After reading his messages in the AVA for lo these many years, I finally met Craig Louis Stehr in downtown Ukiah. Having no idea of what he looked like (he emailed me an AVA profile from years ago but I never read another writer’s impressions of someone before doing an interview myself, and online images didn’t offer much), I imagined Stehr might look a little like my blonde, blue-eyed Hindu brother: highlighted hair down to his elbows, tie-dyed tights, tennis shoes (no leather, he’s been a strict vegetarian for more than 40 years), and the stunted, worn teeth that his SF dentist told him are common in people who spend a lifetime eating a high-acid strictly vegetarian diet. No such imagining could have been further from the truth in Stehr’s case.
When Stehr walked toward me after passing through the gate of the Building Bridges homeless resource center on South State Street, I knew instinctively it was him even though he looked like one of my literature professors at Berkeley—clean-cut, but somehow hip at the same time. And when he took his hat off the curly white tendrils of hair on his forehead gave him the distinct vibe of a bust of Julius Caesar. He carried with him the Winter 2022 edition of Slingshot, a self-described independent anarchist’s newspaper, but with undertones of Mad magazine. One prominent article entitled “The Rise of the Anarchists” features the caricature of a young guy with dollar signs wearing a sideways baseball cap, with the accompanying caption: Most people who say they’re anarchists don’t want to give up unearned forms of hierarchy or make the changes that would entail. True enough. The front page article on the “revival” of Berkeley’s People’s Park took me way back to when I was 18 and cheering on the “people’s” struggle over that infamous square of downtown Berkeley real estate.
Stehr had asked ahead of time if I minded driving him to his post office box in Redwood Valley, which of course I did not. Why Redwood Valley? “The Ukiah post office wouldn’t give me a post office box because I’m homeless,” he explained, so he only collects his mail every few weeks or so when he scores a ride up the freeway. He carried his bundle of mail back to my car and we set off back down to Ukiah in search of a quiet place to chat. Stehr chose Black Oak Coffee Roasters on North State Street, where we settled in with café lattés (with complicated milk-foam decorations on top) and pastries. He recommended a pastry with a dollop of raspberry jam in the middle and it was indeed delish.
Stehr’s physical presence is engaging and open. He laughs spontaneously and often, and its joyous sound is infectious. He sees the follies of the world for what they are but says he doesn’t sink into their sorrows. “I am in the world but not of the world,” he said, a foundational biblical belief that provides emotional distance from the noisy, divisive issues that so bedevil us. He told me that one of the main differences between himself and others is that his beliefs afford him that emotional distance: a quiet, spiritual space in which to retreat from the nonsensical madness of the world. “It can anchor the mind,” he said, “a place I can go to.” Stehr added that he has concerns and worries just like everyone else but doesn’t respond with the high emotion expressed by others who wish our world could become a kinder, gentler place—which isn’t to say that he has no opinions about worldly goings-on. For example, though Stehr was raised Catholic and chose a different spiritual path, he says he harbors no resentment toward Catholicism. Nor does he see any spiritual conflict with his pro-choice beliefs. “I stand what I stand on and I know who I am,” he said. “Your sense of God dictates your life.”
Stehr told me that his relationship with the AVA began many years ago (he couldn’t recall the exact year) when he met Bruce Anderson at the Anarchist’s Book Fair at 9th and Lincoln in San Francisco. He said he also met Anderson with Alex Cockburn at a “Save Our Jobs” protest. “We went there to support the workers,” he said. Stehr has written for dozens if not scores of publications, including Slingshot and the AVA. He comes by his writing honestly; his mother Margaret, a real estate broker in Milwaukee, left her obit, which she wrote herself, next to her body when she died. About his own inevitable death, he said he is “uncomfortable but not afraid,” adding that, “I’ve never left the body before.”
Spiritual seekers and devotees often share life experiences that validate and intensify their beliefs, and Stehr is no exception. He described one of particular intensity that happened years ago in San Francisco. “I got to a point when there was nowhere to go, either backward or forward,” he said, and ended up drawing a circle in the sand at Ocean Beach and sitting in the middle of it to meditate. As day turned into night he said he gained clarity in the stillness of his meditating mind. “I just accepted my circumstances,” he said. “When I came back to consciousness after a whole day I just started laughing into the dark.”
On a very different occasion Stehr said he received a special request from Swami Prabuddhananda to become the live-in assistant to ailing William “Bill” Edward Corcoran for the last years of his life. “I was there for three years, sleeping on Bill’s kitchen floor,” Stehr said, adding that he was present for Corcoran’s cremation and the scattering of his ashes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge from a rented boat.
Stehr said he is always searching for opportunities to support causes that he believes can improve life on Earth, a life-long quest he describes in his regular messages in the AVA. Ideally, he said that he would like to participate on a larger national platform—which brings us to the state lottery, which Stehr plays twice a week. He has plans for his winnings should Powerball or Mega Millions pick the lucky numbers on one of his tickets. “I’d move to Capitol Hill,” he said, which he’s visited 16 times and believes to be ground zero for raising issues on the national stage.
But for now he’s bunking at Building Bridges while seeking out that next opportunity. “They call me The Mayor,” he laughed. “It’s warm, it’s comfortable, and they like me, so for the moment I’m parked here.” But talking about the local homeless situation did touch a nerve. “Talmage could have been used,” he said, referring to the former 488-acre, multiple-building site of a large state hospital. Purchased on the cheap by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, the “City of Ten Thousand Buddhas” now generates an estimated $244,862 in annual revenue from its restaurant, day care, classes, and many other activities.
We left Black Oak for Safeway, where Stehr often buys his fruit and yogurt for dinner (though he does enjoy the occasional steak dinner at Applebee’s, along with one of his favorite beers and a shot of whiskey). As we said our good-byes back in the Building Bridges parking lot, he offered some advice for spiritual seekers, which he no longer considers himself to be since he found what he was looking for: “Stop identifying with the body and the mind and your problem is solved.”