'Bamboo Charlie' builds his private universe
In a narrow plot next to the Los Angeles River, Charles Ray Walker, 59, has created a refuge of terraced slopes from toys and trash discarded by Angelenos. It's his home away from homelessness.
July 05, 2010|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
Amid the gray warehouses, graffiti-covered freeway overpasses and railroad tracks along the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights, a tiny patch of green thrives.
It's off a narrow street lined with warehouses. The first sign of something strange and wondrous is a set of steps, neatly carved out of a bare slope. At the top of the stairs, a chain-link fence with a "CLOSED FOR CLEANING" sign marks the entrance to the domain of "Bamboo Charlie."
The gate opens onto a grove of green bamboo. Beyond is an expanse of earth sculpted into terraces and winding pathways. A multitude of action figures, dolls, toy cars, plush animals and religious statuettes are arrayed across this landscape, arranged in scenes or planted along the borders of dirt paths, like runway lights.
"God bless this lousy apartment," says a sign posted along a curved, earthen staircase.
You've entered the world of Charles Ray Walker, a 59-year-old homeless man who has turned this patch of ground into an unlikely exhibition of his tastes, quirks, obsessions and comic observations.
For the better part of 18 years, Walker has lived on this dusty plot — no more than 40 feet wide and perhaps 200 feet long — wedged between a truck yard and a warehouse.
Homeless people have long struggled to fashion simple comforts from society's cast-offs. But few have done so with Walker's flair. His meticulously arranged found objects suggest a junkyard designed by Santa's elves or a post-apocalyptic Disneyland. There's even a faint echo of large-scale specimens of over-the-top folk art, such as Daniel Van Meter's Tower of Wooden Pallets in Sherman Oaks or Simon Rodia's world-famous Watts Towers.
Walker's raw materials are discards of every description: sea shells, marbles, SpongeBob figures, a Pillsbury doughboy, an Osama bin Laden puppet in camouflage, the Grim Reaper. Posters, traffic signs ("No Smoking — Stop Your Motor," says one) and other detritus contribute to the surreal atmosphere.
"That's my drug exhibit," Walker says, pointing to a horned figure holding a broken marijuana pipe and an orange lighter. "The devil's right there. He's trying to blaze it up."
On a terrace, a doll that looks like a young black prince stands surrounded by a harem of Barbie and Bratz dolls. A foot away, a grinning Tigger figure holds two curvaceous dolls in its stubby arms.
"That's my Tiger Woods exhibit," Walker says with a laugh.
Not far off, two stuffed Elmos sit on a fold-away coach, near a sign that reads: "Reserved for David Spade."
Walker's oasis includes a shack he assembled from discarded plywood, with a bed, curtained windows and a propane oven in which he sometimes bakes cakes. Beneath a canopy of bamboo leaves sits a home entertainment system cobbled together from junked components. A church gave him a generator to power his lights and electronics. He watches movies on a dusty Electrotune CompuFocus TV and eats popcorn he cooks in a salvaged microwave.
He also grows potatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, watermelons, peppers, okra and other fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, people ask him for bamboo leaves to make corundas, a small triangular tamale from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
"Ah man, my nectarines, and my peaches, and everything's growing," Walker says excitedly. "My grapes and my yams popping up all over.... People in the neighborhood come and get the seeds and plant them in their yards. My strawberries are starting to pop up. Look at my carrots!"
Completing this picture of ragged domesticity is a collection of salvaged books: bestsellers by Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz, a meditation on quantum physics and the human mind, and a dog-eared volume titled "The Semi-Complete Guide to Sort of Being a Gentleman."
Walker said he has long moved back and forth between "the homeless world" and "the real world" of rent and responsibilities, and his private oasis reflects that duality.
"When I was in the real world, I had a garden. Why not have a garden in this world?" he said. "In the real world, I had a TV. Why not in this world?" He is fastidious about cleanliness. "I cleaned up in the real world. Why not clean up in this world?"
Walker grew up poor in El Campo, Texas, near Houston, the second-oldest of seven children. As a boy, he picked cotton with his cousins and grandmother. His father, a jack-of-all-trades who built houses, welded and poured concrete, instilled a strong work ethic in his son.
When he was 15, Walker went out on his own. He got jobs landscaping and installing sprinklers and eventually became an irrigation foreman. He says he had his own home by age 21. But he had taken medication for hyperactivity since boyhood, and as an adult he bored easily and could never stay in one place or in the same job for very long.
He said he first came to L.A. in 1971 because he wanted to see Hollywood. By the late '80s, he was living on the streets of skid row off and on.