Several days each week, Ramón Álvarez drives his sign-laden minivan to some corner in downtown Modesto to exercise his right to free speech.
He began this ritual in 2006. He parked in front of the Stanislaus County Courthouse and stayed there for nearly two years, until the court administrator obtained a restraining order that forced Álvarez to protest elsewhere.
Since then, he's moved from corner to corner, waving at passing motorists and pointing to the clutter of signs bearing his convoluted messages. The hand-painted signs are pretty much undecipherable - hieroglyphics to the untrained eye.
This much we know: Álvarez was involved in a bitter divorce that included temporary restraining orders filed against him to avoid possible domestic violence. He obviously believes he is the victim. His signs accuse the court of corruption, an unnamed judge of raping Álvarez's daughter and a detective of giving his son drugs.
So far, his protest has been visual. Now, the 61-year-old Álvarez is taking it to a new and dangerous level. He's on a hunger strike. His face is drawn, gaunt. His weight loss is obvious. He uses a walker to get from where he parks his van (last week along Ninth Street) to where he sets up more signs and cushions on the sidewalk. He is literally killing himself in public view.
When I went to chat with him a couple of days ago, he refused to talk. Instead, he made a lip-zipping motion with his hand and then scratched out vague answers on a large note pad. He wrote that he continues to pay spousal support to his ex-wife and blames the district attorney's office for it. In 2006, he told a Bee reporter he'd worked for Tri Valley Growers until becoming disabled in 1997.
Alvarez no longer stands to wave to traffic. He spends some of his day curled up on the cushions. Other times, he stays inside his minivan.
"He's so weak," said Haime González, who can see Álvarez through the windows of the Garcia Bail Bonds office across G Street. "He calls cabs sometimes. He crawls (back to his van). No one helps him."
Some say they've tried.
"I've stopped to ask if he needs any help," said Andrew Hernández, who works at J.S. West's feed store across Ninth. "I offered to buy him lunch. He's not very friendly."