With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
I can tell, from the start of my walk on the beach promenade in Pacifica if he’s at his post, can spot the top of his faded baseball cap in the distance. The rest of his body is obscured by a cement casement housing a trashcan but as I get closer I see his legs sticking out, crossed at the knee, his tan gams, his flip flops. A few more steps and up pops his face, florid, flushed, eyes at half-staff, smile on full beam. He’s where he is every day, all day, in his spot at the end of a bench, kitty corner to the Chit Chat Café and the Pacifica pier. Where he holds forth, holds court, holds my attention whenever I pass.
His spot. One morning, a few months ago, I mentioned to Crystal, the counter person of the Chit Chat, that the guy sitting on the bench outside told me that the weather was about to change.
“You must have been talking to Tommy Bench,” she says. “That’s what we call him. That’s Tommy out there and that’s his bench.”
She went on to tell me that he was once a checker at Safeway. As soon as she said it I remembered seeing him when my wife and I first moved to this town, standing behind the checkout counter, dressed in the official Safeway uniform; short-sleeved shirt, navy blue apron, blue tie, shiny name badge. Bantering with the customers as he scanned the groceries. Crystal says he lost that job and never found another.
That was years ago. What does he live on now? I’ve noticed his buddies often bring him a can of beer when his supply gets low. “Got to keep hydrated,” he once yelled out, then raised his can in a bag and toasted me as I passed by.
Tommy and I have our own form of chitchat. I’ll say something about the weather or about the local baseball team, what about those Giants? and he’ll have some funny comeback. I laugh, give a short wave and carry on with my walk. I never hang around for a longer chat. My wife says it’s because I’m a solitary but maybe it’s that I just don’t know where the conversation might lead. We’re from such different worlds. I toss out writing lessons to students at the university, a privileged post. Tommy tosses out bon mots to the seagulls, his privileged perch. It is true that I’ve worked lots of blue collar jobs in the past. Truck driver, laborer, swimming pool operator, attic insulation, but that was before I landed a job in the spotless halls of academia. Would he and I have anything in common now, something that would tip the scales and convince me that getting to know him was worth the gamble?
Last week, the scales tipped with a woman in my neighborhood. When my wife and I first moved onto the block I thought, “Now there’s a happy-go-lucky type.” Her front yard was dotted with cutesy lawn ornaments; A plywood dog barking up a tree. A plastic statue of Mickey Mouse. On Valentine’s Day, smiley-faced red hearts hang from her front door. On St. Patrick’s Day, smiley-faced four-leaf clovers. But something was off. She was too cheery, too upbeat. As if all that front yard whimsy was out there to cover up a mess of anxieties. In person she was tense, as tight as a tick. There was that clipped little wave she always gave—quick and noncommittal—and how she quickly turned back to watering her garden as soon as our eyes met.
Whenever I passed by her house with my dog, I just waved and smiled and kept on going. She has a small yappy dog and whenever our dogs saw each other through the slatted fence they’d start barking and cause a big ruckus. Oh, sorry, sorry, I always called out before quickly moving along.
Last Tuesday, as I was walking by the dogs started up again. I apologized, but before I moved on I noticed her garden was in full bloom. “My god, you have such beautiful roses,” I said. And she does. Pink tea roses and long stem reds and orange ones with fluted edges. Floribunda roses, that’s what my wife called them. Abundantly florid.
As soon as I made the comment about her roses she stopped what she was doing and said, “Oh let me pick you some!” And I said, “Oh no, you don’t have to,” but she already had her garden clippers in hand. She snipped a huge blood red rose off of one bush, then a yellow rose off of another, a transformer, one of those roses that change color over time, that continue to deepen as the bloom shifts through the color spectrum.
I walked home with the two roses in hand and over the next few days watched as the transformer rose turned from yellow to pink to orange to red. Something else had turned too. When she clipped those roses, when she reached over the fence and handed them to me, when I reached my hand out to take them, I knew in that moment that things would never be the same between us. Even if we backslid and went back to hand waving pleasantries. Still, we’d both remember the day she offered me roses and I accepted. The day was transformed from an ordinary walk to something extraordinary. The day colored up, as they say.
Tommy has colored up too. It’s obvious he’s a drinker, an alcoholic, or, as my wife once called him, a drunkard. I told her drunkard was such an archaic word. That the word harkened back to Skid Row and Prohibition and songs like “Little Brown Jug How I Love Thee.”
“Well, ‘harken’ isn’t too modern now either, is it?” she replied.
The glassy eyes, the unfocused gaze. The slurred speech. The ever-present brown paper sack at his side, crinkled around a beer can. There are the obvious signs. Tommy sits on his bench, every morning and afternoon, deeply pickled, in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, a baseball cap, dressed as if we’re living in Southern California instead of the cool Northern California coast. Propped up against his bench is the driftwood walking stick he carries with him wherever he goes, more like a staff than a walking stick. Like the staff a drunken apostle would use to lead his flock; that gang who sits next to him on that bench.
There’s Permit Man, who has a running feud with a brake repair shop near his house. Something about the shop not having a permit. He made a plywood cut out of a not so cutesy clown, nailed it to his backyard fence that faces the shop. The cartoon bubble coming out of the clown’s mouth reads, “Got Permit? Call 1-800-Scumbag.” There’s the Chewer who talks out loud to himself as he walks, a running stream of conspiracy theories about the government, (“Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, Medicare fraud, Medicare fraud”) who chews and spits sunflower seeds, leaving a trail of split seeds in his wake. There’s Happy Day, who always says those two words, and only those two, whenever I see him. I hear he used to be a merchant marine.
Everyday each one finds a spot on the bench to chat with Tommy. To chew the fat, shoot the breeze. Tommy’s always at the head of that welcome wagon. He’s always ready to share a sip and a smoke. He’s rarely alone on that set of bar stools. With a black magic marker he’s inked each person’s name on the bench where they always sit. Like place cards set out for a fancy dinner party.
It’s late afternoon by the time I get down to the shore. I button up my jacket, start my walk, and spy Tommy’s cap in the distance. It would take an arctic blast to keep him from his bench.
When I reach him I stop, say hey, and we start bullshitting about nothing important. How the Giants lost again, how they blew it in the 9th. I compliment him on his fall outfit, plaid flannel shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, a royal blue baseball cap I haven’t seen him wear before. This one sports the logo of the Golden State Warriors. The cap has a small tear in the brim.
“Like the cap,” I say.
“Got it at Goodwill. As is,” he says, pointing to the tear. “Like me.”
“As is,” I say, “Or is it as you were?” I give him a quick salute and start to move on. Then I stop. I don’t know why. My wife says I always have an exit strategy. Maybe it’s this feeling I have about not wanting to get too close. Or it could be that only when I’m alone do I feel free to think my thoughts. Maybe that’s what my neighbor feels when she’s alone, at peace, in her rose garden.
“Got something I wanna show you,” he says. He’s slurring his speech a little but I catch his drift. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a small square photograph. His hand is shaking as he holds the photo up to me. “Here. Take a look.”
I take the photo from his hand. Staring back at me: A handsome young guy, in his twenties or early thirties. Full head of hair, big grin. Clear-eyed, confident looking. The look of a guy who can handle whatever life throws at him. It’s Tommy like I’ve never seen him. Like I’ve never known him.
“I used to own a house,” he says. “Up on Milagra Ridge. Beautiful deck and everything. The wife got that. And everything else.”
I try to picture him years ago, in his prime, with his dreams and hopes and plans for the future. With his life still ahead of him.
“You cut quite a figure,” I say and smile.
But Tommy’s not smiling. He looks me straight in the eye, as if to say, look again, dammit. Look again. You’re missing something. He gives a cough, like he’s clearing his throat. Then, in a voice as serious as I’ve ever heard him use, says:
“This is who I used to be.”
Who he used to be. Not just a guy on this bench with a half can of beer, hanging out with the rest of the beach gang. A man who had a life, with a wife, a house, a job, and responsibilities, with cash coming in. A person with a pension plan and health coverage and whatever other benefits a lifetime of indentured servitude to Safeway offers.
As if I need more evidence he lifts his shirtsleeve. There, on his skinny forearm, a tattooed column of blue letters run down to his wrist. I try to decipher the code but the letters don’t combine to make up any word I know.
“One initial for the name of each member of my family. Mia familia,” he says, proudly.
A photo, an arm, a beer, the sea. Who we used to be. Who was The Chewer in a former life? Or Permit Man? Or Happy Day? Or me? I don’t tell Tommy that I once worked all those blue-collar jobs, then went to school, wrote some stories, and now that I teach at a university. That I never wanted to follow the rules; academic or otherwise. That I used to be married, then divorced, then came out and married the love of my life. That, when I was young I wanted to grow up and sit on the sand all day watching the waves roll in. That I was once that person, and that person, and that person. Now, this is who I am, a woman walking alone by the sea. A person who is soon to call it a day on that cush university gig, ready to leave that all behind. All of who I used to be is still in here, tucked inside my shirt pocket, tucked inside this skin.
A grocery checker becomes a drunkard. A truck driver becomes a professor. A merchant marine becomes the minister of happiness. Transformers, every one of us.
I hand his photo back to him, watch as he slips it back in his shirt pocket. He looks up and gives me a grin. There’s nothing here to fear. What if I joined Tommy on the bench, if I sat right down next to him? If I didn’t rush on and instead left behind my monkish ways? If I went to the local liquor store and brought back a bottle of Four Roses to share? What if, like the old timey song, I harkened back to another gentler time and realized, “…there is no separation in that land beyond the sky,” and then went a step further, believed there is no separation right here on earth? If, I had a revelation, like the monk Thomas Merton once had on the streets of Louisville, that “I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Would Tommy accept me, as is? Would the others?
I make my move. I walk over to Tommy and sit down. I sit right next to him. He laughs, a nervous laugh, then scoots over a bit and laughs again. We both fall silent. We sit there, staring out at the sea. Two surfers are trying to catch a few waves. A guy on the pier is pulling up a crab and the other crabbers send up a cheer.
“Hey Tommy. Why here, every day, this spot? Always this same spot?”
“Well, I don’t have anywhere else to be. I don’t have a job,” he says. I don’t mention that I know he once did.
“You know, that’s not quite true,” he adds and gives me a wink. “I’m in the coast guard.”
“Yeah, I guard the coast.”
“Well, don’t let your guard down.” I toss back and he laughs.
After a moment he says, “Hey. What are you sitting on?”
This must be his lead up to a joke so I say, in high English, “My arse, kind sir.”
“Well, always look down before you sit down. You never know what you’ll find.”
Maybe he’s nervous about us sitting so close. Or maybe he’s stuck chewing gum on the bench. I get up, make a big show of looking down where I’m going to sit. That’s when I see sit. New letters inked onto the bench.
My name. With a drawing of a tiny anchor.
There, right there with all the others in the row. With the inked names of the Dude and Lupe and the Chewer and Permit Man. With Kite Man, who died from a heart attack last year, his name beginning to fade. Here it is, the proof, the acknowledgement. What I’ve wanted all along. To be accepted. To be in with this out crowd.
“Jesus, Tom. You have no idea what this means to me. No greater honor…” and I can’t finish, tear up. Tommy turns red, takes a swig from his can. He’s embarrassed, as am I. To lighten it up I offer him a line I learned from the Crab King: “Listen. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin.”
I sit back down and put my arm around his shoulder. I don’t move on. We sit there together, silently, for the rest of the afternoon and watch the sunset take the sky through the color spectrum, color after color after color.
Toni Mirosevich has spent the last few years lyrically documenting an overlooked community at the edge of the sea in Pacifica, California. “Who I Used to Be,” is from a new manuscript of nonfiction stories that have accrued, malo po malo, Croatian for “little by little.” She is the author of six collections of poetry and prose, including “Pink Harvest,” winner of the First Series in Creative NonFiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Astraea Foundation, among others and work has received multiple nominations for Pushcart Prizes. She is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
Copyright: © 2019 Toni Mirosevich. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.