It was like entering a third world country located among the thickets along the riverbank. The band of “Take Back Lodi” faithful volunteers led by Mark Armstrong were back at it again last Friday morning, cleaning up the mess of homeless encampments. This time it was along the river, east of Highway 99 off Woodbridge Road.

It may not be possible to adequately describe the experience. The stench was nauseating. The debris field covered about an acre. Every item imaginable was found, some of it buried under mud and mounds of dirt. Half-full smoothie bottles. Pairs of pants. Ladies under garments and other items of clothing flung on tree branches. Wire strung between trees used as a clothesline. Bicycle parts. Plastic sheeting propped up to make tents. There were piles of pure garbage everywhere, most of it probably pilfered from neighborhood garbage cans.

Visitors were warned to watch out for needles and hazardous waste. It was actually a cluster of campsites this time, requiring the capacity of at least two garbage trucks and the use of a Bobcat front loader to get the job done. The sheriff was there to clear the area of any remaining residents. The coroner was there because a dead body was found in one of the makeshift tents. The squalor was unbelievable.

The cleanup may be done, but some workers found it hard to clear their nostrils of the smell, or forget what they saw. It’s an American tragedy, right here along the Mokelumne River. “Take Back Lodi” volunteers deserve a lot of credit for their grit, guts and gumption.

AMERICAN PATRIOTS: You may have noticed some small American flags sticking in people’s lawns along West Elm Street and other places. It’s the work of Peter Matlock and Braeden Dillon.

Peter is an ex-recon (special forces) Marine who’s now in the real estate business at Keller-Williams on School Street. Braeden is a loan officer with Summit Funding. The pair have been best buds since high school and have now banded together to spread a patriotic message throughout Lodi by planting flags in front lawns. Each flag has a label attached to it that includes the message, “May we never forget freedom isn’t free. Please take this flag as a small reminder of how blessed we are to live in this amazing country and remember that pride is something you can feel every single day.”

Matlock says their main goal is to remind people what it “still means to be an American.” They’ve placed about 1,000 flags so far and intend to distribute 1,000 more this week. Feedback has been positive, he says.

CLEANING UP: If you haven’t bought hand sanitizers yet to protect yourself against all the viruses going around, you may be out of luck for a while. Most of the local stores are sold out of the stuff. Even trying to order it online proved futile. As of this writing, all the stores were out of stock locally. However, Amazon had some available—two pump bottles for $40. Someone say gouge?

CHANGING SPACES: The Changing Faces Theater Company — not to be confused with any political party — will be opening a studio at 720 W. Lodi Avenue, next to Zin Bistro, in the space previously used for Zumba classes. The theater troupe has been around since 2002, but it’s mostly been a summertime gig held at Jesse’s Grove Winery, according to founder and artistic director Mike Bartram.

The company specializes in youth theater, says Bartram, who runs the company with his wife Sabrina. Their new digs will be converted into a “60-seat black box-style live theater,” says Bartram. “At the end of March, we are staging our first production in the new space, an original murder mystery fundraiser titled ‘In Lieu of Flowers, Send Wine,’ written by Lodi native Jacob Inman, who now lives in Chicago,” he says.

It is a nonprofit company and they are seeking donations. This brings back fond memories of the Tokay Players acting troupe, who staged plays at the Pine Alley Theater back in the 1970s and ’80s. The theater was just a hole in the wall that occupied the back part of a storefront on Sacramento Street. Access was through the alley off Pine Street. Seating was limited to about a couple dozen patrons. They also performed plays in the lobby of the Hotel Lodi.

INFINITEMS: After last week’s piece about the Sunset Theater seats being removed, many readers assumed the chairs were being sold. Wrong. The owners are going to be giving some of them away, not selling them. When the Clarks posted their original announcement about the chairs on social media, owner Terry Clark says it was shared hundreds of times and seen by over 33,000 people.

After it was mentioned here, Clark says he was “besieged” by people wanting to buy seats, and “charities are lining up to receive some (seats) for fundraising.” Apparently, Channel 13 even did a story about it recently. For details on how you can score a seat, check their Facebook group page, The Sunset Theater Lodi. … El Pazcifico Mexican Grill & Cantina on Pine Street is moving into the space next door. The popular Mexican restaurant, famous for their fish tacos, is always packed so the new quarters should provide more seating.

REMEMBRANCE: Nanci Reich Lesley let us know that her mom, Jeannie Reich, who used to own the Woodbridge Inn with her husband Roy, passed away about 10 days ago. The Reichs ran the Inn from 1982 to 1995. It was arguably one of the best restaurants in the area, right across the street from the Feed & Fuel, another legendary eatery and watering hole.

They were always packed for lunch and busy at dinnertime. Jeanne had previously been the chef at the Woodbridge Golf and Country Club before moving her considerable talents to the WB Inn. Jeannie was 91 and lived in Huntington Beach in Southern California. Husband Roy died in 2014. … Last month we said goodbye to Don Hawkinson, who died in January. He worked for the city as both a police officer and later as a firefighter, retiring as the city’s fire marshal. Don was a “by the book” kind of guy; jovial and congenial all the while telling you why you couldn’t do something, or that you were in violation of some law. Don’s 27 years with the city were recently recognized with a presentation by Police Chief Tod Patterson and Fire Chief Gene Stoddard.

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Steve is a former newspaper publisher and lifelong Lodian whose column appears most Tuesdays in the News-Sentinel. Write to Steve at aboutlodi@ gmail.com.

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