Tears and healing words were flowing Sunday at a memorial service for longtime Lagunan Charles Reginald Conwell, known affectionately as “Cowboy.”
Conwell — noted for being hauled to the city “drunk tank” at least 600 times over many years — was killed Jan. 9 when he crossed Laguna Canyon Road into the path of a minivan. Police are investigating the incident but do not expect the driver to be charged.
He was on his way to the Alternative Sleeping Location set up for homeless people at the ACT V parking lot, but had decided to cross the road where there was no light or crosswalk. Now a carefully tended memorial with flowers and a cowboy hat — and a sign that reads “Cowboy Crossing” — marks the spot where he died. It is a sad end to this well-loved man’s life.
In my police reporting duties over the years, I’ve seen Conwell’s name in the police logs numerous times. Sometimes two or three times a week he would be picked up (literally) by police and taken to the city jail to sober up, and then released back to the street, where the process would start all over again.
Yet this was a man who at one time had a successful business in Laguna Beach, owned two properties, was a skilled gemologist and machinist, a clothing model, and also a horseman, according to speakers at the memorial. At the not very old age of 58, he had lived a very full life, despite the fact that so much of it was spent living out of a bottle. What a waste; what a shame.
He had a lot of friends — or perhaps drinking buddies is a better term. At the service at Neighborhood Congregational Church, one grizzled man stood up unsteadily to recount the last time he had seen his old friend Cowboy. He had offered to buy him a bottle of whiskey, which Cowboy eagerly accepted. Problem is, whiskey was the poison that kept this talented man living on the streets.
One man spoke of how he had spent the day Cowboy died in a blackout and didn’t realize his friend was gone until the next day.
“That was the last day I had a drink,” he said proudly. “I’m seven days sober.”
Pastor Bob Mohr, who ministers to the homeless at Main Beach, has known Cowboy for the past 13 years, and said he would give him a place to sleep when he needed one. Tearfully, Mohr described how fastidious Cowboy was in his appearance — sporting his trademark black cowboy hat and flowing white beard — and with his belongings.
“Always dressed to a T,” Mohr said.
Others described Cowboy as generous and kind, loving children.
“He’d give you the teeth out of his mouth if you needed them,” one man proclaimed.
“Cowboy knew how to talk to cops,” said one man, who claimed to have spent a lot of time with him since the 1980s.
One story goes that, approached by a police officer one day, Cowboy offered him a drink from a bottle in his shirt.
“Only you could get away with that,” the officer reportedly said, walking away.
One woman came to the microphone and could not speak through her tears.
Another woman described him as “an angel much maligned,” and said he had endured beatings from people at the bus stop, in addition to the arrests by police. “People should not judge,” she said.
Another man told of Cowboy’s advice to help him avoid getting arrested for public drunkenness: Pick up a copy of Coastline and pretend to read it.
“Then they won’t know you’re inebriated,” he said.
It seems that Cowboy — who had apparently succeeded in everything he tried — had figured out how to stay drunk and how to survive on the streets, turning to sympathetic people for help but always going back to his drinking partners.
So many people tried to put him on another path.
Jean Raun told of helping Cowboy when he came to the Resource Center with delerium tremens from alcohol. He was trembling so badly the car shook as they drove, she recalled.
She dropped him off at the Community Clinic, but they could not take him, so she picked him up and took him to the hospital, where “they took him in — again. He had been there many times.”
“We are all human beings, some need more help than others,” she added. “He should have been able to receive the kind of help he needed.”
The Rev. Beu of the Neighborhood Congregational Church said he himself had taken Cowboy to the hospital many times. “I practically lived there,” he said.
Last year, police Officer Jason Ferris, whose mission is to try to help the homeless and street dwellers out of their predicament, took on Cowboy as a special project.
With Ferris’ help, Cowboy got sober, and was living in a sober living center for several months. His name disappeared from the police logs. Ferris was largely to thank for moving this man away from the dangers of drink and street living, and it was highly likely Cowboy would boomerang right back to his old ways, as he did within five or six months. His name began appearing in the police logs again.
Whatever demons pursued Cowboy, and whatever was the reason he stayed on the streets, it was certainly not for lack of helping and caring people. Perhaps he needed to help himself.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.