He told me his name was Jeff and that he was from Texas. You could call him a sign spinner, but he wasn't, at least not in the traditional sense. What Jeff did with a cardboard sign or a junked surfboard bordered on the theatric. He played air guitar, but not just any air guitar. His was a head-whipping, bone-jarring, vocally retching pantomime of every rock star guitar-god pose you've ever seen. In the words of one of Jeff's employers, he was a sign rocker.
For months, Jeff's street-corner act was the highlight of the rush-hour commute on the Pacific Coast Highway through Oceanside. Dressed in black, with his face painted to match, he reminded me a little of Dead, the dead singer from Mayhem. Mayhem, I would later came to find, was one of Jeff's favorite bands. "My bones," he would howl like Screamin' Jay Hawkins on steroids, "they are dis- in- tah- grating!" Jeff flogged his sign board and shook his bony fist at passing cars, and you got a sense of the caliber of the music that was thundering up those earphone wires and into his skull.
Jeff's path to rocking the sign was accidental. "This guy from Little Caesar's," he said, "he offered me a job." For the first week or two, Jeff was mortified. He just stood on the sidewalk and held the pizza advert. "Then," he said, "I started listening to my music." One thing led to another, his act evolved, and in time he went from street-corner sign holder to minor celebrity.
I asked if he played guitar for real. "Drums," he said. He was in a band once, but he said that he hadn't played in years. "When I lived in Houston, we lived in a Hispanic neighborhood. I hung out with these Spanish dudes, and their mom would go to play bingo. She'd be gone for, like, three hours, and we'd have enough time to set up and play. It was okay, as long as she didn't have to hear it."
Jeff told me that he was homeless. He talked about a girlfriend in Carlsbad that he'd like to "patch things up with" but said that it never worked out. Some nights he crashed in the Oceanside Cemetery because he didn't get jacked as much by police when he slept there as on the beach.
We met at the graveyard late one afternoon. Jeff was still wearing his black face paint. He picked litter off the ground while we walked. He was cautious not to walk on graves. He asked for 20 dollars so he could score some pot.
"The other night, these two tweakers, a black dude and this white chick, they were, like, trying to break into the mausoleum." That's where Jeff spent his nights, on a bed of cardboard at the entrance to the crypt. "They woke me up. I said, 'What are you doin'?' They said, 'We're lookin' for worms.' I told them to get outta there. I said, 'There's nothin' in there but dead people. '"
Jeff worked sometimes for Little Caesar's, and sometimes he sign-rocked for Real Surf across the street. The iPod he used, a Nano, dinky of memory capacity but with kick enough to keep an inveterate metalhead like him satisfied, belonged to Real Surf's owner, Shawn Ambrose. Ambrose let Jeff use the Nano during work hours. He downloaded songs for Jeff on his own home computer. That Jeff had singular taste in music was evident. "You should see some of these sites he has me download from," says Ambrose.
"I started listening to black metal when I was, maybe, 9," Jeff had told me. "I'm 29 now." He said he cut his teeth on old-school bands like Venom. "Now," he said, "I listen to Norwegian black metal, pretty much."
Did Jeff mean death metal?
"No. Black metal's more based on a spiritual belief," he said, "and death metal's more about death. Decapitation. Killin' somebody."
It was during a heat wave in the first week of August that Jeff disappeared. Weeks passed. He was missed. If nothing more, Jeff had become a welcome distraction during the dreaded commute through the grime of the military town in which he camped. But perhaps Jeff, who told me that he was bipolar (more than once), didn't see any profit in being famous. I remember what he told me when I asked him if rocking the sign had made him any new friends. "No," he said. "Not really. It's boring. It's so hard, livin' on the street. People always, like, have attitudes."
Jeff's Top Ten, on Shawn's Nano:
1. Mayhem, "Pure Fucking Armageddon"
2. Amon Amarth, "Where Death Seems to Dwell"
3. Nagaroth, "The Day Burzum Killed Mayhem"
4. Behemoth, "Moonspell Rites"
5. Immortal, "One By One"
6. Dark Funeral, "The Dark Age Has Arrived"
7. Immortal, "In My Kingdom Cold"
8. Behemoth, "Pure Evil and Hate"
9. Behemoth, "Hidden in a Fog"
10. Venom, "Don't Burn the Witch"