HOMELESS IN THE HIGH DESERT / The ‘Maestro’ lives in his own blissful world

By DON RAY, Projects Editor

About three-quarters of a mile downstream from where “the family” sleeps, the most carefree soul for miles has awakened. The man they call Maestro has ever-so-unsystematically and oh-so-randomly grabbed garments from various piles of old clothes — a pair of dirty Levis, a wrinkled polo shirt and some jogging shoes sans shoestrings.

He dresses without the luxury of a mirror and emerges from his makeshift “condo” in the thicket between Eva Dell Park and the Mojave River.

He heads off on foot to join the others at Forrest Park.

They’re able to spot him long before he gets close — he rocks back and forth a bit as he walks — almost as if he’s imitating a chimpanzee.

Bad shoes or too much walking or a combination of both did something to Maestro’s feet.

He’s a bit groggy — he was up until nearly 3 a.m. panhandling at the ARCO Mini Mart at Seventh and D streets.

His real name is Mitchell Head, but he addresses everyone else by his own nickname, Maestro. Soon the folks down by the river responded by throwing the name right back at him.

“I'm not that good at remembering names,” he said. “Maestro is easy to remember.”

Just about any night he’ll be at the gas station mini-mart acting as a doorman and, with his tooth-deficient smile, greeting everyone with his most polite and complimentary salutation.

“Good morning, Maestro,” he says to each male customer. “You look particularly handsome this evening.” To the women he says, “Good morning beautiful lady.”

Maestro is the D Street Diplomat, the Convenience Store Concierge. He’s a 49-year-old man with the demeanor of a Boy Scout bent on winning merit badges — but his badges come in the form of coins and dollar bills.

To Maestro, everyone is beautiful or special or regal — at least he tells them that. He cocks his head slightly and produces a smile that starts off big and keeps growing until it's so enormous all of the wrinkles on his weathered face feel compelled to join in and take part. His eyes are big and brown and warm enough to take the chill off of even the most adamant anti-panhandler.

Where Maestro lives, there are no neighbors — no human neighbors, anyway. But, he’s not the least bit lonely. He has nightly conversations with a couple of raccoons bent on climbing in bed with him.

“This one raccoon grabbed my butt, so I took action,” he said. “I yelled ‘No!’ But he said, ‘I smell food.’ About 20 seconds later he opened my curtain and said, ‘Where’s the food?’ ” Maestro said he tried pounding on the plywood to keep the raccoons out.

“Do not come in here when I'm here,” he yelled at them. “I'll put food out for you, but don't come in here!”He speaks ever-so-politely with a most arrogant skunk, he says — and he swears he chats with even smaller creatures.

“If you talk to the ants they'll stand up on their hind legs and brush back their antennae,” he said. “Oh, and I talk to the lizard in the morning.”

Maestro’s abode is more than cleverly constructed. He placed two large branches — small logs, really — parallel to each other and about four feet apart across a small, dry ravine. Then he turned two shopping carts on their sides and tied them on top of the logs. Then he placed a 4- by 8-foot sheet of 3/4-inch plywood on top of the carts to form a makeshift, elevated floor.

Next, he placed two more shopping carts — resting on their push handles with their wheels facing outward — about five feet apart. They form small cages for his feet and his head. He draped a mattress spring over the two carts and covered it with an assortment of waterproof tarps to keep the rain out. Finally, he Mickey-Moused a makeshift mattress out of blankets, pillows and foam rubber remnants upon which he sleeps — usually very well, thank you. The dome-like structure is surrounded by piles of old, dirty clothes and a lot of seemingly functionless junk.

This particular night Maestro got little sleep. It wasn’t because he came in late — it was because the ants had decided to declare war.

“It all started with I tried to clean the place up. I moved something and they didn’t like it,” he said. “The ants said to me, ‘You destroyed our roof, Dude.’

“They crawled along the wood and then up the shopping cart. They told me I had to leave — or else!” he said. “I told them I was ready for a fight. First I tried to burn the log and kill them, but that didn’t work. They split up into platoons and attacked from the rear.” He fought them off all night, he said.

Maestro has been gabbing with — or feuding with — the critters there for more than a year, he said.

“My watchdogs are the frogs and the crickets,” he said. “If someone comes near my place, first the frogs shut up — then the crickets.”

His drug of choice is alcohol — although he admits to doing some rock once in a while. The family members consider him a delight to talk with — especially in the mornings. He’s always happy and always friendly — no matter what time it is.

“After he’s been drinking for a while, he gets louder — and he starts talking crazy nonsense,” Stan said. “But we just shout at him and say, ‘Maestro! Stop talking!’ He always shuts right up.”

It seems as if everyone has their own Maestro story. Stan’s favorite is the time someone gave Maestro a bar of soap and challenged him to use it.

“Instead, he ate it,” Stan said, shaking his head and chuckling. Maestro jumped in to finish the story.

“Soap was coming out of my pores for days,” he said with a grin. “I had bubbles.”

Maestro is what police and social workers call a “5150” — a reference to the California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150 that allows police to hospitalize anyone for 72 hours of observation if they appear to be mentally incompetent and somehow dangerous to anyone — including themselves. Because of that classification, he receives money from Social Security.

“I get a check for about $780 a month,” said Maestro. “Part is from my work. The rest is because I have a mental disability. I went through a mental breakdown.”

The Victorville sheriff’s deputies know him well. Maestro claims to hold the local record for being arrested — more than 100 times, he claims.

“Sometimes I try to get arrested,” he said. “I don’t mind it, but I hate the TV in jail. I’m almost tempted to bust it.

“One time the Victorville police picked me up but they didn’t take me to jail,” he said. “Instead, they drove the other way and took me way out of town — to Oro Grande or somewhere — and made me get out. So I started pounding on someone’s door and said, ‘Call the police.’ Pretty soon a deputy sheriff came out and drove me back to Victorville. I took him down and showed him my condo.”

When he's had just the right amount of alcohol, he’ll talk about his childhood — how his father was the fastest roofer in history.

In fact, Maestro is quick to demonstrate the complex technique on an imaginary roof. He talks, too, about his teen years in the California Youth Authority camps and how he was stronger and faster than anyone else.

He’s still remarkably strong and fast.

With a few more drinks, he’ll challenge any doubter to an arm wrestling match and then to a bout of Indian wrestling. He always wins.

“I’m fast,” he says as he points his right index finger toward the sky — directly in between his eyes.

Maestro may not be capable of functioning within mainstream society, but he has certainly learned how to function on the fringes.

One of the best examples is the way he figured out how to open a can of food without using a can opener.

He gets down on his knees on a sidewalk and rubs the rim of the can on the ground in small circles — so fast and long that the friction heats up the rim to the point that it pops right off.

He’ll demonstrate it to anyone who asks.

He’ll also explain to anyone willing to listen exactly how a laser beam works and even the theory behind nuclear fission.

And if anyone starts talking religion, he’ll transform himself into an animated evangelist, quote scripture and condemn any non-believers in sight to a fiery hell.

He’s been on the streets in Victorville for most of his adult life. Technically, the word “transient” doesn’t apply to Maestro.

As oxymoronic as it sounds, he could be called Victorville's resident homeless.

Part 3 — Tuesday, October 10
The river 'family' speaks

HOMELESS IN THE HIGH DESERT /Security in numbers -- River ‘family’ opens its collective arms to others who are disenfranchised

By DON RAY, Projects Editor

They don’t wake up to the sound of alarm clocks down along the Mojave River. It’s normally a combination of the overnight dew, the crisp temperature, the brightening orange sky and the annoying blasts from those incessant freight trains that wake up the family and gets things stirring.

And at that early hour their bodies are in dire need of a morning pick-me-up.

It’s not a cup of coffee most of them need to give them that jolt of energy and that temporary feeling of well-being — some of them have addictions that are much more demanding.

Whoever has enough tobacco from the night before will, without asking, roll as many makeshift cigarettes as possible and then pass them out to the other homeless comrades — just to tide them over.

Once in a while, someone will still have some beer or some malt liquor or even a few swigs of Southern Comfort to share — just to help take off the edge until someone delivers what they really need — rock cocaine.

It’s a typical beginning of a typical early autumn day in the life of a not-so-typical group of displaced persons. They call themselves “the family.” No, they’re not related by blood — they’re related by circumstance. They've fallen through — or forced their way through — the cracks of the system. It’s a system that’s supposed to help homeless people jump start their lives and steer themselves back to a normal, productive lifestyle.

Their makeshift river camp is located about where Eighth Street would reach the Mojave River if it didn’t dead end at D Street in Victorville. On this morning, two of the family members head out to D Street to raise some quick cash. They’ll need at least $10 — crack doesn’t come much cheaper in Victorville.

It’s not a tough assignment — panhandling isn’t a difficult task here — especially near gas stations where interstate travelers stop, stretch their legs and glug down a soda.

“Can you spare some change so I can get a cup of coffee?” or “Excuse me, I’m fifty cents short of a bus ticket home. Could you possibly help?” Travelers tend to be a generous lot — always quick to dig into their pockets.

In less than an hour, the two-person emissary has raised the money, connected with the local supplier and is returning to the river with a small nugget of cocaine.

When they arrive with the rock cocaine, Stan Powell, 58, steps forward and volunteers his pipe. He puts the small crystallized rock in one end of the slender, four-inch-long glass tube. A small wad from a Brillo scouring pad holds the rock in place. He lights the pipe and immediately hands it off to another family member. By all rights, he could have taken the first blast — but he didn’t.

Stan (most everybody goes by either their first name or a nickname) is the self-appointed father figure of the group. If he didn’t admit to it, it would be difficult to tell that he’s actually homeless. He wears a baseball cap — no need to flaunt a bald head, he tells people — denim pants, a light blue T-shirt, a blue jacket and brown sport shoes. Tattoos on his forearms fit right in to his overall persona. He’s just a shave away from having the look of a hard-working outdoor man — maybe a construction worker or a truck driver.

And although he’s up to his baseball cap in his own problems, he seems more concerned with the problems of the others.

“Someone’s got to watch over these people,” he said.

By the time the pipe has made its rounds and everyone who indulges has had their quick fix, Stan is left with an empty pipe and a body that is screaming out for its medicine. “That’s OK. I’ll take the push,” he tells them in a sacrificing tone. The push, he explained later, is the smoke residue left inside the pipe after the crack has burned. “I use a wire brush to scrape it loose — there’s usually enough for a small hit.”

On this particular morning, Stan is trying to kill more than just the pain of addiction — he has severe pain in his legs. He’s been having trouble walking. And, for the past few days, he’s been passing blood from his bowels.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I’m really scared. I’m afraid I’m going to die.”

Stan has been homeless for a little more than a year, he said. But he’s been an alcoholic a lot longer. His eyes look into the distance as he tells his story. He was in the Army. His wife had a brain disease and ended up in a mental institution.

Somehow, he ended up having an affair with a 19-year-old woman — the daughter of a colonel at Fort MacArthur. She ended up having their baby, but the baby died. Even though her parents didn’t approve, the couple stayed together, he said.

“Then one day she was riding on the back of my motorcycle — and I was drunk,” he said, still looking off in the distance. “I was drunk and I crashed the motorcycle. I killed her. I killed her. That was December 27th, 1967 at 10:45 p.m. I got even drunker that night and I’ve been drinking ever since.”

It’s haunted him for the past 33 years, he said. Since then, he’s had his share of jobs and wives and children, but he could never remain attached to any of them very long, he said. He spent a couple of years in prison — he doesn’t talk much about it except to curse the booze he says impaired his judgment.

He hit rock bottom last year following a drunken driving arrest and a squabble with one of his actual family members. When it was over, he had no job and no place to stay, he said. The folks at the river took him in — no questions asked. That’s the first rule here.

By mid-morning, most of the family members have migrated to Forrest Park at Sixth and D streets. If the river bank is their bedroom, the park is their living room, dining room and bathroom — at sunrise, city employees unlock and re-stock the public restrooms. The homeless spread some blankets on the damp grass and set up camp for the day.

Some sit quietly, some prefer to sleep and the others talk about matters of consequence — will the code enforcement officer sneak up on them today and cite them for having open containers. Just in case, they keep their cans of beer and other beverages in brown paper bags.

Not far from them a young mother watches her three children screeching and frolicking on the swings — she’s almost certainly unaware some of the homeless people are probably high on alcohol, crack and maybe even heroin.

“We don’t bother anybody here,” said Chris Garcia, 44, with a beer-slurred cadence that seems to exaggerate his mild Mexican-Spanish accent. “We’re not bad people. We just need jobs. Give me a job and I’ll be out of here.” When an outsider suggests that only a fool would give a job to a guy who’s been drinking, Chris quickly responds, “I’ll be sober when I go to work.” The outsider suggests Chris sober up the day before he goes job hunting.

“No way! I need the beer to kill the pain of being homeless,” Chris says. Any further debate is useless. Chris will usually play his trump card and then victoriously pull the plug on the conversation. “Have you ever been homeless? Then don’t judge me until you’ve walked in my shoes.”

Chris is one of the few in the group who doesn’t sleep at the river. He prefers to crash behind a furniture store a few blocks away on Seventh Street. Sometimes he helps clean up the bar next door. It’s a conveniently short commute at closing time.

The men outnumber the women by about 5 to 1. If there’s a maternal counterpart to Stan, it would be 40-year-old Renee Faust. To the others in the family, she’s Little Bit. She was born in Riverside, raised in Needles and then lived up north until she was 20, she said.

“I came to this area 20 years ago when my sister passed away,” she said. “I ended up staying.”

She doesn’t give a lot of details, but she chooses to live by the river even though she has close relatives in Victorville — relatives who have repeatedly asked her to live with them.

“I don’t want to be a burden on my family,” she said. She has long, black hair that glistens after she’s washed it in the river. Her soft, brown eyes seem to say, “Everything’s OK. Just relax.” She drinks King Cobra Malt Liquor out of a can — so do a lot of the others. It’s the cheapest brew in the area. They pick up two cans for a dollar at Leo’s 93-cent Store. And Little Bit rolls cigarettes for anybody who asks. If they offer to pay, she’ll gladly accept a quarter.

Just about everybody in the group smokes, so they’ll buy a pouch of Top Cigarette Tobacco for $1.75. They can roll 36 cigarettes for that price — better than buying a pack of 20 Ideals or Corona’s for $2.

Little Bit’s half brother, Robert Asbury, looks after her — and pretty much anybody else in the family. Everybody’s still talking about the incident a few days earlier. A gangbanger from L.A. was picking on Maestro, a friendly, gentle homeless man with some mental problems, Robert said.

“Old man Chris told him to leave him alone,” Robert said. “I said, ‘The guy’s retarded. You need to leave him alone.’ ” Robert turned to Little Bit for permission to take action, he said.

“I dropped his (butt),” he said. “The cops pulled up and saw him with his jaw cracked and his nose bleeding. The cop asked if there was a problem. We said there wasn’t, so he just drove away.” The gangbanger didn’t come back.

For lunch, five or six of them walk up Sixth Street for a free meal at The Lord’s Table, a service provided by the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. When they return, Ron Edwards, 31, is relaxing in the park. He’s a tall redhead with a baseball cap and a friendly smile. Ron’s story is one of a man who went from middle class to homeless within a couple of months.

“I lost my job, so I had no income,” he said. “I couldn’t pay my vehicle registration, so the police impounded my car. With no car, I couldn’t get to work — even if I could find a job. I was on unemployment, but that only lasts so long. Soon, I couldn’t afford a place to live. Then boredom sets in because there’s nothing to do.”

So he drinks beer, he said.

By about 4 p.m. the number of people in the park grows to about 30 — including the dozen or so who have arrived in cars and vans with food they’ve prepared for whoever shows up. A different church group brings food every day of the week. About all the volunteers ask is that the homeless people join hands in a big circle and say a prayer or two.

It’s not a firm rule, however — if it were, they would be leaving a lot of the homeless people with empty stomachs. To substance abusers, food is not high on the needs list — religion is near the bottom.

Bill Stonerock, 41, likes people to call him by his last name. He’s a charter member of the family — even though he hasn’t slept by the river for some time. For 14 years, however, he lived in a domed camping tent not far from where the family currently sleeps.

“I walked away from my wife and kids,” he said. Before long the other people at the river became his replacement family. “These people are my friends. They always will be.”

He said he was able to boost himself out of the bottom lands a couple of years ago. Then, last year, he fell in love, he said, with a wonderful woman, Lisa Stoner. They made plans to get married on Thanksgiving, he said. He moved to Big Bear to prepare a home for them, but then tragedy struck.

“Right before we were going to get married, I got a call that some drunk had run over her and she was dead,” he said. “And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to read about it in the Daily Press. They wrote that the impact cut her in two. That’s when I lost it.”

Nowadays, Stonerock is a regular at the park — even though he sleeps most nights over at the Green Spot Motel on Eighth and C streets. He cleans rooms, paints and does other odd jobs in trade for the room. He drinks a lot of beer — too much beer, some of his friends tell him. He mixes it with the medicine he takes to prevent seizures. He insists he can’t function without a beer when he wakes up and more beer throughout the day.

He’s at his very best when he takes the children from the Green Spot to Forrest Park for the free church meals every afternoon.

 He brings back food for a mentally ill old man and a man with no legs.

Stonerock isn’t admitting it right now, but he’s also starting to get worried about some stomach problems he’s been having. For now, he thinks the beer will deaden the pain.

As the sun begins to set over the roof of the California Route 66 Museum across D Street, the family moves across the Forrest Park parking lot and sits in the grass near the lighted Amtrak loading area.

Some regular visitors show up. A friend has dropped Shorty off in the parking lot. Her real name is Yvette Lopez. The 22-year-old was homeless in the past and still considers the people here her family. She’s about the same size as Little Bit and she almost always wears a baseball cap backwards.” I come here to help these people,” she said. “I give them the little money I have. I remember how they all helped me when I was homeless.”

Mary Nordahl is retired and lives in a city-owned house near Sixth and E streets. When she arrives at the park, she’s likely to sneak up on one of the homeless and give them either a hug or a loving swat on the fanny. Mary is as much a part of the family as any of the others. She watches out for them — they keep an eye on her.

There’s a secret side to this warm, loving family. Many in the group acknowledge that one or two of the others may make occasional connections with heroin dealers — but nobody volunteers that they, themselves, are users. It’s not something they’ll talk about with outsiders.

As midnight approaches, the family members one-by-one or in small groups migrate back down to the Mojave River where their mattresses or bedrolls remain untouched. No, not too many outsiders venture down that way. In any other desert city in the world, such an oasis-making river would be the center of life for much of the population.

In Victorville, however, the river belongs to a most unique family — a homeless family.