Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 10:25 pm | Fair 57º


Cheri Rae: Death on the Streets, and Lessons of Live and Let Live

One of our neighbors passed away last week. His name was Richard Springer. He was 73 years old, a gentle soul who found his final home on a quiet street on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, just a few blocks from downtown. In the old-fashioned neighborhood lined with modest bungalows, Richard parked his early model, silver-gray and red Toyota minivan and lived there for 16, maybe 18 years — no one is quite sure.

He lived right across the street from the Victoria Market, the little corner store that has been a fixture at East Victoria and Olive streets for decades. When the little kids who grow up here are old enough to walk to the market for ice cream or a cold drink, it’s almost a rite of passage to sit on the bench outside and savor the moment.

The view from the bench has long included Richard’s minivan home. It’s been as much a part of the scene as the tall palm trees that framed it, and the brilliant bougainvillea that formed a colorful backdrop.

It’s jarring now that it’s gone. Although there is a makeshift memorial there, with flowers and artwork marking Richard’s spot, it just looks empty.

Richard moved that minivan every Monday morning, carefully staying one quick step ahead of the street sweeper. And he reminded neighbors to do the same, saving them hundreds of dollars in tickets.

His van was once towed away by police, when Richard was out on one of his long walks around town. Ruby, one of the owners of the Victoria Market, begged the officer not to take it, but her words fell on deaf ears. She ended up paying the $480 in impound fees, and Richard promised to pay her back — not an easy feat on his limited income — and, in time, he did.

Richard was born in Ohio; he grew up on a farm, and liked the connection to nature that simple life provided. He once traveled to Alaska and served as a cook’s helper, and had spent some time in the Bay Area. He served our country in the Army as a medic.

So it was fitting that, on Veterans Day, neighbors gathered to share memories of Richard, to pay respects for his service and for the life that he lived. Ruby and Shala of the Victoria Market, who were his surrogate family members for years, hosted the event attended by more than 30 neighbors, many of whom offered their observations.

“I always gave him a nod; I felt like I knew him,” said one neighbor who exchanged brief moments with Richard when he walked past. “You could always tell what kind of a day he was having from the look in those blue eyes.”

Another noted, “He was spiritual without being religious. He was almost like a monk, at peace with himself and with the neighborhood.”

A neighbor who had frequently enjoyed wide-ranging conversations with Richard observed that he was an avid reader who was “thoughtful and intellectual.” He arrived with a book tucked under his arm, one that Richard had loaned to him. Titled, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, it is a collection of highbrow essays about medical ethics, procedures and health care by award-winning medical writer Atul Gawande.

Richard was skeptical about modern medicine, the neighbor said, particularly after treatment at the VA hospital. Remembering that Richard frequented the library, he noted that he was there to read the books, not just to pass the time.

Others recounted personal characteristics that Richard had. His long, purposeful strides. His penchant for cleanliness, down to his shined and polished shoes. The red bandana or the straw sunhat he often wore. His kindness in trading organic fruit and avocados with neighbors, and bringing flowers when Ruby had surgery. His concerns about politics, the environment and global warming. His interest in technology, with his iPod and the solar panel on his van.

Richard was not homeless; he chose to live a very simple life rooted in the community, making his rounds on foot to the Farmers Market, the Cabrillo Bathhouse, Trader Joe’s, the library and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

He mostly kept to himself, bothering no one, and in this neighborhood, no one bothered him. We were good for each other in this way.

In his quiet and dignified way of living, he taught many of us to rethink our beliefs. As one neighbor observed, “His presence was very important; he bent, broke some stereotypes and provided us with a different perspective. We went way beyond tolerance into acceptance.”

Another agreed.

“I saw him all the time, and unlike a lot of the other guys around town, there was very good energy around him,” the neighbor said.

Clean, sober, respectful and kind, Richard Springer was a part of our cherished neighborhood, and he is missed. May he rest in peace.

— Cheri Rae is an author, writer and longtime resident of Santa Barbara’s Bungalow Haven neighborhood. The opinions expressed are her own.

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