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Life and Death by the Beach

L.A. STORIES: A slice of life in Southern California

April 06, 1993|BILL MANSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He was diminutive, handsome, with pale blue eyes and a tan some Hollywood stars would kill for. He lived within 50 feet of the richest beachfront homes in Coronado. He got up every morning to the same oceanfront view as the occupants of the resplendent Crown Manor across the road.

Clay Grant lived alone in a cave.

He was known around town: eighty-sixed from all the bars on Orange Avenue, tossedfrom a dozen gigs and a couple of live-aboard boats. He was also intelligent, a good musician, a great composer and he refused to let the town reform him.

On the face of it, his cave life wasn't that bad. Each morning he would buy coffee and a croissant and sun himself on one of the seats facing the ocean, reading the morning papers, chatting with local city workers who had come to clean up "his" beach.

He spent most days earning money on his can-collecting rounds. He was a permanent afternoon fixture on the bench near Avenue Liquor, tolerated but ignored by the prosperous community around him.

He sometimes talked of dying. Hopefully, he once told a friend, it would happen on a quiet night in his cave while he slept.

It wasn't like that. It happened last month in a rooming house. An argument. A foot chase. A blow to his head so powerful that police first thought Clay had been shot. He died before they got him to Coronado Hospital.

There were a few days of stunned silence in Coronado. Clay? everybody asked at the supermarket. That Clay?

*

"Donald Clay Grant, 42," confirmed the Coronado Eagle on March 25. He was described as "a transient who lived on the Coronado beaches." It was him, all right. (Antonio Morfin Rangel, 31, a general relief worker was arrested for investigation of the murder.)

Clay Grant's death merited three inches.

The following Saturday, hastily scrawled signs appeared, taped atop bus stop benches, asking "friends" to come down to Center Beach at 1 p.m. the next day to "remember Clay." There were no explanations. If you didn't know Clay, you wouldn't know what they were talking about.

Sunday was cloudy. Not far from the lifeguard tower, someone had etched C L A Y in large letters in the sand. Someone else had set down a glass jar of flowers. Another had brought a black-and-white photo of Clay, smiling his quizzical smile, and placed it against the flowers.

One by one, people turned up, looking awkward, seemingly surprised to see that others had come too. Some were obviously wealthy, many obviously not. Within half an hour, upward of 50 souls were standing in a circle, silent, patting strangers on the back. Some were crying.

"Why don't we just go ahead and anybody say what they want to say," said John Munn, a local photographer.

A well-dressed man stepped forward.

"They called Clay a transient. I didn't appreciate that. But the fact is we're all transients. Just like Clay."

Another voice read St. Francis' poem. "Lord let me be an instrument of peace . . . "

An elderly woman looking gaunt from emotion stepped into the circle.

"I didn't think I'd have the courage to come forward like this," she said, holding back tears. "I'm Clay's mother. He was a good boy. I want you all to know that I have seen to him properly. I've had him cremated. I have scattered his ashes over the waters. He was . . . my son. He's found peace now. All I have to do is find a way to live . . . until I can join my loving boy," said Hannah Doran.

Someone held her as she broke down.

Then a man with a mustache stepped forward.

"Uh, I just wanted to say something. A couple of years back, well, I was down and out. I mean really down and out. No place to stay, no food . . . Clay, he helped me. He showed me how to set up a can collection route. How to get enough to get by on. I'll never forget . . . he was there."

"Yes," agreed another, who then told the story of how Clay had helped him.

The speeches went on. People Clay had helped or been a companion to during hard times.

*

Clay had been a part of Coronado since he was 12. He spent his life working around town in construction and painting.

But it was always music that drove him. He composed reams of songs. He wanted to be a music star. That was it, pure and simple. The rest of life was a support system for that goal.

He and his longtime girlfriend, Suzie Aston-Smith used to win contests singing his songs at Mulvaney's restaurant and nightspot. Lots of people had heard songs of his like "When I Die," "You've Got My Heart (But I've Got the Blues)," "Suicide Love" . . .

The highlight might have been when a local music promoter videotaped Clay singing his songs at various locales around town.

But nothing came of it. And Clay's drinking started taking over his life. His girlfriend kicked him out. He drifted from digs, to boats, to his cave.

In the end, it was Aston-Smith who organized the memorial service for the man she still loved. All throughout, she just stood there, tears falling.

*

Someone is saying the Lord's prayer.

Then a guy called Zub, an ex-frogman who once ran for mayor, says "There's a keg waiting at The Island bar. Let's go! This is for Clay!"

"No hold it," someone says. "We got a song to sing."

And with two guitars, a trumpet and a singer, there in the sand, they belt out a song of Clay's, his paean to the island that had watched him grow and slip and die.

You can't drink beer on the beach

Your dog's got to be on a leash

And all the women are out of reach . . . in Coronado. It's a lively ditty. It lifts everybody's heart. One more gift from the guy whose name is being erased in the sand as his mourners move to his song.

By the time the last verse comes, half the circle gives it everything they've got.

... And the sun seems to shine on me in Coronado

I've left here many a time

And I still don't know what I'm tryin' to find

But, I realize, the end of my line is Coronado.

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