“What’s the story with Santee Alley?” I ask.
“It’s sort of self-explanatory. It’s all stuff,” he says. “You can buy hair”—he points past a group of Hispanic ladies to a wall of wigs, many of which would look right at home on the dressing table of Miss Yvonne—“you can buy jewelry, you can buy knockoff stuff. I come down here once in a while to buy the rip-off stuff. Usually I have a hat on and I look like law enforcement, so it’s not very effective. I’m like, ‘Where’s the knockoff stuff?’ They’re like, ‘We don’t have that, I swear.’”
I spy a SpongeBob SquarePants doll on a rack in front of one shop and point it out.
“He’s credited me a lot,” Reubens says. It’s unclear whether he’s talking about Stephen Hillenburg, SpongeBob’s creator, or SpongeBob himself.
It’s wall-to-wall bodies—Reubens and I seem to be the only people speaking English—and the dozens of shops, spanning two blocks, have an ad hoc garage-sale feel, since they open directly onto the alley via rolled-up metal grates rather than proper doors. “You used to be able to buy turtles and birds and stuff,” Reubens says as he gravitates toward one of the shops, “but I think they might have shut that part down.” He’s now got his hands on what appears to be a tote bag with President Obama’s face on it. Friends of Reubens’s have spoken about his legendary collection of Americana, of toys and vintage magazines and photographs, and of general weirdness—stuff like plastic food—that fills not only his home in the Hollywood Hills but various storage lockers around L.A. “Last time I was at Santee Alley, I bought a jeweled, gold plastic license-plate cover,” he recalls, “but I won’t use it because I’m afraid someone will steal it off my car.”
Upon closer inspection I see that Obama’s cartoonish head is squished next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Mount Rushmore–style; the bag itself is, improbably, Pepto-Bismol pink. Reubens hands over five bucks. “I like Obama stuff, especially the unauthorized stuff,” he explains. Reubens turns the bag over, examining it as we continue weaving through the crowd. He suddenly gets a very Pee-wee grin on his face. “And it’s a tote bag!” he exclaims. Then he immediately calms down. “I’ve almost stopped collecting,” he says. “Too much stuff. Way too much stuff. I filled my house up two or three times.”
“Very Warhol,” I say. (One of Reubens’s oldest friends, Marc Balet, who worked for Warhol as art director of Interview magazine, will later tell me, “Paul has thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces that I would love to get my hands on, so I could put them in some kind of book. I mean, his collection is unbelievable.”)