We heard him screaming even before he broke out of the underbrush, crashing through the giant reeds on either side of the narrow path. The sun had just set, and the riverbed area was no place to be after dark.
“Get outta here! Get outta here!”
Then he was upon us: big and burly in ragged jeans and an orange T-shirt, a thick black beard and a short prison haircut, a scarred face that had either seen a lot of fights or had passed through a windshield. He rushed toward my friend, Rex, raising a rusted paint can like a grenade, stopping about two feet away. I was six feet behind.
“You come back here again I’m going to take your fuckin’ life, dude! Get outta here or I’m going to kill you!”
We made placating noises and backed away as he kept screaming and waving his fist. It seemed at any moment he would charge. As far as I could see we had done nothing to upset him and so his actions appeared entirely irrational, which meant we couldn’t anticipate what he might do next. Then the man abruptly turned and stomped back into the underbrush, still shouting. With some haste we returned to the Morena Boulevard bridge over the San Diego River and climbed up through the rocks, mud and plant life to Hotel Circle North and Rex’s yellow Ford Mustang.
Fifteen minutes earlier the man had been friendly, moderately. Our last exchange had been when he had told me to buy him a sandwich, bring it back and leave it on the trail so he could find it later, then we had heard him storming through the brush shouting to himself.
This was the Mission Valley Preserve, about ten acres along the San Diego River bordered by the Sefton Park Little League field in the east to Interstate 5 in the west, then from Friars Road in the north to Interstate 8 in the south. The Coaster, trolley and Morena Boulevard bridges cross overhead, as well as the two interstate bridges. The preserve is packed with vegetation — a variety of giant reed called Arundo donax (often confused with bamboo), swamp grass, bulrushes, cattails, young willows, Mexican elderberry, coast live oaks and cottonwood trees, palms, castor bean, Brazilian pepper trees, salt cedar, fennel, ice plant and much more, so much in fact that at times you can only see two feet ahead. In addition, there is a network of crisscrossing paths as complicated as the cracks on a Chinese porcelain vase.
We had first seen our murderous friend scrounging through a mound of debris from a recently abandoned camp looking for bedding. Already he had found a purple sheet, a gray blanket and a piece of foam rubber. The camp was on the ruins of another camp that seemed to be on the ruins of still another so that the bottom layer — cardboard, newspapers, mattresses and old clothes was slowly turning back to compost.
“Caltrans took my stuff and sleeping bag,” he told us. “I’ve only been away two hours. I don’t live here or nothing. I’ve only been here a couple of days. I’m just passing through.” Even then he was excitable and he kept mumbling to himself between the sentences he threw in our direction. “You got to talk about Caltrans taking the possessions of homeless people and throwing it out as junk. I got to get me up in Orange County on Tuesday and see my father. It’ll be my birthday [February 6th]. I’ll be 38.” Then he ripped a blanket off a branch, which had served someone as a wall, and headed down the trail. When he walked, he lifted his boots high, as if he were marching.
When Rex and I had met him for that last time, we had been looking for a naked man, or nearly naked, who we had come upon a little earlier walking gingerly through the Arundo donax. It seems that one often has peculiar encounters in the riverbed area. This naked man had been wearing only a jockstrap with a leopard skin pattern — a tall, blond man in his 30s, with bright blue eyes. He was carrying a folded pile of clothes. The word “startled” does not quite express exactly how startled we felt.
“Hey,” Rex had said.
The man turned right, broke through the brush and disappeared. We backed away. Although he had appeared dry, it seemed possible that he might have been bathing in the river — a counterproductive enterprise it would seem given the color of the water. Or he might have been returning from an assignation. Earlier still Rex and I had stumbled upon a homeless couple in a small tent wrapped in an embrace. Or the man might simply have been a nature lover, but the path was muddy, full of sharp sticks and the Arundo was prickly.
We had continued down the path discussing the oddity of the leopard skin jockstrap. Then, turning another corner, we came upon the man once again walking toward us. This second appearance was so unexpected that my first thought was that this was the other man’s twin brother. However, the leopard skin jockstrap was a tip-off. Without pausing to chat, he once more leapt into the undergrowth.
“Hey,” said Rex, “it’s okay.” But the man was no more than a distant crackling.
Again we had made our way through the Arundo and shortly we met our murderous friend gathering blankets.
“Did you just see a naked man?” Rex had asked.
In retrospect this was probably the wrong thing to say.
“I’m not scared of any fuckin’ naked man,” our friend had said.
We chitchatted a bit as already described and passed on. A minute later Rex had found a worn black wallet lying in the path. Inside was a driver’s license, a speeding ticket, three check-cashing cards and miscellaneous documents, two fifty-dollar bills and some other smaller bills. The picture on the license showed a blond, blue-eyed man in his 30s who vaguely resembled the man on the path, but lacked his deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression. His name was Robert. So we had bushwhacked back our way into the undergrowth and maze of paths to look for the naked man — hoping he had put on a few clothes — and to see if he was Robert. In the next ten minutes we found four hidden camps and had heard the shouting of our murderous friend, but we saw no blond, blue-eyed man, naked or dressed.