his many contacts with them, Poznikov said he can't play the trumpet anymore. He hawked the instrument at a pawn shop in 1996. Instead, at age 56, he now plays chaotic chords on a waterlogged piano with broken strings for other homeless campers and resident rats. Of course, he said, he misses the crowds at Fisherman's Wharf. "Well, it's sad," he said, turning his head away to hide his watery green eyes. After a long pause, he added, "But what can you do?" To his homeless neighbors, he's part crazy and part genius, he's a little bit generous and a little bit confrontational.

He recently fished a turkey out of a trash can and gave it to a neighbor for Thanksgiving, and he gives piano concerts at midnight. But he also drinks, says he smokes some pot and calls passers-by "Nazis."


Poznikov's story starts in Kansas, where he grew up with his father, a small-town lawyer, and his mother, who sang in local musical productions. He said he also has a sister and two brothers.

His parents have died and he has lost touch with his siblings. Poznikov, who talks frequently about how the government has been monitoring him for the past 40 years, says his parents were given lethal injections in their nursing home because of his protest activities during the Vietnam War. He said he started studying music at age 5, first piano and then horns. He continued to study music but majored in psychology at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. College records show he graduated May 18, 1969. It was the height of Vietnam War protests. Poznikov used his music to demonstrate for peace during that turbulent time, he said, and was arrested during the Chicago riots with other Vietnam War protesters while playing "America the Beautiful" on his trumpet outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


Four years later, after a brief teaching stint and tour of Europe, he turned his attention to the Republican National Convention in Miami, where he set up his American Lobotomy Machine -- a trailer that other protesters could sit in and pretend to be brainwashed into "good Americans."

But Poznikov said his machine wasn't paying the bills, so he moved to San Francisco later that year and became the Automatic Human Jukebox. He set up on Beach Street across from Ghirardelli Square or in nearby Aquatic Park and the crowds gathered around him. He lived on the margins even then. He was once described by a newspaper reporter as "a circle in a land full of squares."

But Alessandro Baccari, longtime executive secretary of the Fisherman's Wharf Association, remembers Poznikov as a gentle and witty entertainer. He was part of the quilt of Fisherman's Wharf," Baccari said. Poznikov fell into the tight community of street artists and joined their fight in the mid-1970s for permits and places to play without police or merchant harassment.

In 1975 he made headlines when he was arrested for occupying a public street without a permit and later took his "jukebox" to the city Department of Elections to hand in enough petitions to qualify a street artist-friendly measure for the 1975 ballot. The measure later lost.


Fellow street artist Dale Axelrod, who lives in Petaluma now, recalls that Poznikov was always on the political fringes.

"He's like Emperor Norton. He was cut from that kind of cloth," Axelrod said, referring to San Francisco's beloved 19th century denizen who went a little nutty after losing his fortune and then proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States.

Poznikov captured headlines again in 1979 when he was arrested and charged with possession of LSD for sale and selling marijuana through a slot in the back of his jukebox. He was placed on three years' probation.

His national fame skyrocketed in 1987 when, after 15 years as a tourist institution, the city pulled his plug for playing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" 13 decibels above the legal sound limit. His street performing days went downhill after that, and Poznikov turned to selling goods culled from Dumpster-diving. He's been evicted from many apartments and lofts since then, and has been pushed out of abandoned buildings and empty lots by police.

Friends have urged him to seek help, but he says he doesn't want to go to a homeless shelter because he can't take his piano. As for finding food, his campsite is near produce warehouses and their trash is perfect for this established vegetarian.


Poznikov said he qualifies for federal disability checks because of his mental state and was having his checks delivered to a drug treatment center. But he said the program cut him off after he arrived late one day, lost his temper and broke the center's door buzzer. Now he's trying to find another representative to hold his checks.

He said he doesn't need addiction or mental health counseling because "I got a degree in psychology. I don't need any mental help. I influenced an entire culture, an entire country." Poznikov said he doesn't know where he'll move when work crews come to sweep him out this week, but he has his eye on some abandoned piers nearby. He's mostly worried about how to move his piano.

"In the Haight you see hippies with guitars," he said. "I'm just a hippie with a piano."

Grimes Poznikov, once a Fisherman's Wharf street performer called the Human Jukebox, used to live in an Evans Street encampment that has since been removed. He now collects recycling near the Mission.
Chronicle photo by Brant Ward



Homeless sweep pushes out 'Jukebox'




San Francisco -- The bulldozers came at daybreak Monday, crushing the baby grand piano Grimes Poznikov has slept under and entertained neighbors with the past few years in a homeless encampment in southeast San Francisco.

The piano, along with an expanse of trash and items collected by Poznikov and other homeless people, was scooped into a towering pile to be hauled off to a dump at Half Moon Bay. The cleanup was part of a Department of Public Works effort to force property owners to clean up vacant lots along the Caltrain tracks in the southern part of the city. "We are fastidiously cleaning up -- without notice, which is kind of a bummer," said Poznikov, a Fisherman's Wharf street performer during the 1970s and 1980s.

Poznikov, who was known as the "Automatic Human Jukebox," popped out of a phone booth-sized cardboard box and played the trumpet. His act was featured in San Francisco guidebooks before he fell on hard times.

Monday, Poznikov awoke to the grunt of heavy equipment moving along the narrow valley toward his make-shift home. He and a neighbor rushed to fill shopping carts with clothes and random items and hauled them out of their camp. He said the bulldozers had taken him by surprise. City workers visited the site last week to inform residents of their impending eviction, said Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of the Department of Public Works.

The city ordered the property owners to clean and fence off the site or face the possibility that the city will sue them. Officials say the encampment has turned into a public health hazard. The city targeted a mile-long stretch along the railroad tracks that is visible to Caltrain's commuters coming from the Peninsula and South Bay. Crews at work Monday were hired by the property owners. Several dozen people have been rousted from the site in recent weeks.

After a few hours scrambling to save his stuff, Poznikov was told to stay out or he would be arrested. He ran in one last time to grab a pack of cigarettes and was then shooed away by cleanup workers.

He said he would spend the evening looking for anything salvageable from his collection and resettle elsewhere in the area. Losing clothing along with his piano and piles of other stuff makes for a rough day, Poznikov said. "You live rent-free, you gotta pay a price," he said. "It's a hell of a hard life."  

Homeless get swept away
Squatters continually uprooted as city cleans up encampments

San Francisco -- Grimes Poznikov stood in the middle of an unsanctioned dump in San Francisco and played a broken piano half buried in trash. "Sorry about the mess," Poznikov said like a self-conscious host, indicating the waist-high piles of household junk and building supplies dragged into the area by homeless campers like himself or dumped by contractors. On the railroad tracks above him, Caltrain sped by with commuters from the Peninsula and South Bay. Their first view of San Francisco isn't cable cars or bridges -- it's trash and tent cities.

After years of letting the mile-long stretch along the railroad tracks alone, the city has issued a cleanup order to the property owners and an eviction notice to the homeless. The city has given the owners, including Union Pacific, until Dec. 6 to clean up and fence it off or face the possibility that the city will sue them for ignoring the mess that officials say is a public health hazard. For the squatters caught in the impending sweep, this is part of an endless cycle of being uprooted by the city only settle somewhere else, a hopefully less visible location.

The encampments have been moving south into the Bayview and industrial neighborhoods as San Francisco's business community, tourism industry and residents urge city officials to do something about the homeless people hanging around downtown and busy neighborhoods like the Haight and Mission. This encampment of about 40 people stretches from Cesar Chavez Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to Oakdale Avenue. Some of the residents say they moved in last fall after the city closed a huge illegal camp under Highway 101 near Cesar Chavez Street. Others came in August after city officials closed another large camp at Berry and Seventh streets.

"There are these ongoing cycles," said Mara Raider, civil rights project coordinator for the Coalition on Homeless, an advocacy group. "People just get moved from place to place because that is all police enforcement can achieve. It's not providing housing for people." Social workers from the Department of Human Services visited the site this week to prepare campers for the cleanup. They found people living among piles of clothes, shopping carts, televisions, bike tires, car batteries, scrap wood, toys, a stroller, shells of cars and a sharp stench of urine and feces. The city's health inspectors have already carted away old oil drums and made notes about rats and other vermin living among the trash and humans.

The social workers offered the homeless people alternatives such as emergency shelter beds and urged them to put their names on a waiting list for more permanent housing, said senior social worker Mary-Lynn Garrett. San Francisco has about 1,700 year-round shelter beds and on Monday will start opening more than 200 extra winter beds at churches throughout the city. But homeless people in these situations usually prefer the freedom of the outdoors and regularly refuse emergency shelter, Garrett said. Social workers escorted just one woman, who was more than eight months pregnant, to a shelter after Monday's outreach to the campers.

Helping even one person is progress. "I really felt good about (Monday), and I can't say that about all the encampments," said Rann Parker, outreach coordinator for the city's Mobile Assistance Patrol.

The squatters who talked to The Chronicle shrugged when asked where they would move to next. The problem for many is that they've settled in. Poznikov, 56, said he had lived there for a couple of years. The pile of stuff that he has collected is so big that it's hard to tell exactly where he sleeps. His neighbor, Casey, has lived there about a year in his broken Toyota Tercel. He constructed a large area of shelves to keep all his belongings neat. They are collectors and scavengers, peeling valuable copper wire out of piles of electrical wire dumped by contractors and stripping old refrigerators for scrap metal to sell.

Some squatters say they are drug addicts. Others have mental health issues.

Grimes Poznikov, who is homeless, leans on an abandoned piano at his makeshift home in the homeless encampment under Highway 280 South. Chronicle photo by Darryl Bush


Poznikov, wearing a black tank top and miniskirt and graying dreadlocks, explained that the city couldn't move him because it would prohibit him from watching for terrorists who might target the nearby railroad or freeway overpass. "It's a critical junction for national security," he said. Nearby, a homeless man named Gene made coffee on a makeshift barbecue and said he felt like the city was punishing homeless people for the state of the illegal dump. "But I see people -- John Q. Citizen -- bring truckloads of trash here three times a week," said Gene, 40. "We're the ones getting blamed for it. We're really harmless people."

Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, has been trying to stop the dumpers and get the area cleaned up for at least six months. He even threatened to do the work for the property owners and then fine them $250,000.

"It is a horrible sight to see," Nuru said. "I've just had it." The property owners are Union Pacific, San Mateo County Transportation Authority and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which manages Caltrain service.

Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney said the rail company was working with the city but wasn't sure a full sweep of the huge mess could be done by Dec. 6. Nuru envisions a better use for the land someday such as community gardens or even some kind of controlled homeless campsite. That's what San Francisco's homeless advocates have been advocating for years. They also are calling on the city to turn over its vacant schools, firehouses and other properties to the homeless.

"No one is saying this is where people should live," Raider said about the railroad dump. "But it doesn't solve anything by sweeping people."


Miscellaneous Photos





Dale Axelrod would hire Grimes to appear at local events where Grimes would do his Human Jukebox and Dale would draw the guests. A mini-carnival. I, Kerry Elkins, just got in touch with Mr. Axelrod and he stated that he has not been able to contact Grimes since Mr. Poznikov is on the streets. Here is a drawing Dale made once of the Human Jukebox: