Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Characters: "Otto Van Otterson" (pt.6)

We searched in mostly silence, using the long foray into Hillcrest as much to exercise as to sate Marcie's curiosity. Marcie and I were out of breath as we trudged up and down hills with no real destination. Finally, she stopped to rest.

We had wandered over to the bus stop bench in front of a Union Bank. Across the street lay one of Marcie's favorite places.

"We need to go there and get chicken pie some night," she said, pointing at the Original Chicken Pie Shop.

All I knew of chicken pot pies was Stouffer's, a dinner we sometimes had at my father's in my childhood. I hated them, but I was willing to try a new source once.

"Sure," I said. "So tell me. How did Otto come to be the ambassador for the river people?"

She was tiring after an hour of wandering, and she smiled and rolled her head back, her red hair catching the sunlight just so as I looked over at her. She looked at me sidelong, smiling.

"Well, I don't really think he's the ambassador by any appointment," she said. "He's just really gregarious and friendly in his own quirky way, and he always smiles."

"So he is more of a goodwill ambassador?" I asked. "Kind of a San Diego Chicken for the Mission Valley Homeless?"

She looked at me and rolled her eyes, tugging on the straps of her backpack, which I slid off her shoulders.

"Thanks," she said. "And Otto is a diplomat, honey, not a mascot. Why do you have to trivialize everything?"

She almost pulled it off, but she guffawed as I went silent, into her hands. "Okay, okay," she said, snorting a little.

"The first time I saw him, I was on the 25 and we were pulling into Fashion Valley," she detailed. "He was standing at the corner behind the Town and Country and waving."

I had seen him do this once, at the entrance to 163 from Hillcrest. I at 6th and University by City Deli and watched. People honked or waved back. He made incoherent sounds at the passing vehicles, waving especially at people who yelled at him.

I had instantly respected him, his suit and beard well-groomed, if one was layered over others and the latter long and in need of a trim. His life was not easy, but he was enjoying it, and his possessions sat at his feet as he took time to hearily hail.

"Hmm," I said.

"Then he showed up at CVS, " she said. "Then one day, I saw him with another homeless guy who had shoplifted from us over by the bus stop at the freeway entrance, by Texas street. The police were arresting the young guy."

I looked at her as we crossed and passed the Hillcrest Stationary store, and she took my hand and swung it as she continued. I remember her smiling.

"The police kept telling him to stay over by the bus bench, and he kept going back and mumbling in his language, then he would smile and pretend to sneak up on them," she said. "Then he would be standing nect to them..."

She stopped and cracked up, so I shook her hand a little and waited. "Well?" I asked.

"He would... huh! He was imitating one of the police, standing behind them with his hands on his hips and pointing at the younger guy, then when he would start warbling how he did, they would make him go back," she said.

"So he was harrassing the police?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, no," she said. "I overheard them asking the guy why he hit Otto before I got on the bus. I saw them let the guy go when I transferred."

I nodded, "Because Otto didn't press charges?"

She shrugged. "I decided that Otto had convinced them to let him go, and since I knew the other one lived at the river, and I knew Otto sometimes sat with other river people, that he must be their representative, looking out for them."

"Huh," I said. "Who knows?"

She squeezed my hand. "Oh, I know," she said, a twinkle of mischief in her eye. "I totally know, honey. Otto is the ambassador. He has lived here most of his life and he is the king of the urchins."

"The king?" I asked.

"Well, you know what I mean," she said. "He is dignified and he has pride and character, and he kind of sets an example and does his own thing."

And she looked around, turning her head and yanking my arm downward, turning me.

And there he was, lowering a bag gently into his Mayfair cart as he jabbered at the wind. He pulled a small, feather-bearing fedora cap, a bit stained with sweat, onto his head and laughed, the sound echoing across the street.

As he turned around and scanned the street, Marcie tucker her head in my chest and whispered happily, "Oh my god, don't look, honey, don't look."

Of course I knew I would need to provide a full report and should therefore not look away.

But I did, and he waved and then pushed on, muttering in a language all his own, master of a worl we simply visited from time to time. One very specifically and beautifully drawn by my future wife.

She peered up at me with her wide smile and her mischievous wide-eyed look. "Is he gone?" she asked.

I nodded and she pulled me down and smooched me, the salt of her sweat and sweetness of her ever-present gloss refreshing and wonderful. "Okay, let's go get a chicken pie."

We did, and I didn't like it. But we walked all the way down Washington to Gelato Vero, and that I did indeed enjoy. And there was still more to Otto to know, though not much and more a note than a story.