It’s a Friday afternoon, and there are scattered groups of homeless people sitting along Island Avenue in East Village.
Otis sits on a plastic chair in the shade of a small tree. With his top hat and tuxedo (with tails), he stands out from the others.
“I’ve always had suits. Back in South Carolina, I used to wear capes and 10-gallon hats and stuff like that,” he says. “I’ve got three of these suits right now; I keep them in storage.”
Otis is 61, and for someone who’s lived on the street for so many years, he could look a lot worse.
“I’ve been getting disability for about five or six years,” he says, mentioning that lifelong trouble with his hip nets him a check every month.
Otis was born and raised in Greenville, S.C., where he lived with his mother until he was 37. Since then, he’s lived in Orlando and Las Vegas. He caught a bus out to San Diego last September.
“I probably never worked over four months on a job. I just sold weed,” he says.
He doesn’t have any family left; his mother died six years ago. Otis is alone, but he seems to take solace in art and music. He opens a sketchbook to give a look at his drawings. His technique is so strong that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t had any formal training. Most of the art is done with ballpoint pen, and his bold, tribal style looks like a cross between anime and an early Max Fleischer cartoon. He has at least 100 works in one small journal, each one signed with the pseudonym “Charles Rembrandt.”
“I can draw one in probably half an hour. To ink it, it probably takes an hour and a half,” he says.
Otis excuses himself for a moment as a woman pulls up next to the curb. She hands him a soft nylon guitar case, and he opens it and takes out a cherry-red electric guitar. After playing on street corners and local clubs in Greenville, Otis knows a bit about musical equipment.
“I used to have a Fender Twin Reverb and everything,” he says. Now he’s down to a Fender Squire Stratocaster and a small Orange portable amp. The cherry-red guitar, it ends up, is damaged to the point of being useless. But he seems to have plans to fix it up. He just needs a few spare parts.
“I don’t play blues, I play speed rock,” he grins.
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