It’s fitting that the closest thing Isla Vista has to a celebrity is a homeless man.
He’s a legend by all accounts. If you haven’t seen him, you’ve heard of him. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re new to the area. If you’re new to the area and you want to call Isla Vista your home, encountering Pirate is somewhat of a right of passage.
Most see him at night when the act is on. He spouts jokes, plays his harmonica and tells tales of wrecked ships in hopes of receiving spare change, food and company. He caters to a crowd like a tenured comic, knowing precisely when to move to another joke or another patron. He hasn’t quite made a career of it, but he’s certainly made a name for himself.
It’s 2:30 a.m. and he’s considering his immediate future. He can either take the half-eaten breakfast burrito he’s just earned to the beach and call it a night, or he can try his luck on the next group of stragglers outside Rosarito’s. He appears resigned to the former option.
The passersby implore him to tell a joke or smoke their cigarettes out of his eye, and more often than not, he obliges. He raises his eye patch and guides the stick into a black hole, quivering yet persisting. As the smoke leaves his mouth, his audience grimaces in disbelief. The grotesque has met the surreal.
The masquerade of Pirate is now at ease. He’s talking to us as Raymond Lucettle, a vagabond from east Los Angeles. My friend and I ask him how he came to Santa Barbara and, suddenly, Pirate yields to Raymond, who turns out to be an introspective, eloquent narrator.
Mean streets drove Raymond north some thirty years ago. He followed the only person he trusted to Santa Barbara – his beloved sister.
He lived with her while bouncing to and from various construction gigs along the central coast, making just enough scratch to get by. He says the job took too much out of him. He says each day he would wake up and have nothing to live for. Panhandling is tough he says, but at least he isn’t working for the man. He thinks about it for a bit, takes his clenched fist, and throws it down against the table as if he were declaring a strike.
Still, Raymond’s tomorrow will be another struggle, but he says he’ll be fine after his morning 40s. He says: “Sure I need to drink every day. I can’t roll my cigarettes without a few Mickey’s. My hands won’t stay still.”
Raymond’s first drink was at the age of 11, and ever since, each day has either been a bout or a celebration with booze. In the late seventies and early eighties he went nine years without a drink, but one glass of wine brought him back to his comfort level.
He figures he was born in 1952, making him 53 years old. He verifies this by looking down at his shirt, a cartoon collage of Isla Vista featuring Pirate as its centerpiece, and there’s his birth year inscribed in the drawing. Of his 53 years on the planet, he’s been sober for 20 of them, and that’s where he plans to keep it.
He talks about Father John, a local religious leader who tries to help him. He pounds the table again, castigating the measures Father John recommends he take to get better. The police also try to help him, he admits, but he considers the police part of his problem, wondering aloud how someone can be justly arrested for “illegal sleeping.” His glossy left eye is dampening now as my friend Brian asks him why he doesn’t let people help him. It’s 3 a.m. and it’s clear that the question won’t leave an imprint on our friend Raymond, but he pats the pocket with the breakfast burrito in it and nods to us with a hardened frown.
I ask him what happened to his sister and he goes silent. He starts to talk and stops. Starts again, lets a tear descend and stops. Finally, my friend echoes my question and he says: “Aww, she turned out to be another crazy matie. She’s just like my old girlfriend.”
“You had a girlfriend Pirate?”
“Yeah, until she took all my unemployment money and ran off with my car.”
More lurkers walk by, saying, “Hey it’s Pirate. Tell us a joke Pirate. Is it true you can smoke a cig out of your eye?”
“Arrrrgh,” he says. “‘Tis true.” He takes a kid’s cigarette and raises it to his eye, but I can’t watch the Pirate now. Not after knowing Raymond.
Daily Nexus opinion editor Chris Trenchard wonders what else the Pirate can do with his vacant eye socket.