The Bay Area's Reality
By Milan Gagnon
If it werent for the fog-shrouded outline
of San Francisco to the south and west and the telltale industry
and pollution of Richmond to the north serving as landmarks, a visitor
could be anywhere in the world at the Albany Landfill. Robert "Rabbit"
Barringer soaks in the sunset on a hilltop futon, absorbing the
fiery, peach-colored trail left in the evening haze as the star
drops behind the mountains of Marin.
Down the hill sits a waterfront castle built concrete slab by concrete
slab, for the landfills fairies and pixies by fellow resident
Mad Mark, who took his inspiration from Bullwinkle and Rocky. Because
of the peninsulas shape, landfill denizensresidents,
hikers, artistscall the former dump "the Bulb."
Today the Bulb is not only an oasis for urban homesteaders who defy
California law, but the subject of an engaging documentary and a
destination for off-the-beaten-path reality tourists.
Tour guide-slash-keeper of the Bulb Barringer is a not-quite-52-year-old
man who has lived in the Albany Landfill on and off for the past
five years. By degree a painter, nature an outcast, and circumstance
the landfills resident manager, the bearded Barringer defies
stereotype or easy one-word descriptions like "homeless."
"Only the very rich and the very poor can live this way,"
Barringer says, showing off his stash of freshly dumpstered delicaciescrab,
oysters and shrimp are potentially on the Bulbs menu tonight.
"Im living so large," he says. "Ive never
wanted for anything here." If dumpster diving is a science,
then by sheer experience, Barringer has exceeded his UC Berkeley
bachelors degree in painting. The trick is arriving early
to catch the packaged perishables while theyre still cold.
Stores discard food the day it expires or if the packaging is blemisheda
stain on the cardboardll make a $6 frozen cheesecake free
for the fortunate scavengerand a nick on its peel makes an
The Bulb ceased being a landfill and became a public park in 1986,
but traces of its old life remain in sculptures fashioned from salvaged
rebar and broken toys and in the non-indigenous bamboo that has
sprouted from discarded yard clippings. "Homeless"Barringer
says he doesnt know any homeless people ("Everybody I
know has a home.")people began moving in a few years
later. They occupied the area in tents, trailers and hand-built
houses until a mass eviction in 1999. The recently released "Bums
Paradise," directed and produced by Tomas McCabe and shot and
narrated by Barringer, picks up three weeks before the evictions
that sent 30 people back to the streets and follows the saga through
the police raid on the residents last day.
The film provides an insiders view of life in the landfill
and is told as much in visuals as the spot poetry and prose of residents,
including Barringer, Jimbow theHobo and Ashby, who puts a for-sale
sign of $145,000 on his dont-call-it-a-shack. "And as
long as they keep fucking around, each day its gonna go up,"
Ashby tells the camera in the defiance of the upcoming eviction
by Albany police and state troopers. Besides Barringer, who returned
last year, and castle builder Mad Mark, none of the films
players remain there. Jean Paul, a resident for nearly a decade,
was found dead in his tent of natural causes on Oct. 15. When the
City of Albany turned the Bulb over to California, state officials
said they evicted everyone because of the improvements necessary
to make a state park out of a former landfill and homeless encampment.
However, four years later, the Bulb remains much the same, with
nary a drinking fountain, public restroom or garbage can added.
McCabe is still struggling to pay for the film despite local media
acclaim and awards including "Best Use of DIY Resources"
at the DIY (Do It Yourself) Film Festival and Second Place for Best
Documentary at the Saint Ann Film Festival in Moscow. For him, the
film is as much a labor of love as the product of hard laborhes
as handy with a camera as he is with a jackhammer. He totes a backpack
full of DVDs to screenings and passes around a donationbag for those
who dont buy. Another method McCabe and Barringer are exploring
to pay for the film is "Rabbits Reality Tours."
For a donation to Barringer and another to "Bums Paradise,"
the curious and daring can experience two to 24 hours of homelessness.
So far, the tour has had few takers, although a county garbage commissioner
has expressed interest in the dumpster-diving aspect to see what
people throw away and how scavengers find ways to reuse it. Landfill
residents make decisions as a group, and Barringer ran the idea
of the tours past his fellow Bulb dwellers before going ahead with
Barringer shares his community with five fellow residents, occasional
overnight campers and partiers in the landfill amphitheatrea
fire pit ringed by found-object sculpturesnot to mention the
fauna. A local woman feeds a family of feral cats; raccoons, possums
and vultures scavenge leftovers; and falcons soar over manta rays
sunning themselves in a shallow lagoon.
After camping out for the past five years, Barringercant see
himself returning to the rat race he ran in various nine-to-five
gigs or the Berkeley rents he paid for 30 years before circumstances
brought him to the landfill. "Im not antisocial, but
corrupted, I guess," he says, "an alien, an expatriate."
Morning in the landfill starts not with blaring car horns or alarm
clocks, but with bird chirps and train whistles, and everything
smells wet. Its as much audio and aroma as it is emotion and
Morning breath and that un-showered stickiness may be the first
things a person notices unzipping a sleeping bag and peeling off
the ground, but the odors are quickly offset by those of last nights
campfire and the peaceful ocean breeze. Coffee is brewed on a gas-powered
stove using dumpstered filters, which in a pinch can double as facemasks
when the siren squeals at the Richmond refinery to signal a southbound
cloud of gas.
But the easy landfill mornings and 24-hour tours may not last for
long. And those wishing to experience the Bulbs artwork, sunsets
and serenity would be well advised to contact Barringer pronto.
The discovery of Laci Petersons body in the Berkeley Marina
just south and the defense used by her husbands attorney
she fell victim to a satanic cult that operates in the landfill
have focused new police attention on the camp. Never mind
that in five years Barringer hasnt heard a single chant, witnessed
a single sacrifice, or seen anything stranger than a dozen topless
moon-worshipping lesbians camped around a fire in the amphitheatre.
Never mind that the artists collectively known as Sniff, responsible
for much of the landfills artwork since the early '90s, proclaim
that their images of heaven, hell and purgatory are not satanic
and none of them are Satanists. A crackdowns a brewin,
wont be evicted a second time.
"Basically, I just want to break it down and get out of here,"
he says. "Im totally ready to go. Im tired of this.
Im getting too old for this. I mean, Im having a good
time, you know. Im not complaining." He hasnt seen
a doctor in a while, wants to make sure everythings working,
knows his eyes at the very least arent in the shape they once
Barringer isnt sure what will happen to his home when he leaves.
Dwellers keep the area safe from fires by clearing trails, keep
it clean by asking partiers to recycle trash, and keep the Bulbs
scavengersraccoons, vulturesfed with their own scavenged
food. But Barringer wont deny that hes responsible for
much of the orderif a potential resident isnt cool with
him, chances are he wont be with anybody else, and Barringer
has sensitivity to the personalities, addictions, and mental afflictions
of residents. Because of all this, he says, "Im gonna
come back in the spring, and Im gonna finish what I started
So when the sunsets start earlier, when amphitheatre campfires and
good conversation arent enough to fight off the Albany freeze,
when the bird chirps stop and the coffee cant brew soon enough,
Barringerll break down his tent. Hell hide away what
he can, get rid of what he cant, roll up his bag, and spend
the winter indoors to wash up, to write, to sleep in a bed. Hell
continue promoting "Bums Paradise"a possible
Ann Arbor Film Festival screening will allow him to reconnect with
the Detroit family he hasnt spoken to in six yearsand
hell continue his work in the Bulb when springtime comes.
"I want to have a lasting effect when I go," he says.
"The story will continue to spread about Oh, Rabbit did
this and did that, you knowitll be all complete,
you know, there wont be any messes or anything. And so itll
be kind of an urban legend, like a Johnny Appleseed-type story.
It doesnt have to all be true, you know, to keep it alive."
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