Where Have All Our Characters Gone?

Santa Barbara May Have Become Boring

Not too many moons ago, Santa Barbara was home to many offbeat characters, among them the Standing Man, who was mesmerized by palm trees.

Are we boring?

Santa Barbara: so sensible, so straight-arrow, so, shall we say, lacking in local color? All right: boring?

In days gone by, our streets were festooned with characters, mostly harmless, some loveable, others just plain strange. We gave them names, chatted with them when we could, and tolerated their eccentricities.

Today, their places on State Street seem to be taken by the young and the restless, who hang around briefly and then move on without leaving an indelible mark on the town.

Of all the characters of yesteryear, none were more embraced by locals than Jonesie, court jester of downtown Santa Barbara. He was usually decked out in outlandish duds, bells dangling, and often went around banging a drum or blowing a horn. He eventually retired to the Mother Lode Country.

Before they finally hauled off the Highway 101 stoplights, you could find Freeway Emma, a k a Preacher Woman, urging the young hitchhikers to give up their roaming ways and Find God.

It took courage to stand out there in her thin print dress, rain or shine, and bring The Word to kids who politely listened but gave no sign of heeding her pleadings. After the lights went out, she could be found buttonholing youths downtown.

The Cart Woman was familiar to many as she roamed the streets, pushing a heavy grocery cart laden with belongings of every sort, on a journey known only to her.

Sadly, she met her fate under the wheels of a bus.

I often chatted with Downtown Jerry, a short, well-dressed guy who drifted from bar to bar, never noticeably drunk and who handed out business cards. Always had a pleasant smile on his face. The cards read “Downtown Jerry,” and something to the effect of having no job and no worries.

Cigarette Man walked the downtown sidewalks, eyes peeled for something to smoke. If he chanced upon a butt, he’d stash it away so as never to be without a smoke. I always suspected him of putting signs in urinals that said: “Please Do Not Throw Butts in the Urinals. It Makes Them Soggy and Hard to Light.”

Then there was The Bookworm, a k a Library Man, wearing a floppy old raincoat and lugging an armful of books. But I never saw him in the downtown library. He was usually muttering, sometimes shouting, about the sorry state of the world. People gave him a wide berth.

Beach Boy, no connection with the singing group, was 50ish and always wore a swimsuit and T-shirt, no matter what time of year. Someone who kept track of him said he’d never seen him at the beach.

Messiah Man could be found in a white, biblical-era robe, seated in a De la Guerra Plaza group of the young, apparently attempting to guide them onto paths of righteousness by preaching The Word. People whispered that he ministered them with weed, but probably not, because I never heard of him being questioned by cops who also frequented the park.

There were countless more, like the Standing Man, who could be found immobile in parks, staring at trees. “He has a fetish for palm trees,” a friend reported.

The Angry Woman loved to sit on a State Street bench, puffing on a cigarette but now and then flying into a rage and delivering long, pointless tirades at passing tourists. They didn’t know whether to laugh or leave.

Her counterpart, Angry Man, stood at intersections, scowling at occupants of passing cars or arguing with pedestrians awaiting the light. The two angry people never seemed to work the same side of the street.

One winter night, a friend told me, he’d noticed an older woman sitting on a ledge, shopping bag at her side. She was thinly clad against the cold, her eyes closed, slowly rocking. Was she dreaming of happier days, recalling the bright faces of her children when they were young?

Santa Barbarans out for the night hardly gave her a glance, if they noticed her at all. A “colorful character” or somebody’s mother, who had slipped, forgotten, through the cracks of life?

The next night, my friend went to look for her to offer her a warm bed, but she was gone.


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