I met a couple I’ll call “Debbie and Brian” on the boardwalk at Venice Beach as I was serving a meal with Food Not Bombs. Like many of the folks who come to eat with us, Brian was badly sunburned with a deep tan and tired from walking around. I liked him instantly; small, handsome and muscular, he won my heart with his sweet smile and southern-boy politeness. He was accompanied by a pretty sunburned woman in a long batik wrap skirt and a macramé purse. She was younger and more earnest-looking than most of the young bohemians strolling along the boardwalk. They seemed new to the streets. I served them both plates of greens and potatoes and bread pudding.
“I’m so happy you guys are here,” said Debbie. “We’ve been looking for a shelter all day and haven’t been able to find one that can take us.”
I took a break from serving and sat with them in the grassy area we call “the Food Not Bombs Lounge”. The young woman, Debbie, played with the puppy of one of our volunteers. She told me she loved animals and had worked in an animal shelter for five and a half years while living in Alabama. She recently returned to California after being offered a job in the post office. But things fell through, and she and her roommate drained their bank accounts paying inflated prices for temporary housing in shabby motels on the West Side. Then they met Brian at the Greyhound bus station. The three new friends put their belongings in a locker together and headed for Venice Beach. “I used to think no one would mess with me out here hitchhiking, but I’ve been in some bad situations,” she says. “I don’t travel alone any more. That’s why I am so glad I met him–he keeps me safe.”
“Food Not Bombs” Brian said out loud. “I like that”
“You like those words? ‘Food not bombs’?” I repeated, smiling. He looked far off and dreamy
“Yeah” he said in his sweet drawl, “but I think you guys would really hate me if you knew what it is I do.”
I knew instantly what he meant. “I wouldn’t hate you,” I said. “I want you to stay home.”
Brian is a Marine, on “Morale” leave from Iraq. At twenty- two, he’s spent the last seven years raising his son as a single father in New Orleans.
“I joined the service to get out of my neighborhood,” he told me.
I know first hand that the military steals our poor to send them to war. “My brother has been to Iraq two times,” I whispered.
He looked surprised that I would have a brother in the military
“My brother went because he had never done really well in school and my mom said he had to go to community college or go to the military,” I told them.
“Yeah, my mom was all for it back before she didn’t think they’d send me to Iraq” he said. “Then after the first month when I got back from boot camp, I got my orders and she was real upset. I have everything set up though. If I die, I got it set up where my mom will get everything and she’ll get all my benefits. “
“I hate hearing him say that. I don’t even want to think about that!” Debbie squeezed her eyes shut.
Brian has lost three friends already.
“He has nightmares all the time,” said Debbie.
“I’ve been thinking about smoking pot,” he told me. “Then maybe they wouldn’t let me go back. I don’t want to go back but I have to or I’ll get thrown in jail forever.” “Yeah,” I said, “but I think that’s better.” I was thinking “better than killing people” but he could read my mind and I didn’t have to say it out loud.
“We have to do everything they tell us,” he said. “No matter what it is. They say “you go beat that guy up or you shoot that guy and you have to do it. Direct orders.”
I was speechless. I couldn’t imagine what I could say that would have any meaning. I tried to tell him that I know of a conscientious objector–that I might go to a birthday party that’s a benefit for this courageous hero–but all I could really do was let him tell me his story.
“I’m pretty sure this is all about oil,” Debbie said to me, eyes wide and nodding her head.
“Yeah, I think so too.” I couldn’t tell her I work for a feminist anti-war organization. That would sound scary and so far away and I wanted to stay close to these people. “My brother sews all you guys up in the tent hospitals,” I told Brian instead.
He told me about being in Saddam Hussein’s castle; reporters came from Stuff Magazine to film them and reported back that they were all having fun. “We read that magazine” he said, “but we weren’t having fun, we were just building stuff there, you know, mostly doing construction work there.”
He talked about downtown Baghdad. “It’s ruined” he said, “all the walls are falling down, it’s real pretty, where it’s not messed up. It was a real pretty country but it’s just a mess now.”
All of a sudden he turned to Debbie. “They put some real nice roses on Jeremy’s grave this weekend,” he said.
She smiled brightly and nodded. “That’s really good, baby.”
He looked towards me. “That’s my seven year old son.” My heart sank for the second time. I thought of my brother who also lost a child. I wanted to say “I’m so sorry for your loss” but the words wouldn’t come out.
“He was riding his bike before I came home on leave,” he said. “He was riding out of the driveway and got hit by a car.”
I asked how his mother was doing.
“She’s doing fine, I mean, she’s really sad too, but it’s my sister that’s having the worst time. She was the one that was watchin’ him at the time.”
He reached into his wallet and soon I was staring into the bright intelligent face of a smiling little boy. He was big for his age and looked older than seven. Looking down at his picture, I couldn’t imagine that he was dead.
“He looks really smart,” I said.
“Yeah, he was, and he loves cars.” He nodded at his son, smiling. “I bought him a little toy car sometimes two every time we went to Target. ‘Daddy daddy can I have this one too!?'” He imitated his son, smiling and laughing, and I smiled and laughed remembering his son with him. But inside my heart was breaking.
Brian pulled out his cell phone to check the time. I was surprised he had managed to keep his phone.
“I will not lose this phone,” he said. “I sleep with my gun. I sleep, I mean, I sleep with my phone.” He stays alert all night, protecting Debbie and his cell phone. He has tried to call his Sergeant every day but it’s leave for the whole battalion and he hasn’t been able to make contact. Up until yesterday, leave had been great. But now his dog tags, passport and uniforms are all in a locker, somewhere in LA—only Debbie’s friend knew where the locker was, but she had disappeared soon after they arrived on the beach.
Last night, they spent the night out on the beach where it’s dark. “That way no one can see us, no one will mess with us.”
Peggy, another volunteer warned, “You ought to be careful there sleeping on the beach-I wouldn’t want to get run over by one of the county officers patrolling the beach in their trucks.”
They looked frightened. They hadn’t known the beach is patrolled at night. Peggy recommended they sleep near the pier and warned them about the “sweeps” that often occur before holidays. “What’s a ‘sweep’?” asked Debbie fearfully. “That’s when the cops come and roust everyone out of their sleep, a lot of time they don’t arrest you, they just hand cuff you and throw away all your stuff and yell at you. You know try to do really mean stuff to get you to leave town before the tourists arrive”.
“You don’t want to end up on skid row, whatever you do, don’t let them throw you on skid row,” warned a man, JT, who’s been homeless for one year. “And whatever you do don’t go down to Hollywood- I’ve worked on sets out there for years. But the streets are a shithole. Skid Row is the worst but this place is a shithole too.”
I was caught by surprise–I thought JT looked like one of those rich Hollywood guys who lives on the canals.
“I’m dying of AIDS,” he said calmly as he ate his bowl of greens, “and I served in the Marine Corp for five years and when I got home and found out I was sick and I couldn’t get my medicine! Finally they’re doing something, but that’s only cause I went nuts. I went out of my mind here on the beach.”
JT told them what emergency programs they may be able to qualify for. “You might be able to get a voucher for a motel room” he said. “But those are only good for two weeks every ninety days.”
Debbie and Brian looked very interested and we began to write down the names of shelters and a place to eat and shower. I noticed goose bumps on Debbie’s arm. Brian was hugging his legs, clad only in his pair of swim trunks covered in flaming skulls.
“Can you be here in twenty minutes?” I asked them. “If I run home and maybe see if I can find some sweatshirts for you guys?”
They nodded. “Yeah, I’d love to have some more clothes! Last night it was freezing! We got stuck out here in our bathing suits!”
I raced my bike home and returned with two duffle bags full of warm clothes, condoms, toothpaste and shoes.
“Alright!” Brian started going through the stuff. “Hell, I ain’t ashamed!” he said exclaimed cheerily.
We exchanged phone numbers and I told them to call me if they are in need of any specific items. This must be the first step towards peace, right? Extending this kindness to a soldier who wondered aloud in front of me “What if I didn’t go back?”
I asked myself does the peace movement have a bed for this man? Would he have to become the conscientious objector poster boy? Would we ask him to be ostracized by his community to join ours? Couldn’t we find a place for him to sleep, in the meantime?
For now, he’s still on Venice Beach.