Friday, April 29, 2011

Bums of Santa Barbara

Chris was about nine and we were on our way to dinner on State Street on one of our first visits to Santa Barbara. At the outside patio at Borders Bookstore a group of homeless men had commandeered four or five tables. Some had big backpacks and sleeping bags rolled up nearby. They were mostly white, mostly the age of veterans of some decades-ago war. They looked like a group of old warriors planning a mission against the society that had abandoned them.

Two were playing chess. One was a gaunt middle-aged white man with tattoos as weathered as his face, and the other was the only black man in the group. He didn’t look like the others, and not just because he was black. He was bigger and sleeker and better dressed, wearing a black shirt and a black leather cowboy hat with silver medallions around the brim. He was both beautiful and slightly terrifying. He was carrying on a running patter with his opponent and flirting with two young women who seemed to know him and who slowed as they passed by to give him ample time to embellish his flattery.

Chris stopped to watch the game. He stood very near the table. Meg and Nick and I hung back a bit, and while Chris watched the game I watched him and the man in the hat and the hard scruffy men gathered around the tables like gulls at the beach.

At the beach in Santa Barbara.
The evening air held the soft coolness of that morning, when I had taken Chris out to try rollerblading on the beach bikeway. He had wanted a bathroom break and we had gone to a public restroom that was almost on the sand. It was early, and men were still lying in their sleeping bags under the palms. As Chris was going into the restroom, a couple of men with pale, wind-burned faces who looked like permanent beach residents were coming out, swearing like sailors, talking so vulgarly and with such an edge of anger and hostility that it made me feel protective of Chris, even though they weren’t talking to him, even though he probably wasn’t paying any attention to them. As if I had just been appointed beach-decorum police, I told them to knock it off. Not the brightest thing to do. One of them came over and asked what my problem was. I said something imprudent, again, and he said “Seriously?” in a way any man would understand to mean “Do you really want me to slice out your liver right here?” My heart was racing with the need to run or kick him in the balls, and my mind was racing with the image of Chris coming out of the bathroom and finding me bleeding on the concrete. While I was considering how to manage a dignified retreat, the other guy tapped his friend on the shoulder and said “Come on, let’s leave the tourists alone.”

That was my introduction to the bums of Santa Barbara. This was their little piece of paradise, not mine. Even the charming patio area outside the bookstore had now been turned into their private lounge.

When the game was over, the skinny white guy scooted his chair back from the table and put his hands on his knees and sat shaking his head. The big man in the hat began setting up the black pieces in front of him. The knights looked like they had ridden in from another set entirely. One of the pawns was headless. When he had finished, he looked up at Chris and asked if he would like to play. I wasn’t so keen on Chris settling into a homeless encampment, but the man had a surprisingly kind face. His voice was deep and gentle. He didn’t seem to want to know what my problem was.

For his part, Chris didn’t hesitate. He sat down and started setting up the white pieces; the loser of the prior game chuckled to himself and pulled up another chair to watch. The big man extended his hand and said his name was Mason. Chris’s hand was small and pale in Mason’s rough mitt. Chris said his name and moved his king’s pawn two spaces. Mason responded with his king’s pawn and they each made their first three or four moves with quick precision, as if they had been choreographed, which in a way they had, both players trying to gain control of the center of the board, moving their troops into position for the coming battle.

Meg and Nick and I stood around watching for a while. I felt a little self-conscious just standing there gawking, but I also felt proud that my very young son was playing chess against a grown man and, although I hate to admit it, proud that he was playing chess with a homeless man, among other homeless men: Some of you may not want us in your paradise, but we are bigger than that. We are not consumed by your rage and bitterness. We don’t think ourselves too good to sit down with you. We are not afraid of you. Which, of course, I had been that very morning.

Watching them play, listening to Mason’s gentle banter, watching the attentive way his last opponent followed the game, I began to see the chess board and not the homeless men. It was getting to be past time for our dinner reservation, and yet I hated to take Chris away from the game, so I suggested that the rest of us go check in at the restaurant, which was directly across the street. I thought we might get an outside table where we could keep an eye on Chris while giving him some space to do his thing---he doesn’t like to be hovered over while he’s playing, at least not by me. I pointed at the restaurant and said he should join us there when he was through playing. Mason looked up at me and smiled and said, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”

We got a table and our drinks and ordered dinner and Chris and Mason were still playing. Long game, I thought. I went back across the street to check on him, with the excuse that I wanted to make sure what we had ordered for all of us to sample and share was all right with him. It turns out they were already on their third game. Mason had lost the first two and had asked for re-matches. Chris had been beating me for a year by then, so I felt Mason’s pain, especially when it became obvious from the positions on the board that he was about to lose again. I stayed and watched the end of the game and told Chris it was time to go. He would have stayed, and Mason would have kept playing.

That was the beginning of something like a friendship between Mason B. Mason, an ambiguously housed man, and our family. Mason had dreams of doing children’s television programing, but he made his living as a street musician. He was a pretty good blues singer, and a showman. Every time we came to town, usually a few times a year, we would look for Mason where he would be playing his guitar and singing at the farmers’ market.

One year we bought Mason a new chess set. The boys wrote a note on the back of the board and signed it. When we couldn’t find him to give it to him, a friend told us he was in jail on an old assault-and-battery charge. I called the local prosecutor to see what the deal was. He said Mason was unstable and had a history of violence.

The next summer Mason was back at the farmers’ market. We gave him the chess set and he handled it like it was gold. We listened to him sing and in between songs he told us a little about his problems with the local gendarmes. The Santa Barbara police were fascists, he said, who persecuted the homeless to keep Santa Barbara looking like Disneyland.

A few years later, we lost track of Mason again. Afraid he was back in jail, I asked around. It was worse than jail. He was dead. He had gotten cancer and died quickly. It was shocking, really, for all of us, to come back and find him just gone like that. I realized then that I had known so little about him. The one thing I had known, though, the thing that was most important to me, was how he would treat my sons.

After we moved to Palo Alto, I took Chris up to San Francisco to try his hand at playing chess on Market Street. He was sixteen by then and had a closet full of chess trophies. I had seen a story in the San Francisco newspaper about a man who set up a dozen chess boards every day at Fifth and Market. The crowd that came to play and watch was an unlikely mix of Zen masters and street punks. Anyone could play. By custom, the looser paid the table fee, a dollar a game.

Street chess in San Francisco.
Some of the old men looked like they had been playing on that broad brick sidewalk all their lives. Others, younger and tougher, might have been taking a break from knocking over a convenience store. We stood around watching the games, and when a place at a board opened up, Chris sat down. The young black man he was going to play stayed slouched in his chair, his long legs splayed out under the table, as he picked up one black and one white pawn and wrapped them in his hands and held out his fists for Chris to tap: black or white. I watched the start of the game and then, still practicing not hovering, walked around and checked out a few other games and finally bought a soda from a market nearby and stood leaning against a wall near the old man who rented the tables, twenty yards or so from Chris, close enough to see but not to watch.

Men came and went, players, kibitzers, friends, accomplices. Either they didn’t notice me or I didn’t look like The Man, or maybe they just didn’t give a damn, because some of what they said to each other if repeated to a jury would have been good for five to ten. The distinctive aroma of weed wafted by once or twice. I didn’t get the impression that any of them were homeless, but they were all definitely at home on the street.

Chris and the young man were playing speed chess, using a timer that gave each of them a very short time to make each move. Turbo chess. You have to think fast, more react than think; it’s easy to make a fatal mistake. They were playing intently, the young man not slouching now as they both leaned aggressively toward the board, smiling, talking a bit of trash, making their moves like thrusting spears. Every once in a while one of them would laugh out loud. After about an hour, Chris got up and they shook hands and he came over to where I was. From the big smile on his face, I was expecting him to tell me he’d had another Mason B. Mason-like triumph. But not this time. The guy had cleaned his clock. Chris said he’d been close in one game, not so much in the others.

So, what is it about chess and people on the street? It’s a funny game for a homeless man with violence issues or a tough city kid, don’ t you think? The game of kings, it used to be called. Whatever you think about who you’d expect to be playing, it’s a great leveler. Your chess game is only as good as your mind; and your mind is as good as your chess game.

I can’t tell you how many bums I’ve ignored over my lifetime, how many more I’ve wished I just didn’t see. I don’t know whether to give them money or look the other way. Or hand out cards saying I give regularly to the local food bank. Some Thanksgivings Meg and I take sandwich bags of turkey and dressing and twenty dollar bills to homeless people in the park. Other times I’ve called the cops on some scary lunatic who’s raving at passersby. And yet, when I see a policeman hassling someone with a suitcase and bad hair who has taken up residence on a sidewalk bench, I am apt to go all civil libertarian: Wait a minute, he has a right to be here, this is America. I’m a mass of contradictions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been uncomfortable just walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. How many times late at night I’ve crossed to the other sidewalk to avoid a group of young men in hoodies.

But I can tell you this: Mason B. Mason and the chess players on Market Street made me ashamed of my reflexive stereotyping and the cynicism and fear it fathers.

There are crazy people out there. Drunks and addicts sleeping in the parks. Tough kids gathering on tough street corners. Dangerous people. Desperate people. But some of them are chess players. Some of them wanted to play chess with my son, and he with them.


  1. oh, this is all so true, and moving.

  2. Nice piece. That area of Market never gets too rough, so you don't have to hover too closely.

  3. I lived in SB for 9 years and just remembered Mason and his guitar. A quick Google search brought be here, where I sadly learned of his death. Thanks for the story. I can't tell you how many times I saw his broad smile while he sang songs on State Street; he was a landmark, and his presence is surely missed.

  4. I went to UCSB in the '90's, and the topic of music got me thinking about Mason doing his singing/playing thing on State Street. One time my friend, his wife, her friend, and myself were walking down State Street. They all were new to Santa Barbara, but I knew what was coming as we got nearer to the spot where Mason was doing his thing.

    So of course I maneuvered the two ladies ahead of the two dudes just as we got within 'lock-on' range. Sure enough, Mason's lyrics went something like: "Ah yeah, I see two lovely ladies smiling bright!" The dude always seemed to be singing with a big, warm grin on his face.