Detail from Santiago's Del Mar Gnome in an English Forest. "That's him," says Tresha Souza.
Santiago, La Jolla’s Darger of the Hedgerows, lives most of his life in a sanctuary he carved for himself amid the dense trees and underbrush separating a kindly Frenchwoman’s home from the busy street on which she lives. (He stores his belongings in her garage.) His bag, his weightlifter’s belt, his can-grabber, and his coat-hanger hang from the branches, through which he can watch the sun set into the Pacific as he sits and sips his beer. He likes to listen to the birds; other sounds — including the human variety — are less welcome. “The women always torture me with their noise,” he says.
His sister lives alone in a big house on Ellentown Road, just up the coast. He used to live with her, but he got into an argument with her husband, whom she has since divorced. “She threw a piece of wood at me and he threatened me with his nunchucks,” recalls Santiago. “So I said, ‘I’ll take this machete and chop you up.’ They took me to court and evicted me! Then they wanted me to come back; they had eight cats and four dogs that needed taking care of. But I was so full of hatred. For eight years, I didn’t talk to them.”
A machete got him in trouble again more recently, though this time, no threats were involved. His friend Tresha Souza — he fell in love with her daughter at the Coogan Family Aquatic Complex on Nautilus, then started volunteering with Tresha’s charity — tells the story:
“I’m watching TV in bed in my pajamas at 7 p.m on a Monday, and my phone rings: ‘Santiago has been arrested at La Jolla High School!’ I get in my car and go down the hill, and there are ten cops and a helicopter, and they’ve closed the street. Santiago is scared to death; they have him handcuffed and they have a dog on him. He’d gotten permission to clear where the bushes had grown over the sidewalk — he doesn’t like that — and he waited until everybody left for the night, when he felt it was safest. But someone saw him hacking away and called the police. The officer was mean; she was accusing him of being on drugs. I said, ‘No, he’s autistic,’ and he said, ‘I’M RETARDED!’ They gave the machete back and he did a fantastic job. I got home and my husband said, ‘You’re in your pajamas.’ I said, ‘I know. And there’s a machete in the back of my car.’...
“People don’t get him,” says Tresha, who has been helping Santiago for the past nine years: through applications for government aid, through housing searches, through court cases, through surgery on a blown-out knee, through attacks by local bullies, and through his own elfin temperamentality. “I get him. He’s a lot of work — he’s demanding, he’s controlling, he calls me constantly — but he’s a good guy. He’s a little soul that needs nurturing. He has nothing, but I’ll go to church and he’ll be there with roses for me.”