As for the people of A-8, about 30 lived out there — more on the weekends. Most lived on their own boats, some on borrowed boats, others were squatters. None were rich, most were dirt poor without the dirt.
“Where else can you live in San Diego for $5 a year?” asked a man named Barry.
“Living here is like camping in the middle of a wet desert,” said a woman named Terry Aman.
“This place is a haven for people with all sorts of social problems,” said a man named Freddie. “I mean, they have an inability to handle society in the way it’s set up and they get nothing but trauma from the people whose job it is to help. There’s quite a few decorated vets out here, a few drug addicts and alcoholics, but there’re no dealers, no scam, no drug lifestyle. And with no transportation back and forth, it’s like a prison cell but it’s more beautiful than a prison cell. And I should know because I’ve spent half my damn life in jail.”
“I had a driver’s license and I had motor homes,” said a man named Mike, “but they were taking them away faster than I could get them. So I decided to get a boat. We’re the last of our breed, we’re the water hippies. We’ve got heroin addicts, crystal addicts, alcoholics. They’re just regular people, nice people. You got all types here, we’re all survivors.”
Freddie and Mike were the first two men I met in the A-8 on the day I went out with James Spring in the Tequila Sunrise. James had motored through the A-8 several times so we could look around, but he was nervous because there were stories of sunken boats and he was afraid of catching his hull on something nasty so after ten minutes he dropped anchor. The plan was to visit a few of the boats by kayak, and James dumped two sea kayaks off the stern. I had never been on one of these — more like an oversized surfboard with a dent in the middle than the comfortable body-condom kayaks I had used in rivers back East, but the bay was fairly calm, and after a few rolls and swerves I made my way toward a banged-up catamaran, the Free Spirit, which was flying the American flag. When I paddled up, James was already sitting comfortably on deck and introduced me to Mike, Freddie, Gary, and Sandy. The last was a Labrador mutt that Mike had gotten from the pound in Coronado. “He’s the only one I care about now,” Mike told me. Every time someone caught a fish, the dog went crazy with pleasure.
Freddie sat down across from me. A tall, thin man with a beard, long red hair, bleary eyes, a sweet expression, and raggedy clothes, he looked about 50. He told me his name was Frederick Sherman III. He’d been living on a 22-foot motorboat, the Desert Diver, for the past two years, working for Jim Morgan as a caretaker and diesel mechanic of the three Party Kings. He would get some more money from ssi at the first of the month, and he could hardly wait. “The man who came out here with a case of beer would be king,” he said.
Mike chimed in from the other side of the boat, “You come out here with a case of beer, you’re the most popular guy in the world.”
Before moving to the A-8, Freddie had been homeless in San Diego for 16 years.
“I came out here with healing in my heart, to fix myself,” said Freddie. “Those humans on land are nuts. But out in the A-8 you survive on true grit. Most of the people living in these boats get checks on the first of the month — either you’re physical or mental. For me, what I like best is there’re no bushes surrounding my camp. Nobody can sneak up on me. And officer after officer, badge after badge doesn’t come up shift after shift, saying, Hey, you got any drugs, any booze, any guns, any bombs? I’m safe here, I’m not bothered. But I like the fishing, and the bay people are a lot like mountain people, which is where I come from. Here people look out for each other.
“I’ve a passion for fishing, and I even have my fishing license. It’s my permission to be out here. I’m always up-to-date on that. And I love eating fish, but I have some Filipino friends on shore and I take fish over there and trade them for other stuff. I love fish, but I take my time on it.”
Freddie had several fishing poles over the stern of the boat, and he went off to check his lines. The dog Sandy started barking, eager for the fast life that a fish flopping on deck could provide.
Mike came over to tell me about his boat, which he’d had for ten years. He was a youthful 52, thin, clear-eyed, with a beard and long brown hair with a little gray at the temples. He was in Vietnam in 1967–’68. He talked about taking the Free Spirit down to Brazil and back, going through the Panama Canal. “Man, it flies. It’s all teak.”
Now he was trying to fix it up again — a pontoon was busted and the hull needed work, the sails were iffy. The deck was crowded with odds and ends, water buckets, a charcoal grill, tarps, a bicycle.
Mike had been out here several years. He talked about the viciousness of the winter storms and of El Niño in 1997, when a number of boats went down. “Man, the dinghies were just flying through the air.” He, too, had been homeless. He told me that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam and that up into the 1980s he had a wife and family, a nice house and good job. Perhaps I looked doubtful because he went down into the cabin and returned with a beat-up envelope with clippings of real estate columns that he had once written for the San Diego Union. There was his name.