The Sandman

>> Monday, July 23, 2007

Ravi Shankar once said:

“I have come to believe that sound is God. One should be able to give, and to give really as much as possible to make other people aware of feelings which are very clean and very spiritual. One can do it through talking, one can do it with his art...”

Or, one can do it through sand.

Meet Albert. Wearing an old black suit and carrying a broom, Albert creates art with sand on the streets and sidewalks of San Diego. But while he holds the broom, God provides the skill.

“Look at those proportions. See how big it is,” he says, marveling at his own work. His skin is the product of the sun; his hair is black and unwashed; his few remaining teeth are distant neighbors. “Everything is drawn in proportion. But it’s not me -- I can’t do that. You have to be up high, and I can’t see it from down here. But God can -- from up there.” He points to the sky and smiles.

On Sunday mornings we often travel to Coronado beach to boogie-board, play in the sand, and collect seashells. Just past the Hotel Del Coronado, before the condos, we turn down a street that ends at the ocean to unload in the turnabout. This year as our summer ritual began anew, we noticed artwork all along the street.

“Look girls -- fish!” Schools of fish leapt and swam along the street, framing cars parked along the roadside. In the center of the turnabout burst an enormous shining sun. I stepped from the car onto the street and stopped -- suddenly afraid I might disturb the artwork. Because every creature, every image, had been created with sand and the absence of sand.

I took a tentative step forward, but the designs were surprisingly steadfast. We admired them briefly before scrambling to unload our umbrellas, coolers, and little girls. Each week we returned to see different designs. Fish and crabs were popular, but there were celestial objects, cartoon characters, cakes and fireworks for the fourth of July.

My husband and I assumed the nearby condos or the Hotel Del provided the artwork to seduce tourists and please the locals. The imagery was finely detailed and well executed. But one day I saw a man who, despite the suit, did not look like a hired professional.

I spotted him as I walked back to the beach after parking the car. He swept arches into the sand with confidence. The look on his face was not that of a showman during a performance, but of an artist attuned to his creation. He looked up as I watched and we smiled.

“That’s really great.” What else could I say?

“Oh, thank you,” he says and walks over. “My name is Albert.” We shake hands.

“Do you work for the condos?”

“No, I do this because I love to do it.” My interest causes him to speak freely.

“I’m from El Paso, Texas,” he tells me, proudly. “I created this one at midnight last night.” He points to the large image of Yosemite Sam in the center of the turnabout. An American Flag waves above his head.

“Look at his guns,” he says.

“I don’t see them.”

“That’s right! His guns are tucked away!”

I imagine him working alone under lamplight, sweeping Yosemite Sam to life. The asphalt is his canvas -- rock on rock. The sand provides the highlights of the work and the asphalt provides the dark contrast. One carries the illusion of dark grey permanence; the other is easily carried away with the wind. Lines, circles, and sweeping arches exist where the sand has been swept away.

As I look around, I also see Porky Pig, Donald Duck, a fourth of July birthday cake with candles and fireworks, and, of course, many fish. As we chat, he reaches over occasionally with his broom to make a quick adjustment in the sand.

A small group of young men, clearly hotel employees, walk by. They’re wearing nicely tailored black suits with starched white shirts.

“You see,” he says, pointing after them and whispering. “That’s why I wear this coat -- to look more professional. It makes people feel more comfortable.”

He’s right. Upon closer examination, it would not take a great leap of the imagination to see him homeless on the street pushing a shopping cart instead of a broom. For all I know, that’s what he does when he’s not doing this.

I forget to ask all the important questions, perhaps because he’s a stranger and I’m nervous. How did you get to San Diego? I wonder. Do you have another job -- one that pays money? Where do you live? Do you have a car? A family?

But I don’t ask.

“This is million dollar art,” he says. “Some day, some day...” He trails off, leaving me to ponder what that means.

He rifles through his wallet and pulls out a small stack of homemade business cards. The cards were collected from real estate agents and various business people. He hands me one with a real estate agent’s information on it that reads in part: Member of Who's Who in Luxury Real Estate.

“That’s not it,” he says and turns over the card. “I wrote my name on the back of it.” It reads: Alberto,, El Paso, Tex.”

“You have a web site?” I’m blown away by the incongruity between something as modern and ethereal as the Internet, and this man who is clearly close to the Earth and whose medium consists of tiny pieces of our huge, spinning rock.

“Yes! I haven’t seen it, but go there, please.”

“Yes, I will.”

It's time to go. I’m concerned that my family is anxiously waiting for me to begin their beach fun. “Can I take your picture?” He happily agrees and I take a few snapshots before leaving. He poses like a pro and waves goodbye.

In the weeks that follow, his signature artwork still greets us. I keep an eye out for him, hoping to learn the answers to the questions I was too afraid to ask. But I haven’t seen Albert since.

I visited his web site as promised. It doesn’t exist. However, a few Mission Beach and Pacific Beach web sites mention his sand creations and refer to him as one of the many colorful characters you’ll see along our boardwalks. Like his artwork, Albert is as permanent as asphalt and fleeting as sand in the wind.

Take care and good luck, Albert.

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