The Adventures of Panda, Jack, and Cinnamon
It is Friday and I am meandering through the Beach Harbor area in Oceanside, California with my camera, and violin slung over my should. I am walking to the underpass just east of the Oceanside Pier where I saw them the day before while dog walking, and there they are. The very miscreants themselves. Their names are Panda, Jack, and Cinnamon.
They are sitting against the wall, Jack resting a protective arm over his muscular pit bull Cinnamon, and Panda with his arms wrapped around his acoustic guitar. I smile nervously at them as I approach.
“Is that a violin?” Jack asks as I pass by.
Unbeknownst to them, I have every intention of getting it out and playing it with them even though we don’t know each other.
“Can I play play with?”
“We aren’t really supposed to play here,” he says, looking nervously up the path to where a few cops are standing.
He starts playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and the cops walk right past us, so I get out my violin and start playing along with Panda. There is an older guy there too who is standing on the other side of the underpass. We play “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” again and I feel like my heart is poring out of the wooden box at my chest and the old guy is smiling and wiping his eyes.
“You made me cry,” he says after we finish the song.
“That sounded awesome,”Jack says, smiling up at me. They introduce themselves. The old guy does too. He specifies to me that he isn’t homeless but he likes to hangout with the homeless crowd. I look down at Panda as he is saying this and Panda looks uncomfortable. The old guy is drunk.
Panda, who is really named Scott, tells me that he is Japanese, black, and white. He has these hazel-green eyes that are beautiful and sad and stoned looking. He has curly brown hair with a slightly receding hairline, a stalky build with a boyish face and white teeth. When he sings its like he is trying to rip the pain out of his chest and at the same time, his words seem to be grasping for something to hold onto. He is sensitive and seems to have some wounded pride.
“I’ve realized that people don’t like to hear homeless people talking to them,” he says bitterly.
Jack has a smile as tender as a child’s. He has shoulder length sandy brown hair and wears a grey T-shirt and jeans. Panda is wearing a collared Hawaiian shirt and ripped jeans. Jack has a dog bowl full of dog food for his lady pit bull Cinnamon. He seems more content with himself living a homeless lifestyle than Panda is. He is in his early 30’s whereas Panda is 27, only two years older than me.
“Do you sleep on the beach?” I ask them, trying to romanticize their situation in my head.
“No, we sleep under a bridge.”
“Are there a lot of weirdos around there?”
“Ohhhhh yea,” Panda says.
Panda is singing his heart out and playing guitar and I’m accompanying him with slow smooth riffs on the violin. People are stopping by to put bills in their wooden box. Then something magical happens. A group of about 5-6 people actually stops and listens to us playing. One woman is filming us with her phone and it excites me to think that she is interested in our music. We are playing “The House of the Rising Sun” and love is filling up the space between the homeless and the housed. We end the song and no one speaks for a moment…
And then everybody’s eyes dart to two men, the older one from before and a short Hispanic guy without a shirt on. They get into each others’ faces and the energy goes from peaceful to aggressive within a second.
“Hey man, not here, anywhere but here. There are children here!” Panda says.
Within a flash the bystanders disappear back into the daylight away from the underpass. We are all on edge, hoping that they don’t start fighting. Apparently one of them stepped on the other’s foot, causing the confrontation. A guy who had been listening to our music gets between the two men trying to settle them down. The woman who was filming our music is now grinning while she continues to record the incident on her phone.
Shortly after everything calms down, I leave for the beach as Panda, Jack, and Cinnamon leave to find another spot, not wanting to be there if the cops show up.
Later on I run into Jack, Cinnamon, and Panda near the pier. We talk for a bit and I ask Panda and Jack if they want to get out of being homeless. They both say yes and seem eager to tell me about their dreams. Panda wants to make it with his music. He says some people have recorded his stuff and put it on Youtube. Jack says he wants to go travel around the South and the Midwest. I tell him that the Midwest is cold and that SoCal is probably the best place to be if you don’t have a house.
We say goodbye and Jack says, “hope to see you again and if not enjoy your two weeks!”
I feel even more shattered with love for them as we part ways.
Well, I show up the next day. I don’t know why. I am still feeling called to see them again but perhaps this time around it is more of my ego leading my steps to the underpass than love.
Jack sees me first and raises his arms up and yells, “Marina! Marina’s here!” I am feeling elated and awkward, not sure once again what the hell I am doing here. I approach but am nervous with all the other people with them who I don’t know. They are all homeless and drifters but they all know each other. They fist bump each other as they arrive, share a word, a cigarette or a nod. The old guy who had almost gotten in a fight the day before is there. He is happy to see me.
“Marina, you are so shy,” he says drunkenly,
“Marina I love you.”
“Don’t be weird, man,” Panda says in my defense.
I just look down and smile.
Over the course of 30 minutes of playing tunes and standing against the wall with them, I start to feel like I am almost one of them. New people who they know come to the underpass and show their respect by fist bumping Jack and Panda and then nod curiously at me.
After about an hour they say they have to leave and so I go my own way feeling alone and sad to say goodbye. From watching them I could see that they are a community. They rely on each other to get by. They live their hard times together.
The rest of the world gets to hide their brokenness, but these people don’t have a social status to hide their insecurity in. People in houses can hide their dirtiness with a shower and appear fresh in their clean clothes no matter what their internal state looks like. But the homeless wear their dirt on the outside. They are weathered and smelly and hungry but they are companions. They taught me that a true friend loves you even when you haven’t showered in a month. They taught me about humility.
God bless my dear friends Panda, Jack, and Cinnamon!
Check out Panda’s music here!
Jack on the left, Cinnamon and Panda on the right.
I’m not trying to sugar coat or simplify homelessness. I realize that homeless communities are often built around addiction and other issues like mental illness. However, there is the positive side to every person and we needn’t just focus on the negatives. We need rather a reason to want to help them.