My photographer buddy Rob Adamo and I wanted a side project to work on together, so I suggested a study on a certain subculture of people I had been curious about since my years living in Huntington Beach, where some of my neighbors were people who lived in vans and RV’s parked along the curb in front of my house. They called themselves “rubber tramps,” and most of them lived in their vehicles by choice, not because of any financial shortcoming. Far from destitute, these people are proud of their lifestyle and consider tramping a noble existence, liberated from the materialistic expectations of mainstream society.
One of the most memorable tramps was Joey Racano, who camped on my block for about 10 years. He had his own website, was a serious environmental activist, had recorded two pretty good blues albums, and played guitar and sang a few nights a week at local bars. He lived in a beat up old van with a pet black crow and a pitbull. During the 10 years I knew him, he saved a beautiful coastal wetland (Little Shell) and another sacred Indian burial ground (Bolsa Chica) from being bulldozed and developed into high end residential communities. At the Bolsa Chica location the developers had already finished building three giant houses before Joey and other activists finally got the operation shutdown. If you’re heading north on PCH from Huntington Beach, you can still see the abandoned houses growing mold on the cliffs overlooking the surf.
After my story about Joey the activist, Rob was sold on the idea. So a few days later we packed up the gear and went out try to find some tramps around the Tampa Bay area. We located our first subject, a gnarled dude named Gator, lurking in a WalMart parking lot holding a cardboard sign that read: “Visions of a cheeseburger”…. So classic! He entertained us with stories about war in Nam and Laos, although we did the math and he would have been 16 at the time he claimed he was on those secret combat missions in the Mekong Delta. The next weekend, on the night before we had planned to go on another search, I literally stumbled upon Kay Alexander — a “former student, former employee, former boyfriend and former band member” — who was at Frenchy’s having a beer. Dressed in leather from head-to-toe, Kay pulled up the stool beside me and asked if I knew a place he could park his van where the cops wouldn’t hassle him. I told him he could lay low at my house if he would let us do an interview and shoot some photos. Seriously, an art director couldn’t have styled Kay any better. He’s probably the most naturally photogenic guy I’ve ever met. The last encounter was with a hippie family in the Ocala National Forest. According to Paige, the mom, they had lived in their old school bus for 15 years. She told me her son had never known any other way of life. He was born in the bus, educated in the bus, taught himself guitar in the bus, wrote fiction in the bus, and, according to him, he damn sure wouldn’t trade any house in the world for that rickety bus.
After our time with each of the characters we met, both Rob and I felt mixed emotions. Some of the situations were sad and others were uplifting. But in each case, the tramps had chosen to live in a vehicle instead of a house. They enjoyed the unrestrained freedom of the open rode, and for that we had nothing but respect. If you ever run into one of these modern-day hobos, don’t pity them. They aren’t stressing over rent or a mortgage and their horizons are usually as broad as they are beautiful. As much as you thrive on routine, they get off on the ever-changing scenery of a life in constant motion. So just roll by, tip your hat and know they are doing just fine.
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