Monday, April 17, 2006

Pirate's cove at Sausalito...

I overheard Sarah talking to someone about the pirates of Sausalito yesterday, and I'd almost forgotten about our brush with them last Fall. Now many know Sausalito as the affluent seaside suburb just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Most people get off the ferry and make a left - towards the cutesy ice cream parlors, jewelry and trinket shops, and so-called art galleries. But the adventurous few will take a right at the elephant monument and walk along the waterfront, cutting through the army barracks and past the industrial sites and wooden boat-builders and the bay model diorama until you eventually reach the houseboat docks or "gates."

Now most of these houseboat enclaves are spiffy, up to code numbers, the wharfs are packed with seaworthy and well-appointed floating trophy-homes for the rich. But keep going, all the way until you reach The Gates Co-op, a ramshackle and waterlogged shantytown that looks like it's sinking before your eyes. These floating homes in the brackish waters of Richardson Bay are made from old boat parts and other "found" structures and they are ugly (or beautiful) as dead barnacles. Electricity crackles along the maze of half submerged walkways through a network of thousands of frayed wires in a massive spiderweb array. Folk art is everywhere, an old tractor becomes a fire-breathing dragon, rusty portholes and hubcaps become tambourines. Everyone seems to be an artist or a musician or a botanist or a repairs and maintenance person. Hippies, yes, but with less flower and more power. Everyone and everything seems to need a good scrubbing, thought it is perhaps the crust of time that keeps this community together and focused and glazed with a sun-baked patina.

Here, skulking along the crooked waterways, in a striped shirt and red trousers, you might just find the lanky likes of Penny Woodstock, the matron of this wayward community of outcasts and, yes, pirates. Think Keith Richards meets Marianne Faithful. Penny will greet you on the dock at ten in the morning with a beer in hand and a swashbuckling story of what trouble she got into last night. She will size you up - "ah, a quiet type, but perhaps not so smart as you think you are" - and laugh a shredded nicotine laugh like you'd been friends since the 60's. She's polite in an English way (which she is), but always keeps conversation at a rolling boil. You might spot one of her handsome daughters pushing a wheelbarrow full of groceries or booty into a wreck of a boat that Robinson Caruso would turn down. You won't see any of the men, as they are sleeping or out at sea finding adventure and swindling yuppies out of their chiantis. One thing is clear: This has been going on for a long, long time.

Of course the Gates co-op is in violation of hundreds if not thousands of codes, laws and rules of common sense. Penny will tell you of the endless struggles, the fines, the arrests, the pay-offs, the resistances, and the eventual total exasperation of local authorities who throw their hands up and wait for these charismatic anarchists to sink or swim. For some this will be a place they want to immediately get the hell away from. For others, it will touch a nerve, a romantic pang of yearning for a simpler life of give and take, art and community, swearing and singing, land and sea.

Here are a few excerpts from a good book on the history and culture of squatting and the lawless, seafaring characters of the Richardson Bay.

(photo by Paul Gachot)


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