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A Way of Life : Those Who Live Along the River : Community Includes Independent Types, Families, Addicts and Pets

October 16, 1994|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rhythm of the river bottom plays on every day, from daybreak to dark, in a way few people see.

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It starts early in the morning, when the working poor emerge from the river floor and head to jobs, some permanent and others makeshift. It slips into the afternoon when the hard-core homeless are still shaking off drinking binges from the night before.

And it cycles into night, when some of the river people take to Ventura's back streets, wading waist-deep into dumpsters, hunting for anything that can be reused, recycled or resold.

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Mark Dodge recently celebrated his 38th birthday on the river bottom, having landed here six months ago after fire destroyed the van he was living in.

Each morning, he draws water from a municipal fountain and scrubs shop windows along Main Street. Window washing is his sole source of income.

He can earn up to $40 a day, more than enough to buy cheap cigarettes, stock up on dry goods and put steak on his dinner table. He shuns the food giveaways organized by local charities.

Originally from Kansas, the Vietnam-era veteran moved to California after losing his right eye while working construction.

Dodge lives just north of the Main Street bridge, in a clearing ringed by brush and tall reeds. The walls of his place are made of bamboo-like stalks. A rebel flag, fished out of a dumpster, covers one wall.

"I just needed to find myself," he explains of his move to the river bottom. "I just didn't want to be around other people."

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A long line of social workers visited Ted Edwards and Peggy Wallace when they decided to raise their daughter, Andrial, on the river bottom.

The county workers concluded that despite the family's non-traditional lifestyle, the 2-year-old is being raised by loving parents in a stable home.

"Even if a child lives indoors doesn't mean that his home is stable," said Diane Berger, a public health nurse who works with the family. "I think both Peggy and Ted have provided stable living conditions. They are good parents and they are doing a wonderful job with her."

Edwards and Wallace, both 40, say they know that some folks question the wisdom of raising a child on the river bottom. But it is their choice to be here.

"We've got a beautiful, healthy daughter," Wallace says. "We've got a solid relationship. Neither of us has ulcers. What else can you ask for?"

The couple never intended to stay this long. When the lease ran out on their apartment six years ago, they took all their money, bought new camping gear and moved deep into the river-bottom brush.

Then came Andrial, a bright, rambunctious redhead who holds up an index finger on each hand when asked her age.

The family's income is $1,200 a month, Edwards' reward for 19 1/2 years of military service. They figured they could have afforded rent of about $600 a month.

Instead, they tacked together a three-room shack out of old pallets and scrap wood. Still, they know they can't stay here forever. Preschool is around the corner.

"We figure we've got a couple of more years, and then we're going to be up there where it's mean and dangerous," Edwards says. "No use exposing her to that any sooner than we have to."

It is moving day on the river bottom.

Craig and Ashley, who have lived here for about a year, were recently invited by longtime river-bottom residents to move upstream to a vacant camp near the oil fields, about two miles north of their current camp.

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It is the equivalent of moving uptown. There are less trash and fewer people to the north. It is also quieter, the silence broken only by the wind-swept vegetation and the swoosh of cars scooting along California 33.

"It's kind of like homesteading," Ashley explains about river-bottom living, "except you don't get to stay forever."

Their new lean-to is graced by tall wooden doors that open onto a living room, carpeted and already furnished with couches. The roof is dirty burlap and blue tarp, held in place by exposed beams fashioned out of long oars and old logs.

Ashley is a proud owner, showing the house as if she won it in some river-bottom lottery. She has big plans: new carpet here, stairs over there.

Craig is from Burbank, Ashley is third generation Ojai Valley. They share a history of drug use: She spent time in a recovery house, he spent time in jail.

Now both are sober.

"I've lived with lots of money, and I've struggled," Ashley says. "I've had everything, and I've had nothing. Right now I have everything."

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Dennis Ogden is fresh out of jail and at peace on the river bottom. Friendly and hard working, he is now among the nocturnal river people who make their way in this world by scouring back-street dumpsters while Ventura sleeps.

Lumber, waste baskets and fan belts. An old pair of boots. A surfboard and a set of television trays. Anything that can be traded for food or turned in for cash is salvaged.

"I work hard, I don't steal," says the 42-year-old Santa Paula native. "I meet all of my needs straight out of these dumpsters."

Ogden has lived under the Main Street bridge for six months, introduced to the place by a friend.

With a river-bottom dog named Festus by his side, he pulls a cart from one trash bin to the next, going out at night because that's when he can roam the streets unmolested.

He cuts through a freeway fence and uses the Main Street off-ramp to get to a Ventura Avenue trailer park.

With a yellow flashlight clenched between his teeth, he fishes through a dumpster and pulls out a half-eaten lemon merengue pie.

"It's Christmas all over again," he says. "You never know what you're going to find."

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