In Laguna Beach, it's hard to ignore people. Whether it's the homeless or shopkeepers, or that certain speeding car in the neighborhood, we see the color and movement of this small town. And so we engage, sometimes in unexpected and refreshing ways.
This is how it went with the "coin guy."
It was about two years ago that my boys and I first saw him. He was methodically marching through downtown, collecting coins from the parking meters for the city.
It was early in the morning, and he was in his zone.
"Look at the coin guy," I told the boys. "He seems a little lonely. We should say, 'Hi.'"
And so the boys did what boys do. They rolled down the car window as we passed him and yelled — probably louder than needed — "Hi!"
Steve Lindsay visibly jumped a little, then offered a wave and a small smile.
And he's been waving and smiling at us ever since. We see him at least once a week, sometimes more. And every time we yell.
It's become a tradition, that simple thing that differentiates small towns from big towns, charm from aloofness.
"A great deal of what I do is community involvement," Lindsay said. "And I think that's what I enjoy the most with what I do."
Lindsay, 39, is the unheralded, low-profile version of the mailman. He is just one of many city employees who go about their jobs without fanfare.
But when you're the "coin guy," people notice, especially when that someone is Lindsay, with his solid frame, bald head and boy-next-door friendliness. What do people ask him?
"Where's the nearest bakery?" Lindsay said without hesitating. "I get that all the time."
For Lindsay, helping out is not new.
He took on raising a "son," now 18, for the last six years after the boy's real father took off.
"I love him just like he's my son," Lindsay said, without apology.
Lindsay started at the bottom in the city's Public Works Department 14 years ago, working backhoes and tractors, doing the odd jobs that never make City Council headlines.
He gets up at 4 a.m. to make it to work on time from Long Beach. He doesn't complain.
"I feel a part of the city," he said. "I've got a responsibility."
After a few years on the job, he went back to school at Rancho Santiago Community College for the public works program to improve his skills. After all, the operation of a city is complex with its streets, sidewalks, parking lots, storm drains, facilities, fleets, grounds, utilities, water — the list is endless.
Amid this sea of divided city labor, somehow there is a created whole, an identity that forms the image of Laguna.
One wonders if the ethereal notion of "community spirit" is really an extension of this individual work ethic. If we are the sum of our parts, then Lindsay can hold the anchor position. He is like the guy we put at the end of the tug-of-war rope because we have faith that if everyone else falls, he could still stand firm.
Not only that, but he's polite. He nods and says hello. He moves to the side of sidewalks to let people by. He opens doors.
"That's pretty much my character — respect and manners, and you help people with things that need help," he said.
He could just as easily be a fireman or chiropractor or lifeguard, but he's not, because he's doing what he's doing and that's what matters.
So when my boys yell and wave, they are not waving to an anonymous, invisible worker. They are not ignoring the vital parade around them. They are connecting to Steve Lindsay, the coin guy.
"We're so fortunate to live and work in the community," he said. "We're blessed."
Indeed, we're blessed, one coin at a time.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.