Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Characters: "Otto Van Otterson" (pt.5)

Marcie, her interest piqued, simply had to see Otto for herself. The description I drunkenly relayed carried the double disadvantage to her of being both intriguing and less than reliable, given my state.

Of course, it wasn't really unreliable, but Marcie had her issues early on with any drinking of any kind, due in large part to alcoholism in her own family and her awareness of it in mine.

"Honey, you were so drunk, it could have been some random homeless person that you decided looked like Otto," she said. "I just want to go up to Hillcrest and see if he's there."

This was, of course, a mini-adventure, and she would have it with or without me. With sounded safer, not because of Otto, but simply because there was such a profusion of shady characters invading the Hillcrest homeless scene in 1995.

"Okay, we'll go on an Otto safari," I said. "Let me pack a bag with some water and get my wallet."

I packed some water, Marcie's puffed Cheetos, some fruit and a sweater for Marcie in my backpack. Then, while Marcie waited and watched, I also packed a transit map of downtown, a compass, binoculars, my camera, and her survival knife.

"We go to track the almost impossible to find Otterson," I said, effecting a British accent and the breathless excitement of the stereotypical upper-crust documentarian. "This is an ambitious endeavour, and not without its perils."

Marcie started doing her silent laugh as she slipped her own backpack on. We walked down to the stop for the 11 bus and waited, but soon Marcie was antsy.

"You know, I have seen his crew up on 6th by the park lately," she said. "Maybe he has moved there, too. Can we walk up and check the west end out?"

I nodded, and I followed her up the hill a ways, then relieved the silence of the trek. "So where is he from?"

Marcie turned around, eyes wide and biting her lip. "I don't know," she said, voice a little high. "But I used to tell the girls at CVS he was abandoned as a child by the river."

"So he was like Moses?" I asked, smiling.

"No, don't be silly," she admonished. Marcie rolled her eyes and continued walking, the clapping began as she hunched forward and the story poured forth.

"I think his parents were vacationers from Hungary or Austria, and one day, they decided to go home," she said. "They decided that Otto should stay, so they went down to the river and waited until he was playing in the water, then slipped away."

I listened and smiled, but I interjected, "Oh, poor Otto was abandoned!" I said.

"Mmm HM!" Marcie murmured, continuing. "An urchin, lost in a land where nobody spoke his language. All they left him was a paper napkin and some flatware, because they wanted him to not eat with his fingers, which he had never learned to do properly."

I noted the nice summation of the origin of the flatware in the coat pocket, but wondered what food he had. "How did he eat?"

"He spent his early years working the farms in Mission Valley, doing hard labor for money to buy food with," she said. "He also bought a watch from time to time. He never learned to wind them, so he replaced them when they stopped ticking, keeping the old ones."

We both laughed. Marcie looked back with her gentle, doting smile, head cocked a bit. She appreciated our interaction and the attention to her story. I was enjoying it and I stopped her and kissed her, then took her hand.

"How did he know what to do?" I asked as we walked, arms swinging, hands clasped. "Farm work is labor, but there are some basics you need to know, especially with a language barrier."

She smiled and a little laugh escaped her. "His parents were goat farmers in the old country," she said, turning to me and smiling again as I laughed. I shook my head.

"Well, that's what I like to think!" she said. "They were goat farmers who decided to leave Otto behind in the land of opportunity. Unfortunately, he never had one."

I nodded as the story obviously prepared for a dark turn with her voice changing.

"When he was noticed by a police officer one day, wandering round talking to himself, he was taken away," she said sadly. "He lost his little knickerbockers, now way too small for him anyways, his silverware, and his watches."

"Aww," I said.

"They kept him for years and years in a mental hospital, then when Ronald Reagan closed all the hospitals, he was let loose," she said. "He promptly wandered back to Mission Valley."

I nodded and scanned the last bit of Balboa Park's west side for homeless. There were a few, but the weekend volleyball games at "Gay Beach" had likely chased off most of them.

"Everything was different," she said in a mournful tone. "There were few farms and the valley now had a big freeway in it. Otto had only the plastic ware he left the hospital with, a set of pajamas and some moccasins he sewed himself in occupational therapy at the hospital."

I started cracking up, but she grabbed my arm a little higher up and tried to calm my guffawing as she continued, suppressing her own chuckles.

"But in a stroke of luck, he found a suitcase dropped on the side of the road, perhaps fallen off a station wagon, with just what he needed," she said. "Soon, he was in a new woolen suit, sporting not one, not two, but three watches, and with a set of silver utensils."

She stopped as we prepared to cross west toward Banker's Hill. "And what made it fancy," she said. "What made it fancy was the CLOTH napkin, actually a handkerchief, which he found inside the suitcase."

"So he was all set?" I asked.

"Yes, he was all set," she said, clapping her hands as we walked northward. "But he needed work, and for that, he turned to the river, where his destiny awaited."

I began to ask, but she stopped me. "Honey, let's go see if we can find him in Mission hills. I don't think he usually wanders this far. He's not very mobile."

I nodded and we walked on in silence for a while. When we passed Jimmy Carter's, I prompted her. "So was his destiny to be ambassador of the river people?"

She fell forward a little, acting silly. She looked up at me. "Oh, so you're enjoying Otto's story?" she asked.

I nodded and she took my hand and squeezed it. "Well, I'll share more later."