A foggy photograph of Shattuck and University Avenue in Berkeley.
A snapshot of Shattuck and University Avenue in Berkeley. (Ace Backwords)

The town of Berkeley is full of so many ghosts for me. This building on the corner of Shattuck and University is one of these ghosts. 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. 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. Then that winter this church group hired me to coordinate this homeless art project making Christmas cards on a linoleum press. As fate would have it, the work space for the project was this little office in the basement of this building 

So I set up shop down there for three or four months. And it was a great gig. I was a fairly renowned local Berkeley artist at that point. And many 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 for months.

We would put 4 of the linoleum card designs on this tray (it reminded me of four pancakes on the griddle). 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. 

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.

And they all sold. Because they were beautiful cards. And it was an amazing gig. It was literally like printing money. Every time we printed a card we made a dollar. And we printed up thousands of them. Each one of them a unique, hand-painted work of art. And me and my co-worker Zack 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. I had spent most of my artistic career working in black-and-white. Black-and-white newspaper comics and black-and-white photos and writing. So it was a thrill to be able to work with color for once. And we dazzled with every possible combination of bright, primary colors. 

That little office in the basement was really handy because I could also hang out there when it rained. And dry out my wet sleeping bag and wet clothes. And even shut the door, turn out the lights, and take naps. Plus I could store all my stuff there. It was a valuable resource for a homeless guy, to have four walls of my own, right in the center of the city. 

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. 

This article originally appeared on Ace’s blog, Acid Heroes.

Ace Backwords is a homeless writer and artist who lives in Berkeley, California. You can find more writing on his blogs.