The Story of 300—Chapter One: Street Survival

by Vinay Pai

This excerpt from “The Eviction Machine” was originally published by our allies in Street Spirit. It tells the story of the life of the man known as 300, a life-long Berkeley resident who died in 2019 after being evicted from his home. 

I met 300 sleeping on a bench outside Au Coquelet Café on University Avenue one late night in the summer of 2013. He had a burly mustache and he wore a dark poncho with a black skully on his bald head. A square black cross hung from a black shawl around his neck. He held a heavy book about the American origins of Nazi eugenics, and we talked for a while about the history of fascism. 

300 was born in Berkeley in 1968, he went to Berkeley High, and he lived in Berkeley most of his life. He lost his housing during the 2007 recession, and he sheltered at familiar spots around Berkeley for years. He used an Obama phone to get wi-fi at the café, and he slept sitting upright on the benches outside. A few years ago, those same benches were flipped backward and filled with flower pots so unhoused people couldn’t shelter there. 

I studied in the café every night until 2 A.M. After closing, I’d sit outside and talk with 300. He had a photographic memory and he told stories like the film was projected in the back of his dome. He taught me about the history of Berkeley and growing up in the time of the Black Panthers. He saw abandoned storefronts and high-rise towers and reminisced about the shops and venues that used to stand there. He worried about who was rummaging through his shopping cart when he was asleep. His voice got low when a police officer walked up and addressed him by his government name.

As silhouettes drifted past in the dark, he pointed out predators and prey, who was abusing, who was being abused in the shadows of foyers and alleyways at night. That summer, I got an education in street politics. When summer ended, I moved away for school and I lost touch with 300.

Au Coquelet Café in 2013 (Bryan Eldridge)

In the fall of 2014, after I moved back home, a jury acquitted a police officer who had killed a young man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I saw a crowd marching up University Avenue and I joined them, followed by police shooting tear gas grenades and rubber bullets at our backs. 300 was sitting on the bench outside the café again, watching the scene and the cloud of smoke. I stopped to say hello, and he gave me the number to his prepaid flip phone. 

I caught up with 300 a few days later at the “cop shop,” the Berkeley Police Department building on Martin Luther King. He was doing masonry work for a sheet metal company on Gilman Street and recycling aluminum cans to make ends meet. Every other week, he went next door to City Hall to attend the City Council meetings. His portable radio played KPFA while he sat on the steps of the cop shop every night.

The cop shop was 300’s last resort. He had camped with tree-sitters at the Memorial Stadium oak grove, until the university destroyed their tents and cut down the trees. He had slept below the arches of his church on Bancroft Way until the clergy chased him off, dripped in jewelry and driving foreign cars. He had lived in a tool shed behind a house where he worked as a gardener, but the owner snapped the knob off the door, angry that 300 brought other unhoused people to visit. 300 had no family ties: he was estranged from his twin sister, his only living relative. 

300 wasn’t eligible for a subsidized apartment unless he signed a form declaring a “mental illness” or “disability”—he refused, because he understood that those labels could be used to incarcerate him. He was trapped in a circle: “I could not find work because I did not have a place to live, and I could not get a place to live because I could not find work.” The police station was the last, safe place he could find to sleep. He maintained the grounds around the Public Safety Building, planting flowers, trimming hedges, and sweeping debris. In exchange, BPD quietly allowed him to set up camp on the front steps.

The cop shop steps (Rudrani Ghosh)

The police station is quiet at night, and 300 spoke freely when I met him there. He told stories about his childhood growing up in a violent neighborhood in Southwest Berkeley segregated by Jim Crow. The parking lot by his home was a popular place for dealing dope and turning tricks, and Berkeley police left the block to its business. His mother lost her house to a mortgage fraud scam in 1991, and she started renting a unit in a duplex near San Pablo Park. She was found dead in her apartment, alone, in October 1996, at age fifty-three. 300 believed she was murdered, but BPD ruled her death an “accident” and didn’t investigate further. He put police racism in simple terms: “They classify all African-American people as either criminals or servants.” He meant that BPD didn’t consider her life worth protecting.

300 was a “street therapist” and he crossed paths with people from all walks of life. He was always outside: if I named anybody in the city, he’d probably met them, from the gas station clerk to Lil B the Based God. He knew my landlord, my next-door neighbor, and the man who slept on the bench by my house. The nephew of a notorious Black Panther gun-runner visited him often. A Google engineer paid rent on a storage unit for 300 to keep his belongings safe. Graduate students were glad to have someone listen to them talk about their research. Once 300 started a conversation, he could swap stories for hours. 

I heard a lot of crazy “shite” from 300. He never used curse words, and he always found a polite way to describe bizarre and unbelievable episodes. He told tales of zombies shambling from Barrington Hall, and dance parties with the crown prince of Norway. A BPD patrol officer thought 300 was hallucinating a pink furry animal running sprints on Shattuck Avenue, then doubled back to apologize after he met the man in the fur suit later that night. I learned about Berkeley pimps, politicians trading sexual favors, and police who smoked meth from the evidence locker. “I was a dancer for many years,” he often said with a wry smile. “I understand body language very well.” 

Sleeping outside took a toll on 300. His body was breaking down in the cold. He carried the heavy anxiety of street survival. A few years before I met him, he got jumped and bludgeoned in the head near the downtown public library, where he was sheltering at the time. He had daily headaches but he hated going to the hospital, so my father, a neurologist, came to break bread and give a street check-up. My mother was a history professor at the university, and she packed hot Indian food for 300 cooked by my uncle. 300 always reminded me how lucky I was to have a big family and a strong system of support. “This is my living room,” he said, pointing around Civic Center Park. “I have no privacy. It’s cold and people come and go as they please.” He told me: “You’re lucky your worst enemies are within you. You don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded by people who wish you were dead.”

On the street, you can get violated by anybody at any time. As a survival tactic, 300 became friendly with many Berkeley police. He learned police lingo and he addressed them by rank. He was tapped into department politics at all levels of the BPD, from the police chief to the custodial crew. When one detective realized that 300’s outlandish street tales were true, he gave 300 a small field recorder for his protection. 300 kept the mic on his body, in case the detective tried to copy the memory card from his shopping cart while he slept. 300 said the police were always taking notes. He called them “secretaries with guns.” Some police on the graveyard shift confided in 300 because they had no one else to talk to in the dead of night. He told me about a patrol officer who jovially showed him a video of a savage beating filmed on duty. 300 thought the officer was traumatized and struggling to process what he’d witnessed. The officer stopped smiling when 300 said: “You’re not going to beat me like that, are you?” 

Some people on the street viewed 300 with suspicion—he never touched drugs, and talking with the police gave him a reputation as a snitch. Sitting on the steps of the police station every night made him look even more like a rat. In the summer of 2016, 300 used to text me late at night and invite me to the cop shop steps. When I got there, I found him anxious about enemies prowling in the dark. At first I thought he was being overly paranoid, but soon I found out why he was afraid to be alone. 

One early morning in August 2016, a White supremacist called “Creature” showed up at the cop shop steps before dawn. Creature and his crew liked to bully and harass 300. Creature was an antisemite, and he believed 300 was Jewish. Now, high on methamphetamine, Creature threatened to kill 300. He put his hands around 300’s neck and tried to gouge 300’s eyes with his thumbs. 

The attack was outside the police station and the CCTV saw everything. Creature was arrested a few hours later. I visited 300 that afternoon, and he pointed to tiny drops of blood that stained the steps where he always sat. He refused to leave the cop shop. He had to get off the streets immediately.

A man named Kareem sometimes visited 300 at the cop shop in those days. Kareem studied industrial engineering in his country in North Africa. He came to America on a student visa, but he was now seeking asylum status: his city was under siege in a civil war involving the US military. He lived in a run-down building owned by an infamous slumlord, across from the 7-Eleven on University and Sacramento. Kareem had invited 300 to sleep in his room, but 300 declined. He knew the landlord’s bad reputation and he didn’t want to share a crowded space with strangers. Now, after the attack, he was willing to get indoors by any means necessary. In November 2016, 300 moved into Kareem’s place. 

Note: Street Spirit will resume print publication as of March 1, 2024. Street Sheet wants to thank the East Bay-based newspaper for allowing us to run its content online and in print while Street Spirit has been rebuilding. Street Sheet is also extending gratitude for Street Spirit vendors in distributing Street Sheet over the last eight months. Thank you, all!