Chris Ahrens: The money’s real.
Chris Ahrens and his Encinitas buddies had this crazy idea. “Let’s just give it away. Let’s go out to a crossroads one morning and give cash away to anyone who needs it. No strings! Like, $5, $20, $100. We’ll just reach out to everyday people and say, ‘Let me know what you need.’”
So on a recent Tuesday morning around 7:30, Chris and a bunch of his buddies turn up in the parking lot of Cottonwood Creek Park where North Vulcan Avenue meets Encinitas Boulevard. They gather round a pick-up that’s already bristling with bags of food, snacks, water, gym memberships, and yes actual cash, tacked to cardboard signs that say things like “FREE,” “What do U need?” and “Need a few $$?”
Ready to exercise the generosity gene - (l-r) Steve, Randall, Wade, Dan, Chris, Cameron, Ron.
“We’re not looking for the homeless, but for the hurting,” says Chris. “I think that the middle class is really in great pain right now. I know! Look at me. This is the first time in 40 years I’ve had a bank account, a savings account. Somebody asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I realized I couldn’t think of one thing I needed. And I said, ‘Wow. I really have more than I need.’ And me and my buddies here all kind of feel that way. So we said, ‘Let’s share our spare cash.’ And what better way than to go out and just give, from, like, a freeway offramp?’ I have written ten books. I can get so isolated, and it’s not just me. I think that everybody’s just so out for themselves. We’re trying to counter that.”
So here they meet, on a dewy, sparklingly cold Tuesday morning. It’s certainly an eclectic group. One guy was in the US rugby team. Another, Cameron, an Australian, was a professional Aussie Rules footballer. Steve’s an airline pilot, Wade’s a famous painter. On and on.
The group, it turns out, is also, you might say, casually Christian. They’re not out to sell it, and they won’t use the money to rope in more converts. But Cameron does say a prayer before they move out.
Steve the pilot admits that yes, he’s a little nervous at the prospect of walking up to perfect strangers in their cars and waving dollar bills at them. “I have never done anything like this before. I think they’re going to be a little suspicious,” he says. “Most people offering you something want something in return. I mean, I did carwash money-raising in high school, but that was institutionalized, kinda respectable. Here, we’re adults approaching strangers in their cars on a street corner. You never know how they are going to react. There could be some haters out there, too.”
We walk to the crossroads of Encinitas Boulevard and Highway 101. Already the morning commute is starting. The guys go to work at the corners and hold up their signs. Cameron leads the way in actually approaching cars as they wait for the green light. But most drivers just look away.
Garrison’s slide-out “kitchen,” and “bedroom,” in back of his van.
The other problem is that at this corner, every second vehicle seems to be a Beemer, an Audi, a Cadillac Escalade. Big cars, one person per, in a hurry, and worst of all, definitely not in need of a few dollars more. “Do I look like I need a couple of bucks!?” says one angry 40-ish exec type.“You’d be surprised how many don’t look like they need help, but actually do,” says Chris. The guy rolls up his window and pulls a rocket-assisted take-off.
“Go figure,” says Chris. “You can’t give it away!”
Chris and Cameron realize this crossroads ain’t gonna deliver. “Moonlight Beach!” Cameron shouts to the rest of the crew. “There’s a good parking lot there.”
So, like a ragged scout group, we all make our way down the steep slope of B Street, then puff our way up to the parking lot that overlooks Moonlight Beach.
Tamara and Tylee, 9, at entrance to their Magic Bus.
“I heard you guys got the knock last night.”
This is Garrison. Living in his van. He’s talking to Tamara and her 9-year-old daughter Tylee, who are parked next door in their “Magic Bus.”
Last night was the cops knocking. Scary. But now, it’s Chris, with cash, donuts, and conversation.
“They asked if we needed anything,” says Garrison, after. “They offered donuts, and money! Which is an interesting experience. It’s a little bit uncomfortable. But it’s assistance. And it’s energy. That’s what money is, energy. And they were generous!”
“And we’re so happy because now my mom can get donuts so she can invite someone like Garrison,” says the precocious Tylee.
“Everyone needs a hand up these days,” says Garrison. “But it’s rare to be in a place where you feel comfortable accepting assistance.”
Garrison is a yoga teacher from LA. “I’ve taught yoga and served tables for years. And then back in March, I lost all of my work. Yoga studio shut down, restaurant shut down. It didn’t make any sense to stay in Los Angeles, paying rent. So this car has been home now for 4-1/2 months. I’ve adopted it. Uncomfortable, but honestly this has been one of the most refreshing experiences of my life.”
He says he’s lucky to have unemployment, $450 a week. “The only reason I can survive off that is because I am living in this car, and not paying rent.”
“These guys are amazing,” says Tamara. “They’re very generous for handing out money. Normally people don’t do that.”
Tamara used to have an online website selling bath lotions and soaps, until covid. “The [online network] put my whole store on a ‘vacation.’ I’m trying to get it turned back on.”
“Have these guys helped?” I ask.
“At first I wasn’t sure about them,” she says. But then Chris said, ‘Do you want to have a donut?’ And I haven’t had donut in so-o long, and I knew [Tylee] would love a donut. And it was still warm!
“He was actually a very delightful person,” says Tylee, who is 9.
Chris left good snacks in a brown paper bag, vanilla protein shake, donut, crunchy cookies, and an extra $5.
“Literally, my bank account has $2 in it,” says Tamara. “No one else has come around and handed out cash like that, no questions asked.”
“That visit made my whole season,” Chris says later. “Just talking with Tylee and her mom, I knew we did good. And there’s no better feeling than that. But next time we’re going to go to Vista. Not so many BMWs.”