John is part of the first official generation of slackers. He’s a self-proclaimed “slick tracker.” Working is just another messy detail that society imposes upon him. He’s turning fifty on Monday. And he truly doesn’t look much older than thirty and doesn’t really act it either.
He’s slowly sanding rudders. It’s one of those days when the marine layer never burns off, but the heat gets trapped beneath the clouds, creating a muggy air southern California rarely feels. All the boats are pulled up on the dock and put away neatly. Each boom raised, each hull glints in the sun that’s trying to break through. He drags his hand over one of the rudders after sanding it a little. The dust sticks to his callused hand in a thin silky opaque layer. Damn it, hung over. His philosophizing today will be totally different than last Friday because, today it’s Monday and he’s hung over.
The dust seems to cling to every piece of his outfit. The khaki shorts have definitely been worked in. His boots are spattered with gel coat, paint, and resin. He has scrunched up the sleeves of his faded navy UCI Sailing shirt. He grabs his thick fading beard and runs his hand down it. This is one of those proud beards. It’s thick and dark and casually groomed. It’s one of those beards that pubescent scraggly ones look up to and envy. They strive to be like this beard someday. But this beard makes berth on a man that might not have the envy of others with beards not so proud. This man, with this proud beard is the Boatman for the UC Irvine Athletics Program. He’s the guy that you sometimes see sanding bottoms of boats, relaying fiberglass, or applying new gel coat. He’s that behind-the-scenes guy that everyone takes for granted. He’s that guy that people don’t realize they need until he’s gone. Which the rowing team might be realizing in the very near future.
John ended up working for the UCI Rowing Team in 2000 after he stumbled upon a job offer in the Pennysaver. He proposed to work for the UCI Sailing Team as well and thus, he had a job. But John has had lots of jobs over the years. And this is truly one he’s stumbled across like the majority of the places he’s ended up throughout his life.
But, before these stumble-upons, John was born and raised in Costa Mesa, California when it was still country. Everyone had an acre and more often than not, a horse. He was the middleman of five brothers and sisters. And the son of a pencil-pushing pocket protector father that worked as a machinist for Ford during the war in Vietnam. John was growing up in Orange County’s late sixties boom. “Everything that’s cool and old is gone,” he mentions. This is pretty much, decidedly, how John sees his world now. Reminiscing and storytelling probably take up a large portion of his day.
“There were some wild concerts at the fairgrounds. Like Newport Pop Festival and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Me and my brother pedaled over on our Stingrays and hopped the fence. It was great.”
For John, the 60s and 70s were still free. Freedom. That’s a word that he would love to live by but is often plagued with. He just wants to be. Let his creativity run. He’s a poor man living in area that’s uncomfortably rich. He gave up the chance when he was young to run in those upper echelons. All he knew as a teenager was that he didn’t want to work for the establishment. So pursuing a degree in Fine Art and Painting from CSU Long Beach coincided with his philosophies.
At 19, he started work in refinishing older wooden boats like ancient Chris-Crafts and called those years “Sand Camp”.
“You get high, listen to music, pretend to do work.” And he’s been doing the same deal for nearly thirty years.
In between all the sanding, John took a few hitchhiking trips across America jumping freight trains along the way. It’s something his dad used to do during the Depression and he thought it was something that could be cool, a real On The Road Kerouac feel. However, he finally got caught and subsequently had to stop. And he figures now, “When you’re a young kid it’s cool. People want to take you in. As an old guy, you’re a bum.”
With the eighties came reggae and a random trip to Jamaica on a free ticket stumbled upon by his uncle. There he was, a short-white-dread locked-rich kid; he didn’t receive the warm welcome he was expecting. He did the whole Bob Marley’s house 9-mile thing. And many of the people he came across were just really angry. This trip, too, helped to reinforce his fickle relationship with money. He still didn’t want to cut a deal with “the man” and found that doing illegal boat charters would be a better option. He chartered for a guy that owned a 44-foot Peterson, his dream yacht. He traveled all through Mexico and did almost weekly trips to Catalina. Then the day came when the boat was sold and John had to reevaluate a few things.
He thinks he blew it. Nowadays, being free means having a job. “It’s the restrictions of the world that fuck with you.” His usual lighthearted chuckle ceases for a few moments. He grabs his beard again and runs his had down it. Introspection has spent a lot of time on John. “Jobs just suck the life out of you.” But maybe it’s just the rough Monday hangover talking. “I’ve gotten really bitter. I gotta go see a shrink!” His raspy chuckle back where it should be.
Now, John has finally finished setting up his art studio in Costa Mesa after eight years of refurbishing. There he likes to focus mostly on portraits with oils. Abstract doesn’t interest him much. He does portraits of old TV celebrities like Gene Scott and Scott’s ex-stripper wife. He also does a lot of self-portraits. He recently got this great deal on a printing press. “There’s dough in the printing press. It’s great, I traded dope for it.”
He lives in his own house “on the cheap” in Costa Mesa as well. The house is an old school farm style place with overgrown gardens and bushes all around. Living free.
He’s an aging hippie. And seems to be slightly uncomfortable with the prospects ahead of him. He’s nearly fifty. His father died at 70 right after retiring. John figures he’s got twenty more years to get his creativity flowing freely, but society forces him to climb a constant uphill battle with work. UCI Rowing just dropped him to twenty hours a week, jabbing an enormous stick into John’s aspirations. He wants to house swap with someone in Europe. He wants to do another trip around the US. He looks forward to getting a reverse mortgage on his house at 62. Even though he claims to be a “slick tracker,” he’s still got an awful lot of ambitions. And feeding his creativity is highest on that list. But it’s “just a fucking rat race.” He seems to have been grasping at something all these years that was always just out of reach. When trying to achieve something so fleeting as freedom, there will be a lot of failures in along the way.
Though during all this freedom catching, he’s gathered a lot of philosophical paraphernalia. He kind of lives his life in decades with learned philosophies he still carries around in the pocket of his khaki work shorts, ready at any moment. There’s this one: “As training wheels are to a bike, we are to religion. Some people need Soteriology.” Let that one sit in your pocket for a while. And ultimately his bottom line advice is to “try for something bigger than just existing.”