ALBANY,CA — A dusty white road slices right through the middle of an immense bleached wreck piled against the shore where Albany meets Berkeley and the Bay.
The wreck has been there for so many years that a spattering of trees and wild plants has transformed it into a virtual island.
It is the Albany landfill, also known as “the Bulb.” Yet a sign erected by residents proclaims the rock and rubble wasteland, “Albany Waterfront Alternative Residential Camp.”
Forty people or so call the Bulb home, though the number depends upon who you ask and why.
Today, Saturday, June 12, is open house, an event organized to encourage city folks to come take a look. It is what may be a final effort to stave off what all know is the inevitable.
On Tuesday, June 15, a new city ordinance will go into effort, one that will expel the landfill residents.
A banner snaps in the wind nearby — an American flag that bends a towering pole, a live-and-in-color newsreel from Iwo Jima.
The sky is wide and blue, the road parched white where towers of anise and rows of lupine and thistle once grew. That is all gone now, carved away by bulldozers clearing a road. The scent of the sea sweeps across the new rocky highway.
A bearded white man sits on a rock just beside the dusty road. He runs pebbles and sand through his fingers as he stares at the ground beneath him. His skin is red, weather-worn and tough — more aged than his 45 years. He goes by the name Jimbo the Hobo.
With a shake of his head and in a bittersweet voice — almost a laugh — Jimbo says, “I’m ready to retire.”
Born and raised in southern Ohio on a tobacco and pig farm, Jimbo says people never did understand him, even back on the farm, even when he was just a boy.
“I was different,” he says. “I’m a genius and nobody knew it.”
A dog jumps about near Jumbo’s old bike, propped up on a rusted metal stand. One strong gust would knock the bike down. The same may be true of Jimbo.
“Been here on the landfill on and off about 5 1/2 years, since we moved off the railroad tracks,” Jimbo says as the dog scratches himself nearby.
“There’s a lot of tension in the air, but nobody’s really pushing each other to make any decisions, you know. They have the money, they have the power,” he says, nodding his head toward the Berkeley Hills, toward the city, east.
“They needed growth, I guess, and they did the best they can to get us out of here by giving us, well…”
Down the road is a table with a clean-shaven man sitting in a chair speaking into a microphone wrapped in white cotton candy. A camera crew zooms in on the landfill resident now a celebrity of sorts. His name is Rabbit. A documentary crew records his story.
“They got their eye on this little spot here that used to be a dumping ground,” Jimbo continues. “It might make a good Central Park, man. It’s just — I don’t know. Times change.”
Jimbo has used that phrase before.
“It was three years ago when a guy committed suicide behind my shack. That was written about, too. That’s when it started.”
A lean yet sturdy black man approaches, dreadlocks bouncing, eyes fierce, as he reaches deep within himself for strength. He is Ashby Dancy, the village organizer.
While some folks on the landfill spent the week before June 15 waiting in campgrounds like prisoners on death row, waiting — just waiting — for that day to arrive, Dancy rode his bike around town and taped announcements on telephone poles.
The flyers read: “Rally for Justice Saturday, June 11, 12 p.m.” It was 1:45 p.m., Saturday June 11. So far, only a handful of reporters in jackets and jeans gathered around, their eyes as tight as bargain hunters at a rummage sale.
Dancy shakes hands and looks you right in the eye.
“I knew you’d be here,” he says.
After a traditional greeting, Dancy launches into a heartfelt rant.
“We’re pioneers, we’re not homeless people,” he declares. “We’re pioneers. We’re not in their faces, we’re not on their streets anymore. We’re waaaay back here out of the way. You know what I mean?”
Dancy examines eyes to make sure.
“They’re going to turn this place into a madman’s park. I mean, you see the camouflage and stuff like this? It’s open house, man.”
Jimbo nods his head. But Dancy has work to do. He says a few more words, shakes hands and wanders down the road toward the table and the film documentary crew.
“It’s almost as if there’s a certain type of people that have always existed,” Jimbo continues, “such as gypsies, tinkers and the type of society that THIS is. It exists here — and it will pass on to history,” Jimbo says.
“People live out here and would like to continue to live out here without being disturbed. Progress is just a walk down the street,” he adds. “I’m upset that I have to go, but — progress…”
A man selected by Bulb residents approaches. He will soon take visitors on a tour.
“I don’t know what politics is moving around or what’s going on,” Jimbo says. “I think Albany is a little big schizophrenic and is afraid to find out that they can have homeless people in the vicinity. There’s going to be more surprises when they begin to dig up stuff around here.”
Surprises? What kind of surprises?
“Well, I would like to leave it at that and part of the reason is that I’m afraid of the law in the first place,” Jimbo says. “I’m afraid of all authorities, not because they’re law authorities but because of the power they can impose quickly, with quick demands. And I don’t want to see that happen here.”
The tour guide approaches. He is somewhere between 30 and 1,000 years old. He has the look of an Australian Aborigine and a Rastafarian. Yet he is as American as Muhammad Ali.
A tall white man with a camera checks out the scene. He appears to be suspicious, but not of the people who live here. Bulb folks later complain he walks right into their campgrounds and tramples over everything so he can get a good shot, though they have told him many times about the rules — ask before entering, ask before taking shots, ask… He whispers something to a woman with dirty blond hair. She nods.
The ancient black man is as calm as the sea as it laps against the Bulb. But a tempest is brewing inside.
He leads city folks and the press to the north side of the landfill, where a shack has a million-dollar view. He does not want his name mentioned, and at first, asks not to be quoted. Irritated by the press, he finally agrees to talk on the record.
“I’m just saying that people have a right to exist,” he says, the blue north bay around him. “This is not man’s Earth, you know.
“When they first came here, they settled on the land without any opposition at all. Until they started expanding. When they started expanding, that’s when all the wars and conflicts began. That’s precisely what they’re doing here again. This is a landfill, for God’s sake. I mean, what further place could the people be? I mean this is as far as we are.
“On each side of us is the ocean,” the tour guide continues with a taste of contempt in his voice. “Do they prefer for us to just walk into the sea and disappear? I’m sure that’s what they want. I’m saying they don’t get that.
“People have a right to exist. People have a right to live somewhere. And you cannot deny people the right to live here. You know you’re not doing anything with the land. You’re making all these promises and none of those promises have been fulfilled.”
Reporters drift away. The tour guide has changed the pronoun from “they” to “you.”
“On Tuesday, you’re going to bring your SWAT in or whatever and you’re going to bring them to clear the land. And once again you’ll have a land without people,” the tour guide concludes. “That’s what you want. God is on this one. And it’s a lot deeper than you think.”
For those that don’t know their way around the landfill, the tour continues. It moves west. There is no hurry.
Meanwhile, a volunteer sits at the information desk and leafs through a three-ring folder where news articles are preserved in plastic.
At the trailhead, Rabbit rolls a cigarette and passes tobacco to a man standing nearby.
Jimbo the Hobo sits exactly where he was an hour before, on a rock at the side of the road. Small pebbles and sand slip through his hands.
June 17, 1999