The Anchor of Fifth Avenue
In Oakland, under a new section of Interstate 880 and between a belching ironworks and an ill-looking glass company, is the short, final stretch of Fifth Avenue that ends in a hidden estuary off the Inner Harbor, long empty of cargo ships.
It's an easy block to miss, even when you know what to look for: large, spindly flowers that form peculiar gardens in front of slate-colored warehouses; weather-worn paintings that dangle from fence posts obscured by feral plants; and a 28-foot tooth weighing over 3,800 pounds that stands between a tree and a glitter-caked car.
Down this alley-size avenue, industrial decay has been transformed into a whimsical neighborhood in which white-haired men ride through the sun on vintage Schwinn bicycles and wet-nosed dogs sniff your car tires before they've even stopped rolling. This is the domain of Robert A. Schultz, a slender, ruddy-faced gentleman with bright eyes and quick hands.
Schultz is a longtime member of a semisecret fraternal organization called the Clampers, which was founded in the early 1800s and reinvigorated in 1931 by a San Francisco historian named Carl Wheat.
The "historical drinking society" is dedicated to preserving gold rush history and bringing comfort to widows and orphans -- especially widows. Members wear black vests and red union suits. They clean up the gravestones of forgotten whores, dedicate plaques at ghost towns and old saloons, and commemorate the death of the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, Joshua A. Norton I each and every year.
Schultz is a Clamper through and through. But while he spends time preserving the history of the West, his personal history is a matter of vague conjecture. He won't wear a watch, doesn't believe in calendars, and has purposely forgotten his own birth date (though notorious birthday celebrations held on the third Sunday of March are the subject of much discussion in circles both high and low).
We do know that Schultz left his father's farm in Nebraska at the age of 18 and joined the Navy; he came to the Bay Area sometime later. There are, however, only three specific dates Bob Schultz claims are important enough to remember: 1958, when he was discharged from the Navy; 1991, when he became a member of the ultraexclusive Bohemian Club, of which Carl Wheat was also a member; and Dec. 12, 1979, when he bought the old Pacific Carbonic Gas Co.
Schultz discovered the 22,000-square-foot compound during his career as a designer for the city of Oakland. Working on projects like Children's Playland left him ample time to explore the urban landscape of which he had grown so fond. The factories along the estuary became the subject of countless Schultz watercolors and a nebulous daydream. Finally, when Schultz's high-spirited nature became too much for his new boss to handle, Schultz walked away from a 16-year career that he loved and sold everything he owned.
On Dec. 12, 1979, he put down $77,378 on a piece of derelict property with three crumbling buildings on Fifth Avenue. J. Seward Johnson (of Johnson's baby oil fame) gave him the 28-foot-high tooth.
Pictures of the old place are nearly unrecognizable. Where piles of cracked tires once sat, huge succulents and palm trees grow. Vintage cars gleam in corners in the courtyard once occupied by rusting box springs. Sombreros hang from trees. Mannequin legs dangle off rooftops. A row of old cracked cowboy boots hangs off an I-beam. Parakeets sing in a huge outdoor cage marked "Cat Food." A rusted "Lightning Wheel" from 1871 leans against a stump across from a 30-year-old man-powered "art tank." In every crevice there are strange treasures: a box of crystal doorknobs hiding beneath a palm frond, a fire extinguisher from the turn of the century leaning against a doorjamb, a faded bumper sticker that reads "Clampers get more pick-ups."
"I've been working on this sculpture for more than 18 years," says Schultz with the selling wink of a confidence man. "I call it my Museum of Unnatural Wonders."
At one side of Schultz's sprawling, phoneless workshop, the first of more than a dozen daily visitors sits in an aged overstuffed chair shooting the breeze. The shop is a gallery of antiquity -- old books, clocks, tables, toys, tools, clothes, hats, paintings, appliances, and cars fill the two-building spread. According to a small hand-painted sign, everything is for sale (though you probably have to prove yourself worthy of the item, and then Schultz would probably prefer to offer it as a gift).
In keeping with the Clampers' motto, "I believe because it is absurd," nothing in Schultz's place is treated with overmuch reverence. He still uses the 1850 post drill and the ornate floor safe from the old Palace Hotel. Children and childlike adults still play with the antique trucks. Folks are welcome to take naps in the loft -- which is furnished like a Western bordello -- or, if the loft is too warm, in a side room that is equipped like a ship's quarters.
Schultz drives his vintage cars. Dogs sleep in them. On the passenger door of his 1933 Rolls Royce Phantom II, one of his many acquaintances has even drawn a rough cartoon in thick black Magic Marker. "It just appalls the purists," says Schultz with an impish chuckle, "but I encourage people to have fun. Nothing is irreparable. If you want to draw on my car, then draw on my car."