The Culture Sponge
Car-less Chris Essert is a diligent patron of all things cultural (and cheap) in Monterey County.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
If you’ve been to any local art openings, film screenings, lectures, art walks or concerts in the last, oh, couple decades, you’ve probably seen Chris Essert. Though he volunteers and takes classes – and travels exclusively by bike and bus – he somehow goes to near everything, week after week, year after year.
In recent years he’s been spotted at the First Baptist Church of Pacific Grove 100th anniversary Sunday service with singers Yolanda West and Marcus Nance in 2009. He was there at the Manifest Animation Festival at Cannery Row’s former IMAX in September 2010 and a performance of King Khampha, the Lao Elvis, at Marina’s D’Anna Thai in 2011. His backpack and bike also joined him at a Don Hertzfeldt screening at CSUMB’s Teledramatic Arts & Technology studio in January this year. And it goes further back.
He has distinct memories of a Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) concert at least 20 years ago that the then-Coast Weekly wrote about, and a Japanese Folk Art exhibition at the then-Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art that took place in 1983.
“I’m sort of a Japanese culture and art freak,” he says. He takes the bus to volunteer at the San Jose Japanese American Museum, helping them catalogue their objects.
He’ll show up at events, usually alone, wearing his hallmark white T-shirt, khaki or some other monochromatic pants, dark walking shoes, and an overstuffed backpack – sometimes two, one on his back, one over his belly – while carrying his bike helmet. His white mop of hair is often disheveled from his two wheeled journeys. He’s 58 years old, but his movements, mobility and demeanor altogether defy his age. And despite his very social itinerary, he’s admittedly shy.
“I used to be real introverted,” he said at Alternative Cafe during one of their Friday night art openings two weeks ago. “I probably still am.”
Essert came to the Monterey Peninsula from Sacramento in 1977 to work for Fleet Numerical at its Operations Center in Monterey, programming mini computers to send weather charts and reports to ships in the Navy fleet using radio waves – like a fax machine, he says. He’s worked fixing computers for the Defense Language Institute, technical writing and programming, but hasn’t worked full-time since he was let go from a job at the Naval Postgraduate School about 15 years ago. But he was able to buy a house and amass savings, which he lives off, supplemented by part-time and temporary tech jobs. He has two roommates, and he’s also single with no kid, meaning there’s more time to devote to his constant cultural forays.
“I like the mental stimulation,” he says, but adds, “I don’t know what else to do with myself.”
So he grabs local papers for their events calendars, stuffs them into his already overloaded backpack, and goes.
The first week of this month looked something like this: The 4th of July laser light show at Jacks Park on Wednesday; the next day, after a web programming class he’s taking at MPC, he biked to CSUMB’s Tanimura & Antle Library for the Summer Arts series’ presentation on photography by Dan Estabrook. On Friday, he took the bus up to San Jose to volunteer at the Japanese museum. On Saturday, July 7, he loaded up. At 10am, the 1846 Commodore Sloat Landing re-enactment at Custom House Plaza. Then he biked to the Sand City Artist Reunion exhibition. Then the bike trail back to see Cheech Marin at the Museum of Monterey for the Chicanitas closing party. “He took a dozen of us on a tour of his paintings,” Essert says. “[Cheech] was very gracious. Totally awesome.”
It didn’t end there. Essert blows his nose and continues: “I went to CSUMB to check out [comedy duo] The Lampshades. That was at 7pm. They were so-so. Improv is hard.”
Bus drivers know him well. He got rid of his two cars – a 1972 Mercury Comet and a 1985 Honda Prelude – more than a year ago.
“I ride my bike for the health benefits,” he says. “I recommend it to everyone. We have a really good bus system here and I wasn’t driving anyway.”
His plans for this weekend: “There’s another [Summer Arts festival] Culmination event at CSUMB. I’ll probably do that all day Saturday. Sunday, the 29th, there’s going to be a Woody Guthrie centennial in Big Sur but I’m not sure I’m going to be able to go to that. I could take MST. There’s something here in Seaside on Sunday, too – ‘The Arab Spring and its Repercussions’ at Peace Resource Center. If I had a car I could go to both.”
For a look at Essert’s primary arts and culture guide, see A&E Calendar