In 2008, Scooter was working as a veterinary technician in Connecticut when a friend offered to fly him out to Berkeley, on one condition: he had to teach him how to skipper a sailboat. 

So he sold all his belongings, quit his job, and flew out to the Bay Area. He and his friend met up at the Pittsburgh Marina, where the sailboat in question was waiting. They set off down the San Pablo Bay back to Berkeley without a map, a motor, or lights to guide their way. But thanks to Scooter’s savvy sailing, they made it back in one piece. He has been in Berkeley, on and off, for the ten years since. 

“After the housing crash in 2007, I had been working five jobs just to stay afloat,” Scooter, who is now 33, told me on a sunny Friday in People’s Park. Growing up in connecticut, he described a childhood of going to fish fry parties in his grandpa’s backyard, which was ripe with produce like okara, watermelon, and strawberries, and large enough to fit a couple hundred party guests. But by 2007, life had gotten intense. “My friend kind of saw that I was burning out, which is why he offered to fly me out here.” 

Scooter's banjo laying in the grass.
Scooter’s banjo laying in the grass. (Alastair Boone)

When they arrived back in Berkeley, Scooter didn’t just teach his friend how to sail. He also worked as a sailing instructor at the OCSC Sailing School in the Berkeley Marina. According to him, Berkeley was different those days. During the recession, there was a burst of young people doing the same thing he was: selling their possessions and hitting the road. It wasn’t long before he met a number of like-minded travelers in People’s Park and along Telegraph Avenue. “I met a bunch of kids with just backpacks, and started hopping trains,” he said. 

On the road, Scooter and his friends often played music together—a skill that he learned in childhood. Growing up, he attended a high school with a comprehensive music program. He had been a member of the marching band—one with all kinds of instruments, from trumpets to triangles. But of all the instruments he’s fiddled with, the banjo resonates with him the most. As he has traveled across the country, he has performed from Berkeley and Oakland to New Orleans. You may have seen him busking folk and bluegrass songs at BART stations all over the Bay Area, playing house shows, or classic Berkeley venues, like the Starry Plough. “I don’t steal, I don’t beg, I don’t cheat. Music is just a way to eat,” he said. 

But as Berkeley’s population has grown, Scooter has noticed that the city’s street musicians have started to dwindle. “Berkeley kind of slowly pushed away its homeless population because of the housing crunch and the tech boom,” he said. “After a while, a lot of people left and never came back.” 

Now, he is looking to secure housing for him and his two dogs, Bubba and Zoe. He hopes to build a small music studio, where he can record his songs and invite friends over when they need to shower and rest. “I’ve never had space that was just mine,” he said.

Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.