Pete’s Safe, Warm And Thirsty – November 12, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

UMATILLA COUNTY, ORE. – Cellmates of inmate Pete Villarreal in Oregon’s Umatilla County Jail likely don’t know they’re in the presence of a legend. The charges of Disorderly Conduct and Trespassing belie the stature of the meek fellow cooling his heels in the stir.

Arcata’s well-known street wanderer, taken off the streets in a 2008 intervention by his family, is in protective detention. Pete’s content, say relatives, if a little thirsty.

“He’s doing fine,” said his sister, Alma. “He still hasn’t forgotten about beer.”

Alma said Pete made a go of living at home with his family for a time, but eventually returned to his old ways of wandering the streets, consuming excessive amounts of his favorite beverage and placing himself in dire straits.

Alma said Hermiston Police grew tired of arresting and re-arresting him for the same things over and over. So for now, he’s being kept where he can get three squares and a warm bed.

Perhaps it’s the time of year, but recent callers and visitors to the Arcata Eye have wondered about the whereabouts and well-being of the beloved Ragman. And he hasn’t forgotten about them, either. Clean and sober in jail, Pete has had time to reminisce about his many friends in Arcata, where his town-wide fan club remains strong.

“He misses people from there,” Alma said. “He talks about visiting.”

For now, though, Pete is in a better place – away from temptation. “He still wants his beer,” Alma said. “That’s what makes him happy.”

Note: the following story was published in the Arcata Eye November 18, 2009. – Ed.

Pete’s safe in jail

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

UMATILLA COUNTY, ORE. – Pete Villarreal, who left Arcata for Oregon following an intervention by his family, is back to his old ways.

Pete, known as “The Ragman,” was a frequent sight on Arcata’s streets until the January, 2008 move. Years of outdoor life with friends of convenience and a fondness for bubbly beverages led to close brushes with exposure, compelling relatives to take him in at the family home in Hermiston, Ore.

For a time, the family was able to keep him close at home, working to restore his health and mental clarity. But Pete is still Pete, and his restless soul could not be contained. Within months he was back on the streets, and the bottle, again.

On July 4, Pete was jailed for a number of serious-sounding violations – trespass, disorderly conduct, burglary – that really come down to his never-ending quest for beer. He’d been banned from an area liquor store, but couldn’t stay away.

Pete's 2009 jail mug.

“He’s a little confused and forgetful,” said his sister, Alma. She said Pete had neglected to list individuals who he’d allow to visit him in jail, then wondered why no one had come to see him.

A court-ordered mental evaluation is being done. Meanwhile Alma and the family are just glad that, given his high-risk behavior, Pete’s in protective custody.

At 52, Pete’s disregard for his health and a disturbing tendency to wander in traffic make incarceration the most attractive option for now.

In jail, he’s off the sauce, though that’s not his only deprivation. “He misses candy,” Alma said.

Alma said jail personnel have become fond of Pete, phoning the family with updates on his well-being. “He just makes everybody love him,” Alma said.

“The good thing is, he’s fine and we have him alive,” Alma said. “If he was out, he might not be with us any more.”

Note: the following story was published in the Arcata Eye Jan. 29, 2008. – Ed.


Ragman rescued, Oregon-bound after latest close call

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA – The streets, back alleys, police cars and ambulance gurneys of Arcata are going to be missing a frequent occupant from now on, because Pete Villarreal has moved to Oregon. With his health noticeably deteriorating in recent months, Pete’s family has taken him into their care in their home in the town of Hermiston.

The intervention was engineered by artist Alan Sanborn, a Northtown resident who has helped Pete manage his affairs over the years and provided him shelter at times. Alarmed at his decline, Sanborn worked with Arcata Police and Public Guardian Kelly Schwartz to reconnect Pete with his family.

After recent close brushes with tragedy – he’d been rumored dead, and last week was found after a particularly frigid night with a body temperature of 85 degrees – Sanborn knew it was time to act or lose the familiar figure on Arcata’s street scene.

“He can’t take care of himself,” Sanborn said. “He’s been looking pretty puffy and having a hard time doing things.”

Since none of the motels would rent him a room, Sanborn provided Pete lodging in his garage a week ago Sunday. On taking him over to Hutchin’s Market to buy him some dinner, Pete selected a 12-pack of beer, a bag of barbecue potato chips and a bottle of hot sauce.

But even with food and shelter, Pete was in a bad way. With cracked ribs, Pete couldn’t sleep laying down. He never fully recovered from his recent hip injury, had shoulder problems, swollen feet and failing vision.

It wasn’t always that way. Having known him since 1989, Sanborn remembers a time when Pete was more physically capable. “Pete is about the strongest person I ever met,” he said. One time, years back, Sanborn was having trouble removing a stubborn rhododendron root from his yard. “Pete grabbed it with both hands, yanked it this way, yanked it that way and yanked it right out of the ground.”

Unlike many who ply the streets, Pete had style, and enduringly so. Bundled in his familiar blankets, Pete unfailingly sported a fanciful peaked-pyramid headdress of sorts, even in the most troubling circumstances. Friends who offered him fresh garments noticed them fashionably tattered within minutes.

“Pete’s an odd case; a free floater,” Sanborn said.

That outward image as a blithe spirit masked a keen intelligence. Sanborn said that up until six months ago, Pete always knew precisely how much money he owed him. Last week, as he spoke on the phone to his family in Spanish from Sanborn’s home, Pete seamlessly switched to English when he wanted his host in on the conversation.

“He’s sharp,” Sanborn observed.

A family, now and then

Last Tuesday, after considerable case management by concerned stakeholders, Pete’s brother and sister came down from Oregon to pick him up and take him back into the family fold. “We want to keep him at home and help him get better,” said his sister, Alma. “We don’t want him out on the street.”

Alma is providing Pete with three squares a day, alcohol absent.

She and her brother Juan shed some light on Pete’s hitherto unknown early life.

Born in Auburn, California on Oct. 15, 1956, young Pete moved to Mexico when his parents split up. There, he was raised by his grandmother until moving back to La Habra as a teenager.

Even then, Pete’s footloose spirit led to disappearances.

“He was always gone,” remembered Alma. “Once in a while, we’d see him and my brother Juan would go pick him up.”

Juan said young Pete gravitated toward agriculture, gaining skills that served him well later in Arcata. He helped with construction as a welder’s assistant, and in potato plant distribution. Pete also mowed lawns at a golf course.

He had his idols too. One was martial arts star Bruce Lee, from whom Pete gained a fascination for Kung Fu. “He was the number one Bruce Lee fan,” Juan said. “He would get in front of a mirror and do all this stuff and be just like Bruce Lee.” Another contact sport, boxing, was a related interest.

Eventually, Pete moved to Hermiston, Ore. with his siblings. There, he met a girl and became smitten. When she moved to Arcata sometime in the mid-1980s, he followed suit. One version is that she said, “I love you” in a parking lot, and Pete’s Arcata destiny was cast. Legend has it that heartbreak ensued, with subsequent  years of alcoholism and self-inflicted hardship a form of penance.

“He didn’t used to drink,” Juan recalls. “Then after he moved down there, he started drinking heavily, and smoking pot.”

Arcata adopts Pete

While some know Pete Villarreal by nicknames such as “the Ragman” and the disrespectful and inaccurate “Incomplete Pete,” locals familiar with him use terms like “icon,” “legend” and “fixture” to describe the tatterdemalion traveler.

Some refer to him by a term Pete himself frequently giggled at others: “Silly Monkey.”

While they regret that they’ll no longer see him traipsing around town, Pete fans are relieved that he’s in the care of responsible relatives rather than the grotty-dubious personages with whom he frequently hung.

“It’s sad to see a familiar face in Arcata leave this community, but I’m glad that he’ll be cared for by his family” said Mayor Mark Wheetley. He, like others, had noticed Pete’s deterioration in recent months.

“I saw him staggering a few weeks ago. He had dropped his jacket, so I stopped and said, ‘Hey Pete, you dropped your jacket.’ You could tell he wasn’t all there.”

Wheetley’s regard for Pete was shared by other Arcata mayors.  “He’s been with us for 30 years,” said Jim Test. “Everyone grew up with Pete. We’ll miss him.”

“He’s a fixture in town for as long as I can remember,” said Michael Machi. “It’s sad to see him go, but I’m glad he has a place to stay.”

“I noticed that his health was having some issues,” said Harmony Groves. “I’m glad that his family has taken care of him.”

Groves’ veneration of the Ragman was limned with appreciation for his humanity. “He is a legend, but he’s also a person and a nice guy,” she said.

“I’m glad he’s going to be taken care of,” said Alex Stillman. “It’s been worrisome for a long time.”

Police Chief Randy Mendosa lauded Sanborn’s and Schwartz’s actions to improve Pete’s situation.

“I’m relieved that he’s not out freezing on the streets any more,” Mendosa said. “He’s an icon – a part of Arcata, even though he was Arcata’s ‘Million Dollar Murray.’” That refers tothe Reno street person written about in the New Yorker, whose condition – and the inability of authorities to provide a permanent solution – was a cumulative, costly drain on public safety and other services.

The chief said it was hard on his officers to continually extract the Ragman from increasingly dire circumstances. “It was very upsetting,” Mendosa said.

Others were bitter at the loss of a quality-of-life factor.

“No way!” exclaimed Ann Russell on news of Pete’s moving away. “He was going to marry me!” The jilted Russell then imitated Pete’s familiar leer, oft deployed to the ladies: “I looovvvve you.”

Pete’s persistently flirtatious ways didn’t endear him to all the ladies. Sanborn recalls a heated argument in his yard between Pete and a woman not charmed by sexual harassment. The advances rendered Pete persona non grata at Toby & Jack’s.

Despite his behavioral excesses, bartender Donna Hammers had watched with anxiety Pete’s recent decline.

Pete Villarreal. TMc | Eye

A few weeks ago on Seventh Street, she said, “I came across him tipped over on his back, and all I could see was feet. I pulled over and said, ‘Pete, are you alive?’” When the rigor mortised-looking Ragman didn’t answer, she called police, who called an ambulance to take him away for yet another emergency room visit.

Like everyone else, Hammer is relieved that Pete is in loving hands. “It’s a good thing,” she said. “He’s an Arcata icon.”

“He’s a gentle soul,” chimed Jim “Sarge” Hart. He was never antagonistic or harsh; he seemed like a good guy.”

“The last couple times I saw him, he was pretty bad,” said Jay Herzog. “It’s cold up in Oregon; I hope he has another layer of rags.”

“It’s going to be a missed visual in the community,” said Dennis Rael.

“He’s a piece of Arcata history, and I hope he does well in Oregon,” said Joyce Jonté. She expressed gratitude to fellow artist Alan Sanborn for his role in the intervention.

Former waitress Megan Sandstrom remembers Pete being banished from a restaurant she worked in, and felt sorry for him. “I brought him a container of biscuits and honey,” she recalled. “He’s an Arcata icon.”

Arcata Endeavor Director John Shelter also said he used to feed Pete after he found the Ragman digging in the dumpster of his Belly Busters sandwich shop in the 1980s. “I’m so happy that his family took him and he has a place off the streets,” Shelter said. “He became a part of Arcata. No more ‘Silly Monkey,’”

“I’m happy that he has a place to stay and someone to take care of him,” echoed Endeavor Boardmember Roger Herick.

A giggling gaggle of teenage girls enjoying ice cream in the lobby of Jacoby’s Storehouse all responded with nods when asked if they knew Pete. On news of his departure for Oregon, a half-dozen of them gasped in unison. “He’s the Arcata legend,” said Arcata High School freshman Thalia Zeigler. “It’s gonna be weird not seeing him around.”

“Ever since I was a little girl I saw him walking up and down Alliance Road,” recalled Jenny Bowen.

“I’m happy that he has a nice, warm place,” said Julie Vaissade-Elcock.

“He’s an institution,” said Gene Joyce. “A sweet and harmless guy.” Joyce recalled a more muscular and powerful Pete in the 1980s, since dissipated to fragility by street life and its associated beverages.

Don Rosebrook describes a more dynamic Pete in that decade. “He worked at Sun Valley Floral Farms,” Rosebrook recalled. “The workers used to cash their checks at our store [Murphy’s Westwood Market].” From the comparative size of Pete’s paycheck, Rosebrook discerned that “he was the hardest-working guy they had.”

Gads, it’s the end of an era,” said Dr. Jay Davis. “He’ll be missed.”

“Arcata won’t be the same,” said bluesman Charles Horn. “I wish the Silly Monkey good luck.”

Poet Crawdad Nelson, now a Sacramento resident, was pleased to hear of Pete’s upturned fortunes. “I’m glad Pete’s still above ground,” Nelson said. “He is still the only panhandler I ever met that actually gave change, the silly monkey.

“I spent a night with him and some other guys listening to him tell a harrowing and surreal kind of story about crossing the Sierra Madre with a mule during a thunderstorm. I think he may have been struck by lightning or something. I can’t remember, but it was quite a story. There’s more to that guy than meets the eye.

“He’s a kind of missionary from another world, much more sophisticated than our own.”

Pete did seem to possess otherworldy powers at times. This reporter once gave a hitchhiking Pete an unauthorized ride  in the Arcata Union van to the former satellite county courtroom in Valley West in the early 1990s, where he had to deal with one of his camping tickets.

Asked where he had spent the night, Pete replied, “Under an apple tree.” On completing a few newspaper deliveries and returning directly to central Arcata, the reporter spotted Pete standing near the Co-op with newfound cohorts, smiling and holding a balloon.

Dwain Gorforth, now a Kelseyville resident, related memories of his brushes with His Ragness: “He used to sleep under the bushes at my house and eat the apples from the ground that fell off my tree until I told him to eat the ones on the tree. I gave him a job, once, but he left my tools lying on the sidewalk to go get stoned with his friends, so after that I just gave him my spare change. One time, someone gave him a brand new pair of overalls, and in less than a day he had them torn into dangling shreds, back to his standard dress. He looked very funny until the overalls finally got dirty enough to look old. Every time he knocked on my door, he would ask “How’s the little one?” and “How’s the puppy?” long after my son and dog were grown. I told him to stop asking the HSU coeds to marry him, because he was just bothering them. “Oh no,” he said, “I’m going to get married.” My dad and step mother were visiting once and the doorbell rang. My step mom answered the door, and came back white as a sheet. After describing who was there, I said, “Oh that’s Pete,” and she replied incredulously “YOU KNOW THAT MAN???”

“Raggedy Pete was an icon of Arcata, even though some wish he were not,” Goforth said. “Those who knew him during his heyday could tell you he was nothing more than a gentle silly monkey.”

Brother Pete

Beyond his image and antics, nonsense and nicknames, Pete Villarreal is a beloved brother to Alma and Juan. They intend to nurture and restore him to health, and guide him away from the self-destructive street ways he adopted in Arcata.

“We want to help him all together, as a family,” pledged Juan. “The whole family loves him with all our heart,” said Alma.

Juan credits Sanborn – whom he refers to in his heavily accented English as “Mr. Alan” – with saving Pete, further affirming Juan’s faith in humanity.

“He called before Christmas and left messages that Pete was doing bad,” Juan said haltingly, his voice choking with emotion. “There’s no doubt that Pete would have died in the street… There are good people in the world, like Mr. Alan.”

Juan said the Arcata community at large had made quite clear its love for his brother during his recent visit.

‘The spectrum of humanity’

John Woolley placed Pete firmly in the pantheon of fondly remembered rugged individualists such as “Orick Johnny” Antonioli and Elmer Carlson, the “Mayor of Manila.”

“In terms of having a holistic view of Arcata, these people create the whole spectrum of the human community,” Woolley said. “We need them.”