Two months ago musician and Oakland resident John Benson bought an old bus for $5,000 from a wind-turbine engineer, and he and his friends rigged it to run on vegetable oil, put in a new floor, built loft beds, and constructed a stage. Two Wednesdays ago, in a Garfield Park warehouse parking lot, they hosted a show inside it.
While Benson's band, Portable Corners--a rotating ensemble that currently includes two percussionists, two singers, a violinist/keyboardist, and a guy who plays tambourine and a tiny horn--clattered amiably, I thought to myself, Tonight's the night I bite my tongue off. A dozen twentysomethings climbed the walls and hung off the ceiling, flailing around and jumping on top of one another. Innocent bystanders kept getting kneed in the mouth or cracked in the ribs or kicked in the shins. So I limped out of there and into the warehouse adjacent to the lot.
And there I met G.
G--just G--was short and stout with long, stringy gray hair and a beard that covered most of his face. His only other notable feature was a largish fleshy growth in the middle of his forehead like a third eye. He wore glasses held together with electrical wire, the nose pads cutting into his face, and tattered running shoes.
For a living G paints those paper signs you see in cheap grocery store windows, advertising sales on Heineken and corn and the like--you know, where half the text is always spelled wrong but they look amazing because the font is just slightly imperfect.
G told us he was born in 1945 to a 13-year-old Native American girl who belonged to some tribe descended from the Chippewas. He never knew his father. He said he'd been married five times and had 12 children that he knew of.
He invited me and photographer Andrea Bauer into his home: one room inside the warehouse, where an enormous table, covered with paints, brushes, drying signs, and other doodles, took up the majority of the space. There was some dirty batting on the bare floor, and he used a filthy throw pillow with a piece of wood underneath to rest his head on. In the winter he sleeps in a little nest of sleeping bags in a cage under the table. Being the "bastard son of an alcoholic whore," he told us, he doesn't feel comfortable on beds or sofas.
The walls were lined floor to ceiling with precisely arranged books--lots of pink covers with cursive writing, books he says his daughters left behind--and VHS tapes. The videos were organized like so: one tape in a plastic case alternating with one plain black tape not in a case, on and on into infinity. "I like lines," G said. "I live alone, so nothing's stopping me." He said most of them were shows he's taped off the TV. He almost always has six sets going simultaneously.
G writes forward with his right hand and backward with his left. He has a tattoo of the grim reaper on his left forearm. For fun he likes to draw realistic pen-and-ink images of mountains and trees and Charles Manson surrounded by naked women.
Like "Charlie"--whom he claims to have met and calls a "boring little pimp"--he's attracted to "throwaways," women who don't matter to society. He told us he's informally adopted at least 37 young women who were kicked out of their homes, addicted to drugs, or pregnant and had nowhere else to turn. He said he wants to be the father he never had.
"Give me a hundred tabs of acid and a bunch of girls out in the desert," he said, "and I'll be able to control their minds too."
He showed us a notebook with lots of his drawings of Charlie. And wizards. He had dream catchers everywhere, some with little shriveled animal figurines in the middle of them, and a giant totem pole. Prominently posted was a diagram showing how to build a camera obscura. "Know what this is?" he asked, pointing to a doodle of three superimposed numeral sixes, each tail pointing in a different direction. "It's the mark of the beast."
Right when he said that Andrea began to hyperventilate and her skin turned hot to the touch. She made a quick exit, leaving me in there alone.
I pointed to another of my friends, who was scampering down the hallway, and said I had to go talk to her right away. "Sure," said G. "Come back anytime you like."
We did go back--about ten minutes later, after Andrea had had some water and our curiosity overcame our good sense. G welcomed us, then showed us some of his skills. "How do you spell your name?" he asked Andrea. As she spelled it out he repeated the letters aloud, drawing them with a fat red marker in olde English calligraphy on a piece of cardboard. He then wrote my name slowly and deliberately, like it was an invocation.
His calm countenance chilled me to the bone. "Well," I said, backing out of there. "You sure do have an interesting life."
"Some people call me crazy," he said. "You're in your 20s now, so you don't think so. Wait until you're 30. You'll change your mind."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.