Somewhere in between his quest for a middle ground and his practice of living on the edge, Bruce Bell landed in, of all places, Stable 33.
Stable 33--not to be confused with Room 222--sits near the end of a long, straight line of wooden barns at the Los Alamitos Race Course. Housed inside are 10 race horses, a couple of grooms and one former gospel singer-turned hippie-turned artist-turned quarter horse trainer--Bruce Bell.
It is here that Bell feels most at ease, and yet the most alienated.
On one hand, there are the horses.
"I love them. I mean I really love my horses," he said. "I'm not one of those guys who thinks horses are people, but I respect them for what they are. I know they can sense the way I'm feeling."
On this Wednesday afternoon, he's feeling playful. He uses his hand to bait his promising 2-year old filly, Will Be Easy, who is the fastest qualifier for tonight's $484,000 Kindergarten Futurity at Los Alamitos. The horse has won all four of her starts and earned $48,826.
On the other hand, there are the horse people.
"I know I'm not really one of them," he said. "I like and respect them, and I think they like and respect me. But we come from two different worlds."
The fact is, Bell comes from several different worlds. All distinct. Many seemingly contradictory. Separate roads leading in every direction and ending, for the time being, at Stable 33.
He was born in Arkansas and raised a Seventh-Day Adventist.
"It's a strict religion that preaches against music, dancing, eating pork . . . " Bell said. "It was a pretty straight way to be brought up."
Though music was frowned upon, Bell sang in a gospel group, the Bell Trio, with his father and sister. They cut an album that Bell does not--or will not--remember a single song from, and also did some musical jingles for local merchants.
"It was a lot of fun," he said.
Fun yes, but is there anyone anxiously waiting for the Bell Trio reunion?
"I really doubt it," Bell said. "You didn't have to be that good to sing gospel or do commercials in those days or those parts."
Whatever the natural career ascension--so to speak--of a gospel singer, the job description does not include a stint by the roadside, selling paintings.
But in the mid-'60s, when Bell was in his early 20s, that's where he was. Traversing the nation in a Volkswagen bus with a song in his heart, a paint brush in his hand and hair halfway down his back.
"I had been brought up in such a strict way, I guess it was only natural for me to go entirely the opposite way," he said. "I guess I wanted to see what was on the other side. I was out there looking for the middle ground, but the whole time I was living on the edge. I painted, went to concert after concert. There was such an energy then. So much creative energy."
At the time, Bell was painting abstracts with bright colors because, "basically, that's all I could see at the time."
Ah, the '60s.
He remembers meeting poets at every turn, political activists on every corner. He read everything he could and discussed it with whoever was around that day. He painted and talked about that. It didn't matter where he was, there was always someone to talk.
But the Bruce Bell Experience ended in the early 1970s, when the painter turned horse groom and settled down at a race track in Texas.
"It was just another time when I thought I needed to change," he said. "I had been out on the road so long, it was time to stay in one place for a while.
"It seems I've always lived in the extreme. I wanted something that was middle of the road. I've always looked for that. But it seems the more I look, the more I stay on the edge."
Soon after arriving in Texas, the trainer he was working for was injured, and Bell took over his stable of horses. Suddenly Bruce Bell, America's roadside Picasso, was a quarter horse trainer.
"It was supposed to be a temporary thing," he said. "He was going to take over when he got better, but he never did."
And Bell has never stopped training, and he has never forgotten the way he got there.
"That was a great time in my life," he said. "I've kept a lot of the person I was then with me to this day."
It is the memories of those days that separate him from most the Los Alamitos and quarter horse establishment.
In a world of blue jeans and boots, he dons a linen shirt and Topsiders. He is talkative and cordial. People in the barns say there isn't a nicer guy around, but there is a distance.
After morning workouts, for example, as other trainers gather to drink a beer or two and watch the previous night's races, Bell leaves.
"Horses are my job, not my life," he said. "I realize to some of these people, this track is their whole world. But I've seen a lot of the world and I know there is a lot more to see out there. There's a lot more to learn out there. Bob Dylan said it, 'He who is not busy learning, is busy dying.' "
What a difference a generation gap makes.
So while others chat, he's off to a museum or an art show or a film. He enjoys the time by himself.
He still resides in Texas, but has won eight stakes races in California. Will Be Easy has won the Leo Handicap and the Trinity Meadows Futurity.
The horse's jockey, veteran Steve Treasure, says the horse may be the fastest filly he's ever ridden.
Will Be Easy's qualifying time of 17.63, well ahead of second-fastest qualifier The Rebel Band (17.73), makes her a clear favorite in the 350-yard race.
Which is all very nice for Bell, but . . .
"I want to win a race as badly as anyone," he said. "I don't want you to think that I don't like horse racing, I love it. It's just that I know there's more. I've seen it."