Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Hamilton Eats Free in the Gaslamp
Life in the Gaslamp? It’s a Damon Runyan play.
Midnight, Monday night: This is the time when you start hearing the clacking of cans being crushed, smelling drifts of marijuana smoke, hearing guys on side streets yelling out their own rap, and watching the Russian girls as they coast around on their pedicabs, hoping their blonde glamor will pull in one last customer on this cold spring night.
Bouncers exchange guffaws over the night’s doofers, and up on Fifth and Broadway, a fight breaks out between a group of white boys and a couple of black guys. "Hey! Waddaya think now, huh?!" yells one of the white guys, except he adds that word, as one of the black guys races into a check-cashing place for safety, and they run off whooping with their molls across Broadway before the bicycle cops arrive. The fracas even gets those shadows in doorways, the homeless, settled in for the night, sitting up and moving nervously.
On Saturday, it was the rain. As people were coming out from eateries, the skies opened up. Couples skittered along, laughing, shivering, yelling things like “Don! Where’s Don?” “He’s gone to get the car.” “What? We can’t wait out here! Don!”
This guy Leaf Smith isn't put off by the rain. He strides up and down I Street and Fifth with his big arrow sign advertising “Gaslamp Pizza by the Slice.” Then he stands in the rain, wowing ladies who are lining up to get into Stingaree, the nightclub. “You need a slice ladies! He says. “You’ll pay ten times as much inside there!”
We get talking, and when I ask, he leads me, like a dripping Pied Piper, up to the Gaslamp Pizza (505 Fifth Avenue, 619-231-7542).
I’ve eaten here before. Pizzas are good, and they do two slices and a soda for $6. But you really know it’s hot when a bunch of the Russian girls haul their pedicabs up and head in out of the rain. “This is a bit like Vladivostok,” says one of the girls, “but the pizza is way better.”
Leaf stands shivering outside. “Might have to quit in this,” he says.
“Yes, yes,” says Hadir (“Call me Eddy”), one of the Chaldean owners. “Good job.”
Leaf looks relieved. We’re still out in the rain. The Russian girls have filled the sheltered part. “I’m a musician,” he says. “I play Christian rock. My grandma knew Buffalo Bob Smith. Buffalo Bob Smith? He was Mr. Howdy Doody.”
“Howdy Doody?” he says to the Russian girls.
"Hi," says one of them.
A couple of blocks up, Hamilton DePass doesn’t need to buy no pizza. People come up to him and give him the polystyrene boxes filled with leftovers that they’ve taken with them from the restaurant.
Hamilton is an ex-Marine. He has a huge Stars and Stripes flag he drapes around lamp posts, and dances in front of. He has red pants, bare, tattooed torso – even in these brrr-cold temps - a kind of desert headgear, a neck brace to protect his damaged C-1 vertibra, and a CD player that he cranks right up.
And then he leaps into action, waving a bunch of smaller flags. Intense, tight, like he’s in close combat, fighting, one against a hundred, battling the Invisible Force right there on the street. As a dance, it's pretty compelling. On his loaded walker wheeler, he’s got a gallon plastic bottle of OJ, another of some red liquid, a pretend California license plate that reads “I’m Not a Happy Camper,” and a Snoopy Dog who holds a white plastic pot that says “Disabled Vet. No Income. Please Help. God Bless.”
“I was in the Marine Corps four years. Tail end of Vietnam,” he says, when the recording ends. “After that I was bad. Numchucks, you name it. You wouldn’t have wanted to meet me. Now I have found Jesus. I dance here and at the beaches, everywhere. Shower three times a day after these workouts. I never buy food. People give it to me. Uh, excuse me a moment.”
And he opens a square polystyrene box with noodles and meat. He puts his hands together in prayer, and starts. “Jesus, thank you for giving me this…”
“Sir, sir. You’re going to have to move on.”
It’s not the police. It’s the door guys from Analog, an eatery (“Good Food, Strong Drinks”) right on the corner where he’s dancing.
“Hey man, this is the street, public property,” says Hamilton. You can see from his rippling muscles he could crush these guys. But he folds his flag and moves on.
That was Saturday. Now tonight, Monday, here he is again, this time at Fifth and E. And right on cue, some guy comes out from a restaurant, heads to the middle of the road where Hamilton's dancing, and hands him a loaded polystyrene box. It's got chicken wings, pieces of pizza, and potato buds inside.
"I tell you man, people are good," he says. "This whole town -it's all good."