Feed Your Head
The LTD Country Squire station wagon veers quietly off the pavement and into the dewy grass of a secluded Golden Gate Park meadow.
"This is where you usually find the highest concentration," says Arthur Bigelow III, squinting out the windshield. "They like to spend the night in these little meadows -- it protects them from the wind."
Bigelow takes the rusted Ford into a sharp turn and stomps on the pedal, whipping the rear end around to face the trees, before abruptly killing the engine. He steps out and smooths his blinding yellow suit. We open up the rear door, releasing the pungent aroma of hundreds of used, moldy books and magazines. Another business day begins for the one-man organization Books Not Food.
"Come and get it!" yells Bigelow, squeezing the bulb of a bicycle horn as though he were calling the cows. Within a few seconds, the trees stir and branches part to reveal bedraggled bums, sleep still in their eyes. Some immediately make a dash for the car, others approach hesitantly, murmuring to each other. Bigelow motions to me to stand back, and the indigents converge on the free literature like ants to a dinner roll.
Since January, the eccentric 44-year-old Bigelow has donated his time and money to feeding the minds of the homeless, funneling his dwindling Bigelow shower nozzle fortune into a bizarre philanthropic mission he calls "the recycling of intelligence."
"If the public library is going to throw out all these books, somebody might as well put them to good use," says Bigelow, tossing a musty 1948 Merck Veterinary Manual to a bearded man in a poncho. "All that money to erect a new building, and they're dumping away perfectly good knowledge. It's a waste of brain food."
In truth, the library's overflow is all being donated to charity anyway, according to the Friends of the Library organization. Bigelow is simply the sole volunteer who insists on distributing directly to the park's campers. Twice a week he prowls the paddocks, giving away carloads of books procured from a secret source at the library's Main Branch, referred to only as "The Worm." And this peculiar Pacific Heights millionaire is not particular as to the variety of literature. Unlike Friends of the Library, which frowns upon any National Geographics, textbooks, or Reader's Digest condensed editions, Books Not Food offers an inexplicable grab bag.
A tiny hippie woman wrapped in a purple sleeping bag tugs fiercely at the bottom of the carload and extracts a hardback Norwegian translation of Bradshaw's Hydraulic Applications in Offshore Drilling. She plops on the grass and begins chewing its moldy cover.
"What can you do?" says Bigelow. "They either read 'em or eat 'em, and I'll tell you why. One, these people are hungry. They're going to eat whatever they can get their hands on. And second," his voice lowers, "I think some of them confuse me with the Food Not Bombs guys, who give away only food. The city hates that. Whereas I give away only books, circumventing the law completely, you see, and if they eat the books, well, that's their choice. I'm off the hook either way." In the odd world of Bigelow, it's the sheer gift of giving that counts.
He originally wanted to call his organization Books Not Bombs, but soon realized that not only did the stockpiling of weapons have little to do with free books, the name could also be mistaken for the tactic of bombarding one's enemy with books instead of bombs.
"Warfare is the furthest thing from my mind," he says grandly, as if the entire city has given his dilemma a great deal of thought. "I am but a lifelong pacifist, here to pass along knowledge to the less fortunate." He gazes out over the grassy field, watching the homeless alternately read and chew, his yellow suit looking like a giant pudgy banana against nature's misty green hue.
Curiously, nobody in the city can identify either Bigelow or Books Not Food.
"We have no idea who you're talking about," says a library spokesperson.
"Is this some sort of pun?" asks a clerk at Fort Mason's Friends of the Library Bookstore.
"A yellow suit?" exclaims a staffer at the Mayor's Office. "Is it Italian?"
The jowly Bigelow shrugs off his critics and disbelievers. In his heart, he knows he's right. But the clock is ticking. The library's overflow stock is rapidly depleting as the new building's April 18 opening approaches. And when that supply is exhausted, what will be the nozzle heir's next move?
"I've given some thought to the multimedia industry," he says airily, lighting a smoke and immediately flicking the ash. "Lot of potential, you know. Browsers, HTML, that sort of thing ..."
Bigelow's voice trails off as he spies a man in a sleeveless jean jacket thumbing through a crumbling book entitled Fundamentals of Shower Nozzlery, by Arthur Bigelow.
"My ... my grandfather!" screams Arthur Bigelow III, shoving his way through the crowd. "That's the book that started it all! I must have it!" His overfed hands greedily snatch the tome from Mr. Jean Jacket, who is not amused.