A certified wingnut runs around screaming on the corner of Telegraph and Durant avenues in South Berkeley, his underwear outside his clothes, a toy medieval shield in one hand, a toy axe in the other. A big furry hat and bomber goggles cover his whole face above his red beard. “The revolution starts now!” he shouts at the nearest student. The man then waves his weapon like a lunatic and flashes the plastic butt cheeks affixed to his boxer shorts.
A well-dressed street dweller says he’s working hard toward a doctorate in psychology, specializing in international conflict resolution at Cal. South Africa’s apartheid-era government, he says, murdered his wife and their three children.
The characters from My Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie appear in Johnny Allen Shaw’s dreams sometimes. A twenty-year veteran of the streets, he’s spent so much time editing his new documentary that they’re constantly with him. Medieval warrior Matthew Silver and his revolution. White-haired enabler Mitch Mitchner — dementia in a dress. Prophet Kennethra relaying the message he received through his dog. But then Shaw’s crystal-clear blue eyes snap awake. It’s early on a March morning and he’s huddled in the corner of a carport just south of the Cal campus.
Shaw sits up stiff and dirty and fully clothed in an Irish cap, black scarf, black blazer, black sweater, slacks, and boots. The 35-year-old looks around his auto shelter, then rolls up his air mattress and sleeping bag with a groan. His lower back aches and his belly rumbles as he stashes his gear in a makeshift wall cubby. Except for some milk crates filled with books, he can’t leave any evidence that he’s slept here since 2005. By the time the carport’s spaceholders arrive, Shaw has to be out of sight. He gathers his things in an oversize black briefcase and hustles down the sidewalk toward a free breakfast at Trinity Church, which regulars call the “Wingnut Breakfast” or just “Wingnut.”
Even though Shaw has been homeless since he was a teen, has no intention of ever being otherwise, and is congenitally broke and unemployable, he has produced a powerful feature-length documentary that’s available worldwide. Against the odds, he managed to scrounge up a digital camcorder and three separate laptops, shoot more than 31 hours of raw footage in 2005 and 2006, and edit it into the 52-minute doc, which he finished late last year. The resourceful video nut went on to press two hundred DVDs, of which he’s sold about three-quarters on the street and through local retailers such as Amoeba and Rasputin. He recently secured distribution through IndieFlix.com, which will sell his movie for $10 to anyone in the world. Entry deadlines loom for many film festivals, if only Shaw can scrape together the fees.
The world has plenty of wannabe filmmakers aiming for social justice with depressing footage of homeless people telling their stories. Pras, a member of hip-hop group the Fugees, even tried to film himself living on a dollar a day in Los Angeles last year. But Shaw differs from the pack. For one, he’s the first person to get this far while actually living the life. What’s more, My Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie is a bizarre sort of triumph — at times very funny, and brutally sad, but never didactic or preachy. Shaw never appears or speaks in the film, which wanders plotlessly through eighteen vérité vignettes depicting individual lives on the street.
Embracing the gonzo ethic of “shoot first and find meaning later,” Shaw’s documentary is cultural anthropology in the raw, capturing the exotic people, customs, and ideas of a subculture that hides in plain sight. Where most might overlook, ignore, or judge, the veteran hobo director hits record and waits for something interesting to happen. And it often does.
Yet Shaw’s success, as admittedly modest as it has been, puts him on a collision course with the straight world he has avoided for so long. After decades of avoiding the system of “plague-makers,” he now has need of a bank account, which would require an address. He also wants a new camera and a more powerful laptop for a planned sequel, not to mention cash to cover film festival dues and production expenses (true to form, Shaw hand-packages his DVDs). At any given moment, however, he has just a few tattered dollar bills to his name. Shaw may be sane, but his chosen lifestyle conflicts with his long-term ambitions. Logic says you can’t be a famous filmmaker and still live in a carport. Shaw respectfully disagrees.
The line for Trinity’s Wingnut Breakfast begins forming at 6 a.m. in a Bancroft Way parking lot, and soon fills with chatty indigents. Shaw slinks across the lot without saying much to anyone, and blends into the single-file line, whose demographic favors fiftyish white men with grizzled beards and matted hair. “It’s the culture,” Shaw comments of the male-heavy crowd. “Women are more likely to be taken in and rescued. Besides, men are obnoxious and sometimes violent. I wouldn’t take a man in.”
The filmmaker aims to avoid long conversations and petty fights with the chronically homeless who live in places like People’s Park. Berkeley is known for its unusually hardcore street population. They come to the city for its mild weather and abundant services, and stay because police, merchants, residents, and local government tolerate them better than people do elsewhere.
Shaw may showcase some of the town’s more deranged folks in his movie, but he doesn’t count himself among them. “There are some certain homeless people that just like the underground life — people that aren’t fucked up and manage to survive and keep moving,” he explains.
Shaw has been one of those since he ran away from his home in Puyallup, Washington, at age fifteen. It was 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded. The potent mix of alcohol and adolescence drove the only child away from life with his mother, grandmother, and a perpetually drunk grandfather. “I knew the whole system was lying to me,” Shaw says. “I wanted to party and drink.”
The annual fair in Shaw’s home county left a deep imprint on the young man. “For those few weeks, the whole world changed,” he remembers. “The world I wanted was one where there was no boxes, no cars, and no homes. Instead of it just being a carnival, it would be life.”
Most kids hit adolescence, catch a whiff of the world’s contradictions, and simply dye their hair black in rebellion. Very few hit the road like Woody Guthrie, never to return. Shaw even abandoned his birth name. He says he wasn’t abused physically or sexually, but that drinking simply solidified his young resolve. “My grandpa was Native American and I got the alcoholism gene the worst way you can get it,” he says.
The Seattle streets were terrifying for a homeless teen, but Shaw says he was drunk and lucky. He spent the next decade and a half in a haze, he says, at one point participating in the city’s radical movement opposing the Gulf War. He would travel down through Berkeley on his binges before heading out to New Hampshire and the gutters of New Orleans. Berkeley’s relatively mild winter mornings, he says, still make him think back to the frigid East Coast winters.
When Shaw reaches the front of the line at Trinity, the Wingnut staffers usher him up the stairs and into the dim dining hall. Plastic trays clang against metal serving tables, and folding chairs scrape linoleum as people take their turns. Shaw finds a corner, eats, and fidgets. Sudden movements and noises startle him, and he watches potentially violent people warily. “It’s from being outside so long,” he explains. “I’m always thinking about how to stand up and get away with my food, or how to put the side of this tray through the dude’s eye.”
Sometimes he reads from an Oxford edition of the Bible that includes the Apocrypha. He’s filled countless hours reading the book, as well as the books of Taoism, Rastafarianism, and many other religions. But it was jail that saved him. “In 2000, I pretty much bottomed out in Chico,” Shaw says. “I was in and out of the Butte County holding cell so often that the wardens knew me by name and said, ‘What are you doing here again?'”
During one of these lockups it finally dawned upon him that he couldn’t drink in moderation. As Shaw reflected on his troubled life, he realized he’d nearly died an average of once a month for almost fifteen years. “I went back and counted up all the times I had experienced blackouts, woke up in the street with my head behind a car’s tire, in the wrong house, and who I had pissed off,” he says. “I was like Mr. Magoo through a construction yard.”
Shaw says he didn’t go to AA. He quit drinking and drugs cold turkey, enrolled at Butte College in Oroville, and with financial aid, spent three years as an English major. He also branched out into computer networking, digital illustrating, and Web design. “I took digital video and audio editing classes, but for the most part, the video got lost completely under the more practical concerns of transferring to a four-year institution and looking for a job I could deal with,” he recalls.
But Shaw got restless and dropped out in 2003. He came back through Berkeley, and then Santa Cruz, where he bought his first laptop with money earned working as a cook in 2004. The next year, he returned to Berkeley set on making a living as a freelance videographer. At first he slept in a vacant field, but when it became a construction yard, he moved next door to the carport of a senior care facility.
“I would roll my stuff up and leave it, and the next day I’d find it on the sidewalk,” he recalls. “I’d go to move it back and they would object. I said, ‘Hey, it’s survival. I’m not on drugs. I’m not crazy. I just need a place to hide my things. You do what you have to do; call the cops and I’ll do what I have to.’
“So when they came back for the big confrontation, I had cleaned up the whole area and landscaped the front. They said, ‘You did this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘You can stay.'”
Thus did Shaw become the facility’s de facto night security guard and day landscaper, bartering labor for peace. When other homeless people try and invade his spot, he handles them with a combination of diplomacy and fearlessness, assuming he’s awake. “The worst is late at night in the dark,” he says. “You’d go for a while and then a crackhead would walk up and swing on you. They’ll almost step on you and it’s pitch black in there, so they just start swinging in the dark and I’m going, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ Then it’s over quick.”
His shelter problem under control, Shaw gets by mostly on food from the Wingnut. After breakfast, he hits the streets, where he spends his days e-mailing documentary producers, reporters, and potential nonprofit backers. He also reads, and researches any topic that catches his interest — recently, film festivals. But Shaw spends considerable time on the minutiae of survival. As he walks along Telegraph, he waves to numerous acquaintances among the street vendors and wandering homeless. Like a foraging squirrel, his eyes stay peeled for food, clothing, or anything of use. Shaw says he’d sooner starve than beg. “Oh, God, I don’t want that,” he says. “It’s too desperate. I’m not their inferior. I didn’t know it was a mandatory part of the bum handbook.”
There are other ways of getting by. With Berkeley’s numerous free meal programs, tourist leftovers, and the occasional friend, you’d have to be pretty lazy to starve. At one point, after Shaw says he’s hungry, a man in front of the First Presbyterian Church blurts out, “Hey, Shaw!” and wings him a banana. Shaw catches it with one hand. “Mmm, ‘nana,” he says, peeling it and eating it in two bites.
Later, he spots a mostly uneaten sandwich atop a trashcan. “Look at this,” he says. “Perfectly good.” On another block, he approaches a shoebox resting on a dumpster. “What’s this?” he says. Shaw pops open the box and compares the size to his own. A pair of jeans is folded up inside too. He holds them up to his skinny 160-pound frame. “Too big,” he says.
How he came to own a digital camera was similarly serendipitous. As Shaw tells it, his old buddy Jesse came through town in 2005 and tracked him down. Jesse knew of a homeless guy dying of prostate cancer who’d scored a windfall in a malpractice settlement. The old wingnut, Jesse explained, was burning through the cash, handing out $100 bills on the street, and freeing live chickens in Golden Gate Park; he was renting hotel rooms and had mountains of dope. “Me and Jesse became his non-fuckup homeless friends and financial advisers, and we sidelined enough money to buy a camera,” Shaw says. “He had so much money it didn’t matter, so we went and got a Sony DCR DVD92.”
Jesse, the first to appear in Shaw’s film, is a white guy in his late twenties with decent looks and a wry smile. He cracks jokes about how he’s bumming around drunk and high on the streets of Berkeley.
Lacking a plot, Shaw relies on the characters to move things along. “I work like Woody Allen: Roll camera and let them do their thing,” he says. “The first few minutes are always garbage, but then they forget about the camera and that’s when it starts happening.”
One such scene features the malpractice victim, identified as Mitch Mitchner. He’s probably in his seventies, with eyeglasses and a new outdoor jacket. He babbles incoherently for several minutes and ends with, “Are you guys nuts? Are you guys, are you guys out of your fucking minds? Or is the world turning the wrong way?”
Back in reality, Shaw spots Mitch on the street. The old man has a bunch of clothes wrapped around his head like the Chiquita Banana woman, and wears a flowing white dress underneath his jacket. He greets Shaw with a smile: “What’s the plan for today?”
Shaw explains that he’s promoting his video and introduces a reporter. Mitch greets me in a soft voice, barely audible above the traffic, and mutters from one topic to the next. His capsule review of the film he enabled: “I didn’t get it. I didn’t.”
Mitch does, however, corroborate having squandered $100,000. “I wanted to go to South America and get some land,” he says. “But it’s complicated.” He also confirms the story about buying and freeing chickens: “I didn’t free all of them. Only the most beautiful.”
Shaw’s other major funder appears at the end of the film. An older gentleman named Julian Walker sits down at a tattered piano to sing a ragtime tune. Shaw says Walker is an itinerant Hindu who received an inheritance, believed in the movie project, and donated $1,200 for a laptop. “I picked up a new seventeen-inch Pentium 4 with a 100-gig hard drive and slots for two gigs of RAM,” the filmmaker says.
Armed with camera, suitable laptop, and donated editing software, Shaw began filming. He interviewed Frank Chu, the infamous “12 Galaxies” guy who walks around San Francisco carrying a colorful, if incomprehensible, sign bearing phrases such as “admonishments minuscule.” An interview excerpt: “I’m here covering space vacations, flying saucers, rocket vacations with populations across sixty thousand other galaxies. That, and I’m stalking a movie star too.”
Then there’s Harold — “the most lovable person you’ll never be able to have a meaningful conversation with,” Shaw says. “They say he took 10,000 [micrograms] of LSD-25 in 1969 and never came back.”
If the rumor is at all true, Harold could be the perfect antidrug commercial. On camera, the grizzled old man spends several minutes trying to roll a cigarette while his brain lags well behind. It’s like the saddest Benny Hill routine ever.
Prophet Kennethra appears with his sidekick X. The bald white dude, who looks to be in his twenties, stands on a street corner in a bathrobe, holding a mic and tiny amplifier. Next to him, an Asian dude in black wraparounds bangs a tambourine with a cross taped to it. Kennethra preaches “DIY religion” with a fervor that draws a crowd. “You may look at me like I have no idea what I’m talking about, but you know what?” he asks. “Do you have any idea truly what you’re talking about? Do you truly feel, inside of yourself, that you really know what’s going on?
“You have no idea what’s going on,” Kennethra continues. “I am the way out and the way in. This was spoken to me by Aklar through my dog, and I know that’s kind of creepy and weird, but since then I’ve learned that such things are common miracles.”
Shaw’s work could be viewed as mere voyeurism, but Sufficient Grounds proprietor Gene Koo thinks Berkeley’s mayor should view it. Koo lets Shaw sit for hours and charge up the laptop at his Durant Avenue cafe. “Shaw’s really down to earth,” he says. “He’s focused and a lot more aware. Most of them just beg for money, but I’ve never seen anyone stand up and say, ‘I’ll make a movie out of this.'”
The merchant has seen the finished product. “It’s not funny,” he says. “I found it very sad. I hope that the mayor of this town gets the message — that the homeless are human too and deserve more respect than a nickel here and a dime there.”
Longtime Berkeley street vendor Frank Walker keeps a close watch on his jewelry table as he ponders the man he calls one of the Telegraph homeless scene’s few success stories. “I first met Johnny thirteen years ago,” Walker says. “He was an idiot. No, more like a moron. You didn’t want him around. Then he cleaned up, got sober, and stopped being spun. Now we extend human dignity to each other.”
These days, Walker lets Shaw police his table when the vendor needs a break, and pays him a little in return. He notes the tremendous effort Shaw has put into creating and then hustling his product. “It has a lot of local color,” Walker says. “If you’ve been in Berkeley for a while and you’re leaving, it’s a must-have.”
Walker sees great potential in Shaw, but adds that the filmmaker is hamstrung by his poverty. “Ideally, the first step would be that he would get a bank account,” he says. But he differs with Koo over the film’s propaganda value to increase aid to the homeless. “I don’t really see any place on Earth where the homeless have better service. I first came here in ’79 and someone handed me a list of the social services and I said, ‘I have to get out of this town. You can really become a bum here.’ It’s possible to make it too easy on people, and I’m a bleeding-heart liberal.”
Further along Telegraph, Rastafarian-kitsch seller Tamai offers a less hopeful movie review: “I describe it as if you had to take twenty people and hold the camera in front of them — here’s that guy with the shoe; here’s that guy playing guitar. For me, it wasn’t anything. I think he’s still growing. This is a vehicle for Johnny in a journey to I don’t know where, but it’s not the end.”
As the sun sets, Shaw loads up on a Wingnut dinner: dry lasagna, salad with vinaigrette, steamed vegetables, semihard dinner roll, Frunola bar, unripe orange, and some sugar water. Then it’s off to his “office,” a wedge of asphalt between a parking attendant’s booth and some shrubs. The attendant lets Shaw use his cell phone for business, and store clean shirts in the booth. The videographer stashes a few items in the bushes, pulls out a few others, and then heads toward the open restrooms at Haas Gymnasium.
After doing his business, Shaw leaves the gym, cuts right, and settles into an alcove warmed by exhaust from the building’s ventilation system. Students walk past like he’s invisible as the eighty-degree air flows down on his nook, one of the many campus sweet spots Shaw knows. To the outsider, it merely looks like a littered corner near some stairs, but then you realize there’s a whole subculture of people we choose not to see wedged in dirty corners.
The din of Asian drumming practice drives Shaw from his gym spot, so he takes a walk through campus, pointing out the library where he uses a pirated CalNet ID number to get onto the Internet. After completing his movie, he built a Web page for it with free software, and hosted it on a free server.
Dusk turns to night, and Shaw stops at the Bear’s Lair, a campus bar — not for booze, but to use one of the electrical outlets ringing the outdoor courtyard. Unfortunately, a squat bum wearing a black hat sits nearby. He appears drunk and possibly violent. “I fucking hate that guy,” Shaw says. “He just sits there and drinks all day and pukes ‘Fuck you!’ at the students and the cops don’t do anything.”
Shaw resents the police for hassling him, yet depends upon them to counter the law of the concrete jungle: He who is bigger or more violent (or foul) gets his way. No cops are in sight now, so Shaw slinks off to his evening spot near the back of a wood-shingled campus performance studio. He calls this relatively peaceful hideaway Rivendell, after the elf paradise in Lord of the Rings.
Invisible from the street, Shaw takes out his Bible and reads from Ezekiel about poor people coming up in the world. Besides surviving and promoting his film, his main job seems to be managing all the free time he has to think and worry. Shaw claims he’s become an expert at meditation and patience. Indeed, his willingness to hang around waiting for the right scene may have netted the best moment in the film.
Around Christmas of 2005, Shaw was hanging out with Tamai and talking politics when a man calling himself Robert Enksawa Nwenge joined the conversation. Shaw hit “record” and captured documentary gold. He never officially confirmed Nwenge’s story, but has no doubt about its veracity given the details. “He had so much to say, he threatened to overwhelm the film,” Shaw says.
Nwenge, who was, or at least claimed he was, a South African Ph.D student, was neither crazy nor chronically homeless, but some combination of financial stress and closure of student dorms for winter break had forced him to spend time on the street. Looking directly into the camera, he told a harrowing story of apartheid-era hatred and revenge. Growing up amid violence, he’d resolved to get involved in politics to make the world a better place. He then revealed that his wife and three children had been murdered by security police because of his involvement in the African National Congress. The real target, Nwenge said, was him.
In the film, Nwenge then described how the killings motivated him to become a freedom fighter for the ANC. “I ended up doing things that I’m not proud of,” he said. “After Mandela was released, I gave my story before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission both as a victim and as a perpetrator, but I felt it was more important to go before the commission as a perpetrator to let my white brothers and sisters know what drove me to do what I did.”
His goal after Cal, he said, was to take a job at the UN, where he might help prevent future wars: “Sometimes I get discouraged when I’m walking down the streets of Berkeley and I see these people sleeping on the streets. But when I meet a gentleman like [Shaw] it reinforces in me why I’m here, because if I give up, if I just up and quit school, this world will continue on the path that it’s been on the last few years, or even worse. So if I give up hope and caring and trying to make a place better, who’s going to pick up the torch?”
Back at Rivendell, Shaw’s conversational topics meander. One moment he’s talking about needing another dollar for some Chinese takeout; the next, about how he covets a new $350 Toshiba laptop from Best Buy. “Except it’s got Vista. Eww, bring the XP back, please,” he says. He flips through a stack of index cards bearing the names and addresses of film festivals he wants to enter, but lacks the money. There’s the ninth annual Encounters South African Film Festival. “For Robert,” he notes.
Southern California Film Festival.
Shaw can imagine winning them and becoming known. Even then, he insists, he would continue to live among the indigent. “This world — it’s broken,” he says as some motorcycles roar down Durant and break the calm. “These wingnuts turn to crack and other drugs to get out of an existence that makes them crazy. I couldn’t live indoors after the truths I’ve learned out here. I’d go mad.”
Yet every step in his project has required some type of truce with the straight world, from purchasing gear to cadging electricity to pressing and marketing his DVD. If Shaw makes any money to speak of from his low-overhead project, he may one day need to open that bank account, and perhaps even form a limited-liability corporation. Therein lies his biggest dilemma. He’s brilliant when it comes to the microscopic duties of survival, but his ambitions simply don’t match his ethos.
For instance, Shaw might get a grant to cover expenses, but rejects the notion outright. “Aww, man, I don’t want to write grants and compete against other people,” he says. His fantasy, it seems, is to get discovered by one of the producer types he e-mails. Some of them, Shaw says, have requested a trailer and even the full movie. “Then I send them the movie, and bam, I never hear from them again. ‘You’re out. Just another freaking wingnut.’
“I hope that’s not happening,” he adds.
As it were, Johnny Shaw’s plight is aptly summed up in the closing song he chose for his documentary, sung by the old Hindu over a montage of featured street people. The lyric enforces a salient point: For whatever reason, these characters are ill suited for 21st-century capitalism, and their delusions often play the role of a salve against life’s torments.
And so it is with the filmmaker.
My friend, I’ve enjoyed your company.
Now, most regretfully,
I say, “Please, pardon me,
It’s way past my dreaming time.
Good night, I’ve got to go.
Dreams are just imagination,
yeah, but they bring me consolation.
She’s mine till the break of day,
so I must rush away.
I’d stay, but it’s way past
my dreaming time.”