U.C. campus

My flirt with poverty

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 3 Apr 2022


Life without money.

 

Berkeley, back in the day 1972.

The meridian sunshine of real Bohemian life.

I visited my friends in Berkeley and found that Bones and May had a place for me to stay, rent free. It was a small cottage in the backyard of a two-story house on seventh street, a few blocks off University avenue. It had a long room comprising one side and a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom on the other. It was dilapidated but livable, with water and electricity but no phone. Bones and May were moving out to a nicer place.

In the front house lived Eddy and Roy and Spike, a drummer who sometimes played with Bones, some fifteen years older than us. Apparently the landlord never came by, renting the front house out and considering the back shack unlivable. It was in the slums of Berkeley, on the wrong side of San Pablo avenue. All the houses were run down but it was quiet and peaceful.

So I moved into this backyard cottage and a few days later so did Kim. There was a room for both of us, a bed for me and a couch for him and the kitchen and bathroom, much better than John’s floor. He too had no money and no job. But, like me, he could stare poverty in the face with the unconcern of a Tibetan Trappist monk. We were perfect housemates, happy with each other’s company and our wealth of free time.
We made friends with the boys in the front house and every day we took the twenty-minute hike up to Telegraph avenue together, the hub of our universe, in search of friends, food and adventure. We were rarely disappointed.

I believe these were some of the happiest months of my life. We were a team and each day was a contest to get food, in ever different, challenging ways. And each day we won the battle and returned home, full bellied and happy.

Our devices were manifold, our ingenuity boundless and our friendship adamantine, operating as a team and sharing every ‘find’. I couldn’t have pulled it off alone, or even tried. It would have been little above the life of a tramp rummaging through garbage cans. But together we shared all our assets, doubling the possibilities. Without ever stooping, or begging or demeaning ourselves in any way, we managed to win and come home with full stomachs every night for almost three months, to sit and talk about each day’s success in our free and comfortable abode.

Here are some of the ways we fed ourselves.

Norma would drive over from Marin once or twice a week and always bring a large casserole or some other plate that would serve us for two or three dinners. She’d spend the evening or night, hear the latest news then drive off back to work. She was our anchor in the food department and she loved the task, because she loved Kim.

The blood bank, located conveniently on Telegraph avenue, was good for ten dollars in cash, twice a week. This was reduced to five after a month because I passed out during a session and they wouldn’t take my blood anymore. Kim still went and religiously split the proceeds with me each time, right as he stepped out the blood bank door.

Rich’s falafel hut. Rich was a good friend of Bones from our parties above the Plough and knew us well us. He ran his falafel stand at the top of Telegraph right where the University begins. There were other stands there too, all very profitable and busy with students on their way to class. He would slip us free ones maybe twice a week.

Taquito place, a hole in the wall Mexican eatery right off Telegraph where my longtime friend Bruce (the artist) worked. Wherever his boss stepped out and there were few customers, free tacos.

There was a bar on Shattuck avenue that once a week put out a spread of free appetizers for anyone who bought a beer. They always lost money on us, but in the crowds, never noticed.
Various friends and acquaintances who, as Kim would say, we could ‘tap’ if we happened to drop by right at mealtime. John Seebach’s sister, also named Kim, (and who once had a crush on him), was a sure bet.

‘Deus ex Machina’, or freak good luck. As a frequenter of bookstores I find a book selling for ten dollars at Moe’s bookstore and know the very same volume is selling for forty dollars across the street at ‘Shakespeare books’. They pay half of what they sell it for. Our blood money is doubled in five minutes as the book changes stores.

Food stamps. They went a long way at the dented can store nearby, though Kim spent half of his at a place he could exchange them for cigarettes.
My only vice was the thirty-five cents I needed each day for the cheapest cup of coffee at the café Med, where I would sit for hours each afternoon in the usually empty mezzanine, nursing it and reading.

I’ll just add that during this time we never had to resort to dumpster diving or going to a church for a free meal. That was beneath us.

It was during this time that my father once again met up with me. He was flying into S.F. for a few days and wanted to take me to dinner. He had my address and the phone number at Roy and Eddie’s. They would let us use their phone or come get us for the very rare calls we received. I talked to him the day before and he told the hotel he’d be staying at, and to phone him after he got in. I told him I didn’t have a dime and wasn’t sure I could do this. When Eddy and Roy were out I had to use a pay phone and I literally didn’t have a dime to my name that night.

I don’t think he fully registered this. He had said he would pick me up at seven, which he did, whisking me across the bay to a very fine and expensive seafood dinner at Alioto’s on fisherman’s wharf. We had a great meal, lobster and steak, a bottle of wine and a long conversation on his choice of career compared with my freewheeling, bohemian artist’s life, never bringing up the matter of my present poverty. He paid the hundred-dollar tab then drove me home and dropped me off as penniless as I was that morning. Once again at any time that evening I could have asked him for a hundred dollars and he would have pulled it from his wallet.

But the sharp irony of being so poor and dining so finely amused me to no end, so I didn’t ask. That’s how happy I was at the time, in a very philosophical, morally rich, self- imposed poverty. I’m glad to have tried it, as few have lately, (willingly, that is) when I had money free for the asking, a phone call away. I wanted to see just how little of life’s material assets one needed to live comfortably, like Diogenes, the Cynic.

The Acid party. Eddie and his girlfriend, Rich and his girl:

We had one wild party at this cottage. I spent a half of my Christmas money on some liquid L.S.D., (such were my priorities). There were to be about twenty guests so I mixed twenty strong hits into a large pitcher of Cool-Aid, labelled it ‘ACID’ and placed a stack of paper Dixie cups with instructions beside it. They were small because the mixture was strong. It worked out to about four ounces a hit. All this was set up on the kitchen counter before the party started.
Bones and May were there with a bunch of friends, so we had live music. The boys from the front house, my high school friends from across the bay, Rich L. and his girlfriend, Brad, Chuck P. and his older brother, (the only time I ever met him, a creep, just like Chuck had described him to me years earlier) and some of Kim’s friends. The guests brought the booze and the pot and almost everyone partook of the Cool-Aid.

At one point as the band was setting up I walked into the crowded kitchen and I noticed Rich drinking the Cool-Aid from a large glass. I rushed to stop him but it was too late. He had already consumed at least three doses. He wasn’t good at reading instructions, just thirsty. But he was no light-weight when it came to drugs, especially hallucinogens, and enjoyed the party ripped, visibly stumbling and spilling his drinks. His girlfriend took care of him like a nurse and they stayed till the very end, around four a.m.

Everyone was pretty lit up and had a fine time. The music was great, different people taking turns playing. I even got Eddie to play some bass. He was a professional bass player, tall, of Chinese descent, handsome and very polite. He collected and ran his own band, making a living at it, playing cover tunes in cheap hotel lounges. A few years later he met his future wife, a pretty, pale-skinned red head made the lead vocalist, and with her beautiful voice their venues improved and careers prospered. But he never played informally so I had to drag him up front that night and hand him Bones’ base. He led the others in a new release, ‘My Sharona’ then skulked off to the front house, alone.

The others kept performing because they enjoyed it and loved to impress people, especially women. Partying and playing were one and the same. He considered playing as work. He seemed to have a dual personality, one, of typical, oriental reserve, politeness and order, the other breaking through at our poker games, swearing and laughing, drinking beers and smoking, but never to excess, as Jim and Roy did some nights, after fifteen beers to our five, falling off their chairs in fits of laughter. Back then he lived with Roy, perhaps the greatest sloven and most unambitious being I ever met. Even then I likened the two to Oscar and Felix of the ‘Odd Couple’.

A few years later he moved into a fine, new apartment with his wife. At least that’s what we heard from Roy. We never saw it or her. But he still came to our poker games, regularly, never missing one. So Bones and May and I dropped by one evening to surprise him at one of his shows at a Marriott Inn. He’d told us of this new singer and his rise in the world of ‘cover bands’, but we had to see it.

We sat at a front table, ordered drinks, sat and clapped and he seemed distinctly embarrassed to introduce us briefly during a set break, as if he didn’t want his two worlds to intersect, though she was overjoyed to finally meet his best friends, shaking our hands, hugging May with a huge smile, as if she knew us intimately. He must have talked a great deal to her about us and the poker games. He kept coming back to them each week, (for years after this) and she must have encouraged it, his one, last tie to his old ways, and she, his wife and his road to a prosperous, mature future, was wise enough to let him keep this one wild night out, wiser than Pentheus in the ‘Bacchae’.

After everyone else left the party, I still remember Rich’s girlfriend yelling and pulling at him, trying to get him up. He sat in a chair by the front door, limp and barely able to open his eyes, too out of it to realize the party was over. Only Kim and I were left. The front door was open to clear out the smoke as we were cleaning up a few things and soon to crash, the music off and the house silent except for her voice, repeating that it was time to go, all to no purpose as he was in a daze.

After minutes of this I told her we had some sleeping bags and they could crash on the floor if they wanted. She declined and in a feat of Herculean strength, (little over half his weight) ripped him off the chair and with his one arm around her neck dragged him to his Mustang, flopped him in the bean-bag seat and sped away.

She was the same girl I saw lying in bed in his house four years later, sadly altered, feeble and pale, unresponsive to us, (just as he’d been that night of the party), and as if she was unable to get out of bed. And she didn’t, the whole two hours Brad and I sat with Rich in the kitchen, drinking beers and discussing life, Rich with his usual gusto. All I could guess was that they’d recently met before that first scene. And now, after four years of trying to keep up with him in drink and cocaine, there she lay, speechless, in her underwear, her health gone, and Rich a paragon, a wonder of self-destructive abuse that rose with each new morning like the Phoenix, restored to health and eager to do it all over again.

Stamina. Rich:

I’ve said it about Phil in the dorms and with Rich before that. There are people you meet with traits, stamina, that you admire but learn never to emulate. The act of admiration implies taking a step back, differentiating yourself from that person, asking an autograph with bowed head then swiftly retreating. I suppose she was too close to his flame, unable to refuse each beer he handed her as he popped his next, and the many lines he laid out on the mirror, handing it to her after each one he snorted first. I could visit him on the occasional Friday night. But to imagine living with him day and night, for years, would be like a scene from Dante’s ‘Hell’.

Some women, out of love, feel compelled to try to match their boyfriends in their pleasures and pastimes, to make themselves true partners. In her case, I can’t conceive the other possibility, that she was an out-of-control drug addict bent on her own self-destruction. I can’t imagine her ever asking Rich for one more line or one more nail in the coffin, (whatever that might be) before he’d had it already spread out on the table and in her face. If someone meets the Devil you don’t blame them for their fall. In decadence he was a model enchanter, light years ahead of everyone else, a William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson combined, only more handsome and hardly less fluent than either. But this was in his youth, when I knew him. He might not have survived past his twenties, as they did.

One piece of this puzzle, the progression of his life, I can see. When we were youths in high school I mentioned he never seemed interested in girls, just companions in drinking and drugs, party pals. Even when he visited me in the dorms, he came with my high school friends. But they went away to Junior colleges and he didn’t. After we were gone he tapped into the ‘second sex’ for nightly guests, because his one delight, in any intoxication, was talk and company. Without them it was ghastly. He needed the validation of others getting stoned beside him and their pleasant chatter. He was a social being, never knowing books. He had money, looks and charm, a convertible Mustang, a nice pad, a motorboat on the delta, flat-bottomed, with a cabin that could accommodate four, and his half-hidden addictions to booze and drugs, almost any woman’s downfall.

How do I know this? I spent a long afternoon on this boat, somewhere near Rio Vista, towards the end of my second year at Berkeley. Rich, Brad and Jim and another high school friend, Dave W. picked me up and as we drove north-east promptly dropped acid. We spent the afternoon floating around the muddy, shallow waters, drinking and smoking joints, and at one point Rich, higher than the rest of us, (as usual) fell overboard. He had a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. The water was at least six feet deep and fully clothed, his head bobbed completely under. The amazing thing was that he resurfaced in an instant and his cigarette was still lit and his beer unsullied, fit to drink, which he did.

That evening we drove to Rio Vista and very hungry, but also still very high from the acid. We entered the first restaurant we found. The interior was dark. A middle-aged waitress handed us menus. We noticed two things simultaneously, that she was fat with a beer belly, ugly, wrinkled everywhere and at the same time wearing a tight, supposed to be sexy, skimpy, leopard skin skirt and bra. This made no sense in our acid-enhanced minds. The darkness of the room left us completely blind as we walked into it from the bright, late-afternoon sunlight. But as our eyes adjusted we began to notice the heads of animals mounted all along the walls and staring down at us. At first we imagined these were trophy heads from some African safari. There was a lion, a hippo, rhino and cheetah, but also a giraffe which made us think: ‘who would shoot that innocent creature’? As we looked more closely we saw American animals, a bear, buffalo, several deer, a moose, but then even smaller ones, beavers and prairie dogs, as if the hunter had gone mad and wanted to kill every existing creature on earth. This sickened all of us so much, without a word spoken between us, we all got up and left right away as the horrifying waitress was returning to take our order. Our appetite was gone. We drove fast towards home and stopped at a McDonald's an hour later. Yet even the smell of that hamburger brought strange shivers to my mind.

Back to February of 1978, five years later and a thousand books wiser, still a youth and foolish, but with Classical excerpts constantly flooding my mind, providing illustrations and highlights to every step I took.

“Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se
Quam quod ridiculos homines facit.”
 

Juvenal Satire 3

The hardest thing to bear in poverty

Is that it makes us look ridiculous.

I know this is a truth for any long, hard stretch of poverty, the starving, painful type. But Kim and I were only playing at it, toying with it for a short time and without any real privations. I can think of only one instance where this occurred and it happened to Kim, not me.

Kim’s sneakers had worn out. They were worse than ragged, they were disintegrating. He came home one evening after having visited some Dutch girl, with a bag, and in it two Dutch wooden shoes with pointy toes, thick heavy things, hand carved, objects you might put on a mantel as a piece of art conversational curiosity at best. But he proposed to wear them. So the next morning, which was bright and beautiful with a little nip in the air for early March, he dons the wooden things with only a thin pair of socks underneath and we begin clip-clapping our way up the streets the mile and a half to Telegraph avenue.

We proceed the first ten blocks with only the bothersome noise. After another five the pace slows. We are nearing our destination but Kim is not happy. A few more blocks and a sudden stop. He breaks out into a virulent tirade against the shoes, then the entire Dutch nation, and then one in particular. As he tears them off we are both surprised to see a pair of blood-soaked socks.

We conjectured that you would need to have pretty near wooden feet to wear such things, not flesh and blood. We were not too far from where he got them, so he stormed off in his bloody socks, shoes in hand, to the girl’s house. I don’t know what scenes transpired nor cared to ask, but at the end of the day when I got home, he was calm and fitted out in another pair of sneakers, brand new.

“Sic transit gloria eundi”

that means, “so goes the glory of walking”.

A pun on:

“Sic transit gloria mundi”

a famous Latin saying which means, ‘there goes my worldly fame, (or reputation), and a clever journalist in the sixties who came up with:

Sic transit Gloria Swanson”,

‘there goes Gloria Swanson’,

Even though my life at this time was happy, it was not sustainable. We were dependent upon a well of kindness from others that would soon dry up and we both knew it. Kim had a standing offer to move in with Norma in Marin. I, with my long hair, my purposeless course and a farrago of erudition decided to join the U.S. army.

 

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Diomedes
Diomedes

B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.


Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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