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Monday, May 21, 2007 | Ijah Taylor’s jangling keyboard and rhythmic voice bounces over the sound of crashing waves below. Next to him, a beaten-up hymnal, spells out the melody to “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.”
A Blow to the Bay
An upside-down green hat teems with crumpled dollar bills and change. Taylor, a 56-year-old former reggae performer, says his donations will buy meals — at least for a couple of days.
Taylor sits on the Ocean Beach Pier, decked out in all green: his knotted scarf, fingerless gloves and too-short socks, his sweater, jacket and pants. A pith helmet adorned with a small cross rests atop his head. Beneath it, dreadlocks spill down his temples, graying hair sprouts from his beard.
For three years now he’s been out here on the Ocean Beach Pier, sitting, preaching, sharing God’s word.
“The only real hope,” he is saying, “is to call people to Christ. So I sit here and sing.”
Everyone who walks down the pier passes him. Parents stroll by, their giggling children spinning in circles. Lovers walk arm-in-arm. Fishermen move past with armfuls of tackle. Taylor’s eyes follow them.
They amble down the Ocean Beach Pier, a 1,971-foot structure that claims to be the West Coast’s longest. Each passerby carries different hopes and dreams. Some want fish. Or to finish their shift. Some seek something bigger. A post-military education. A move away from San Diego. Or just a buck for a meal.
Taylor says the Lord led him to this place. The Pittsburgh native once led a sinful life. He’s left that behind, he says, since he caught the Holy Spirit.
He is talking about Anna Nicole Smith — “she’s in hell” — and Teletubbies and Ellen DeGeneres. He rails against Islam, against homosexuality, against Mormons.
Down the pier, the evening lights begin to warm, and the gray sky slowly slips to black. Taylor says he hopes to travel north, spread the word in Oceanside, maybe farther. Until then, he sleeps in a vehicle in Ocean Beach.
“This,” he says, “is what the Lord has given me.”
At the foot of the Ocean Beach Pier, the parking lot reeks of garbage, stale beer and rotting kelp. Flatulent motorcycles roar past. Cars swish and bass thumps. The sounds of a vibrant night melt into a cacophonous melody.
But a few feet out on the pier, beyond the breakers and wave-starved surfers, lies a place uniquely San Diego. Out here, as evening settles in, the pier slowly awakens into its nocturnal life. Ten minutes’ walk from shore, the city soundtrack is silenced. Seals bark, the ocean gently laps, fishing lines whistle as they fly off into the sea.
The sounds of tranquility blanket the pier.
After a full day of administrative work Thursday, Victor Reyes headed for the pier to burn stress. Fish started jumping as soon as he dropped his first line.
“It’s just quiet,” the 27-year-old says. “You don’t have any street noise, any yelling. Just the wind, the waves, the seals.”
Nearby, Roy Johnson perfects his cast. He knows sharks are lurking, a few hundred feet out. For now, they are his target.
In daytime, the 28-year-old from Chula Vista is focused on school. Southwestern College. General education for now, “just to see where it takes me,” he says. But after spending seven years in the Navy, he’s not sure what he wants to do. Journalism? Nursing?
When he got out of the Navy, “everybody said I should go to school,” he says. “I said: School?”
Closing time hovers an hour away at the café midway down the pier, and Kay Zamora turns to a customer waiting for hot cocoa. You want whipped cream with that?
She is slender as a rail, blonde hair fluffed up, the type of lady who won’t reveal her age. Her first day here was five-and-a-half years ago. Six years in November. Her first two weeks left her feeling nauseous, the pier rocking beneath her feet.
“I don’t feel it anymore,” she says. “But, it’s good for business.”
She pushes through her duties, waiting for 9 p.m., closing time. She likes her job, even on those sunny days when the crowds are thick.
“It’s fun, on the water,” she says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
Watch the lively woman in the red jacket: Headphones on, arms akimbo, recklessly flailing. She spins. She whirls. Like an amateur ballerina she goes, traipsing down the length of the pier, legs jiving, hips swinging, body swaying. She dances alone, moving like Julie Andrews through an alpine field. The woman slides from an arc of orange light into the shadows, back into the light, again and again.
She draws near, reaches in her pockets and pauses.
A lighter flicks. She pulls a deep drag.
“Good evening!” she says, drawing the last word out: Eve-ahh-ning.
She exhales, and a thick cloud of pot smoke drifts off into the night.
The five friends loitering around a pier bench predict their catch. A shark is going to be caught too-night!
They are impatient, yanking lines up at the slightest bob, chucking mackerel fish heads into the water for chum. Bites are rare. When they do feel a nibble, they pull up a line, nearly snapping the rod. A girl bounds past and halts at the promise of fish.
“Ooh! I wanna seeeee!” she squeals.
Eric Fraser holds a fish-free line. “It’s seaweed.”
Eric is 22, five years out of high school and wondering what’s next in life. His car was repossessed a few months ago, he’s been bouncing between jobs and getting anxious to split. San Diego is tired. Post Falls, Idaho is calling.
“I went up north a few weeks ago,” he is saying. “It was heaven. Deer, bald eagle nests. People were nice up there. Pine trees. Snow. You don’t get that down here. Just bad luck after bad luck after bad luck.”
For now, Eric hops from couch to couch. No fixed address. He is talking about his experience as an extra on the TV show “Veronica Mars.” He wore a tux for the first time. Visited a college campus for the first time. It was the most funnest thing he’s ever done, he says, those three or four episodes.
His four friends play fight a few feet away. They’re covered in hoodies, trading jokes, passing around a two-liter of Mountain Dew and sharing drags of cigarettes. Eric stands alone, arms slumped over the railing, dreaming of something better. He just needs to scrape together a few bucks, enough for gas.
“Me,” he says, “I just want to start over while I still have a chance.”
His younger brother walks close.
“You guys gettin’ any bites?” Eric asks.
“I ain’t gettin’ sheeet,” his brother replies.
So they pack up, loping down the pier, laughing as they walk. No sharks, no fish, hardly even a bite.
Off they go, back toward home, the beckoning city.