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Ocean Beach motor homers – gypsies with sand between their toes

“It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. Bikinis...”

Ron Orr and Amazing Grace: "You can’t park in a residential area; people resent it. They’re intimidated by your motor home being in front of their homes."
  • Ron Orr and Amazing Grace: "You can’t park in a residential area; people resent it. They’re intimidated by your motor home being in front of their homes."
  • Image by Randy Hoffman

Drive around Ocean Beach someday and you’ll see motor homes parked everywhere. Some are decent looking, others not so nice, but most look near vehicular death. They’re owned by a growing group of people who want to live by the beach but don’t want to — or can’t afford to — pay beach rents and so opt for the mobile life. In anything from VW buses to 30-foot Winnebagos to pickup campers, they eat, sleep, and call it home.

On this gorgeous, clear November day in Ocean Beach, it looks as if you could throw a rock from the O.B. pier across the water to La Jolla. The air is surprisingly warm, so warm that a dozen sunbathers stretch on the sand trying to preserve their fading summer tans. Even a few swimmers brave the cold waves.

Four motor homes are parked along Brighton Avenue near a grassy area between the street and the beach. I knock on the door of a camper mounted on a brown Toyota pickup. Lance Read pokes his head out, and we sit on the grass by the sidewalk. Lance is 42, of medium build with a slight potbelly. He has blond hair and blue eyes and wears a polo shirt, jeans, and Nikes. The ’86 Toyota pickup and camper have been his home for the last year. He chomps on potato chips as we talk.

“I had a job, place to live, all my toys — motorcycles, boats, things like that — and I lost them through one thing or another,” Lance explains. “I bought this as a basic supplemental backup. It was supposed to be for a couple of months, but I lost my job and I’ve ended up staying in it.” Lance has been out of work since August and lives on roughly $150 a week in unemployment, which he says wouldn’t pay apartment rent but keeps him content in his camper. He has no complaints about the life. “I like it,” he says. “I never expected I’d enjoy it as much as I have, but the more I’m here, the easier it becomes. There’s nothing I don’t have that most people have in their homes. The place is heated, and I’ve got a nice comforter and a nice queen-size bed. It’s very comfortable.”

He invites me in to see his rolling home. We enter through a door in the back of the camper. On the left is a kitchen area with a tiny three-burner propane stove and a small refrigerator. On the right is a toilet. A couple of steps in, the kitchen area opens up into a small living space with two chairs on either side of a center table. Straight ahead, over the cab of the truck, is Lance's bed, above which is a skylight he put in himself. We sit in the two chairs. As The Jerry Springer Show plays on the TV, Lance points out various devices he’s added to his camper: an “auxiliary light system,” with small lights powered by AA batteries mounted on the ceiling; sliding panels for extra storage; and custom-made peepholes, one inch in diameter, plugged with corks. He tells me about his plans; a special shower he’s designing, a sun deck he wants to build on top of the camper, and the video surveillance camera he wants to install for security. “It ’s the old MacGuyver attitude,’’ he says, chuckling.

Lance explains that, although inhabiting a vehicle is technically illegal, he rarely has trouble with the police. “I keep a very low profile and keep to myself. I don’t bother anybody and they don’t bother me. I’ve had no problems, zero, whatsoever. I keep very quiet and don’t break any laws, That’s the bottom line. You don’t break any laws, and you won’t have any reason to be arrested,’’ he says.

I ask Lance why he parks in O.B. if he can park anywhere. “It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. Bikinis...” he answers. “I’m a water person. I’ve lived here in O.B. most of my adult life.”

Parked along the same stretch of beach as Lance’s Toyota is a red-and-white camper rig sitting on a ’62 Chevy Apache pickup. It’s owned by a man who looks amazingly like Willie Nelson. “Just call me the Wolfman. My friends for 30 years have been calling me Wolfman.”

Wolfman, 55, is small and wiry looking, about 5'8’’, with long, ponytailed, sandy-blond hair and a long beard beginning to gray. His youthful blue eyes contrast starkly with his wrinkled face, leathery from exposure to sun and wind. A bumper sticker on the interior wall of his camper says, “American by birth, Biker by choice.”

Wolfman talks in a quivering voice and rubs his eyes and face often as he speaks. He gradually warms to my questions and becomes very friendly, seeming to enjoy the company. I ask him how long he’s been motor homing.

“I’ve been doing it for over 20 years,” he answers. “This is my fourth one. I’ve been in it since ’89.1 got here in 1945.1 was a kid, five years old. I came here from Kansas. I saw the ocean and I said to myself, ‘This is where I’m going to live.’ When I was younger I worked at the shipyard and I rode Harleys and then I got arthritis and things got rough and I couldn’t count on paying the rent all of the time, so this was the answer.” For the last 20 years, Wolfman has used a cousin’s address and lived out of campers parked on the streets of OB. He lives on about $600 a month in SSI. He does not work.

He offers me a beer, but he doesn’t invite me into the camper. I look in through the door. To the left is a stove and defunct refrigerator. To the right is Wolfman’s general sitting area and a bed covered with an old sleeping bag and several blankets. Toward the front of the camper is a bathroom; there’s another bed above the cab of the truck, which he uses for storage. A car battery sitting on the floor powers the small TV on the counter. Bandannas and pieces of cloth cover the windows. Pots and pans sit dirty on the counter. Pinned to every wall are pictures of friends, past motor homes, and motorcycles. Cartoon-like drawings also dot the walls. I ask Wolfman about them.

“My son drew those for me,” he says. “I have three sons, had three wives.” When did his last marriage end? Wolfman pauses, rubs his eyes, and finally answers. “Twenty, thirty...between twenty and thirty years ago.” He sighs, then adds, “If you’ve been at the beach any length of time — of course, it’s everywhere, but at the beach even more — peer pressure and people messing with drugs, and about the time they started messing with intravenous drugs...I did all of that. Intravenous drugs are a killer, man. [They] leave you sitting around like a vegetable, and when you come around, there goes your TV, your guitar, your friend’s guitar. You become a different person.”

“Do you still do drugs?”

“No, man,” he responds. “I learned the hard way, which is about the only way to learn. I’ve carried too many boxes and seen too many dead people.” He adds, “I’d do some lines and drink some whiskey and between two and five in the morning I’d sit here and could feel sweat pouring down my face and feel my heart pounding, and it took the fun out of it. I think twice in the last seven months I backslid, and I was sorry both times. These habits are hard to break.”

Although Wolfman’s rig is registered, he has no insurance. “I drive real slow and careful, and I park carefully.... I don’t even want to talk about it. You talk about the devil, and he’ll be knocking at your door,” he says.

I ask him if the police bother him much.

“Every once in a while. This year I’ve talked to the cops maybe four times,” he says. “People spend too much money for rent around here and then they can’t find a parking space,” he explains, “so they make calls and the cops come out and start knocking on all the vehicles.”

Wolfman believes that more people ought to rebel against landlords and rent and live in motor homes. “If people got out and lived in motor homes, then you’d see what would happen to rent prices if people weren’t forced to pay $500 or $600 a month for a bed, a head, and a kitchen.”

Although he loves the freedom of camper life, Wolfman admits it’s getting harder at his age. “The older I get, the harder it is. But I’m all right, man; I’m a biker. Embrace the pain, man. Crying about it don’t do a bit of good, so I adjust my lifestyle so I can make it on my own.”

Except for beach side streets, the most popular spot in O.B. for motor homers is the parking lot at Robb Field, at the west end of Interstate 8.

At the north end of the lot next to the softball field, there’s a man lying on the grass doing a crossword puzzle near a parked camper. Jimmy, we’ll call him, is barefoot and wearing Army-green pants and a purple T-shirt. His bearded face is reminiscent of Jerry' Garcia’s. He asks me if I’d like to talk to his girlfriend, who lives with him in the camper, and he hops up to get her, but she won’t come out.

Jimmy tells me that the two of them travel around San Diego, living here and there, but mostly staying in Ocean Beach. “I have a dog,” he explains, “so I go to Dog Beach. Also, my girlfriend does yoga and we walk a lot.” The dog, Wolfie, who Jimmy claims is half wolf and half German shepherd, is tethered to the camper.

“I used to drive a cab, but once I got the van, I stopped working. Once I had the van I didn’t have to pay rent, so I was able to do it without working,” he says.

That was four years ago. He recently started receiving $300 a month in general relief from the county, for which he has to work nine days a month. Before that he was living on food stamps, because he couldn’t get general relief; his vehicle was well furnished. “'They refused to give it to me,” Jimmy explains, “because I had a stove and a refrigerator. I don’t have them now. If you have a stove and a refrigerator, they call that a home, and you can’t collect.

“I bet you want to know if I smoke pot,” Jimmy volunteers. “Sometimes I do smoke pot. I don’t have a drug problem, but i do smoke pot. I also drink, but I like to keep it within moderation.”

Has he had trouble with the law?

“They haven’t been giving us trouble,” he responds. “We had problems last year with getting tickets, because they can give you tickets for inhabiting a vehicle, but now I’m more aware. I don’t break the law. You can stay here until two o’clock in the morning as long as you leave then. You can go to a private lot, like a grocery store lot.”

Jimmy says there is little camaraderie among motor homers. “We try to respect each others’ privacy. Some people get along, some don’t.” His girlfriend, who has emerged from the camper, explains further, “It’s publicity. If you’re doing something illegal — which we are, really; it’s a minor crime — you don’t want publicity.”

“Then why do so many motor homes congregate here?” “A lot of people stay here because they can take showers. They have a shower card you can buy,” Jimmy explains, pointing toward the gym in the middle of the grassy park.

Do they enjoy their life together in a camper? She answers first, “Well, that’s very complicated, because you can be unhappy wherever you are. In a way it can be really easy, in that you move around and there are really beautiful places in San Diego. But when you have an apartment, you’re stuck there. There is a space problem, of course.”

Jimmy interjects, “The close quarters will either make you or break you.”

At the far end of the parking lot from Jimmy and his girlfriend, an old but clean white Dodge is parked. I knock on the side door and Ron Orr appears. He looks very sleepy and squints into the sunlight shining on his face. He’ll talk to me tomorrow, he says. At 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Ron is already outside, waiting. “Come on in,” he says with a smile.

The door to his motor home is in the middle of its right side. The driver’s seat is to the right as I step in, with a bed above, curtained off and used for storage. Straight ahead is a kitchen area with fridge, sink, stove, and oven, all clean and tidy. To the left is a table. At the very back of the motor home is Ron’s bed, which is made up tight enough to bounce a quarter off. Just before the bed on the left is a bathroom, and across the hall from the bathroom is a closet. The whole place is pristine. We sit on two stools next to the kitchen counter.

Ron is a black 60-year-old Korean War veteran. He’s wearing white shorts, a green polo shirt, and a white cap. As we talk, he smokes cigarettes through a short, white cigarette holder. He has lived in this motor home for four years but was living in vans and cars before he bought it. Freedom from rent and the structure of working hours is what drew him to motor home life.

“After my divorce,” he explains, “I didn’t want to go back into the system proper; I didn’t want a nine-to-fiver, and I didn’t want to pay rent.” Now Ron sells sunglasses, does a little plastering and painting, and holds a security job, but it’s all “on my own time.”

Ron says he doesn’t travel around much in his motor home; his ’68 Dodge has too many miles on it. “I call her Amazing Grace because I’m amazed she’s still running. She still has glide in her stride, cut in her strut, and dips in her hips,” he adds, laughing.

Does he find motor home life difficult?

“No,” Ron answers. “It’s as hard as you make it. Number one, you’ve got to keep a low profile. You can’t step on anybody else’s rights. You can’t park in a residential area; people resent it. They’re intimidated by your motor home being in front of their homes. They want to look out and see what they want to see; they don’t want to see a motor home. So you don’t infringe on their rights. You find a space that’s off the streets of San Diego. That’s important, because the cops will get you.” Does rent-free life allow him to save money? Ron says yes, “but we all have dues. I get tickets once in a while, registration fees, smog fees, fees for taking a shower, post office box, and I have to pay insurance....”

Although he has no complaints about his life on wheels, Ron plans to retire on terra firma, “somewhere up north.” In two years he’ll be eligible for social security. By then he hopes to save enough to buy a mountain cabin, where he can live on the $600 to $700 a month from Social Security. “I’m going to try the Clear Lake area,” he tells me. “I can get a cabin up there for $20,000. Then I’ll come back, sell Grace, and go on up there.”

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