Part 2: The Marine
As I’m writing these stories, I find I have a remarkable number of names attached to them. Everybody I met introduced themselves, which is rather surprising, because I never instigated a named greeting, which is a norm in our American social interactions. This makes sense in retrospect; names live on even when faces do not. King Arthur could look like anything, but he would still have pulled Excalibur from the stone. Ulysses could have been tall, short, black, or white, but after a couple millennium, it’s his name that carries his deeds.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t ask names; I never meant to retell stories—only to listen to them. I didn’t want people to worry about what was going to haunt them down the road; fear of retaliation or retribution drives mankind to immortal sin. David wasn’t a murderer until he was afraid somebody might find out what he did.
And that’s exactly why I’m not using The Marine’s real name—both out of respect and so this won’t get traced back to him. Regardless of what follows, I really loved him; not in a cheap, flippant sense—like I love tacos—but in the way that I’m sure Christ loves him.
Some people showed themselves in ways that others didn’t, and The Marine had a sense of social apathy that I deeply resonated with. It wasn’t a detachment with the world, but a detachment with social stigma, and it is the hallmark of the greatest saints and sinners this world has ever produced. But mostly the saints—Nietzsche lost his mind and Judas hung himself, but a young, African philosopher clung to life long enough—despite the fact he was a moral train wreck—and became Saint Augustine.
But that is neither here nor there.
Casey walked up to me while I was talking to Rick. He stood in front of me—fit, young, and well-dressed in a collared shirt and dark sunglasses, behind which he surveyed me and my ragamuffin conversation partner.
Some people who talked to me only approached me because they thought it was novel someone would just give away a dollar. They would tell a quick story and ask for their compensation and then leave. Some people would tentatively approach and ask to take pictures. Some people would just stop some distance off and point, or pull out their phones, or just turn to their friends and motion towards me. But everybody who told me a story—a real, honest-to-God snapshot of their life—they always stopped and surveyed me and my sign. It was as if they probing to be sure that I was serious; they wanted to be sure there were no strings attached, no cameras watching, no judgment or sermon waiting for them. It was also a little disconcerting. Casey looked at me like that.
“So, you want to hear a story?” He said it almost like a statement, like a dare.
“Well I’ll tell you a story.”
What commenced next was rapid-fire, as I’m sure most of his life had been up to that point. Casey poured his life out to me like he was talking to a drill sergeant.
“Abused by a single mom. Life was a living hell. She died. I was happy. Nothing could have been more of a relief. After that, I was a real loose cannon. Joined the Marines because there was no other real option. Did three tours overseas. Killed three people. At least. Unconfirmed kills don’t count. Then I discovered the secret to never working again.”
And what’s that?
“Claim disabilities. Now I work when I want to and go to Thailand and Brazil. I love hookers.”
He looked at me and waited for my reaction. I think he wanted me to be shocked. To be honest, I was surprised at the honesty; not so much the story—everybody has a story—but the honesty was stark, clean, and unabashed. Casey had all the functional appearances of a man who has seen his shadows and embraced them, and wanted people to know. Casey seemed (and I’m just speculating) to be part of the breed that wanted to be viewed as bad as they actually were. Everybody has it in them; some deny it, some run from it, but Casey embraced it.
Rick leaned forward off the bench—one of the few times he spoke to someone I was talking to. “You were in the Marines?”
“Yes sir.” Casey replied.
“Well, let me shake your hand and thank you for serving our country.”
Rick leaned forward and shook his hand, but Casey kept his eyes on me. He had taken his sunglasses off when he had started speaking, and I had locked eyes with him for the entirety of his machine-gun tale, and he held my gaze.
“That’s quite a story.” I said, as I reached in my pocket for his dollar.
All of sudden, the stance and tone he had assumed during his narrative fell away, and Casey put up his hands, trying to fend off the little slip of green paper.
“No, no, I don’t want your money, brother, I just wanted to tell you a story.”
It’s the rule.
“Keep it, keep it.”
You’re welcome to give it away.
At this point, Rick leaned over again and said, “I’ll take it.”
I handed Casey the dollar and he gave it to Rick. Rick thanked him. Me and Casey chatted for a little while longer. He told me about Thailand, about one of his friends who had gotten shot while on deployment, about what he was planning to do for the rest of his life. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Alaska. He rattled off a few names and asked me if I knew them. I recognized one. He wanted to go to Alaska, he had never visited. We talked about home for a while, and then he started to go. He seemed lonely; not too many people come to Venice Beach by themselves.
He asked me what my name was, and I gave it to him. He followed up by asking my last name, and giving me his. I asked him why he wanted to know my name. He only said “You never know when you’re going to meet someone again, and the world has a funny way of bringing people together.”
Casey started to turn around and hitched, and looked back at me—facing down the boardwalk with his shaved head turned looking out over his thick shoulder.
“Hey,” the Marine said, “I think what you’re doing is great.”
I smiled. He started to turn away again, and then turned back.
“But remember,” he added, now returning my smile, “Nice guys always finish last. You gotta be an asshole if you want to get ahead.”
I smiled again. He put on his sunglasses. Almost as an afterthought, he said, “But really, I love what you’re doing. You’re going to be just fine.”
With that, he turned up the boardwalk and disappeared into the crowd. People like Casey are the reason I sit on the same bench every time I go to Venice, just in case they happen to walk down the same stretch of beach twice.
Mother Nature is not a perfect matron; everyone is crippled from birth. Some limp more than others, but few take the time to acknowledge they’re crippled. If you should love Casey for any reason, it’s that he was one of the few folks that had acknowledged in his life that we are all playing against a stacked deck. The dealer is against us, our friends our against us—perhaps even more often, we’re against ourselves. And all we can pray is that quiet prayer of salvation—that we break even by the end of the hand.