Cambrian: Slice of Life

Beauty and the beholder: Is homeless camp junk, or is it art?

Paraphrasing a cliché, beauty’s in the heart and mind of the beholder, even when what’s being seen is a rather astounding illegal structure that was recently removed from deep in Cambria’s Monterey pine forest.

Some people believe the eccentric structure — part treehouse, part cave and part lean-to — was a dangerous eyesore. The squatters didn’t have permission to live on the land they didn’t own, and a June 16 fire started near there. 

Others, however, might say the treehouse was a remarkable “folk-art environment,” complete with locking door, windows, kitchen sink, generator, barbecue and balcony. 

Who knows? Years from now, the site might even have been designated a state historic landmark. That’s what happened in 1986, less than two miles away at Nitt Witt Ridge.

Art Beal and his Ridge

Local lore maintains that cranky oddball Art Beal (aka Dr. Tinkerpaw or Capt. Nitt Witt) could have briefly been a squatter on his 2.5-acre Buzzard Gulch campsite before buying the four steep lots that became Nitt Witt Ridge. 

Town talk says Beal paid about $25 for each lot, but historian Dawn Dunlap said he likely paid more, unless he cut quite a deal with the Cambria Development Company. 

Dunlap said Beal came to town in the 1930s to work for Cambria Development, but that he also found some stonemason work and other odd jobs, and drove the town trash truck. (Others say he arrived in 1928). 

As is the case with any folk legend, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fable, especially because Beal himself tended to embroider the tales to suit his mood. 

Over five decades, Beal assembled a rambling home that was as eccentric as he was, using his … ummm … thrifty ways, unusual imagination, abalone shells and stuff that other people had tossed in the garbage — beer cans, car rims and parts, washer drums, old stoves and toilet seats he used as picture frames. Beal installed several toilets, having two in one bathroom and one on the roof that reportedly was his “sit and watch the tourists” chair.

Of course, there are many differences between the two situations. 

Beal knew the landowners and bought his homesite. The 2015 squatters set up their smaller camp on protected property that’s not ever supposed to be sold. 

Capt. Nitt Witt’s campsite was more out in the open. Today’s campers were hidden in the woods, presumably on purpose so they wouldn’t be found.

Artists or con artists?

A beholder seeing beauty, or not, also applies to how we think of the homeless themselves. 

Some disenfranchised people are homeless because they choose to be, others because they have no other choice. What we may forget is that all of them are humans who deserve to be treated and acknowledged as such.

The homeless (and our opinions of them) range from them being dishonest and potentially dangerous drug addicts and thieves to being unemployed or unemployable adults or teens, or mentally ill, or colorful characters, or individuals and families who are just down on their luck and without money or a place to stay. 

Our experiences can color our opinions. 

Years ago, on our way to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, we saw a raggedy, apparently homeless man. That night, on our way back to our hotel, we saw him again … clean, dressed nicely and with a functioning iPad on his lap.

No wonder some people mistrust “homeless” panhandlers.

Tales of the homeless

In Cambria, we’ve known a lot of our local “campers” for years, even decades. There’s Baxter-on-a-bike with his oversized kitty, Art with his classical guitar music, and a couple of men who make or sell artistically crafted walking sticks. 

Decades ago, our “regulars” included the jade-

selling, balancing-a-knife-on-his-nose fellow called Robot, and even a couple of members of area business families.

Sometimes it takes an encampment discovery, Facebook post or personal experience to make us really think about the homeless situation.

In a recent video, a young chap handed money to a homeless beggar, then sat on the sidewalk and chatted with the fellow. 

Suddenly, the homeless man jumped up, pleading with the donor to stay there. Puzzled, the young man waited until the itinerant returned, carrying two take-away meals. He offered one to his embarrassed guest, begging the young man to stay and eat with him. 

So, they “did lunch.”

The homeless man said he couldn’t remember the last time someone shared a meal with him, and that their time together made him feel like he wasn’t invisible any more.

I’ve never “done lunch” that way, but I’ve shared food, and I got the reward. 

Recently, I saw a woman with a sign at the corner of Tamsen and Main. I had a bag of fruit in the car — some bananas and juicy tangerines. When I pulled over and handed the sack to the woman, she opened it, gave me a tremulous smile and began to cry. 

I said apologetically, “I didn’t mean to make you sad!”

She replied, “You didn’t. My mother used to put these in my Christmas stocking. Thank you for the memory!”

Some people might have seen a panhandler. I saw a hungry lady. 

Junk or art? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.