Mojave Desert, California, 1981
He was quite possibly the most downtrodden human being I’d ever seen. This homeless Berkeley hippie-kid was a regular at Bay Area Grateful Dead concerts and related events. He would hang around the venue and sometimes would luck into the kindness and charity of others to secure a ticket to get inside.
At these things one often saw the down and out. Poor acid-munching runaways and penniless subscribers to the sunshine daydream, subsisting on whatever they could manage from handouts and god knows what else. This was the bottom for many, but oddly enough there was a hierarchy of sorts. And scraping along on the lowest possible level was this poor guy. I saw homeless hippie dogs that were better off.
I’d see him around Berkeley, or San Francisco, Oakland, wherever, and he was almost always talking to himself, telephone poles, fire hydrants, garbage cans, and other inanimate objects found on the street. Countless times I'd seen him standing in a parking lot or on the sidewalk having a conversation with somebody or something only he could see. These dialogues were sometimes so animated that I’d think he was indeed talking to somebody I couldn’t see, that in fact something was there with him that was invisible to the rest of us, and that his delusions were really my delusions.
I even saw him in Las Vegas once. Well, not really in Vegas, but about a hundred miles from the glittery mirage of money and lights.
I was driving through the desert on my way back to Los Angeles with a couple of friends, and I saw a haunting image of him. It is how I will always remember this poor guy.
In the middle of absolute nowhere he stood hitch-hiking in a torn maroon Goodwill dinner jacket. In the scorching heat of high-noon desert, with thumb outstretched, chin held high in a statue-like pose, his slick unwashed hair hanging past his filthy collar, he stood reposed and proud and determined. Out next to a godforsaken turn off to a road to nowhere - named by a civil engineer with a sense of humor - Zyzzyx Road - we passed him at 85 miles an hour, his tattered bodily image appearing up ahead to a quiet "oh no" from the driver. He grew rapidly to proper scale as we flew by, his Maroon jacket standing out brilliantly against the drab and blank desert scene.
Why was he there? Did someone just drop him off and leave him? It was strange and terrible scene, out in the middle of total nothingness, 110 degrees, there he stood, this poor, disheveled human being, with nothing, no water, no shelter, and no hope. We were stunned into silence, unable to avoid the coming pass, a moment we would all have to confront and reconcile in some way.
We asked questions to ourselves as we sped past, and I turned my head to see him as we zoomed by. The moment unfolded in slow motion and perfect clarity. I saw every crack, blemish, and wrinkle on his sad face. He didn’t look at us. In fact, he didn't even flinch. He kept his head raised in sullen stare, and his armed extended in that fixed pose.
Perhaps he realized the futility of the situation. After all if we had any intention of stopping we would have slowed down, but we were going at a tremendous clip, without the slightest hint of hesitation.
He knew we weren't going to stop, standing direct and motionless as if to wait for the next car, which wasn't even on the receding horizon yet. I felt bad, seeing him out in the middle of nowhere, guilty, that we did not stop. In the car we attempted to divert our guilt by discussing his accompanying stench, and having to deal with it all the way back to LA.
Hours later I was still thinking about him. I was sure he was going to die out there in the middle of the desert and it disturbed me that I wasn’t able to answer the call, wasn’t able to articulate my conscience and act to save this lost soul. I was troubled to no end and thought I had committed a crime of some sort, maybe not legally, but spiritually and morally, I was guilty.
But somehow, incredibly, thankfully, he did not die that day in the desert. A few weeks passed and I was sitting in a car at a stoplight in Berkeley when out of nowhere through the thick weekend University Avenue crowd he came bounding by in that same god awful maroon Goodwill dinner jacket, and, remarkably, a brand new pair of white high-top sneakers.
Not only did he live through his ordeal, and surely it was an ordeal by any definition, but he got a new pair of shoes. It’s all part of a great mystery that will never be figured out.
(c) A.C. James