By Ian Lovett
On his hat, his green baseball cap, is a pin: it reads, “Prospector,” spelled out in gold. He found some gold wire on the beach and asked a friend to make him a pin with his name on it—let him keep whatever gold was left over. He introduced himself to me as Dan, but this is his name: Prospector.
At 7:45am, just before we set out from the lot, someone stops by to show Prospector a painting. “Number 13 of 100,” he says, pointing to the label on the back of the frame. “Someone threw it out, man. It’s a lithograph. I found it in the alleys. It’s numbered set, man, should be worth something. Only from 1980 but still.”
When we reach Brooks, Prospector locks his bike to a palm and turns on his machine—a long metal wand, with a doughnut-shaped sensor at one end and a screen at the other. He waves it back and forth in front of him in time with is stride, always keeping it just an inch or two above the ground, which is harder than it sounds, given the uneven surface of the sand.
Prospector talks constantly, as though calling play-by-play on his own treasure hunt. “Hanging a right turn now. OK.” I’m not sure how much this running commentary has to do with my tagging along. He keeps up a similar stream when he’s playing chess, analyzing potential moves out loud. And on the mirror in his van he’s written, “Shut up Dan” in green marker.
While I stay mostly silent, the metal detector keeps up the other end of the conversation, responding with a surprisingly emotive array of beeps—the different frequencies connoting different kind of metal, the volume their proximity. The screen, too, maps out what the machine senses under the sand, so, usually, Prospector knows what he might find before he even looks. “Oooh, quarter,” he’ll say. Then he leans down, hacking away at the sand with his homemade scoop—a handle fastened to the open top of a can, across which he’s fixed a wire filter. Once he’s scooped, the sand falls though back to the ground, while any metal stays inside. And if he comes up empty, he runs the machine over the spot again, trying to find the highest pitch, so he knows where to scoop next.
Some of these hunts go on for four, five, six scoops. It is backbreaking work, like sowing a field, always leaning forward, hacking away, then standing up to pocket maybe a few cents before moving onto the next. But his body is used to it—soles of the feet calloused over, skin seared to a deep brown, and his right arm, despite the scars of an old motorcycle accident, veined and lean from years of swinging the machine. Not many 56-year-olds could do this for hours every day.
When I ask Prospector what’s he looking for, he sticks out his hands. His fingers are decked with rings—gold, silver, turquoise-studded, svelte and gaudy: he’s found them all with his metal detector, on this beach. “A ring?” he says at one point, reaching for something in the sand that the machine hasn’t even beeped at, sounding excited. “Ahh, trash.” It’s only the discarded top to a 40 oz.
That is, today, mostly what we find. Bottle caps and pull tabs. He tosses them off to the side, back into the sand, where they might fool him again next week. He’s as much a janitor as a gold-panner—when we find bottles, he stands them up in the sand, so no one steps on them; and when he finds a woman’s wallet, emptied of all bills, he holds onto it. He pockets the change as a tip, but he’ll send the rest back to the address on her ID. And he leaves his card at all the lifeguard towers. When someone loses something of value—a watch, or a cell phone, or keys—he’ll come help them find it, hoping only for a tip in return.
Even though the trucks have already dragged the area smooth, you get a remarkably clear picture of what went the night before—the bolts and screws, the 40’s and the cigarette butts, the empty dime bags: the drum circle in all its glory. Right at the crack of dawn, before the trucks come by, “sand worms,” as he calls them, will comb the area looking for the dime bags, in hopes of finding a little bit left over inside. And near the trashcans, we find body-length imprints. People sleep there, near these obstacles, so the trucks won’t run them over in the morning, he says.
We continue back and forth over the area, our path a mixture of method and intuitiveness. Prospector stays near the edge of the line the truck has dragged, where the most stuff gets pushed to. But, suddenly, he’ll declare, “I’m turning here,” and change direction. “Sometimes you just see a butt print that looks promising,” he says. “And you go with that.”
For two and a half hours we continue like this, zigzagging back and forth just like the seagull footprints, Prospector and his machine making conversation with each other. We find about $5 in change—mostly in bunches, where someone sat down, or decided to bury a friend in the sand—plus a couple sets of keys. “Drop money, not keys, you idiots,” he says. When we finish, he hangs the keys from a nearby tree branch, using the Jaegermeister lanyard attached to one set, hoping their owners might see them there.
As he turns back towards his bike, someone calls out to him. “You don’t want that?” The guy’s already fingering the lanyard we just hung there.
“No,” Prospector says. “I was hoping maybe the owner would see it there. I don’t know.”
“Well, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”