Man on the Street
Meet Christopher: Extrovert, artist and one of the hundreds of homeless people in Santa Monica
By Brittany Ford
His red beard and slouched frame are recognizable a block away. East of Lincoln Boulevard on Broadway in Santa Monica, he sits between his bags and a tent he is not allowed to put up. A tin of colored pencils, a coloring book and a pad of paper lay in front of him as he leans over to draw. He wants to be an artist. He looks up to say hello to each person who walks by, flashing the peace sign and telling everyone to have a nice day. It took me over a year to say more than hello. When I finally stopped to talk he asked me why it took so long and introduced himself as Christopher.
Christopher, who told me his surname but asked that it not show up in print, has become a neighborhood fixture. On my walks down to the promenade or the beach I would see him almost every time in the midst of a friendly chat with another local. When strangers pass he makes some laugh with his long hello or funny one-liners like “I love muffins” that he says randomly to see how people react. Some aren’t too sure what to say and keep their eyes on the sidewalk, but his big smile usually gets at least a “hi” back. Christopher asks passersby for spare change but ultimately he just likes to get a smile.
One of the first stories I heard from Christopher was about his dog. “Imagine yelling Boozer outside a liquor store. Everyone around would look up to answer. I was only calling my dog,” he says. Christopher was making his way west from Chicago when Boozer decided to join him. He made it to Santa Monica, but Boozer did not. As Christopher tells it, Boozer was shot in New Mexico by someone afraid of pit-bulls. Most of Christopher’s stories are about this dog; it still upsets him.
Christopher has been in Santa Monica for about two years now. He loves it. It’s not the weather or the beach that keeps him here — he’s afraid a shark may eat his toes if he goes in the water. As Christopher says, “It’s the people, man.”
While we were speaking one summer afternoon, a man pulls up, gets out of his car and says hello to Christopher on his way to pick-up lunch. They seem to know each other pretty well. He asks if Christopher has any new comic books. They both like the local comic book store, and Christopher tells him the Garfield comic strip in the paper was hilarious that morning. Before leaving, the visitor says he will see Christopher again soon and hands Christopher some pocket change.
Later that same day, Christopher is getting thirsty and asks if I want to walk over to the store with him to get something to drink. He puts his arm out in front of me as we cross the street to make sure there are no cars. He buys a Coca-Cola and then goes to sit in the shade. He fell asleep under the hot sun one afternoon and is still peeling and blistered, so he follows the shade around as much as he can. Christopher was in a good mood. He had just heard his favorite band Black Sabbath would be in town and was hoping his two Black Sabbath and Ozzy tattoos would help him get in.
The car horn must have been invented in Santa Monica, says Christopher. “It cracks me up sitting out here and watching people race up to the red light on Lincoln and then honking their horn at the car in front as soon as it turns green. You’re not gonna get there much quicker!” he says. “Nobody out here knows how to park either. There are so many nice cars and I see them all banged up.
I would never do that if I had a car.”
Christopher tells me that last year around Christmas a little girl walking down Broadway with her parents came and tugged on his beard. “She asked if it was real. ‘Of course it is!’ I told her, and asked what she wanted for Christmas while her parents were standing right there. She said she wanted a Malibu Barbie and I could see her dad rolling his eyes, ’cause I’m sure those things are expensive. They must be around 40 bucks!”
I ask Christopher about his life before coming to Santa Monica, and he tells me that he served in the U.S. Navy from 1994 to 2000. Christopher says he wanted to serve his country as his grandfather did. He became a gunner packing heavy artillery weapons that shot off the ship he was stationed on in the Persian Gulf, though he didn’t pay much attention to exactly where they were. He doesn’t like to get deep into it. He will admit he wasn’t the most obedient sailor, but they asked him to re-enlist. Christopher couldn’t do it. “I felt too guilty to go back,” he says. “I don’t know where the bullets I loaded into the guns landed. They may have killed children. I know I wasn’t on the front lines, but I still couldn’t take it.”
Christopher says that he suffers from PTSD but can control it most of the time. It’s harder, though, when he can’t sleep at night or gets woken up. And he hasn’t slept well in a long time. As police sirens fly down Lincoln, Christopher says he hates that sound. The sirens remind him of being in the military. He says it casually, as though it’s not affecting him now but the next one may.
One Sunday as Christopher and I are chatting, a car turning into the alley hit a man riding his bike. Christopher is the first person over to make sure everyone’s OK. Fortunately, everyone is, and the man thanks Christopher for his help. Another of Christopher’s friends who saw the crash happen tells him he is “the man” as he passes by. “I haven’t gotten up that fast in a long time. That scared me,” Christopher says back to his friend.
So that he could talk to his mom in Iowa, Christopher got a Federal Universal Service fund phone. He says he can make her laugh like no other, that “sometimes she laughs so hard she has to put the phone down.” When Christopher tells her stories about him getting frustrated and mad at some of the other “homeless cats,” as he calls them, she tells him not to let the Chicago come out of him. He admits that he likes to drink and that she does not approve.
Christopher says he is beginning to feel tired from his life on the streets. He has so many great friends around the neighborhood, but none stay. They all have to get on with their day, and he’s ready to do the same, but it scares him. Stuff is stolen from him frequently. Just as he feels he is getting somewhere, his money and the few things he has to help him get by go missing. All he wants now is a place with a lock on the door.
Christopher says his dream would be to sell his drawings for a living. He wants to learn more about art and has sold a few pictures to people walking by. He wouldn’t mind doing drywall or detailing cars either, but he is overwhelmed with the thought of how to get a job. He has large gaps in his work experience and worries about how he would adjust to a 9-5.
Neighborhood friends have all encouraged Christopher to look into getting housing. Everyone remarks on what a big heart he has, though he can be very stubborn. Christopher says he doesn’t want to get any help from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs because he doesn’t want to have to live by their rules. It’s not clear what rules he doesn’t want to follow, but he says he chose this life on the streets to have his freedom. Living with help from the VA is too close to being back in the military.
Christopher’s head sinks down when he discusses asking about housing programs, and his loud voice gets quiet as he slumps down. I tell him I will do some research and go with him. He says he doesn’t need someone to hold his hand but would appreciate someone to walk him through it. He is tired and just wants somewhere to lock up his stuff and feel safe at night.
Brittany Ford is a Santa Monica resident who works in the music industry and previously volunteered for UNICEF in Burundi.