Miranda Mears is sitting on the sea wall at the end of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. Waves crash behind her. The dreary sky covers everything in a blanket of gray. A white hoodie covers Mears’s cropped pink hair. Underneath it she wears a colorful triangle bikini top and a blue button-down tied in a knot at her ribcage. Her skirt hits just below the knee exposing sores on her shins that travel down her leg to her black socks and gym shoes. Mears tunes her guitar while peering down at her belongings that spill out onto the sidewalk below her. At Mears’s right, a couple does yoga on the grass while an older gentleman sits in a lawn chair reading a magazine. He has a sign at his knees that reads: “SKEPTIC.” Underneath the slogan is listed all the things he does not believe in; “UFOs, Pro-Wrestling, Werewolves, Acupuncture, Leprechauns, Spoon Bending, Aromatherapy,” and more.
Behind Miranda a toddler chases seagulls that squawk and circle around a disheveled sun-kissed man who is throwing chunks of bread in their direction. The toddler shrieks in delight each time she causes the birds to flee. Two young guys sit on the wall watching the surfers, laughing when a longboarder wipes out. A couple of tourists take selfies. A guy in worn-in corduroys and a ratty T-shirt sits with two large shepherds at his feet, ropes around their necks. One dog is black, the other white. He is rocking back and forth to stay warm. The young man buries his feet into the fur of the black dog. Meanwhile, a little girl, four or five, with wild curly hair, stares at Miranda as she tunes her guitar. The girl tugs at her mother’s arm. She wants to get closer in order to hear the music. Her feet tap when Mears belts out the Janis Joplin version of “Piece of My Heart.” The mother scrunches up her nose, seemingly disgusted. She leads her daughter away, toward the pier, far from Mears. She is oblivious to the snub. She is engrossed in her music.
Mears, 33, moved to San Diego from New Orleans.
“I wanted to play music for people who were a little bit more sober. You know, less drunk and messed up,” she says with a cackle while tugging at the choker around her neck. Her voice is scratchy with a slight Southern twang.
“When I got here, I was told this was the beach to check out. I heard some of the beaches are bad — like Imperial. I don’t know,” she says with a shrug, “this whole beach life is weird. Ocean beach is artsy. That’s a big reason I’m here. I didn’t fit in on the East Coast. I fit in here.”
Mears came to this conclusion over the past few weeks. She has been in town since September 8th. Her husband left New Orleans first. He flew out last February and took a job as a mortician at a funeral parlor in Chula Vista. Apart from New Orleans, Mears has lived in Atlanta, Houston, Long Island, and Pensacola.
“My husband doesn’t have his own place yet. He doesn’t even have his own car. With the money he makes, it’s ridiculous!” Mears says, her voice heavy with disappointment. “He has a drug problem. I got here and I found that out. He is into meth and he is running around with these little gay bitches and they piss me off. He’s a gay guy. We married for convenience. He is a Republican and he doesn’t want people thinking he is gay. I married him because I knew he’d always have a job. It don’t matter. California law says if I’m married for two years I can divorce him and get half of his checks for the rest of my life, so I’m going to do that.” She laughs hard about this while adjusting her guitar strap on her shoulder and smoothing out the Hodad’s sticker affixed below the strings.
So far, Mears says that her biggest struggle is loneliness and figuring out where she is going to sleep each night.
“Mostly I sleep in hotels, or I’ll go to my husband’s mortuary. I don’t really like being there, though; it creeps me out. He rips dead people apart and puts them back together. Like, if they got into an accident and their nose got ripped off, he makes them a new one.”
Most of the hotels she stays in are on Hotel Circle.
“I haven’t had to sleep on the beach yet. I don’t worry because I know that my husband is going to make something happen. My husband feeds me. He will come pick me up down here when he is out doing a body run and get me some food.”
Mears ran into an issue last week when she lost contact with her husband. She sought assistance from a guy in Ocean Beach who hangs out on the boardwalk.
“I didn’t really know him. He helped me get a hotel room because I hadn’t heard from my husband because he ran off on a bender. I fell asleep [in the hotel room] and when I woke up and he was taking my pants off I kicked him as hard as I could and he flew off the bed. And he said, ‘You told me it was okay,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not!’ It still messes with me. I know I didn’t get raped but just the thought that that’s what he was trying to do. I mean, how many girls has he done this to already? I have seen him in O.B. since then. I am mean every time I see him. I say, ‘How much money you got on you? Give me some money!’ He is a predator. I told him, ‘I am going to take your picture and put it on a flier that says “the bedtime rapist.”’”
When asked if she plans on getting a job so she won’t need to rely on her husband. Mears responds,“I am doing this,” she points to her guitar, “I just need to get a box for tips. I really want a little box,” she repeats.
Beach bum fantasy
As for her future plans, Mears says,“I dare not dream of that because I don’t like hope. It’s the worst drug out there.” She shrugs before adding, “This right here, the guitar, this is my drug of choice. I have been playing for 17 years. In five years I’d like to be playing in the streets in Europe.”
Mears’s family in New Orleans and Georgia knows where she is, but she doesn’t keep in close contact with them. “I don’t have a good family. If I came from a good family do you think I would be out here doing this like I am doing?” she asks, sadness sweeping across her face.
Further down, parked in the beach lot north of the Ocean Beach Pier, sits a rainbow van. It is painted in vivid swirls and covered in glitter. A large sign tucked under its windshield wipers announces: “Out of gas.”
A petite, pretty young woman sporting a greasy pixie-cut and a delicate nose ring smokes a cigarette next to a man who, despite his beard, has a baby face. He wears a green T-shirt and baggy pants. He has a white, toothy smile.
The rainbow van, parked just north of the Ocean Beach Pier.
They prefer not to disclose their names so I call her Megan and him Tom. They live in the van parked just a few feet from where they sit.
Megan is 24 but could pass for a teenager.
“I grew up down here. I went to Point Loma High School,” she says with a nostalgic smile. “I never wanted to live indoors. I saw people living like this since I was a little kid. I always wanted to be a street performer or a street vendor. I never wanted to go to college. When I was 17, I got my backpack and I went to Hawaii and I started walking and that was it. I never wanted to stop. I had a job for a little bit. I went to school for a little bit. I don’t know,” she shrugs. “This is a way better life, to be honest. I don’t like living inside. I don’t need it. It’s a lot of work for nothing, and it ties me down to a certain spot.”
Tom nods his head and adds, “Living like this, in our van, we get to go all across the country, from park to park to park.”
They met a couple of years ago. When asked how they were introduced, the pair laugh uncomfortably.
“Ahh...,“ Megan stammers while looking at Tom, “he was a traveler on the wall.”
Tom interrupts and points behind him, “I was living in that bush, or I mean, I guess it’s a tree, right over there.”
A group of young men in their late teens to early 20s walk past. They all wear big backpacks and black T-shirts or black pants. A few carry sleeping bags. One holds the leash to a black Labrador puppy. The dog jumps up on Tom, wagging its tail. Tom leans down to scratch the pup’s belly. The group exchanges greetings with the couple. I ask Megan if she is familiar with most of the homeless people that hang out on the wall.
Her friendly face turns dark. She frowns and snaps, “I am not comfortable talking about that.”
Tom interrupts with a hesitant smile, “Yeah, well, we aren’t really a part of that [community].”
Adds Megan, “I don’t want to say things that would endanger people who live here. We don’t really associate too much with them, but I still care.”
Tom explains further, “The thing is, we can’t go talking about stuff. We live on the road, but when we are here, we are here.”
Megan nods, “And I know what it’s like for people who do live here, and I don’t want to put them in danger.”
Before she is able to explain further, Megan is interrupted by a baby’s cry. She crosses the sidewalk to step inside the van. She emerges a few moments later carrying an adorable toddler on her hip. He has a shock of white blonde hair wet on one side from sweat.
“This is our 20-month-old,” she says, introducing the little boy.
When asked if it is a struggle raising a child in a van, Megan shakes her head, “Not really. It depends on the kind of day. It sucks when it rains, but it’s not really a big deal. We have movies.”
Tom adds, “Define struggle? Because everyone is struggling in a different way. What we are doing is a lot like camping. Bad Religion said it best: ‘Money will take all of your time, but time will take none of your money.’ We struggle with, ‘Crap, we are poor and everyone thinks we suck.’ But we get to spend a lot of quality time together that we would normally have to spend money on to try to create later.”
As for the child’s education, the couple does not have concrete plans just yet.
Tom says, “We are gonna, more likely than not, kind of world-school him and show him what’s out there. If he wants to know what rain forests are in America, we’ll go check out the rain forests.”
Adds Megan, “I would have benefited from learning outside the classroom.”
When asked how they would feel if their son grew up to be part of corporate America, they laugh.
Tom says with a wide smile, “As long as he is happy and not hurting anyone, then God bless him. I mean, that’s not my style, but God bless.”
“That would be funny,” adds Megan.
Megan still has family in Ocean Beach. Her dad lives down the road. Tom’s family is back in New York.
“My dad is coming to see me later today. For the most part he is cool with our lifestyle. I mean [my family] would rather see me doing something else.”
The pair has no plans to settle down into an apartment or house. In San Diego they make money selling leather bracelets — accepting donations, technically — out of their van and performing odd jobs around town.
“We do Patriot Hire. I was in the Marines, so it’s like Craigslist for work.”
Explains Megan, “All around San Diego there are usually different odd jobs going on. Patriot Hire is like Craigslist but for a smaller [audience]; there are not thousands of people applying at one time so you can call and get a job pretty easily.”
Tom: “In the summer we go up to Washington and I fish for the Northern Pike Minnow Association up there. We really aren’t apartment people. We like to switch up the view. We will go park over there for a little bit,” he points toward Dog Beach, “and then we’ll go to like Balboa Park or Washington.”
They plan on sticking around in Ocean Beach for only a few months.
Explains Megan, “In the wintertime we hang out in Southern California because it’s warm, but we are going to leave as soon as it gets warmer.”
“We like it here in O.B.,” says Tom. “The cliffs are kind of a magical place.”
Megan agrees, “It’s a social place. There aren’t many towns where you can go out and talk to anybody.”
Tom: “Everyone is here to smile. Every other town we go to, people just kind of look at us. Here, people come over to the van and say, ‘I really like your van, I like color, I like art.’”
Tom and Megan agree that the hardest obstacle they face is the reactions from the outside world.
Tom says, “We get odd stares and people get mad about how we live, but look at all this glitter and color and sandcastles and our baby! You know addiction and living outdoors are not synonymous. You get one shot at life. You gamble either way. Do you want to spend and retire with it, or do you want to live it and hope for the best?”
When asked what they would do if they came into some money, Megan says, “We would give away a lot of vans.”
Tom laughs hard before adding in agreement, “We would! We would give away a shitload of vans!”
Less than a block away, Scott Cronce uses a bodyboard as a cushion. He is sitting on the curb between the beach parking lot and the sidewalk at the end of Newport Avenue. He is unshaven, dirty, and smells of salt water and sand. All of his belongings are with him — a big black suitcase filled with art work and notebooks, a backpack containing personal belongings, and two off-brand bodyboards. At his knees is a stack of sketches drawn in ink on notebook paper with frayed edges. He hands them out in exchange for change. He wears a hat, dirty cut-off denim shorts that hit below the knee, and an oversized stretched-out tourist T-shirt from Key West.
“When people think ‘beach bum,’ they think of the fantasy of coming out here and living on the beach. They think that it is something that is carefree. It is not,” Cronce says.
He has been in Ocean Beach since Sunday — five days. He arrived via Greyhound from Key West. He is originally from Michigan.
“I was fortunate enough to get a bus ticket from a charity. In Key West they will give you a onetime ticket out of Key West if they can talk to someone on the other end. I called the Sacred Heart Church because I have visited there when I lived here before.” The church vouched for Cronce.
Before Key West, Cronce lived in San Francisco. He grew up in Michigan near Flint. After a couple of years of college, he got a job in Detroit in advertising for an alternative weekly magazine.
“I was my high school class president. My freshman year in college, I was again elected class president, but I lost that title after they found a couple of beers in my hamper. I left Detroit after becoming very successful. I was far from okay. I just dropped everything. I decided to give it up in Detroit because I was burning my candle on both ends. I had totally exhausted myself. I wasn’t comfortable with where I was socially. I wasn’t secure enough to come out of the closet. I was being deceptive.”
He took off to San Francisco and lived on the streets.
“I left on a Greyhound bus. I remember being at a grocery store and scrubbing a bathroom floor for a sandwich. That began my traveling free-flow.”
In his late 20s he began living an openly gay lifestyle. He moved around and lived in places from San Francisco to Florida. His family still lives in Michigan. His dad is a retired GM worker and Vietnam vet, and his brother is a mechanic. He keeps in touch with his mom but not his dad or brother. In Michigan, Cronce says, he ran into issues due to road conditions and missed a few days of work. Because of that he lost his job. He took off to Key West.
“In Key West, because it’s warm, I knew I could be all right no matter what happened, whether I found a job or not.”
Cronce found a job in construction. Since he was homeless he carried a couple of bags with him. His boss didn’t approve, so he was soon fired. “After that, I got a job working at a homeless shelter. I had my schedule and I looked at it so many times and I thought I had it right. I showed up to work on the wrong day and so unfortunately they had to let me go,” Cronce says with a sigh.
Without a job, he took up bodyboarding.
“The water in Florida is flat so I decided to come out here to San Diego so I could focus on boogie-boarding in bigger waves and re-enter the community out here,” he says.
Cronce says he isn’t looking for a job just yet, although the owner of a Greek restaurant in Ocean Beach told him to stop in next week for a possible dishwashing position. For the moment, Cronce wants to focus on bodyboarding and creating art. He would also like to find a stable place to sleep.
“Last night I slept in the back of the OB One Church on their fire escape. I would prefer not to sleep outside. I am someone who doesn’t expect, impose, or assume. If someone has a shed with a cot in it for me, that would be so sweet. I haven’t had the opportunity to sleep inside yet. When I lived here before, I did have the opportunity to be in a shelter downtown.
“People are very generous here. People give me change in exchange for my sketches. Some of the local business owners here are very kind. If I go to a business and I say, ‘Do you have any mistakes?’ They will sometimes give them to me. There is a Chinese place on Newport that gives out soup sometimes.”
The second night Cronce was in Ocean Beach, he slept in the doorway of Sunset Cliffs Akido on Santa Monica Avenue.
“The man inside was kind enough to say, ‘This is a business,’ instead of having the horrible reaction of calling the police because I was sleeping on his doorstep. Instead, he said, ‘Just go over there.’ That was very kind of him.”
Cronce is aware that the homeless population is not favorably looked upon by everyone in Ocean Beach.“I think the climate and the mentality of the condemned changes. When it comes to homeless people, everyone has their own opinion. There are movements and trends and fads, like, ‘Don’t feed the bums in O.B.’ sort of thing. I think it’s compassionate not to hate people that are going through hard times. It says in the Bible, ‘The creator of the universe watches over you. The Father listens....’ People are mean often. I was walking down the street and a woman yelled, ‘Kill yourself!’ to me. I am a well person, so it didn’t affect me… but somebody else? That could’ve ruined them! I don’t care, but other [homeless] people have a very hard time here.... It is definitely scary living out here. There are dangerous people. I am not a weakling, so I don’t worry too much. I’ve had a man pull a knife on me, but he was in a wheelchair so it wasn’t too bad. I had a fight here in Ocean Beach. A guy ran off with one of my notebooks. I don’t know why. I went after him and he hit me once. I hit him and threw him down on the ground and got my notebook back. I have to deal with a lot of people down here that aren’t competent and that aren’t sane.”
As for Cronce’s future, he says, “I have a six-month plan to stay in San Diego. I will fulfill that goal. I have a detailed list of things to get done: housing, vocation, getting out into the ocean and boogie-boarding in the mornings, a couple of hours of internet time at the library, and Facebook, and do some reading. I have to get a guitar. I need a hand drum. I need these things. I would like to have somewhere to keep this [suitcase]. It’s filled with my notebooks and sketches. I really don’t want to lose it because this is my life’s work.”
When asked if he pictured his life unfolding the way it has, Cronce says, “I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised to see me now. I think my teenage self would be happy for me. I have come so far in the ways of enlightenment and self-discovery. When I was young I was living in the closet. I have a lot of bad memories, but of course I have put them away to be here now.”
What will he do when his six-month San Diego stint is up? “I might want to go back to Hollywood and instead of showing my art on the street, maybe I will do some auditioning. In five years I will be living in my mansion,” he says confidently.
Jorge is no longer allowed on the wall
Jorge, who would rather not disclose his last name, is sitting on a blanket in the grass near the bathrooms off of Saratoga Avenue. He is accompanied by a man so lanky that his T-shirt and shorts fit like sacks around his ultra-thin torso and limbs, and a woman with a cropped haircut and yellowing teeth. She threatens me with bodily harm if I take her picture before disappearing into a white camper nearby.
Jorge is on the grass because he is no longer allowed on the wall.
“I fell asleep there, so I have a stay-away order, same with a bench a few blocks over. I slept there so I am not allowed over there anymore,” he says with a shrug. He adds, “I have slept on the beach before but they give you tickets and shit for that. I have been taken to jail for doing that.”
Jorge is 38, but he looks years younger. He wears khaki skate pants, slip-on Vans, and a hoodie. From behind he could pass for an 18-year-old, but his face holds deep creases and smile lines.
“I have been living this way for about four years now,” he says. “I just gave up on working for the system. I had a job with a sheet-metal company. I was a project coordinator, doing fucking okay, but I didn’t like building for the military, so I got out of that. I got a few shitty jobs afterward just to maintain and have a house and all that shit, but I don’t like that. I don’t care. I would rather live like this. I have trust, you know, in everything, in a higher energy. I manifest my own shit. Like yesterday, I wanted cigarettes and found a pack of American Spirits on the ground.”
When asked what a typical day for him is, Jorge says that no day is typical in Ocean Beach.
“I wake up and smoke some weed. I never sleep in the same place. Every day I sleep somewhere new. All I have is a little backpack with another pair of jeans, another T-shirt, and a towel. I think I lost my towel today, but whatever,” he says with a wide smile.
We are interrupted by a big guy wearing an American flag hat.
“God bless you,” he shouts to everyone he sees. When he gets closer he smiles at Jorge.
“God bless you, Jorge. Jesus loves you.”
‘Thanks, man,” Jorge says nodding.
Jorge says he knows most of the regulars in town.
“A lot of [the homeless] know each other down here. There is a community. There are different groups and they all clique up. There are crazy people down here. Ocean Beach is like a magnet for them. But, I have met some really enlightened individuals here. I feel like, living here, you get cultured because everyone comes to visit here from everywhere; you get to experience their culture. You see all those fucking yoga people, the artist, and the wire wrappers, and the stone collectors...I know all those people.”
When I ask Jorge how he makes money, he scrunches up his face and is silent for a moment before answering vaguely, “Different ways. I have an EBT card I use for food.”
Jorge’s family lives in the Chula Vista area. He visits with them every couple of weeks.
“They worry about me a little. The last time I saw my mom, she told me, ‘I get it. You’re happy, and you do good out there helping people, but just do me a favor and step your game up a little bit. Make a little bit of effort to make some money.’” He shrugs before adding, “I will never go back to having a regular job. I think I will probably have an apartment or a house again at some point. I might move to Oregon. With Oregon going recreational, the new marijuana laws, I think I will probably live up there. I just want to make enough money to put a down payment on some land off the grid and grow my own pot and food and shit like that.”
Although Jorge chose his lifestyle, it wasn’t the path he expected to take.
“I went to Monte Vista High School. I grew up in City Heights and we moved to Spring Valley when I was in high school. My teachers were really upset that I wasn’t going to go to college. I was really smart. I took calculus and bio-chemistry when I should’ve taken art classes. I have always wanted to be at peace. Peace with myself, and hopefully, show people how to find their own little bit of that. I’m kind of a tripper.”
Jorge is in no rush to leave Ocean Beach. When I ask him what the hardest part of being homeless is, he appears offended and says, “I don’t feel like I am homeless. Home is where the heart is. I think I am a little different from most people that stay outside. I am free.”