My wife first notices it from the window of our hotel room in Venice Beach. Every evening, in the alley out back, a small shack appears made from a complex arrangement of orange traffic cones, blue tarps and shiny chrome supermarket trolleys. The next morning it is dismantled, the the tarps neatly folded and everything stacked in an orderly pile. We never see who does it, nor hear any sound from them.
Curious, I go to investigate. It is the day before Thanksgiving and I want to give a little cash to whoever is living so creatively and carefully out there. I bump into Darryl, a tall, rangy African American with greying hair, sorting cans and bottles into a bunch of trolleys at the end of the alley. "You the guy who makes the sleeping shack each evening?" I ask. "Yeah, man, that's me, " says Darryl, a beaming smile spreading across his face. "It's pretty impressive," I say, and tell him about my wife spotting it from our hotel window. "Well, I like to do things properly," he replies, an unmistakeable sense of pride seeping into his voice.
I ask him how he ended up in the alley. "I had a van I lived in," he says, "but I went away for a few days and while I was away they towed it. I'm saving up for a new one collecting bottles and such." "It must be tough," I say. "Well, you do what you can," he answers cheerfully. We chat for a few more minutes but then I have to leave. I press some bills into his hand. "For Thanksgiving," I say. "Hey, thanks, man," he says, with genuine appreciation. "Send my best wishes to your wife. Happy Thanksgiving."
Darryl's irrepressible optimism in the face of his own personal adversity, makes me feel guilty for the petty whines and gripes I've ever express about my own life. It makes the fight in Congress for a few million more in tax dollars for the already fabulously wealthy seem absurd.
I call back on Darryl a couple of weeks later, to see how he is doing. Since my last visit, I have discovered the city authorities have formed a special police unit to clear people off the streets in Venice and I wonder how it might affect him. I find him sitting on a milk crate next to his shack talking with another man, who is obviously a bit the worse for wear. "Hey, how you doing, man" says Darryl, instantly recognizing me. "How is your wife?" He is just as bright and cheerful as when I first met him. "This is Jim," he continues introducing me to his companion, "He's my only friend. He's had a few too many, so he might not be too responsive." I reach out to shake Jim's hand. He stares blankly at me then staggers off down the alley, obviously too smashed to handle anything extra today.
I ask Darryl if he ever gets any trouble from the cops. "No, not at all," he says."I'm careful not to make any noise that might disturb anyone, and I don't do drink or drugs. I think the hotel actually likes me being here. I act like a kind of security guard for them." "What about this plan to clear people off the street in Venice?" I venture. "Yeah, they are cleaning things up from the southern end. You can understand it though. People making noise and doing drugs in the street, it affects people's property values." Not exactly the answer you would expect from someone who might lose his home in the clear up operation.
We talk some more about what he does, recycling cans for money, etc. "I have a few bars that keep them for me. And Jim, here, he keeps me well supplied," he says, laughing. Jim is a few yards up the alley staring intently at the ground and wobbling slowly around in a circle. 'How about the new van? How's that going?"I ask. "I expect to have enough money by February," Darryl replies, pleased.
'"Do you mind if I take your picture," I ask pulling out my camera. "I'm thinking of writing a short piece for this online magazine. It won't get you into trouble or anything will it?" "No, man, I'm good," he says posing casually in front of his shack. It is a Sunday, and he doesn't need to dismantle it today as there will be no traffic coming through the alley.
"You want a camera?" he suddenly asks me. "I found one in a garbage can. You can have it. I don't need it." He pulls out a small Pentax camera from a rucksack lying inside his shack. "Take it," he says, offering it to me. It's not a bad camera. "I tried to report it to the police, but nothing happened," he continues. I give it back to him. "You keep it," I say. "Maybe you can get some money selling it." He looks disappointed. He wanted to give me something. I probably should have taken it. Instead I give him some more dollars. He is obviously very grateful. "I'm doing OK," I say by way of explanation for why I want to give him money, before we shake hands and I leave. "I've had some bad times, myself, but now I'm doing good."