A talk with Fidler on the rock
July 27, 2006
When I was in my 20s, I frequently gave money to homeless people. Now I rarely do, based on the vague belief that the money will be ill-spent. The result is that I have no interaction with the poorest people and, over the years, I’ve dehumanized them.
Last week, I talked with Cory Fidler, a man in his late 40s who often sits in the median of Coast Village Road, at the Hot Springs intersection, panhandling with his back to the stop sign. I wanted to learn a little about him and, as he sees it, his business.
Fidler moved from Oregon about 15 years ago to work in the commercial fishing industry. He worked on a tender for a while but blew out an ear and became homeless when he was no longer allowed to sleep onboard.
Watching him in action on Coast Village, it is immediately apparent that he has a gift for creating a rapport with many of the regular drivers who pass by, despite the limiting circumstances.
This helps the money come in (most often, when I was there, single dollar bills) but just as frequently it only produced conversational or even nonverbal small change.
One man drove by and gave him nothing but a nod.
“He’s a great guy,” Fidler said. “He gave me a Godsmack tape a couple of weeks ago. Good tape.”
A couple of minutes later two young women drove by and flashed him peace signs; then a woman slowed down and blew him kisses. Fidler was visibly uplifted.
“What brings me to Montecito are people like that,” he said.
Before coming here, Fidler had been in Goleta, but the gang activity became too much for him. He now lives with his girlfriend “in the bushes about a football field away,” he said, indicating toward the freeway with a nod of his head.
As for begging, “This is the spot,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s called the rock.”
Inadvertently, in fact, I had sat upon his rock, which turned out to be a memorial of sorts. I stood up and he pointed to the names of other homeless people written all over it, who had all been “taken.”
“This was my girlfriend, this was my wife, this was my diving buddy,” he said, pointing to the names.
“Why did they die?” I asked. Fidler raised his thumb to his lips, pinky extended, in the universal sign for drinking.
“Drinking or drugs,” he said.
When others panhandle at the rock, Fidler has to assert himself.
“I have to chase them off all the time, damn skipper I do. . . . They’ll get drunk and fall of the rock. It’s not good for business,” he said.
Fidler said he’s out on Coast Village in the afternoon a few days a week and tries to average $10 an hour.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent” of the people who give, Fidler said, are “women with older cars . . . and working men not driving Mercedes.”
He refused to speculate why the Mercedes men tend not to give, but he pointed out they didn’t get rich by giving money away.
While most drivers ignored him, no one that I saw was hostile to Fidler. The only slightly unfriendly car was a sedan with two women in the front and three teenage girls in the back.
They drove slowly up to the stop sign, paused wordlessly for a while and stared very seriously at Fidler, as if he were a cow with five legs.
“They seemed weirded out,” I said.
“Yeah, they drove by earlier, all slow like that.”
After a while, I sensed Fidler was getting antsy with me. “You better get out of here,” he said. “Bad for business.”
As I stood to go, he looked at my notebook and said, “Do you want me to sign it?” I said yes and he took it from me. “Cory Lee Fidler,” he wrote at the bottom of the page, underscoring it with a couple of curlicues.
Whether giving the occasional dollar helps to keep Fidler’s name in my notebook rather than on the rock he begs from, I still don’t know.
At the very least, I now know his name and a little bit about him.