I was up north for 26 years. I came back to San Diego by invitation from an ex-wife. Two of my grown sons were in town, and my partnership in a newspaper in the Comstock hadn’t broken even for two years — and it didn’t look like it ever would.
So I just piled my junk in my little Chevy S-10 and blew down highway 395 ahead of a snowstorm. I left a wife and son behind, but they had been living with someone else for years.
It was okay with the ex for a while, but I sure as hell didn’t fit in at Radio Shack, and my ex and I were fighting over the same old shit. Finally she offered me gas money to go back to Nevada. I took the money and went back, but I had burned too many bridges and didn’t really feel comfortable there anymore. I ended up back in Pacific Beach, but this time on the street.
The first night was weird. I parked by the ocean near Law Street and slept sitting up in plain view. Later, I put a piece of plywood behind the seat, and I could lie down as long as I didn’t try to stretch out.
I’d move the truck in the morning and in the evening. I like to read. I read a lot. I walked on the beach and hung out at the library.
I was depressed. I had tried many jobs. I had worked as a biological technician, a carpenter, restaurant manager, plumber, electrician, maintenance manager, photographer, reporter, page layout, etc. I was getting too old for construction work. Three marriages in shambles (one twice!). I thought, To hell with it, I’m just going to do nothing until I can figure out what I’m doing wrong.
I began to meet some of the characters that live between the lines of life in Pacific Beach.
I got in a bind when I left my headlights on in the truck one morning and ran the battery down. I didn’t know anyone to ask for a jump. It took me three days to get up the nerve to ask for help. That’s how I met “J.” He’d been living in vehicles for years. He’d get one vehicle fixed up beautifully and then get another idea, sell it, and start on a different one. He was a great mechanic and an all-around genius at fixing stuff. Very slow, meticulous, and thorough. “J” worked for a property management company. He had spent three years in a monastery and was physically fit and into meditation.
He had some great books that he shared with me and a collection of recordings of everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Thich Na Han.
I got used to cold showers and public restrooms. Finally, he introduced me to his brother, who had a remodeling company. “K” was a big dude. He hired me just when my truck was dead in the water on El Carmel, so he picked me up for work for the first couple of weeks until I got the truck fixed. He is a good craftsman and a big-hearted soul. He attracted some really great customers, most of which he had done jobs for again and again over the years. The workplace was very mellow.
I worked with him off and on for three years. I was still living in my truck but now with money in my pocket. I might have afforded a room somewhere, but I had no credit and no references and I was actually enjoying myself.
I finally saved up some money and bought a van. The S-10 was suffering from neglect and severe corrosion from life at the beach. I gave it to one of the Mexican-American guys on the crew. He was an American citizen, but his wife had been busted as an illegal, so they had to live in Tijuana with their three kids.
I took all the back seats out of the van and bought a custom mattress, put in some blackout curtains, and I was in heaven — so much room to stretch out.
I started attracting drama. I managed to hook up with three severely alcoholic women in a row. Not binge drinkers — these ladies drank from morning until night. I had never seen anything like it. I spent days and days in emergency rooms and hospital rooms. I saw how sick they became and thought they would want to get well. I had no idea what I was dealing with.
There were those romantic moments, such as when I was driving on Mission Boulevard and got kicked in the head. Or a different woman who liked to flash other drivers and pedestrians and scream obscenities out the window. I’m just trying to show you I wasn’t making great choices.
Every woman that I met on the street, and got to know somewhat, had been molested or raped at a young age (one by her father). Most of them were in and out of jail on a regular basis. Tickets for illegal lodging (sleeping on the street) or public intoxication, followed by “failure to appear” (as if they could remember what day it was, let alone figure out how to get downtown to the courthouse). So most were continuously sought by the police, and all of them knew the local cops by name.
When I wasn’t working with “J” or “K,” I made some money playing guitar and singing on the street and driving people around for gas money. To play on the street in P.B. you need a permit. To get a permit you have to go to the Park and Recreation Department in Balboa Park on the first Saturday of the month. I never got one. Most of the cops ignored us (I usually played with one or two other musicians). But one cop pulled up one night and screamed, “The next time I see you down here, I’m taking that guitar.” That kind of took the fun out of it for me. (The money wasn’t much to start with.)