The Bums of Santa Barbara

The Bums of Santa Barbara When my son went to Berkeley College of Music in Boston, I saw him greet a street person who approached him in this manner, "Hey --how is my man?" He gives him his daily stipend. Another panhandler came up to him and he declined. Mom, he said," That first one was My bum…he's an intellectual (Harvard bum and all) and very appreciative." But before I get into the bums of Santa Barbara I must digress.

I first got interested in Santa Barbara, when I met the Dempseys on a cruise in the Caribbean. We were on one of those ships that carry only l00 passengers. The port where we anchored was St. Barts. The hills of St. Barts, Colombier for one, had no guardrails. The Dempseys, whom my husband and I dubbed the "California People" had no fear of driving up these mountains and were game to rent a moak (a stick-shift jeep) and tour the little, six-mile island. The Dempseys were from Santa Barbara. After driving up the mountains in Santa Barbara in an SUV I know now why they were not afraid. The average cost of a small cottage in this area is $1,200,000.

Jack Dempsey met Kathleen when they were seventeen. He worked pumping gas at a Chevron station. He wanted to be a fine artist and took a summer job before college. As fate would have it he and Kathleen had their first child at eighteen. Jack went to night school. He eventually got his masters in finance and became a VP of Chevron. He was in charge of scouting out locations all over the globe for the company. Kathleen regaled me with stories of how she had to travel with the "Chevron Wives" to the many conventions. In Bali, Kathleen went parasailing as the Chevron wives watched in horror. They all later rented a glass bottom boat. The only thing she and the Chevron wives saw floating in the water were prophylactics, which disgusted the Chevron wives. At first, they thought the birth control flotsam were rare tropical fish. That filled Kathleen with glee. I just loved her for that.

In Thailand, when she and Jack arrived, the government met them at the airport and rolled out a red carpet. They had a boy riding an elephant that bowed down before them. When the elephant got up, it did what elephants are infamous for doing. Its aroma was not the sweet smell of success that the government officials were aiming for. In any event, I took Kathleen on her first snorkeling adventure. She had a fear of snorkeling but I took her by the hand and we went off the beach at Saint Kitts and she got to see schools of parrotfish and iridescent silver fish. It was a bonding experience.

Kathleen was the head of a department at Cottage Hospitals, and at the time I worked or a hospital as well. The Dempseys were definitely not in the “bum” category. We vowed to keep in touch. Over the years, when I visited my son the musician in LA, the Dempseys would drive up to the shows. With Keith Richards appearing at the Santa Barbara bowl with Nora Jones, it was a good excuse for me to finally make the trip.

Enter the bums. I see my first one at night outside the movie theatre. He is holding a sign that says. "I need help for food." He has a beard and mustache and looks not unlike the pedestrians that are walking gingerly past him in their Izod shirts, sneakers and / or penny loafers without socks. I got an eerie feeling like I was in Stepford Village. No one crossed the street on red or yellow. They all waited for the green. I asked the woman pedestrian next to me why no one crossed against the light. She said, "Oh, you have to watch the police here. They hide around the corners and give you $150 tickets for jaywalking." Such is the menacing crime wave in Santa Barbara. The town is filled with vine-covered brick restaurants and stores with a flavor of the southwest. In one store I saw glitzy sequins sewn on peasant skirts. Everyone was smiling with white, gleaming teeth.

Nestled between the ocean and the mountains, the five exits that comprise Santa Barbara combine perfect vistas, perfect weather, and perfect people. I envision a city council meeting, where the menacing “bums” are discussed. "Well they can beg but only with a sign and not intrusively." I picture the gavel coming down—BANG--resolution passed.

The bums of San Francisco were not clean and were very aggressive--even a tad frightening. They were abundant; almost all wearing tattered Gautier raincoats. The designer discards made them even more sad, juxtaposed with the architecture in all its grandeur. The Manhattan bums have cell phones and work collecting cans or washing windshields. They quote Kerouac--definitely type A.

At this writing we are at code orange. The convention is coming and the disparity between rich and poor has never been more apparent. Our middle class is wealthy compared to the rest of the world. That is why in some countries you have to win a lottery to get into America. The melting pot is not taking in many more immigrants to partake in our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Both of our presidential candidates were born with the silver spoon. We now face the prospect of voting our conscience or our pocketbooks. Kerry has made no bones about wanting to repeal the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. This election is now in a dead heat. The swing states of New York and Washington are apparently under siege as our financial institutions are now targets for the terrorists. The lead story in the Times today was that this was “old intelligence.”

Commentators wonder if this heightened threat in the swing states was politically motivated. They closed the Holland Tunnel today. The police presence in our sister state has never been more visible.

My daughter lives in the financial district. She goes to NYU. Terrorist bombs do not discriminate between bums and barons; Donald Duck and Donald trump travel down 42nd Street. The bums of Santa Barbara and the bums and barons of every state in the union all start out with the same chance here. We can reach for the stars or lay in the gutters. We can pick ourselves up by the bootstraps or we can give the homeless the boot. We can be merciful or mercenary. We are free to become millionaires or millstones around the neck of society. This is the greatness of our nation. It’s the one in which education and true grit can compensate for class standing. We can all better our circumstances here.

The bums of Santa Barbara will be standing in line to vote next to the Dempseys. And, in the midst of these terrible times, that is what still fills me with glee! It’s time to remember to live the dream and vote in this election. If you don't, no matter what your financial circumstances, you will find yourself in the bum category.

Published in South Jersey Magazine, September 2004.
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Author: Ellen Zionts; photo by Scott Weiner

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