I met a prior service member one afternoon while bussing from La Cienega to Santa Monica. He served in the Army during the early parts of the war. He was what they call a ‘lifer.’ A term for someone who decides to retire after 30 years. He became homeless shortly after retiring – likely from his inability to adapt to civilian life. When I met him, he found employment and a place to live. He grew up in upstate New York and after the service, he moved around a lot, met his wife along the way, and settled down. They were married for 10 years. The story goes, she divorced him for another man and left him to take care of their son. He says he hadn’t seen his ex-wife in probably 15 years and not a single dollar in child support.
On my ordinary commute, I met a man with an extraordinary story. Our conversation was casual, we talked about the weather, the traffic, the cost of living. Our conversation shifted when he began complaining about his neighbor upstairs from him and described him as ‘fries and a soft drink short of a happy meal.’
“Now, don’t get me wrong. Everyone is a little crazy.” He said, “Look at me, I’m as nuts!” he said, waving his hand next to his ear. “I have posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. I wake up with nightmares, scream and kick in my bed, and think I see things I don’t. I triple-check my windows and locks throughout the day and night. Every time I pass by a window or the front door I check. Sometimes I take the stick out that keeps the window locked and then put it back just to make sure it is locked. Same with the door. Sometimes I walk by my front door and lock it again for the sake of knowing I locked the door. I’m on the first floor, you see. I dislike being on the first floor because I am always worried someone will break in and steal something from me. I don’t own anything of value, but what I do own, I want to take care of and protect. I’m also a father. I have to take care of my cub if you know what I mean.”
The veteran was in his mid to late 60s. Salt and pepper colored hair, deep brown eyes, a mustache and long beard, a black and white flannel shirt, and blue jeans. He stared out the window as if to recall his ordeal before he smiled, rolled his eyes, and continued.
I nodded as the streets slowly passed by. South Stanley Avenue, South Ogden Drive, South Sherbourne Drive…
“I got housed about a year ago. I was homeless for about 6 months. I’m a single dad. I have a son who is about to graduate high school. It was rough, you know. Not knowing where to go, how I was going to feed my kid, looking for a job, and couch surfing. Thankfully, I had friends who could take in my kid while I figured things out, you know. I got on the VASH program and got a voucher which helped me find an apartment that I could afford. Of course, I’m working. I wasn’t at the time though. I got into a car accident and fell on hard times. Now I take the bus everywhere. Anyway. Had to look for a place and found one. And it was nice… at first.”
South Robertson Boulevard, South Oakhurst Drive…
“Then,” he said as he leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and at looked me squarely. “The crazy moved in upstairs. I had so many cockroaches. They were everywhere. I had never seen so many damn bugs sleeping on the streets as I did in my apartment after he moved in. I complained and complained. And the landlord didn’t do anything. Yeah, they came in, dropped a couple of bug bombs, and checked off the boxes, but didn’t solve the problem.”
I remember I was moving furniture around in my apartment when I pulled a cabinet away from the wall. Do you know what I saw? Cockroaches, at least thirty of them fuckers running away from the light! I’d wake up and move my shoes, and there were cockroaches under my shoes. In everything and everywhere. Everywhere. Nasty little shits.”
I saw a desperate man. He looked like he was giving up hope. He turned toward the window and huffed. He shook his head in disbelief and began methodically combing his beard with his fingers.
“I fought a lot of damn wars but never fought one I couldn’t win. I feel so desperate. I lived better in my car. I am trying to be responsible but how can a man be responsible living in shit. It’s shit. Its squaller. That’s what it is!” He shouted.
He suddenly appeared agitated, angry, frustrated, and hopeless almost simultaneously. As the buildings zipped by, he tried to regain his composure.
South Beverly Drive, Roxbury Drive…
He cleared his throat and continued. “Just the other night I was sleeping. I was dreaming I met this nice, gorgeous, beautiful, sexy woman. Long brown hair, big brown eyes, and a beautiful smile. In my dream, we were out on a date in Santa Monica. We were walking along the beach, hand in hand, just as the sun was setting behind the ocean horizon. In my dream, she kissed me. A long passionate kiss. I never dreamed of such a beautiful woman. It was magical. We were just about to go further… you know… further… you know what I mean?”
I laughed and nodded my head, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“As I am laying there dreaming, I wake up to the sound of someone messing with my bedroom window. It was like they were trying to open it. I jumped out of bed so fast. ‘I’ll be damned, someone was trying to open my bedroom window.’ I thought. It was like all my anxieties were becoming real. I imagined these guys breaking in and murdering my son. I felt panic and fear. I was struck with a fear that shook me to my core. No fear I had ever felt before could compare to the fear I had that night. The thought that my son would get hurt and I wouldn’t be able to save him. After the wave of fear and panic came rage and determination. I shouted, ‘What the hell!’ I shouted. ‘Someone is trying to break into my apartment. I’m a combat Veteran. I’m about to fuck someone up tonight!’ I grabbed the first weapon I could find.”
“A gun?” I asked…
“No. I don’t own any guns. I grabbed me a stick.” He said proudly. “I slowly pulled back the blinds to check to see if my stick was still securing the window. For whatever reason I thought I might have forgotten to lock it with the stick.” He furrowed his eyebrows and stared at me with a scowl. “Then I heard that mother fucker in the living room. Whomever they (singular or plural) were, rattling the window just above the couch where my son was sleeping. I said, ‘That damn mother fuckin’ robber is trying to get into the living room now. He’s going to hurt my son.’ I ran into the living room in a rage, my stick over my head while all the worst-case scenarios raced through my head. I thought I am going to get robbed, my son is going to get killed, is it one robber, two, three?? How many fuckers would break into my house? I ran into the living room where my son was asleep on the couch and peered out the window. But didn’t see anyone. The intruder must have realized there were sticks in the windows and breaking in was going to wake someone up and wouldn’t be an easy in-and-out robbery.” He combed his beard calmly. Shook his head again.
“My son rustled under his covers, he mumbled something, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t hear him. But I stood post at the front door and waited for the intruder to try the door handle. I was ready to burst that door open and beat someone.”
I could feel his anxiety as much as I could see his anxiety displayed across his face and body. His hands were clenched in a fist of rage. He raised his fist to the air as he shared his story. For a minute, it was like he was really there, back in that apartment and believing an intruder was about to murder his son. His eyes were like fire when he talked. I raised his hands as though he were holding a baseball bat and was ready to swing.
Overland Drive… Westwood Drive… Military Avenue…
Just then, I heard this noise. This god-awful noise. It was like someone dragging something heavy, like a coffin scraping across a gravel road and followed by a loud thud. Scrape, thud. Scrape, thud. Scrape, Thud… Over and over… I said aloud, ‘How many bodies are in that thing? Sounds like a full coffin scraping across a gravel road. What the fuck is going on!’
“My son mumbled something but I didn’t understand. I said, ‘Don’t worry boy, I got this. Your old man is going to make sure you’re okay. I think it’s some robber trying to break into the house. Maybe he got into the neighbor’s house and already stole something.’”
I could hear my son talking, ‘Dad. It’s okay. It’s just the neighbor moving a fridge,’ he said. I wasn’t listening. All I could see was blind rage, fear, panic, anxiety. I felt like I was back in Afghanistan, standing post at the guard tower, looking out across the desert night sky for enemies.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry son, your ol’ man is going to make sure nothing happens. I got this. I’m about ready to kick some ass if some mother fucker tries getting into this house.’ I held my stick up over my head. Ready to pounce. But no one tried to giggle the door. Perhaps they thought I secured my location. I didn’t hear anything, no voices, no footsteps, nothing… except for that god damned loud scrape and thud.”
He calmed himself, stared out blankly across the bus, and said nothing for a minute…
Gateway Boulevard, Granville Drive…
“I finally decided to take the fight to the street. I was going out there. I opened the door and didn’t see anyone.” He said, paused for a second, and continued.
“My son got out of bed and came up to me, held my shoulders, and looked me square in the eyes. He shook me. ‘Dad Look at me. No one is trying to break into the house.’”
“I said, ‘Son, I got this. I’m going to keep you safe.’
“He said, ‘The neighbor upstairs is moving a fridge. He was making a make-shift pully with the guardrails so he could move it by himself. Everything is fine. Go back to bed.’”
“I was confused.” He said… Scratching his chin and looking at me queerly as if trying to understand what his son was trying to say to him.
He paused for a long time. As if reimagining his son looking at him. The Veteran was no longer in a rage. He crossed one leg over the other and grabbed his shin and sat calmly. He sighed to himself as if disappointed or ashamed.
“Now I know the guy upstairs is a quack. Every night around 1:00 AM he goes to the corner where people dump their trash and moves furniture in from the street. Sometimes he’ll jump into the trash cans for microwaves, toasters, and whatever he could find to put in his apartment. And every night following his dumpster dive, at 1:00 AM, he moves the same piece of furniture, toaster, or microwave back out to the dumpster. In… Out… In… Out… This is the reason I have so many roaches. He will take furniture, old appliances, old mattresses, anything, and everything. These things become infested with bugs from sitting on the street. I have at least 20 breeds of cockroaches running around my apartment on any given day.”
Cloverfield Boulevard, 23rd street, 18th street….
“Anyway, I suddenly doubted myself. My manliness. My ability to take care of my son. I looked my son square in the eyes and I put my hands on his shoulders and said, ‘Are you sure it’s just a fridge and not a coffin?’”
“My son said, ‘Yeah Dad. I’m sure. Besides, how are you going to kill an intruder with a back scratcher? You could have gone for anything in the house, kitchen knives, an actual baseball bat…’ He pulled the sick from my hand, looked at it, and then handed it back. ‘This isn’t exactly Thor’s hammer. You’re not going to do much with a back scratcher.’”
“I looked in my hand to find this small, skinning, and wooden back scratcher clutched in my hands. I scratched my back with it and followed my son back to his bed. As he lay down, I covered him with his blanket and spoke. I said, ‘I’d have killed a man with a back scratcher? All be damned, imagine what CNN would say about that. Combat Veteran kills intruders with a back scratcher,’ I said proudly. We laughed and I went back to bed. Hadn’t dreamed about a beautiful woman since.” He chuckled to himself.
“Uhhhh so the moral of the story is… always lock your windows with sticks, double check your locked doors, and keep baseball bats closer than back scratchers?” I spoke.
He burst out laughing. “You must be a Veteran too!”
I laughed and said, “Yeah, I am. Army. Mechanic. Served from 2008 to 2017.”
8th Street. 6th Street…
“That’s my girl!” he laughed loudly. “My dear, the moral of the story is… whatever you want it to be. But I learned something from this.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Not even in my dreams can I get laid by a pretty lady.” He chuckled to himself. “This is my stop. Thanks for the chat.” He stood up, waved goodbye, and walked off the bus.