Crossroads' Top 10 Most Fascinating People - No. 1: Pepper
By BY APRILL BRANDON - ABRANDON@VICAD.COM
Dec. 5, 2009 at 6:05 a.m.
Updated Dec. 7, 2009 at 6:07 a.m.
It's a little after midnight at the Downtown Bar & Grill. All the Wednesday regulars are there.
Chase Brown croons on stage, the bartenders keep the drinks flowing, and the crowd happily buzzes.
Then, in he walks, all 5-foot-4-inches of him. And the whole crowd yells, "Pepper!"
Everyone knows Pepper. Even if you don't know Pepper, you know of Pepper. And if you do know Pepper, you don't really know Pepper.
He is perhaps Victoria's biggest, if most unlikeliest, celebrity. With a rather extensive criminal background, ranging from assault to burglary, some say he's dangerous. Others say he's harmless. One thing that can't be denied is that your first Pepper sighting is a rite of passage to becoming a Victorian. Many a newcomer to the city is asked the inevitable question: "Have you seen Pepper yet?"
Pepper's real name is Marlin Adams. He is well known for walking the streets of Victoria, sometimes dressed as a ninja, other times in a fur coat in August. But almost every Wednesday you can find him at Downtown Bar & Grill.
"You can be who you are at the Downtown Bar & Grill," Pepper said of his favorite hangout spot.
Pepper, the singing sensation
Tonight, Pepper, 54, is a star. During his sets, Brown, a popular local performer, lets Pepper get on stage and take the microphone for a song or two. For all the rumors and gossip floating around about Pepper, it's hard to deny the fact the man can sing. Once on stage, his demeanor changes. He is confident, playful and even though he lacks several teeth, which can make understanding him talk difficult at times, the lyrics come out crystal clear, especially when it's a James Brown song.
"And I feeeeeel nice ... like sugar and spice ..."
He calls singing his habit. In fact, he will quite literally sing for his supper. Each day, Pepper walks miles and miles around the city, asking for money from everyone and anyone he encounters. If requested of him, he will sing in exchange for a few dollars and there are even videos on YouTube of Pepper singing.
While many people think of Pepper as a sort of unofficial ambassador for Victoria, not everyone loves him nor thinks he is harmless. Victoria resident Catherine Lewis has often seen Pepper around town and said she has seen him act aggressively on multiple occasions.
"Personally, I think he's rather dangerous. If he comes up to you and asks for money and you refuse, he can get really angry," she said. "It's obvious he's not quite all there and he could snap at any moment."
His friends, however, are quick to defend him.
"Pepper is not a threat. He wouldn't hurt a fly," Brown said. "Anyone who would say that has never spoken to him or they would know better. He's so sweet and not violent."
Pepper's criminal past
Pepper has been arrested and jailed numerous times, according to court documents. Although Victoria police Chief Bruce Ure said he can't comment on Pepper's criminal history, he did say his department is well-acquainted with the man.
The charges against Pepper range from a sexual assault charge, which was later dismissed, to burglary, assault and weapons charges, as well as a host of misdemeanor crimes. His criminal record ranges 20 years in Victoria - from 1987 to, most recently, a February 2007 warrant charging him with criminal trespass.
Pepper also was ordered to take a mental illness exam by the courts and was committed to Vernon State Hospital at least once, according to court documents. In 1998, a local judge ruled that Pepper was incompetent to stand trial, with the probability that he would never become competent.
When a judge or jury finds a defendant incompetent more than once or they send a defendant to a state hospital for a mental illness, the burden of proving competency shifts from the defense to the state, said District Attorney Steve Tyler.
"It's much harder to prove someone is sane than to prove they are insane," he added. "If someone is routinely found insane and has been to the hospital a lot and everyone believes they are insane, you cannot convict them of a crime. All you can do is send them to a state hospital."
But Pepper is a very high-functioning individual despite a head injury he suffered several years ago, according to his sister, Lucille Davidson of El Campo. As a young man, he was hit in the head by a police baton during a raid at his Corpus Christi workplace, an injury that led to neurological problems that he now takes medicine for, she said.
"He was hit in a certain area on his head that damaged a part of his brain nerve," she said, adding she was unsure of the exact year or how old Pepper was at the time. "It did mess him up, and he'll never get back to what he was, but he's not crazy."
Describing Pepper before that incident, Davidson used words like multi-talented.
"He used to be able to pick up an instrument and play songs by ear. He could also draw like a professional artist. And the singing ... oh, the singing. He's so good," she said. "If you just look into his heart, just sit down and talk with him, he's very intelligent when he's on his medication."
Pepper also said he is on medication, saying that as long as he takes it, he is all right.
"I got to stay on my medicines. I take it because it makes me who I am. It keeps me together," he said.
The story of Pepper begins in 1954, when he was born in El Campo to a large family that included seven brothers and seven sisters. He was raised in Corpus Christi after his mother moved there, he said. He attended the all-black Solomon M. Coles High School.
Nine years older than Pepper, Davidson added that Pepper lived with her and her husband for awhile when he was younger. In fact, she was the one who gave him the nickname Pepper.
"I love the juice of jalapeno peppers. I put it on everything. And Pepper, he'd always eat the pepper. He'd eat them on anything and everything," she laughed. "I started to get worried there for awhile that he was eating too many. But bless his heart, he grew into a strong young man."
Contrary to a popular rumor, Pepper never was in the military, Davidson said. However, he did join the Job Corps as a young man, which is a voluntary education and job training program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The earliest record of him in Victoria is in 1987. That year, he spent 55 days in jail for a misdemeanor crime, according to court documents.
"You know, I wanted my home to be in Victoria because it's a nice place to live and it's a good neighborhood," Pepper said. "The police is doing a good job. The city is doing a good job. It's full of good people."
Pepper and the Gorilla
One of the most popular stories about Pepper is the fight between him and the mechanical gorilla, affectionately named Bubba, outside of Tom's Vacuum at the corner of Navarro and Rio Grande streets. Even though it occurred about 25 years ago, the incident remains fresh in the minds of many Victorians.
As Pepper tells it, Bubba hit him out of nowhere and so Pepper hit him back.
"I won. I opened a can of whoop-ass on him," he laughed.
According to Mike Vanelli, the longtime service manager at the store, it was actually Bubba who beat up Pepper.
"Pepper walked by as the gorilla waved and they started wrestling. Somehow, Bubba ended up falling on top of Pepper and Pepper started yelling, 'Help! Help! Get him off me!'" he said. "Once he wriggled out from underneath, he ran off and now he very seldom will walk by the store. I'd definitely say Bubba won."
Bubba, perhaps the only one who could solve this discrepancy, had no comment.
It's stories like these that elevated Pepper to an almost local legend status. Other stories include that he won the lottery, which Pepper claims was $183 million. According to the Texas Lotto Commission, there is no record of a Marlin Adams winning a substantial amount of money in the lottery. However, it is possible Pepper may have won a small amount of money through the lottery, Davidson said. Several years ago, she received an anonymous phone call from someone in Victoria who claimed they were at the convenience store when Pepper turned in his winning ticket, but she was never able to get any more information.
Is Pepper homeless?
One other hotly debated Pepper topic is whether he is homeless. For the past few years, Pepper lived in low-income housing in Victoria, his sister said. He lived with a roommate, which bothered him, so many nights Pepper slept on the streets, she added.
"He likes living outside, but it breaks my heart. I always thought he was in a safe place. I had no idea he was back on the streets," Davidson said. "Myself and the rest of his family have told him he always has a place to stay with one of us, but he likes his freedom and wants a place of his own. He is an adult, and it's not like he's incapable of taking care of himself. I could insist he come home with me permanently, and he'd reluctantly go with me, but then he'd try to go back to Victoria somewhere down the line."
On Oct. 20, Pepper was attacked by a dog, resulting in several dog bites and a gaping wound on one of his forearms. When he was released from the hospital, Pepper stayed with Davidson in El Campo for a week, she said. Soon after, he returned to Victoria, where a small group of community members opened the Marlin Adams Benefit Fund at TDECU. That money was used to pay for a room at the Comfort Inn for Pepper, where he stayed for four weeks before the money ran out, Emil Ganem said. Ganem works at Don's Boots, where Pepper often works odd jobs to earn money, and was one of the people who helped get the fund into place for Pepper.
"Right now, he has no place to live and he's staying on the street," Ganem added. "He still comes by the store twice a day to take his medicine and to do odd jobs. We give him money each day, but as of right now, there is not enough money in the account to get him a place to live."
Don's Boots isn't the only local business that helps Pepper. When he's not panhandling or singing for money, he does odd jobs at numerous places around the city.
"I'm smarter than you think," Pepper said. "I'm a jack-of-all-trades. I can do anything. If there's a job, I'll do it."
County Commissioner Gary Burns has known Pepper for a long time and has given Pepper odd jobs from time to time.
"He'd walk in and say, 'Mr. Burns, I need $4.63' and I'd tell him to start sweeping. He always had a specific amount of money he needed," Burns said. "He's a hard worker. His attention span is rather short, but he'll work hard and he's very nice."
Pepper even helped Burns get elected. When Burns ran for county commissioner the first time, Pepper asked him for a sandwich board to help campaign.
"We were at an event and he was wearing that sandwich board. Then out of nowhere he disappeared and when I looked up I saw Pepper in the middle of a crowd with the board. He was entertaining everyone and people loved it," he said. "I got more comments from that than anything else I did for the campaign. In fact, I think Pepper did more for my campaign than anything else."
Although Pepper may seem an enigma to some, to Brown, he's just another friend. Brown's first personal encounter with Pepper was in 2002, when he was carrying out his equipment after a show. Pepper came up and asked him if he needed help.
"He started wrapping up the wires and so I gave him a few dollars. He then asked me if I could give him a ride. When we got to where he wanted to go, he pulled out a little green toy fish and said, 'This is for you, Elvis,'" said Brown, who used to work as an Elvis impersonator. "Now, he always comes to my shows. And every time I give him a ride, when he gets out he tells me he loves me."
As for what makes Pepper so fascinating, Brown believes a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are so many rumors and myths surrounding him. No one else in Victoria is as highly visible and as well-known, and yet still such a mystery to the community.
"I think what makes Pepper so fascinating is all the stories floating around about him," Brown said. "Sometimes the mystery is more intriguing than knowing."
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