If I were describing Tiersa Myers and Cheddar Bob to my next-door neighbor, I’d probably say: She’s a tiny little gal just turned 18, with a sweet, innocent personality, the type you just want to reach out and hug. Sweet? No doubt. Innocent? Oh lord, yes, perhaps sadly so.
Of him, I would say: He’s a jovial, good-looking guy who seems devoid of malice, except perhaps toward his stepfather. He’s 22, though you regard him as maybe 18 by the way he looks and talks.
But I’m not talking to my neighbor, and things are seldom as they appear. In this case, not even remotely.
I’m standing by a low concrete wall near the Ocean Beach Pier talking to two homeless young people sitting cross-legged on the wall. Cheddar Bob and Tiersa are hoping to score some gas money so they can drive to where they know free meals are available.
On a more cosmic plane, they’re also describing the grand adventure of living without walls, adrift without family, with no realistic hopes or plans, oblivious to danger.
Cheddar Bob is wearing a blanket jacket and dirty yellow pants. He’s adorned with a struggling mustache and tangled, light brown hair.
The barefoot Tiersa wears a peasant-style skirt and a sweatshirt. She carries a blanket and a copy of the late Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a field guide for the counterculture.
Both smile widely and greet a stranger with friendly eyes.
Cheddar Bob’s occupation is selling jokes on the street that he recites to the purchaser. He claims a repertoire of hundreds. I buy one: “Why couldn’t the Coast Guard save the hippie? … He’s too far out, man!” It only costs a quarter, which means I didn’t overpay by much.
Tiersa has no means of support, but she owns the ’99 Buick they sleep in, so that counts for a lot of joke sales. The car was a present from her grandparents. She met Cheddar Bob in Colorado four months ago, when she was still 17. He was outside a 7-Eleven and she stopped to buy a joke. It was the start of a relationship that led straight to the interstate.
Cheddar Bob is actually Justin Taylor, originally from Dallas. He left home while still a teenager. The cheese sobriquet is his street name taken from a movie character. I ask what brought him to this beach, hawking his jokes for a quarter.
“I left home when I was 17, you know, as soon as I could get away. I had a rough life, you know. It wasn’t a good home life, so I wanted to, like, get away. Growing up, I had a stepfather.”
I ask if he was abused by his stepfather. “Yeah, he did. Physically and emotionally. Different ways. He would sometimes choke me. I don’t like to talk about that too much.
“I was poor my whole life. Never really had anything. I once had a job and everything. I went to school and stuff. I mainly left because of my stepdad and his rules. I wasn’t able to be free and do whatever I wanted to do.”
Tiersa has spent a lot of her youth feeling out of place, specifically in Manhattan, Kan. “Everything there is illegalized. I got arrested for pot one time because the lint in the bottom of my purse tested positive. That was pretty ridiculous.” She says she was targeted because she looked like a hippie.
Her parents were certified hippies with the stereotypic VW bus, and she grew up on the move. “I love being on the road and love seeing new people.”
She says her mother blessed her decision to go on the road with Cheddar Bob, simply admonishing her not to be “a street rat” and to have fun and see the ocean.
Are you a street rat?
“No, I don’t think so.”
What is a street rat, anyway?
“I don’t know.”
I ask Tiersa how far she went in school. “Uh, well, it’s kind of a long story. I did my freshman year of high school, and then I did a semester the next year, but then I kinda dropped the ball on the whole high school thing.”
I ask if she fears becoming pregnant while homeless.
“No, actually, I don’t. I take the Depo-Provera shot. It lasts like three months or so.”
It occurs to me that the “or so” might be the thing to put her into the maternity ward.
She lives with the memory of a sexual molestation in high school, and that incident pushed her into depression and anxiety to the point that she was on medication.
“It’s kind of all behind me at this point. You don’t forget it, but you know you didn’t do anything wrong and there are people who love you. You just have to get on with your life.”
I ask both how they would feel if they were part of the middle class with a regular suburban home and living the way most people do.
Tiersa says, “Some people would see that as a blessing, but I would feel bored and boxed in. You know, like, stationary in one place. I’m not meant to live like that.”
Cheddar Bob: “I wouldn’t do it.”
I ask both how old they were when they first tried drugs — in both cases, marijuana. Tiersa says 10 or 11, and Cheddar Bob says 14.
Being broke and on the road, shoplifting must be an inevitable temptation. Have they done that?
Tiersa says, “Truly, I have, but I’ve never been caught in the act. It’s always been for food when I’m hungry.”
Cheddar Bob adds, “Yes, I shoplift. I’m usually the one who shoplifts her stuff.” Both say they target large corporations. Tiersa says she has never stolen from “someone,” like an individual and especially a person she knows. Cheddar Bob agrees. “I never steal from my friends, just from corporations, like Walmart. I’ll steal from Walmart all day.”
In a pinch, would they stay at a homeless shelter? Cheddar Bob says, “No, too many rules. Like you gotta be in at a certain time. You have to do this and that, and a lot of them are really religious, and you have to do ceremonies and stuff.”
Tiersa is a bit more pragmatic. “If we didn’t have the car, we would consider that. But the car is pretty good shelter.”
Carefree or not, money must be an issue. Tiersa says her mother transmits money to her through linked bank accounts, such as the other day when she needed money for an oil change. Cheddar Bob, on the other hand, has to be more resourceful.
“For a while, me and my buddy had a little two-man band going, and we’d sell jokes. We were really bad alcoholics at the time. We were drinking at least one or two half-gallons of whiskey a day.”
Just you and your buddy?
“Me and Cheddar Bill and some train-hopper kids we were hanging out with. Also some punk rockers.”
You must have been loaded all the time.
“Yeah, definitely. High and drunk mostly. I was definitely an alcoholic. But I don’t drink at all any more. Maybe a beer once in a while.”
I ask if he tries to get jobs. “Every chance I get …” He pauses as a San Diego Police Department black-and-white drives by, which he follows with his eyes. “There goes the pigs passing by. They won’t leave us alone.”
How do they bother you?
“Well, they accuse us of using (drugs), and they don’t want us to be here because they think we’re using all the time.”
He laughs. “I used a lot of hard stuff — is this going to be published? I’ve been busted with needles and using, heroin mostly. I actually kicked it and stopped using, but they still accuse me of using, so it kinda sucks.”
He adds as an afterthought that Tiersa was not involved. “Definitely not.”
Tiersa says she has kept clear of hard drugs, though freely acknowledging a brief flirtation with prescription painkillers.
I ask them to project their lives 10 years ahead.
Cheddar Bob says, “I’ve never thought that far into the future. It’s, like, I usually just take it day by day.”
Tiersa says, “Right now, I’m just trying to see the world.”
It’s quickly apparent that Tiersa has a sharp and bubbly mind. Without great effort, she’d be a fine student. Cheddar Bob, however, is showing the tread-loss of five years on the road.
I don’t know when straight talk becomes preaching, but I’ve walked this path long enough to have seen around a few corners, and these two would not like what I see.
There have been many songs, books and fables about the romance of the road, but precious little about where that road ends. I start to say it, but I don’t. This will just have to play out.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org