Up until this point Mike had been a little jokey, good-natured. Now it changed. “Then something happened and now I’m out here. Look, I had a wife, kids, jobs. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was all the drugs and alcohol. My dad died. They say it was Vietnam. I’ve been to the Veterans’ Hospital, but I still haven’t gotten any money. I’m still trying. I’ve eaten out of Dumpsters. What choice have I had? And there’s a bakery over on C Street that throws out day-old bread. I get that. And a butcher shop in Chula Vista gets rid of its old meat. And we fish.” He shrugged and gave a grin.
Mike had been given the job, he said, of cleaning up a small and derelict Chevron tanker anchored nearby. By small I mean it was about 150 feet long. Mike looked at it doubtfully. It was such a mess it would have been as easy to pick it up as clean it up.
For supplies the residents of the A-8 mostly rowed their dinghies into the Sweetwater River and docked at Pepper Park. The trouble was the park’s isolation: no buses, no stores, no houses, no buildings for miles. The closest transportation was the trolley — two miles away. This was the reason for all the bicycles. Another problem with the park was the lack of security.
“People steal stuff off your dinghy, the oars and oarlocks, or they smash it up,” Mike told me.
This was a complaint I heard again and again, that the park was a gang area, that the gangs smashed the dinghies and stole what was to be stolen. Those who had motors on their dinghies could go into Crown Cove on the strand, where they could catch a bus, or even motor into Glorietta Bay. But most didn’t have motors, and so Pepper Park was their only alternative.
I asked about other difficulties about living in A-8.
“We’ve only got one whorehouse,” said Mike, laughing, “and the whores have only one tooth between them.” Then he added, only slightly more seriously, “There’re not many women out here, that’s the bummer.”
“One of the hard things,” said Freddie, “is the Harbor Police and the tugs will go tearing by here at any time of night and send all the boats tossing. There’s supposed to be a five-knot limit, but they don’t pay any attention to it. I’ve been thrown right out of my bunk. I bet they do it just to harass us.”
I asked Mike about drugs. He said, “My comment is that there’re no pushers out here. Beyond that, I don’t want to comment. I just don’t want to comment on that.”
But a little later when I asked Freddie if there were drugs, he said, “Oh, they’re available. They’re available, all right.”
Mike asked him what he was talking about and Freddie told him. Mike laughed. “That’s right. They’re available, all right.”
Both men were eager to talk about the beauty of the place, the peace and serenity, the lights of San Diego at night. “I’ve seen sea tortoises,” said Freddie, “actual sea tortoises. I love seeing them.”
The specifics of what they found beautiful were difficult to articulate. They even thought the question rather foolish. Mike waved his hand, taking in the bay. “All this,” he said. “Look at it.”
The third man, Gary, had been sitting on the other side of the mast talking to James Spring. Gary was in his 50s, chunky and dark-haired with about half a dozen teeth. He had recently sold his boat and moved back to land because he had a herniated disk and needed physical therapy. Although Freddie and Mike had mentioned Jim Morgan as the person who lived on the Palace and had the parties, Gary said more about him.
“I was coming back one night from Pepper Park in my dinghy with supplies. It can get real choppy because of how the wind blows across the strand, and that night it had started to blow hard. Anyway, my boat got swamped. I was wearing a bright yellow slicker and I tried to swim, but I was being dragged down and I started going under and I was shouting. Jim Morgan came out of his aerie, and he saw my yellow slicker and threw me a rope. I would have died except for him.”
He talked some more about this, his gratitude and what he owed Morgan, then he switched to what he didn’t like about the A-8. “The Harbor Police come out and harass us about all kinds of stuff because they see us living out here for free. They don’t like it because they’re living in a little house they’ll never own and they got a car and all these bills and all this stuff and they look at us and, well, it doesn’t sit right with them.”
This was another sort of remark I often heard — that by living on the hook these people had given up being solid citizens and that people on shore responded to them with a mixture of envy and distrust, as if somehow people living on boats weren’t playing by the rules and so they had lost the rights that went with respectability and a so-called normal life.
But this response wasn’t limited to the people of the A-8. James Spring told me that live-aboards docked in marinas ran into the same suspicion and that a few marinas didn’t want them, while the marinas that allowed live-aboards made them pay an extra $125 for their slips. The general attitude seemed to be that live-aboards lacked stable lives — no house mortgage or property or the usual bills — and as a consequence were socially undesirable no matter how much money they had.
“I lived in Mexico for four and a half years in an expatriate community,” said James. “These people who live on boats, it’s the same thing — an expatriate community. Actually, you’d think the marinas would want them — they provide extra security. And you always know where they are at night because they’re blowing blue screens.” James noticed my confused expression. “You know, TV.”