Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 3, The Meth Addict

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Part 3: The Meth Addict

“And the Lord looked upon the woman with mercy, and spoke thusly to those souls around her who would stone her: ‘You wicked men! Judge not, yet you yourselves be judged. Condemn not this woman merely because she sins differently than you do, lest you yourselves will be judged before your heavenly Father, and the grace you show will be shown to you.’ And they looked to the dirt with shame and let their rocks fall to their sides, and they departed. And the Lord looked to the woman and said, “Child, go and sin no more, for you are loved along with the rest.”

“Hell son, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me where to find some whiskey drink.”

Excuse me?

“Some whiskey drink. I can’t find any (expletive) whiskey ‘round here.”

The question startled me. The sign I was holding read: “Tell Me Your Story, I’ll Give You A $”, but it was the only time someone ever offered me money, despite the fact I looked like I was panhandling. Plus, the brashness and honesty of the request was hilarious.

I couldn’t help but smile. The bald man, wearing a tank top and denim shorts, looked exactly the part to be asking me such a question. He had a furrow running down the side of his face—the type a villain or a veteran has in films. I’ve never been a decent judge of age, but the man looked 40, going on 60. He sat down next to me and leaned over with an arm across the back of the bench and teeth that were 10 years past the point of salvation.

“So you’re looking to hear a story; what’s the catch?”

There isn’t a catch. I’m a total stranger, and chances are, you’ll never see me again.

“Well, I’m from Bakersfield.”

Go figure.

“And I’m a meth addict.”

He got my attention with that, and he knew it. He realized he now had my focus.

“And I (expletive) hate my wife. That’s why I’m looking for some whiskey. I can’t stand the (expletive).”

I ask him if he’s ever planning on quitting. He replies, “Nope. I’m going to be smoking meth all the way to Hell, and then a little more when I get there. I absolutely love it.”

And here he paused. “All those church folk assume everybody is looking to change; well, some of us are happy just the way we are.”

It was a fair point.

I was about to ask him to expand on this particular theology when a woman walked up.

They say that after being married for some period of time, people will start to take on the features of the other. Living together and using the same drug makes the resemblance all the more remarkable. I knew it was the man’s wife before she was introduced as such.

With them, they had a beautiful, young teenage girl, who I was told was their niece. Unlike her aunt and uncle, she had none of the furrows and lines on her face. Her hair has blond, and her face was innocent; her aunt and uncle had eyes like coyotes—not malignant, but certainly not simple and kind. A touch of cunning, a splash of experience, and a splinter of stubborn compulsion. But there was none of that in their niece. It was as interesting as seeing a church lined with fearsome statues of gargoyles—terrible, except to the untrained eye—and then walking inside to find some grand painting or statue, crafted over a sustained period of religious ecstasy. Indeed, the work of art is made even more beautiful for the guardians surrounding it.

The man caught them up to speed on what I was doing—he was just beside himself, telling everyone around who would listen how I was crazy—but the good kind of crazy. I told him that I thought that he wasn’t the good kind of crazy. He threw back his head and laughed until he couldn’t breathe.

Meanwhile, their niece sat on the bench beside me. It was her first time to Venice, so I was a novelty—the type you would expect to find and could tell your friends about. I had given her uncle his dollar, which he had tried to refuse, but when his niece sat down, he gave it to her, and she held it up while her aunt took a picture of my sign, and me and her beside it.

I asked if she had any stories (besides spending a sunny day with the smell of the ocean and her meth-addicted relatives, of which she seemed unaware of. Or, like many raised around such things, merely assumed it not worth noting). She said she was a barrel-racer. She told me this in the same way you would tell someone what your occupation is—for up to a certain time in one’s life, your sport is your profession until you actually get a ‘profession’. She told me the craziest thing that had happened to her was when she was riding a horse and got pitched over a fence and landed flat on her face. It seemed no one had taken the time to tell her the horse had only been ridden perhaps five times prior and was wholly unbroken.

As they all started to leave, my new acquaintance again tried to return his dollar to me. I refused. He made some remark to a passerby about “how much he loved this kid,” and insisted that they talk to me. Then put his arm around his wife’s waist—the other about the shoulders of his niece—and walked off.

About 20 feet away, he turned around without breaking stride, grinned, gave a little wave with his hand, and continued off, presumably to find some whiskey drink. The three of them looked like a happy, loving family. I’m sure in many ways they were—as if grave dysfunction disqualifies a person from happiness or love. It is often the perfect who misunderstand what it is to love in spite of flaws. People often speak of feeling ‘judged’ by the religious or the ‘perfect’, but very few people lament being judged by the patrons of a dive bar. It is also the perfect that don’t stunt their earthly years with functioning meth-addiction, so there are two sides to the sword.

I wish them all the best, regardless of which side they may be walking.

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Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 2, The Marine

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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.

Yep.

“About me?”

Who else?

“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.

Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 1, Rick and Milla

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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?”

Yep.

“What if I tell you two stories?”

One dollar.

“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, up.”

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.