I met Lee in 1997. He squatted at the bus stop shelter by my house in San Francisco’s Lower Haight.
Lee was a tall, exceptionally fit brother, mid-to-late forties, with natty shoulder-length dreads and a long, scraggly beard to match. He was missing most of his top and bottom front teeth.
I was 18 and living in a sectioned off hallway of an old Victorian. The hallway was nicknamed “The Taco” because the walls were so narrow that my hand-me-down futon mattress folded up on both sides resembling a taco shell. The space cost me $150 a month, utilities included.
The living situation was suitable for me back then. I worked only part-time at a bagel shop downtown, making just enough to get by. I was broke, but content. I had ample time to skate with my friends, plenty of bagels to keep my stomach full and a running tab at the corner store.
Lee was without question one of the hardest working recyclers in town. He had Upper and Lower Haight, Hayes Valley and the Upper Market/Castro area on lockdown, scavenging the recycling from these neighborhoods hours before the garbage men arrived. Afterwards, he cashed his collection in at the buy-back center on Market and Church streets. He then spent his evenings lounging at the bus stop shelter by my house, smoking rollie cigs and weed and listening to the classic soul and R&B station on his portable radio.
One evening, while waiting for the bus to Upper Haight, Lee told me that he’d been living on the streets of S.F. for over fifteen years. I know he made decent money recycling, probably as much or more than I was making at the bagel shop, so why he remained homeless, I don’t know. I guess he preferred it. During this same conversation, Lee said the only three things he ever spent money on were tobacco, weed and batteries for his radio. That’s it. Everything else, including food, he scavenged out of the trash.
In the summer of 2000, my landlord sold the old Victorian to a real-estate developer who wasted no time giving me, my roommates and the other tenants the boot.
I ended up couch surfing for a month before finding an affordable room in a skate house in The City’s Richmond District.
Close to four months went by before I saw Lee again. It was a Thursday afternoon. I had just finished eating lunch by myself in Upper Haight. Lee was posted up on the corner of Haight and Masonic. He had five large, heavy-duty garbage bags overflowing with recycling tied down to his cart.
I was feeling down this particular day because I had just received word two days earlier that my old friend, Rubin “Peanuts” Grimes, died of a heroin overdose. The news didn’t come as much of a surprise. It was only a matter of time, really. He overdosed twice before. I was scheduled to leave town early the following morning to attend his funeral on Sunday.
Rubin and I were the same age. We actually started skating together in the sixth grade. His nickname was “Peanuts” because he was obsessed with the Charles Schulz Peanuts comics. He even had a tattoo on his right-shoulder of Snoopy (as “Joe Cool”) doing a wheelie on a skateboard. The tattoo was corny as hell, yet fitting.
Rubin was a natural on the skateboard, definitely good enough in the mid-90s be sponsored, but quit senior year of high school to shoot junk fulltime. He started dabbling with the drug junior year, snorting a little here, smoking a little there. By mid-senior year, he was shooting it. It was all down hill from there. He never did graduate.
Pretty much everyone had long since given up on Rubin, his family included.
Although Rubin and I lived in different states, we talked on the phone every so often. We’d reminisce about the old days, and he would always tell me that he was going to start skating again, maybe even come visit me in S.F. That obviously never happened.
Given the circumstances, I wasn’t in the mood to socialize with anyone, but decided I would at least say Hi to Lee before heading home to pack for my trip.
“What up, Lee?” I said as I approached.
An immense smile came over Lee’s face, revealing his missing front teeth. “How the hell are you, my man?” he replied.
We shook hands.
“I’m good,” I said, trying hard not to look sad. “How ‘bout you?”
“I’m blessed,” he replied, pointing towards the bags of recycling tied down to his cart. “Too blessed to be stressed. Business is good.”
“I see that.”
“Where’ve you been hiding?” Lee asked.
“I moved. The landlord sold the building and the new owner gave us the boot. I’m living out in the Avenues now, Richmond side. It’s much quieter, you know.”
“I’m glad I finally ran into you,” he said. “I got something for ya’. Been holding onto it for a while now.”
Lee dug deep into the bottom of his cart and pulled out an old beat-up skateboard.
“I found it in the trash over on McAllister Street,” he said handing me the board.
All at once, I felt extremely emotional. The skateboard was a Peanuts-themed Nash from the mid-80s. The faded, scratched and peeling graphics were of Snoopy (as “Joe Cool”) sporting shades, a Hawaiian shirt, jam shorts and full pads, busting an ollie off the side of his doghouse. The die-cut griptape read “Joe Cool” in bubble letters. The trucks, bearing and bolts were rusty; the yellow and green swirled wheels coned.
“What do ya’ think?” Lee asked. “I don’t know nothin’ about boards, but it looks like a good one to me.”
So much was going through my mind that I could barely speak, but somehow, in a shaky voice, managed to murmur, “I love it.”
Lee smiled and said, “Can you believe someone would throw a good board like that out?”
I shook my head.