By Philip Scott Wikel
On the ragged, sandy, and windswept edge of a town at one time immersed in oil, is a swath of land that, from a distance, seems just a river bottom. It's framed on its northern border by a trestle bridge, on one side by a levee, on the other side, by a stand of dubious eucalyptus and tattered Monterey pines. A sandspit beach serves as its Southern border and, in summer, when the flow of the river is low, a lagoon encompasses one-eigth to one-third of the entire area of what many of the locals call "Hobo Jungle." The jungle is home to ducks, cormorants, sandpipers, pelicans, squirrels, stray cats and a dozen or so human-beings. You don't often see the human inhabitants of this mini paradise as they are, for the most part, hidden from sight by the tall Arundo donax that grows like wildfire, an unwelcome, reedy intruder in a sensitive habitat of saltbush, narrow leaf cattail, and California bulrush. Hidden works two ways in this case; as safe refuge for those not wishing to be seen and, as a veil, for those who would rather not see them.
The animals of course live there deliberately and by choice, as do some of the human inhabitants. Others find themselves there because, in the world adjacent to the jungle, life has become too expensive to manage. The bottom has dropped out for one reason or another and the safety net offered by the adjacent world is too small to accommodate the numbers in need of its embrace. Some are the terminally unemployed, some, shell-shocked veterans of foreign wars, a few are just plain drug addicts or alcoholics and, still others are what you might call fringe-dwellers, those folks who inhabit the hollows, canyons, caves, riverbeds, abandoned buildings and the forests of America seeking solitude and/or to avoid being part of the race.
While a general description of their respective situations and stories serves to narrow the focus of this narrative, it might be said, that for everyone who lives there you will find a unique, possibly sad, maybe tragic, and maybe still, an inspiring story that might remind you of how simple life might be lived, if only metaphorically. And finally, how close anyone of us is to finding ourselves similarly appointed.
On the East side of the levee is what appears to be a military base; quanset huts, utilitarian architecture, chainlink fence, asphalt, and dirt. An eyesore when you consider what it was in the time of the Chumash. And even in the vision of E.P. Foster, a local altruist, who in the early 20th century donated the land, in perpetuity, to the local citizenry for use as a recreation area, free of charge. For a brief period within that vision, it was a woodland in a coastal desert. It now serves alternatively as a used car lot, a flea market, a speedway and, for ten days of the year, as a fairgrounds, for which Mr. Foster's local citizenry pays dearly to walk from one end to the other.
Finch Gilbertson hunched down to get a closer look into a tidepool. In doing so he got dizzy and pased out. He'd gotten drunk with the others the night before and the rush of blood to his head carried with it the remnants of the jungle's festivities. A tidewater goby shot across the pool as Finch's hand fell at its edge. Finch would be sorry he'd missed it. It's what he'd come to see. With a Pell Grant from the local college he'd managed to enroll in a couple of courses, one being Marine Biology. But the girl sitting next to him the night before, the one who claimed to have worked in real estate, as a clothing retailer and even said she'd been a coffee merchant, had handed him the final hemlock of the night; a triple shot of Petrov punch. She'd promised him the world if she could find it and even a roll in the mustard greens. As drunk as Finch was, he'd believed her.
At nineteen he'd found himself in the jungle, the product of welfare parents, victims of a local oil industry that had run its course. Finch had visited the local marine aquarium with his middle school class and the memory of this had stuck with him. There was a whole world in a tidepool, a world small enough to be understood and a world that he felt needed protection. Creatures like the Goby were, like himself, endangered. And without a helping hand, they'd both disappear.
The sun was high in the sky when Finch came to. Late summer, he thought, must be about one o'clock. He had a class in an hour and a bus to catch if he was going to make it. I'm never going to drink again, he thought.