Part 1: Introduction, Rick and Milla
This is a project that’s been on my mind for a while. I heard a story about a guy who sat by a bus stop with a sign that said, “Tell Me Your Story, I’ll Give You a $”. That was it. If you told him your story, he’d give you a buck. I don’t know anything else about him, except that he had a wonderful idea, so I borrowed it.
I wasn’t planning on writing about it; I wasn’t even sure I was going to ever do it. I started the whole idea during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and every Saturday I had free, I wanted to watch basketball. I was walking out to my dumpster on one such Saturday, and a cardboard box was sitting on top of all the trash. So I grabbed a marker and the box and headed to Venice Beach—the best place in Southern California to hear stories.
That first day I sat on a bench for about 6 hours with my sign—tell me your story, I’ll give you a dollar. The bong shop in front of me was blaring music, I had a bottle of water and an old baseball cap, and the cardboard sign from my dumpster. A lot of people took pictures, some people would stop and point. Most folks just walked by without even reading my little offer—out of the corner of your eye I’m sure it would have looked like I was begging—who wants to make eye contact and feel guilty?
I didn’t have any idea what would happen, but I ended up going back. And back. And back. I still occasionally do, when I can find the time. The most common question I was asked was, “Why are you doing this?” I’m still not entirely sure, but I usually told people that it was a form of penance for a life spent not listening. That’s half the reason I didn’t want to write about it—I was there to listen, not to talk. To try to preserve that sentiment, I share as little as possible of my own opinion. This is merely a chance to tell stories that are worth being told.
People will tell you just about anything when they know you’re not just waiting to speak.
Rick and Milla were the defining moment of my first day. He walked up to me to me tall, lean, and with a rough, icy stubble of a beard. One hand held the strap of a battered backpack; the other held a coarse leash attached to the collar of a beautiful husky with shining, meek eyes. He was dirty—dirty, but very neat, probably in his mid-50’s—the age when men start eying local barstools and arm chairs, just looking for a place to sit down.
He eyed my sign from behind aviator sunglasses.
“So if I tell you my story, you’ll give me a dollar?”
“What if I tell you two stories?”
“Well then, I’ll tell you a story.”
Rick was from Florida. A couple months prior, he had gotten tired; tired of the climate, tired of the area. Like any other human being, Rick got worn down with the stagnation of his day to day life. So he had hitchhiked out to California—just him and his husky. He had got a ride with a couple of girls from Florida to east Texas, courtesy of Milla and those brilliant eyes. Then a man in a pickup truck picked him up and offered to take him to Tuscon.
They were driving through the New Mexico desert when the man suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road and told him to get out.
“What do you mean, get out?” Rick asked.
“Your ride’s over,” the man said. “Get the f— out of my car.”
So Rick got his bag and his dog and got out of the car. He had no idea why the man had done it—it seemed to be just plain human meanness. It’s difficult to understand why a man would do that to a person, so Rick didn’t even try to. Stranded in the middle of the New Mexico desert, he walked miles through the sun and sand to find a roadside phone and call a patrol officer, who came and took him to the next town. Then he came to California, and had a talk with me on a hard wooden bench on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
I asked Rick if he lived in the area as I gave him his dollar. He said that he didn’t really “live” anywhere, but yes, he stayed around the area. His exact words were, “California is my home now, even though I got no home.”
Rick gets $200 a month and some food stamps from the government. He had just bought a portable color television so he could watch some TV by himself. He lamented the lack of public electrical outlets in the area citing it as one of the disadvantages of California. I had never really given it much thought—I had never given much thought to most things Rick told me. But then again, I’m not used to cops waking me up when I’m sleeping in a park at 3 AM and telling me to get moving. And I’ve never had a cracked rib after getting mugged over a few bucks shoved in a tattered old backpack.
I asked Rick if having the dog around kept people from hassling him. He said sometimes, but the real advantage of the having her around was that women loved her. I could understand why. Milla was beautiful. She was named for the Milla Jovovich after Rick had watched Resident Evil. Rick thought Milla was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, so when he got his husky, the name transferred. He was also incredibly respectful when he mentioned the actress, never using our cultural terms of female commodity—hot, sexy, etc—but only beautiful. The entire time we talked—which was about three hours—Milla just laid under the bench, her head on her paws, occasionally offering her head to me or Rick to be scratched.
Rick told me a story about a man who had offered to buy Milla. He had walked up while Rick was panhandling on a street corner and offered him $500.
Rick replied, “Do you have any kids?”
The man said that he had three.
Rick said, “I’ll do a straight trade with you. You give me your three kids, and I’ll give you my dog.”
This sent the man into a fury, and after cursing and screaming at Rick, he stormed away. As he was telling me the story, Rick reached down and scratched Milla behind the ears; she looked up and leaned into his hand.
“I don’t understand why he was so mad,” Rick said. “This dog is all I have. I love her like she was my own child.”
I believed him. Milla was no small dog, but she looked much better fed than Rick did. She was just like Rick—dirty but neat. And those eyes had a glow in them—like fire behind a sheet of ice. If Rick loved anything, he loved Milla.
Rick was a career bum. He worked when he could, but he didn’t have much going for him besides his experiences. If he wanted to, he could have written the book about being homeless, and while he had only been in the area for a couple months, he had already figured out the system. If you got woken up for sleeping in a park, you got a ticket. If you had a cigarette on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, you got a ticket. If you spent a night in jail—no matter how many tickets you had—your tickets would be expunged. I asked Rick if he had any tickets. He said yes—that everybody did. But he couldn’t to jail because they would take his dog, and he didn’t have the money to get her out of the pound. If he couldn’t pay, they would put her to sleep.
Rick tried to stay in public areas whenever he could. People are quick to prey on those who are perceived as weaker than them. Rick was one of the most acute observers of other human beings that I have ever met. If a dog would walk by, he would lean forward and put his legs in front of Milla in order to put a barrier between her and the other dog. If someone walked up to me to ask about my sign, Rick would immediately stop talking. All of his interactions were geared towards just slipping by as an extra in the scene—not out of fear, but out of experience. When Rick got up to leave, he waited till a bike and two dogs walked by, then looked down at Milla and said,
Milla crawled out from under the bench and walked up close to Rick’s legs. Even his dog was being as inconspicuous as possible. I wished him well and shook his hand. Then he took one step off the boardwalk, pulled out his last cigarette, lit it up, and disappeared around the corner, just an extra character leaving the set.
I remember people’s stories more than I remember their faces—you see so many faces, but so few people are willing to open up enough to share themselves with a stranger. Yet every time I go back to Venice, I keep an eye out for a tall, skinny man and a husky with blue, blazing eyes.