Legendary Bolinas street person “Treehouse” John Banushki passed away last Saturday morning, clutching a picture of himself as a high school gymnast and smelling the mix of fresh scrambled eggs and the decay of the derelict seaside house in which he spent the last years of his life. Friends say John knew his time was coming—he spent the previous day bidding oblique farewells and talking to his mother on Skype.
Most people remember John sitting downtown, beaming as he passed the time with anyone and everyone. Many say he was the last of his kind.
“He was a very likable person, a very caring person,” said John’s landlord, Ralph Garside. “He didn’t suffer. There were a few breaths and then he just went.”
John’s death was painful for everyone that knew him. “I saw him in the street, and he came up to me and told me how much he loved me,” said friend Terry Donohue. “It wasn’t exactly out of character for him, but this time I could tell something was different.”
Little is known about John’s life before Bolinas. Born in 1952, he grew up with his mother in Syracuse, became a star athlete at his high school and was a competitive gymnast. John loved showing the picture of himself—the same picture he held Saturday morning—at 17, John perched on the pommel horse, muscles sharply defined under his white leotard.
After high school he spent some time at Syracuse University, but was drafted into the Marines and shipped out to Vietnam—a topic he never talked much about. After he was discharged, he traveled west by bus and by thumb to Bolinas, where he hoped to meet Grace Slick, whom he heard lived there.
John gained his moniker after spending some years in a makeshift treehouse with a group of Bolinas flower children in the 70s; he was the last to leave nearly a decade later. Much to his irritation, the name stuck. “Boy, did he hate that name,” said friend Sky Road Web. John eventually met Grace, but the encounter was a memory he entrusted to no one.
John was a big, barrel-chested man and easily found carpentry work. He was a good worker, and never had to look far for employment. “He was real dedicated, real strong,” Garside said. “He’s the only reason this house isn’t at the bottom of the ocean.” For years John built the retaining walls keeping Garside’s house from crumbling into the surf.
Life was good for John. He was popular with women, and found it funny that he had four girlfriends named Debbie. “He had many girlfriends, whom he loved very much,” said one friend. “A hundred more people love him than love me, that’s for sure.” He had a large circle of friends, and was generous with both his money and high spirits.
As the years went by, the weight on John’s shoulders grew—memories from the war, heartbreak and depression wore him down. He began to drink heavily. His radiant personality slipped away, and he lost many of his friends. It didn’t take long for John to become a slave to his addiction.
John eventually broke his hip in a fall, and the fracture never set correctly. After he started receiving social security checks, John had nothing to do but drink. A former friend who wishes to remain anonymous said he saw John’s spiral into addiction firsthand, and blames Bolinas’ culture. “We have this fascination with bad boys, and people who just don’t fit with normal,” he said. “This town just accepts behavior that wouldn’t work anywhere else, and it traps you here and you can never, ever leave.”
After the treehouse, John lived in trailers, houses, commercial garages and storage facilities. He began living with meth addicts, who purportedly plied him with alcohol in exchange for his social security money.
Eventually John began to use meth. Though he could still be charming to those that passed by his spot downtown, meth made John edgy and sometimes confrontational. His former friend remembers when John stole his mechanic’s tools in order to strip down an abandoned car for parts. The friend confronted him, which enraged John. “Later that night a few of his meth friends came over,” he said. “They told me not to ask questions about cars, and kinda taught me a lesson.” He rarely spoke with John after that.
As his liver deteriorated and his blood pressure rose, John neglected to take his medication regularly. He began to have such difficulty walking that he rarely ever left downtown. After he moved in with Garside, John hit a plateau. He didn’t get into any more fights, and his drunken public displays diminished. John seemed to accept his fate, and passed his last days with the people he loved in the town that had trapped him. He was 58.
John is survived by his mother and younger brother. A small memorial is placed where John used to sit, with small offerings of cigarettes and chewing gum.