Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Have a Story

[This post first published in 2014]

East San Jose, CA -- Thanksgiving

I HAVE A STORY. I don't like Thanksgiving. I don't like turkey, and while I like pumpkin pie, eating an entire pie in one sitting isn't a great feeling. So I go out for pho in East San Jose, and afterwards, a nicely dressed 75 years old man (I'm guessing the age, b/c it's hard to tell the age of black adults) with a cane asks me, "Do you know where the Alum Rock station is?"
Me: "The VTA? No, but let me look it up on Google Maps. You're going to walk there? [He nods] Well, it's 35 minutes."
Him: That's fine.
Me: I'll take you there.
Him: Ok.
[Talking in car]
Me: What do you do?
Him: I'm ex-military.
Me: Which branch?
Him: Marine Corps.
Me: Were you stationed overseas?
Him: [chuckles} Yeah. Southeast Asia.
Me: I'm guessing Vietnam.
Him: Two tours.
Me: [not sure what to say] You know, most of what I know about that, b/c of my age, is from movies and documentaries.
Him: [silence]
Me: [changing subject] You like the restaurants around here?
Him: Yeah, but they can't cook as well as me.
Me: Oh yeah? What's your specialty?
Him: Everything!
[We somehow end up at a dead end. I decide I'll just take him to his destination.]
Me: You got kids?
Him: 7 kids. [He lists all their names and states they live in] One's a cook, youngest one's out here, she's not sure what she wants to do, and then [voice becomes exasperated] there's my other son. Every family gotta have an outlaw. He did 6 months in jail.
[We arrive at Veteran's Housing in East San Jose, near James Lick High School. I drop him off right at the door. We exchange goodbyes. Waiting outside and enjoying the night air is a man in a wheelchair with no legs.]
END SCENE.

Los Gatos, CA -- North Dakota

I HAVE A STORY. I visited a Medicare-funded physical rehab clinic. I saw an older lady with a walker outside on the sidewalk and asked directions to the entrance. She asked me about the room number and then said, "I'll walk with you if you like." I said, "Sure."
Her: I've been here for 17 years. Who are you visiting? I had a brain aneurysm, and I've been living here since.
Me: Are you originally from here? What caused the aneurysm?
Her: They don't know, but they think it's genetic. I came here from North Dakota. I guess you can tell by my accent. [giggles]
Me: Sounds like Minne-so-ta.
Her: They always exaggerate it in movies. We don't talk quite that bad! And we don't say, "Oooh" at the end of every sentence. [imitates exaggerated accent][Stops, checks walkie talkie, confirms something with the speaker]
Me: You ever miss North Dakota?
Her: My friends are here. I've gotten used to it. But when people get old, they get mental issues. I had someone say he was a terrorist and he threatened to kill me. But he was asking me a question! I was just responding to his question! [smiles]
[We walk inside, she reaches up and touches the top of a low hanging ceiling.]
Her: You've got to watch out for this. Some people have hit their heads. Oh, is that your friend's room? How do you pronounce the name?
END SCENE.

Sunnyvale, CA -- Wrestling
I HAVE A STORY. I have a Groupon for $25 for sushi. I go in after I have coffee nearby, and the owner tells me, you need to have 2 ppl. I tell him it's my first time, and whether I bring two ppl or just myself, I'm only going to order 2 rolls. He argues with me. I say 2 ppl isn't in the requirements section (though it's in the title "Sushi for 2"). And logically, doesn't he want me to try the sushi and let people know if it's any good? He says it has to be 2 ppl. Even though we're going to order 2 rolls either way? Apparently, yes. I tell him he's not being logical, and he tells me I'm not being logical. I write a slightly negative Yelp check-in comment.
I walk back to the coffeeshop and ask a random high school guy to come have sushi with me for free. He's with two girls, but he's done studying and comes with me. We sit down, and some idiot waitress comes by and asks how many we are. I say "Two." (The record is silent as to whether I add a large smirk.) The girls text the guy, telling him they think it's "sketchy." He says everything's cool...but it gets better. He's a wrestler! And a big fan, too. We talk about the top H.S. teams now (Gilroy, Fremont, Wilcox) and about Olympic contenders like Jordan Burroughs (apparently he actually lost to a Russian!). The owner stops by and is now polite. The high school guy is so nice, he only has two pieces of sushi and asks if we can bring some for his two friends. We bring back sushi for the two girls. He's a hero, I've had my sushi, and I've made a new friend I can talk wrestling with.
I'll say it again--wrestlers are a class apart.   
END SCENE.

Campbell, CA -- Military

HAVE A STORY. I meet with a long-time friend for coffee at Starbucks. We are outside and talk about dating, life, careers, and the usual. An older man, casually dressed, about 5'8" and in his 50s with a "beer belly" approaches us. He politely says, "I don't mean to interrupt your conversation with her, but I have a request."   

Him: "I have a Starbucks gift card. It has $18.58 on it. You can check it inside if you want. It's valid. My daughter has cancer, so my fiance and I came here from Arizona to see her. We need some gas money to get back. You pay me whatever you want for it."   

Me: [to friend] "You drink more Starbucks than me. I usually get my coffee at McDonald's and my espresso at indie coffee shops. Sounds like a good deal--$15 for $19?"   

Him: "You can go check it."   

Her: [takes card, goes inside to check it]    

Me: "Where in Arizona are you from?"   

Him: "Nearby Phoenix...place called Glendale. I'm ex-military."  

Me: "I know about Glendale. An acquaintance of mine owns some houses there."

Him: [takes out his driver's license, shows it to me--it's from Arizona] "I used to own houses there, too. I used to have a county job."

Me: "Where did you serve? What was your rank?"

Him: "I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, three tours. I was E-8(?). I killed people." [the last few words are said shakily, with a mixture of hesitation and resignation]

"I have this hernia..." [lifts shirt and shows it to me--though I've never seen a hernia, it is in the lower middle of his stomach and looks serious.]

Her: [comes back, puts gift card on bench] "It has $18.68 on it."

Him: [laughs] "See, I lied. It's got ten cents more than I thought!" [Note: in my experience, lower-level ex-military personnel are generally honest.]

Me: [to friend] "Do you want to buy it?"

Her: "Hmmm, not really." [I realize she was checking the balance for me, not herself.]

Me: "Thank you, but it looks like she doesn't want it."

Him: [takes gift card back, walks away, goes inside, comes out, makes same pitch to someone reading outside, but it doesn't work. Sits next to his fiance and says, with a tinge of frustration, "She [my friend] changed her mind about it." The fiance, a slender woman, calmly motions for him to sit next to her.]

[My friend and I say goodbye.]

Me: [I head inside to break a larger denomination bill, but the line is really long. I take out all the small bills I have, which is less than $10. Unfortunately, I forget that my friend had given me some smaller bills earlier. I come out and hand the bills to the man.] "Hey, sorry about this, but these are all the small bills I have." [I start to walk away after giving him the bills and wave goodbye.] 

Him: [immediately gets up, puts hand in his pocket to get gift card]

Me: "Oh, keep the card. It's cool. I don't want it."

Him: [surprised] "Hey, thank you." [Walks up to me, gives me a firm handshake and then a big hug. I realize immediately he may not be in the best shape, but his arms are still very, very strong.]  [We are still embracing, but are now face-to-face. At this point, I'm mentally not there anymore. I can't process why such a small gesture is causing this level of appreciation. I tell him it's not that much money. He continues speaking and lifts up his shirt sleeve to show me a tattoo on his arm.] 

"This is of my daughter...I have another one of the American flag on my back..." [I am smiling, but I no longer hear him because I don't understand his response to such a small gesture. And then this happens.]  "I love you, man." 

Me: "Hey, don't worry about it, man. It's all good. Take care of yourself." 

[Me, trying to find my car, having a really hard time. Finally find my car, which is about 15 yards in front of the Starbucks. I sit down in my car. I think about going back and just giving him the larger denomination bill I have, but I'm discombobulated. I don't know whether he'll even accept my money. After a few minutes, I drive away. After a while, I realize I don't know where I'm driving. I go to McDonald's to get some coffee, thinking that reading a book will help clear my head. It does not. I head home.] 

END SCENE.

Follow-up: I am used to video-game tough guys berating me online for being anti-war. I am used to stories where people like Chris Kyle (aka American Sniper) are presented as idealistic heroes capable of doing no wrong and who have no regrets about whom they killed. Until today, however, I never met anyone who made me realize the victims of the United States Military are not just innocent civilians living abroad, but many of our soldiers themselves.

I don't know this man's full story. I wish I'd gotten his information. Some ex-service members are not necessarily proud of killing others, but they had a task to do and they did it. When we praise all soldiers or the military in general, we sometimes forget that the individuals who return home may not have themselves believed in the mission. In addition, when we attack those who criticize the military, we forget that all of us have the same objectives--security and long term peace, which cannot be achieved by an unlimited budget, a poorly defined long term plan, or perpetual war. Most of all, we forget that some Americans did what they were told to do, and they deserve more than mere words or unthinking veneration. Men and women who return from war deserve a public who, at the very least, will send them back only if necessary, and who despise war and what it does to everyone involved.

Update: Another friend thinks this might have been a scam. It appears like a perfect sob story--daughter with cancer, etc. But I think I finally understand his disproportionate response to my small gesture: I believed him. Most people thought he's trying to scam them. Now his desire to show me evidence--the AZ license, the tattoos...it all makes sense.

I felt terrible and uneasy after this situation.  The idea that only a few dollars would make a man--who has a seemingly nice woman and who once had a good job--so happy really unnerved me.  Only when I figured out the possible reason for his disproportionate reaction--that I believed him where so many others had not--was I able to settle down. 

S.F. -- on the way to a movie, Don't Think I've Forgotten

Me: [on busy SF bus, sees older man move through] "Would you like my seat?"
Him: "No thank you. One time, someone offered me his seat because he thought I was 72. Do I look 72?"
Me: "No. You look 64."
Woman: [taps my shoulder, smiles] "You're in dangerous territory with age."
Him: "I'm 62."
[Seats open up as people leave, he sits next to me.]
Him: "I'm a Marine. Served in Vietnam. Got out in 72."
Me: "I'm going to see a movie about Cambodia tonight."
Him: "The Cambodians were killing millions back then. You know, I just found out my ship (USS Paul Revere) was exposed to Agent Orange. [Shows me computer printout.]
I have PTSD. Can't even fill out a job application. But I got a disability pension of $2900 a month. Without it, I'd probably kill myself. My dad is a WWII vet. Doesn't want to give his son the credit he deserves.
Hey, she looks Cambodian. [Points to a young woman on bus.] I think she's looking at you. [Big laugh.] You single?"
Me: "Yes."
Him: "My wife is Indo-Chinese. Met her at a bus stop. She'll find you someone. Call me. [Gives me his number.] Semper Fi."
Me: "Semper Fi."
END SCENE.

Santa Clara, CA -- Coolest Professor Ever

Me, to my law school professor: Did you experience any discrimination in your life?
Him: I was the only Latino in my law school. I get asked that question often. I tell people, "My friend's grandmother was very racist. She told me all the time, 'Be careful of white Americans. They are unclean and lack manners.'" 
Later, when I was working with rural legal aid, the police picked me up along with some undocumented farmworkers. I was dressed in the official uniform of a legal aid lawyer: jeans and a shirt. I showed the officer my bar card. He looked at it, didn't know what it was, and told me he didn't care. I then remembered my friend's grandmother: "white Americans lack manners." 
END SCENE.  

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