by Austen Tate
Photo by Pablo Capra
Old photo by Phil McMahanArtwork by James Mathers
As the Lower Topanga community, an artist colony in the Rodeo Grounds, patiently awaits its fate – the final eviction process by the California Department of State Parks – Robert Lynn Overby, who once resided in what is also called the Bamboo Grove, is already out on his own. State Parks officials considered Overby, a.k.a. Baretta, a non-resident and therefore he was not given relocation funds or any assistance in finding a new home.
"Kill or be killed," said the 55-year-old surfer man in the shed of his situation, one that can be compared to his struggle against the nightly invasion of his former Topanga home by rats.
In the midst of the chaos and loss of his home, Baretta – who is also an actor, photojournalist (his photos have been published in The Malibu Times), house painter and now a writer of prose and poetry – recorded his stories of struggle and war against the wild and wily rats that tormented him in his Topanga shed in a storybook aptly titled "Rat Tales." Twenty-six-year-old Pablo Capra, mentor and artist of Lower Topanga, helped Baretta with the narration, and fellow Lower Topangan artist James Mathers illustrated the tales.
Baretta had endured hardships before state enforcement agency officials were sent to his "Grizzly Adams" shed to tear down his misery with pickaxes. It was inside this shed where the "Rat Tales" began and where the old man would have to struggle in the decay and dirt against the vermin.
"They rushed at me with their little claws and they wanted to kill me," Baretta described. "I felt them breathing in my nostrils at night, looking over me and I felt them crawling on my belly.
"It was something I didn't think about before," he added, but "the numbers grew and their offspring flourished in the later years of my shedly life. Rats swarming. I had to punish them for being naughty and that's where the book came from."
In the book, Baretta shows compassion for the lizards that get stuck in glue traps, but shows no mercy to the rats for which the traps were meant to catch. He describes "circus actor" rats, cannibal rats, flying rats and even talks about a "carnivorous species" of squirrels, which he believes eat the rats that get stuck in the traps he laid out.
(Warning for parents: Language and graphic descriptions in the book might be considered inappropriate for children's reading.)
Mathers describes Baretta as a "classic Southern California voice. His whole life is like a Steinbeck novel. He lives like a Bukowski character."
Born in San Diego, Baretta went to Point Loma High School and later majored in Speech at the local state college. He surfed as a teenager – a 1966 front-page photo in the San Diego Tribune showed the now rotund man as a handsome, slender, eager-looking 16-year-old at the World Surfing Championships in Ocean Beach, where he claims to have shaken hands with surf legend Duke Kahanamoku.
His foray into acting came, Baretta said, when he tried out for the play "Grapes of Wrath" with professors who took students to London for a national readers' theater workshop, giving him the opportunity to study acting under the legendary Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson.
However, fame and glory passed him by, and he returned to the West Coast in 1977, settling in the Topanga area.
It was here that he met his new friends, the ones he said inspired him to follow his creative roots.
"They were my new 'earth' friends," said Baretta, reminiscing on the days spent around the "Snake Pit" in the Rodeo Grounds over a 10-year period during the '80s.
Capra, one of those friends, is the founder of Brass Tacks Press, as well as a poet, editor and a writer for The Topanga Messenger. He collects the stories and history of Lower Topanga and compiles them into paperback books with illustrations. "Rat Tales" is the first in a series of the short storytelling books to be published by Brass Tacks Press. Growing up in Topanga with his father in the movie business linked Capra to artist/poet Robert "Jeremy Black" Campbell and Richard McDowell, co-founders of Brass Tacks. In 2002, they published "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove" and "Life as a Poet." "Rat Tales" will be the beginning of capturing the art and culture of the ending days in the Lower Topanga Rodeo Grounds.
Capra describes Baretta's book as a "black comedy with good comic sense, and timing," but the writer also has a deeper understanding of "Rat Tales."
"I think besides being a book about just killing rats, there is a bigger story of struggling to survive, which Baretta is [doing] living in an impoverished situation," Capra said. "And so that comes out in the book, in the way he treats the rats ... there is a parallel with his life and that of the rats."
Capra admires folk art storytelling such as The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and feels Baretta's book fits in the genre of "literary folk tradition."
Both Mathers and Capra believe Baretta is important as a storyteller in their community.
"Baretta reveals the collective fears and misery of the state we are in here in Lower Topanga in our unconscious minds, being evicted," Capra said.
"Our world needs Baretta, he is a canary in the coal mine. Representing all that is being sanitized and disappeared from beach culture," Mathers summarized. "Rat Tales' is a cold look at what it means to be wild and human and how these two savage paradigms meet on the point of destruction."
And although it seems that Baretta's war against the rats is gruesome and unforgiving, he writes in the "Rat Tales" epilogue, "You must have sympathy for all creatures great and small, even though it was too late for the rats on the glue traps. They're doomed. Why do we doom these little rats?"
"Rat Tales" can be purchased online at www.lifeasapoet.com.