He’s the man in the yellow van.
Steve Bell is the gray-bearded guy in the mustard-colored Volkswagen retro van parked daily, for hours, on Sunset Avenue by the train tracks and Brackett’s Landing waterfront in Edmonds.
What’s up with that?
“The car is a ’76 and I’m 76, so we match,” Bell said.
Sunset Avenue is a popular spot for locals and tourists to stroll and soak in the expansive beauty of the bay.
Trains are a lure for Bell, a retired warehouse worker. The pop-top VW bus is his second home.
“It’s the cheapest way for me to spend the day, aside from going to the library or joining a monastery,” he said. “I live on Social Security and I rent a room in a house for $400. This is my living room, this is my outdoors.”
He stops by the library a few times a week. Mostly, though, he sits in the van, watching the trains and people go by.
The VW is a Westfalia — a “hippie van.” According to Jalopnik.com, a website about cars: “You might say the original Westfalia helped inspire an entire generation of kids to drive off to wherever, smoke weed, and take part in crazy unprotected sex… It’s starred in a gazillion movies and ha[s] been owned by the likes of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld.”
It’s a matter of internet lore whether “Scooby-Doo’s” turquoise with orange flowers “Mystery Machine” van is a VW.
Bell bought his van six years ago for $1,500. It’s his third VW, but his first Westfalia.
“I’ve put on 38,000 miles since I bought it. I’ve had three people stop me on the road wanting to buy it from underneath me,” he said.
Upkeep on a 43-year-old auto is pricey.
“It’s cost me a lot of money. I never had a wife or child support, but nature says you’re not going to get away with not having expenses just because you never married and had children. This car has made up for it.”
It does have benefits: “In a parking lot I can spot it. And I’m not likely to be carjacked.”
Bell’s van has been a fixture on the stretch between Main and Caspers streets for the last four years. He’s there every day, except when it snows.
Dogwalkers spring by with their four-legged companions. Couples hold hands. Most folks just walk on by, though some acknowledge the man on the other side of the window with a nod.
“They are the ‘hello’ people,” Bell said. “Sunset Avenue is the ‘Hi road.’ It’s the small-town village friendliness.”
Not everybody is happy to see him.
“One guy came over to me and said, ‘Will you please not park in front of my house all the time?’ He said his mother-in-law was upset that my car was parked there.”
Bell moved to another space.
“Five days later he comes up to my side of the car and puts $100 in my pocket,” he said.
It was an unexpected bonus.
“I put it in the bank. I didn’t buy anything particular. It was just nice to have an extra $100,” he said.
The thought crossed his mind to turn that into a small money-making venture.
“My friends told me I should park in front of all the houses down there and maybe I can get everybody to give me $100 to keep moving my car,” he said. “Nobody has asked since.”
In back of the Westfalia VW camper is a marigold-plaid bed that’s a platform for his snacks and lawn chair. His frayed red dictionary sits on the laminate sink cabinet. Artwork and van photos given to him by passersby is clipped to a hanger by the yellow curtains.
“Someone just came up and said, ‘I drew this picture of your van,’” he said of a colorful felt-tip sketch.
The front has two plaid bucket seats. The passenger seat doesn’t get used often. He steps outside when a train comes by.
Bell said he has been fascinated with trains since he was a toddler. He was born in Iowa and went to the University of California, Berkeley, for a few years but didn’t graduate.
“I ran into my own emotional roadblock,” he said. “I never finished my senior thesis in Russian history.”
He came to Washington in 1989 for a girl. They’ve since split up.
“Trains were the first love of my life. Women would have been the second love of my life. I’ve had less problems with trains over 76 years than I’ve had trying to relate with people. Trains don’t talk back, they just roll on by,” he said.
“One of the gals I was dating for a while told one of my friends, ‘I wish he looked at me like he looks at trains. Wish he had the same look in his eye.’”
Sunset Avenue is a hub for other train fans who stand at attention when the rail cars rumble by. Each has a specialty.
“Steve’s a freight car aficionado. He can tell you about freight cars better than I can,” said Dr. David Peck, an Edmonds ophthalmologist who comes at lunch to photograph trains. “But I might be able to tell you more about the locomotives.”
Peck’s son is an engineer. “I know a lot of the crews who come by. I get a chance to wave at them,” Peck said.
Bell’s closest relatives live in California and he makes a sporadic road trip there.
“A couple weeks later, a gal came by here and said, ‘I saw your car in Madras, Oregon,’” he said.
He can’t go anywhere in town unnoticed, either.
“I go away from here and they say, ‘Hey, how come you’re not down at the waterfront?’” he said. “I’m just the man in the yellow van. The car gets more attention than I do.”