Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Umbrella Organization: The character formerly known as the Umbrella Man may be homeless but he now has a cell phone, an email address and a family with whom he's in contact.
In the Pink
Robert Steffen on why he shed his familiar pastel get-up--and why he feels better than he has in years.
By Jessica Lussenhop
ALL HE'S got left are the shoes. Light gray running shoes with bright pink plastic flowers stuck on them--unmistakably the Umbrella Man's, and now the only thing that sets Robert Steffen apart from the shoppers on the Pacific Garden mall. These days the man wearing them is dressed mostly in beige and walks at a normal pace. Something else is different about him: Steffen is talking.
"I don't feel as frivolous as I prefer to be," he says. "I have to worry about where I'm going to sleep at night and where my clothes are."
Most days, Steffen is still on the mall, though he's no longer on parade. He's sometimes seated quietly on the benches, his bucket hat pulled low, his eyes pale and distant behind his glasses. Though he says he feels more stable than he has in years, his voice is at times uncertain and small. "I'm fine at the moment at the shelter. It just weighs more on me. Some of the clients have a problem with the way I dress, and I don't need more abuse," he says. "That's another reason not to dress up."
For the last two months, ever since being evicted from his apartment in the El Palomar Inn, Steffen has been sleeping at the River Street homeless shelter. It's the latest stop on a journey that began in 1996, when Steffen cut off ties to his family and slowly dropped further and further away from his very typical life as a computer engineer. The first time he stepped out of the El Palomar in his pink outfit--in items culled mostly from eBay--he was already well into what would turn out to be an unofficial 13-year vow of silence. "I was unhappy," he says. "I've been fighting depression for a number of years."
Through the '90s, Steffen said he bounced from city to city, slowly descending the career food chain, from engineer to movie theater manager to waiter and finally nothing. When cops picked him up in 1999 for living illegally in an RV in the hills, he found himself homeless in downtown Santa Cruz after a stay at the Ocean Street jail.
After a year and a half, Steffen was finally ready when the county's Homeless Persons Health Project offered to help him get off the streets. He got his apartment at El Palomar in 2001. A year or two later, he began his four-year-long daily promenade in pink ("it seemed like a good color," he explains). As for the walk itself, "It was a form of artistic expression. Walking on the mall was useful."
Not everyone welcomed the Umbrella Man. Rumors swirled that he was really a convicted pedophile, though police spokesman Zach Friend says he has no records indicating that. The Megan's Law website does list a Robert Steffen, a heavily tattooed, Hulk Hogan-mustachioed man living in Placer County.
And then, about a year ago, Umbrella Man disappeared. "I'm not sure why I stopped. There had been, on the mall, quite a few people being mean, and that gets wearing after a while," Steffen says.
His reappearance this spring was a direct result of his eviction from El Palomar. "Unfortunately, we had to evict him. He was not paying rent," says assistant manager Fred Erd. "We tried to be very, very tolerant."
Steffen says he reappeared as the Umbrella Man outside the Palomar originally as a form of protest, but that it had unexpected results. "When I showed back up I got a lot of positive feedback from people. They were happy to see me," he says, his face flushing red and his speech faltering again. When asked if he knows why he's crying, he shakes his head. "I don't know the reason. I can't say."
In the past few weeks, Steffen finally decided to reconnect with his elderly mother and siblings. They came to visit him last week. The week before that he got a cell phone and an email account. He went to the dentist for the first time in years. "I'm beginning to feel more optimistic," he says. "My general feeling toward society in general is working, is doing a reasonable job. I have a little bit of faith."
For now, he has stopped protesting outside the Palomar, though he is struggling to find a new apartment. He hopes eventually to find a job, something where he'll get to meet some nice people. As for Umbrella Man, Steffen shrugs shyly. "I dunno. I wouldn't mind doing it. I enjoy it. I doubt that I would do it so persistently, maybe every once in a while just for fun," he says. "I'm just feeling more stable."
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