B.N. Duncan: A Telegraph Avenue Fixture

By Dan McMullan
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:10:00 AM

B.N. Duncan had been a fixture at the corner of Haste and Telegraph for so long that the word “fixture” seemed to fit him well. He seemed as permanent as the street sign or as we once thought of Cody’s Books. His Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar, produced with longtime friend Ace Backwords, documented a street scene that was rapidly succumbing to the erroneous business and city view that people came to the Avenue to shop, not to experience its colorful denizens. 

I came to love Duncan with his deep, resonant “Feel free to look at anything you like” greeting to visitors and townies alike that were looking at his collection of comics, calendars and videos, produced by local artisans. Even if they found nothing to buy, they always found a man with a keen interest in them and the human condition in general. The calendar he co-produced had the wonderful effect of showing people that we walk by and ignore everyday as something special and worthy of note and even just a tad bit famous. I was always amazed how many students bought his calendars to send back home to show the family and friends what a wild and original place they were calling home for the next four years or so.  

I will always be grateful to Duncan for including me in that eclectic mix and goading me to be something maybe just a little bit bigger and better than I was before. I know a lot of people felt the same way and when we found out that Duncan had cancer a few years back it was very much as if a family member was in peril. That summer Moby Theobald and I took Duncan to the Scottish Games in Pleasanton. There was this huge tent proclaiming “Family Duncan.” Being a old hand with the members of my own clan, I brought Duncan in and introduced him to the folks there. I was moved by the emotion I could see in his face as they sat him down and gave him a cold drink, and was happy that he stayed with them most of the afternoon swapping stories. And they say you can never go home. 

After that my wife asked Duncan about his health and he denied that he had ever had the big “C.” He never wanted us to fuss over him or waste time not discussing the bigger issues of life. But lately it was very clear that something was wrong. First he broke his leg a few months back. Alta Bates put him out without even the cheapest of wheelchairs. His love of being amongst his friends on Telegraph Avenue drove him to try to make it up there leaning on the shoulder of his good friend Richard. He pulled this off for awhile, but again he fell, breaking a hip. His cancer-ridden bones just couldn’t hold him up any longer. He seemed to be passing away, but again he rallied. 

This time Alta Bates sent him to a care home, but in a matter of a couple of days he mercifully died quietly in his sleep. In his honor Ace Backwords continued setting up his table on the corner of Telegraph and Haste—something I found strangely comforting. A week or so later, a memorial was held at “Duncan’s Corner.” What a group that was—neighborhood people, homeless people, naked people... pretty much the whole gamut of our beloved Berkeley characters. Duncan would have loved it and would have been snapping pictures and taking names.