Detroit native Robert “Rabbit” Barringer lived a carefree life, residing in the one place he figured no one would bother him: a closed landfill on the edge of San Francisco, with a scenic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“This landfill stands as a brooding monument to obsolescence. What could be a more appropriate refuge for America’s unused people? Here, they can be hidden away from a society which regards them as a nuisance and an eyesore,” Barringer says in Bum’s Paradise, a short documentary about his journey from college graduate to homeless man.
In honor of the film’s Michigan debut at Detroit Docs, Barringer will return to his hometown this weekend, to reunite with his family, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years.
After departing Detroit at age 16, Barringer traveled, eventually settling in the Bay Area. He was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated in 1975, with a bachelor’s degree in painting and a minor in art history. He married and worked as a graphic artist and picture framer for 16 years. However, his luck took a sharp turn downward when he divorced, lost his job and was evicted from his apartment.
Barringer says his lack of credit and San Francisco’s notoriously exorbitant rents meant he couldn’t find another apartment. “I took out a loan in college, paid it off in a couple of years,” Barringer said in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t keep up with the rents. Expenses went up. I couldn’t hang on.”
However, instead of despair, Barringer found personal freedom within a community of homeless on the Albany Landfill.
“I didn’t go to pursue another job, no unemployment,” he says. I’m really having a good time. It’s incredibly easy, a sense of community. The people here are disassociated from regular society. They have physical and mental disabilities.”
Barringer lived on the landfill — known as the Bulb — for six years, until the encampment was forced out in 1999, when the property was slated for development into a state park. His attempt to rejoin society was unsuccessful.
“I tried to get off the street,” Barringer says. “It’s really kind of different. Each program [available to help] has its own criteria. I wasn’t able to fit in.”
San Franciscan Tom McCabe is the producer and co-director of the film.
“Robert spent two days to get into a shelter, spent six hours there, then they kick you out,” McCabe says. “It’s almost impossible to get off the street with no disabilities. It’s really a bummer.”
McCabe was inspired to film a documentary on the Bulb community after reading an article about the landfill’s residents and their impending eviction.
McCabe met Barringer on a visit to the Bulb. He and co-director Andrei Rozen shot the landfill residents for five months; they also gave Barringer a camera, to capture the essence of the community from an insider’s point of view.
Barringer hadn’t spoken to his family since becoming homeless, because he was embarrassed about his situation, he says. The documentary inspired him to regain contact with his loved ones.
“It’s very exciting, I didn’t think I’d ever get back to Michigan,” Barringer says of his return. “They’re planning a big family reunion on Friday. I’m getting e-mail from aunts and cousins. They were flabbergasted and excited to hear from me, glad to know I am doing well.”
Barringer says the Bulb is somewhat similar to Belle Isle, where many of Detroit’s homeless stay. “I loved the fishing and wilderness on Belle Isle. [But the landfill] is total wilderness, out in the bush, close to an urban setting. I have no income, no welfare, no disability.”
The project to turn the landfill into a park is on hold, and Barringer is still living at the Bulb. He now conducts tours of the artworks created by the residents and drifters, and hosts overnight camping tours on the landfill. He describes himself as a kind of groundskeeper, and is responsible for some of the landscaping.
Still, it’s impossible to escape the hard reality of life without a roof.
“Eric lives in his car on the waterfront,” Barringer says of his neighbor. “He’s a loner and a drinker. He looked ill, skin was dry, stomach distended, eyes glassy. He had lymphoma. I drove him to emergency. He had a zero white blood count. They stabilized him and let him go after 10 days. I kept watch on him through the winter. He lived, but over a dozen have left this earth.”
See Bums’ Paradise on Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. at Wayne State University’s General Lectures Auditorium, Room 100, 5045 Anthony Wayne Dr., Detroit; 248-435-3792. On Sunday, Nov. 14, at noon, Barringer and McCabe will conduct a workshop and discuss the renegade tactics they used in the making of this documentary. Rhona A. Mays is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org