On a gray, overcast morning early in the spring of my late twenties, I found myself near the base of a fishing pier of a sleepy California town south of Los Angeles. My editor had sent me down there as a suggestion when I was looking for a new story to write, fresh out of ideas. I had been away for the winter, on a type of self-imposed sabbatical, and had only been back for a few days. Money was running thin, and so was I. Depression had gripped hold of me — as it often did — and the time away only made it hold itself tighter, nearly to the point of strangling.
“Just hang out for a few hours. Talk to some locals. Soak in the culture. Let the story find you,” I remember my editor, Amelia, saying. Her energy was so exuberant it was nearly sickening, and I had to do my best to resist the urge and not roll my eyes.
Amelia was the only person willing to give me a chance after having been gone for so long. The feeling that I didn’t know how to do much of anything anymore was overwhelming, so I felt obligated to listen. I’d get in my car, ahead of traffic, and spend the day finding my story. I was sure I could put something together about surfers or marine life or something basic, just to appease her. Just to get paid.
As I was leaving, she hollered, “Nothing too normal. Everyone always writes about the surfer who catches the perfect wave. Yuck. Find something cool. Find something different.” I stopped in the threshold of the doorway, gripping the handle so tight that my hand hurt after, and through a gritted smile said, “You bet, boss.”
I stopped at a diner just off the highway on my way down, just a few miles before my final exit. I remember I ate a giant breakfast burrito, the kind that half of the fillings fall onto your plate and then when you look down you feel like you still have a full meal left to eat. I left all the extras on the plate, my appetite not being what it once was.
The name of the place I stopped at was Charlie’s Diner, and my waitress was named Charlie. Towards the end of my meal she would tell me it was no relation to the restaurant’s Charlie (he was a crabby old man, per her description) and she gets it all the time and yadda, yadda, blah, blah, without my really asking her about it. When she brought me the bill she signed it “Thanks!” with a little smiley face beneath the word and I cringed because I didn’t know if she was flirting with me and it was too early for my mind to even entertain whether she was. I never knew if someone was flirting, though, so this was nothing unusual. I threw a few more dollars than I normally would on the table and I looked up and waved at her as I walked out the door, kicking myself into being duped into giving her that big tip because of the smiley face that made me uncomfortable. I remember thinking to myself that if I ever came back to Charlie’s Diner and ended up having Charlie as my waitress that I would give her a smaller tip to even out my moment of temporary insanity. Then I remember thinking that was dumb and that I was a jerk for thinking it.
A little later, after I made my way to the beach and had parked my car and figured out how many quarters I had on me to pay for the parking meter, I set off towards the small, dilapidated town square. Eventually, I would learn that a lot of the locals would sometimes congregate towards the square after getting their morning coffee on their way back to their cars or beach front homes. I sat down on the ledge of a short concrete wall that surrounded the few palm trees that were strategically placed around the square and the adjoining boardwalk. You could hear (I suppose, you still can) the waves crash into the sand as they lifted and folded through the push and pull of the tide. As I sat, there was a man who set down his bag and sat adjacent to me, mumbling under his breath. His bag had written in faded black permanent marker, Harry Hayes. I remember wondering how he got that bag, if that was his name. Later I would learn that it was and I’d feel terrible about the thoughts that ran through my mind of how it might not be his.
“They all aren’t here to see me. They’re not here to see you, either,” he said, still mumbling, to no one in particular. “Heh,” he grunted a laugh. I was fairly sure he wasn’t talking to me, but I kept my head down staring at my phone, pretending to ignore him.
After texting Amelia that I was at the pier, I looked up and saw three large men shouting at each other about forty feet away from me. It was hard to tell what they were arguing about. Their disheveled look and dirty clothes gave me the impression that they were beach bums. Homeless, maybe. I looked over to my right to see two men laughing and enjoying their coffee, deep in their conversation, seemingly oblivious to the shoving match occurring just a few short steps from them. Their indifference indicated to me that this might be a regular occurrence, and I suddenly found myself wondering if I had picked the right beach to spend a few hours at.
“Heh. Heh,” the man sitting next to me grumbled again. “ALL THEY DO IS YELL!” he screamed through his raspy voice. “Heh. Heh.”
I turned to look at him, when he screamed, and he leaned down between his legs far to the ground as if he was screaming into the sidewalk, seemingly imagining his loud voice might force a crack through the concrete. I felt the urge to turn and talk to him, wanting to ask if he was OK, but honestly I was afraid to. I didn’t want to get up and walk away, either. I didn’t want to seem like I was that guy. Internally my gut was turning upside-down and inside out, but externally I wanted to show that nothing around here phased me. After all, I was the new guy on the block and I didn’t want to appear as if I was vulnerable. I didn’t want to seem scared.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pair of wadded up headphones that I always kept on me, ready to wear when I wanted to disappear from my surroundings, to put myself into a new state of mind. Or, at a minimum, to give off the signal that I didn’t want to be bothered.
Sometimes, I’d walk down a sidewalk, headphones fully implanted into my ears, and I wouldn’t even be listening to anything. The man sitting on the corner asking for a buck for food didn’t know that, though. A quick grin and a nod would suffice. How would he know I could hear him? I’m wearing headphones. After sliding them into my ears, I threaded my fingers along the cable and down to the opposite end and plugged them into my phone, putting it back into my pocket as soon as I did.
“I don’t even know why they come here-here,” the man sitting next to me said, while looking in the opposite direction. “They only come so they can leave again. That’s the way the world works. Heh. Heh.”
I made a slight nod with my head, in my mind half agreeing with him half bouncing to the music that I wasn’t listening to, giving me an out to point to my ears if he did think I was listening to him, shaking my head mouthing in a lighter than whisper tone, “I can’t hear you.” But he never did.
A pigeon waddled over to nibble on some crumbs that were still on the ground from earlier passersby. The man I’d later know as Harry kicked his leg gently and fanned his hand back and forth to shoo the pigeon away. “Get. Get. Heh,” he rasped, “Heh, heh. Get.”
After I watched the pigeon waddle away, barely phased by the man’s hand fanning and leg kicking, I looked back towards the three that were arguing earlier and noticed that they had separated, each loitering in their own way, no longer concerned about what they were arguing about just a few minutes ago.
One of them started slowly working their way towards me, the fear increasing in my belly once again. I felt my body tense and shiver.
“Hammer’s screaming at everyone again,” the man said, now hovering above me. I glanced up to see if I needed to move quickly before the man might have realized that I heard him (headphones, dude), but I realized he was talking to the man that was next to me.
“They’ll move him-him before long, Jim,” the man next to me with the raspy voice said, still not looking at anyone in particular. “Heh. Heh. Move to scream at others. Others to scream at them. Heh.”
I had wondered what he meant by “move him” and the mysterious sounding “they.” I looked over at the man — Harry — that I had been sitting next to, removing the headphones from my ears. “Excuse me,” I asked. “I don’t mean to pry, but what do you mean by they’ll move him?”
“Move him-him they will. Heh,” Harry said.
The other man — the one still standing over us — looked at me, his eyes squinting to see me clearly, his left cheek raised much higher than his right. I notice that he repeatedly does this, as if it’s some type of nervous tick, raising his cheek and then lowering several times a minute. “They move all of us when the tourist season heats up. Spring Break is around the corner,” he says to me. “They’ll move the rowdier ones like Hammer over there first before they gently try to run the rest of us out of town.” He turns and points to the man that I later learn to be Thomas “the Hammer” Jones. He continues to tell me that during the Vietnam War, Hammer could fix just about anything that broke. He was given the nickname “Hammer” because of his mechanical and technical prowess. Soon after returning, he suffered intense PTSD hopping from job to job and was ultimately unable to keep one long term. I look over at him while he tells me this to see Hammer screaming into a row of bushes lined up along the seawall. He tells me his family left him. He tells me he sometimes goes to the VA hospital, but it’s so much paperwork and he doesn’t have an address so normally he just comes back down here. I remember that what I felt earlier as fear of this man rapidly changed to a feeling of intense sadness.
“And who is them?” I ask. “Where do they take you?”
Jim looked to the east — inland — and pointed. “Anywhere in that direction. Usually about five or ten miles, from what I can tell. Sometimes it’s cops. Sometimes it’s city officials. Sometimes it’s someone telling us to get in a van before things get ugly,” he says, and then sighs. “Usually most of us make it back down this way after a couple of weeks and then the cycle starts again through all the summer holidays. Then they leave us alone again.”
I remember feeling tempted to pull out my cellphone and ask if I can start recording or taking notes or something, but it felt rude, like I’d be violating a type of trust they’ve given to me. “Why do they take you?” I asked. “Why not just let you stay?”
“Tourists,” Jim responds. “Money.” His cheek continues twitching.
“Heh. Moneh for out of towners. No moneh for us. Heh,” the man next to me says. I remember him saying moneh and not money because he was very specific, rubbing his fingers together while he was saying it.
“Well, hey boys,” a woman approaches, who I would later learn to be Monica. Monica was probably late 40s, always well dressed, a smile always on her face. “Boys, I think I bought too many donuts again. Would you mind taking a few off of my hands for me?”
“Sure, darlin’,” Jim says to her as he grabs two donuts and then hands one to Harry. Jim would later tell me that Monica owned one of the local beach houses as a second home. She flew in a few times a year and always showed up with some donuts or bagels or something else that she bought too much of and had to get off her hands. He called her a sweetheart. I remember she turned towards me, offering a donut, and I probably smiled and mouthed no thank you or something. After emptying her box, she smiled and said, “Well I hope to see you boys soon. You be safe and sound, ok?” I look up and she’s walking briskly towards the boardwalk, ready to continue her morning.
“And what about you?” I turn to the man that I’ve been sharing this seat with for the short morning. “What’s your story?”
I remember Harry standing up without looking at me. “Heh. Heh…,” a long pause, “Heh… Goin’ to find my pigeon, Jim… Heh,” he says directly to Jim without making eye contact with me and then walks away, leaving his bag next to me. Saving his spot to return when I’m gone.
I stand up, brushing the sand off of my backside. “Was… Did I do something wrong?” I ask Jim.
“No. No,” he said and then twitches his cheek three quick times, like he’s getting them out of the way. “Harry just doesn’t like to be bothered by new people too much. Don’t take it personally,” he says to me, looking off towards a group of pigeons in the sand that Harry’s walking towards.
I remember telling him I understand. I remember telling Jim that I don’t like being bothered by new people too much either. I remember agonizing over saying that last part for days.
I stay a little while longer, trying to run out the meter for all of the quarters that I dug up out of my car, but also feeling like I was overstaying my welcome. I thanked Jim for the time and said maybe I would see him again sometime.
I know I didn’t write this story. I just couldn’t. I seem to remember talking Amelia into a series about the guys that take their boats out for deep sea fishing or something. I wanted to write about Jim and Harry and Hammer and all the rest of the people I met that morning, but an intense feeling of sadness overcame me. Not sadness for them — although I was — but sadness for me. Sadness about being sad. I saw a life more difficult than mine. It didn’t make mine any easier, but it did give me a different perspective. I remember that I wanted to do something. To try to help, somehow.
A few weeks after my first trip down to the pier I decided to go back and check in on my friends. I was finding new inspiration and things to write about and Amelia was paying me a steady check. (I still didn’t understand what she did with the articles, but I was OK with that.)
I stopped in at Charlie’s Diner and Charlie was there. The girl Charlie not the grumpy owner Charlie, just to be clear. I actually never met that Charlie. (I don’t really think he exists.) I ordered three burritos and asked her to split them and put them in six boxes. I was going to take them to share, maybe in some way to show off if Monica was there. Charlie brought me the check with another “Thanks!” and another smiley face and her phone number under that. (About two months later, I would build the nerve to call her, but that’s another story for another time.) I gave her a bigger tip than last time.
I had a whole fresh roll of quarters to use when I got to the pier. I remember feeding the meter and getting out of the car, balancing the six containers under my arms as I made my way towards the area where I met everyone last time. This time I was going to talk to Harry immediately. I was going to learn more about him. I was going to go over and smile at Hammer. He could even yell at me if that’s what he needed to do. I was going to ask Jim to help me give the rest of the breakfast burritos to the ones that I didn’t talk to the last time. But none of them were there.
I recognized one of the coffee guys from last time, walking down the boardwalk. He smiled at me, with a look of pity at the containers I was struggling not to drop. Walking past me and barely making eye contact, he said, “They’ll be back after Labor Day.”