Daniel still prays to his God three times every day. – The Book of Daniel
“Like this, Uncle J?”
Hope was standing on a footstool so that she could reach the stove, holding a sharp knife in her right hand and steading an oblong avocado on a cutting board with her left.
“Just like that,” I said.
She paused and asked innocently, “Do giant sloths really shit the pit out?”
I made a mental note to say “poop the pit out” next time.
We were making avocado toast with a Fallbrook avocado and a loaf of Bread and Cie from the farmer’s market that morning, and when I had returned from shopping I told her that giant sloths used to live in Balboa Park, a long time ago – 10,000 years, towards the end of the last ice age. It must have stuck in her mind, and when she held the local avocado in her tiny hand she must have imagined how big a giant sloth would have been.
I put my right hand over my heart and held up my left hand, the one with the scars, and repeated that yes, they had, indeed, been so big that they could eat an entire bunch of big avocados, and that they swallowed them whole and pooped out the pits and that’s how we got more avocado trees.
I told her that the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park had giant sloth skeletons, and that she could see for herself how big they were. We had seen modern, small sloths in the Balboa Zoo, so she knew how cute they were and she said that sounded fun. I told her that they also have skeletons of mammoths and saber tooth tigers and sharks and whales, and that their giant flippers had bones looked just like our hands; and, I said, the bones in their flipper arms looked just like our humorous bone, and I thought that was funny.
She didn’t laugh, either.
I told her that Fallbrook said it was the avocado capital of the world because Sloth poop planted a lot of avocado trees there a long time ago, and she laughed that time, and I said I had found her funny bone and I tickled her and we laughed for a blessed few moments.
I stopped laughing but kept smiling and told her that it was time to start focusing on using a knife safely. I was teaching her how by having her help make lunch, and we began slicing the avocado thinly. She held the sharp knife in her right hand and the steadied the avocado on a cutting board with her left, just like I had shown her, and I was by her side, with my scared left hand near the avocado in case she pushed instead of sliced and it rolled away.
Each year, dozens of people in San Diego cut themselves making avocado toast. They end up in our emergency rooms, sometimes embarrassed. An avocado fits perfectly in the palm of your cupped hand, and it’s tempting to cup it there and push the knife instead of slicing on a cutting board, or to hold a half of an avocado and whack golfball-to-peach sized pit with your knife blade and pop out the impaled pit. But, it’s easy to miss and cut yourself. From what I had seen, but without statistical evidence, the majority of avocado injuries in San Diego emergency rooms are inflicted upon middle aged men talking while making guacamole before an LSU football game; I had never done that, but two of my friends had, even though they knew better, and after we sutured them up we never let them forget about it. To avoid that future embarrassment in Hope, or perhaps to prevent her from severing a tendon in her palm that would be debilitating, I thought it would be good to plant seeds of healthy habits as soon as possible. It’s never to soon to begin practicing healthy habits.
Hope did a better job cutting the avocado than I would have at her age – I have several knife and a machete scars from when I was a kid and helping my dad on his farm – and though I felt happy at the prospect of avocado toast on the balcony and a walk through Balboa Park to the museum, I was distracted and unfocused. Few people would have noticed because I usually smiled even when distracted or upset. But I saw my thoughts wandering even as I concentrated on watching Hope. My mind was rehashing what had happened, and I was ruminating over the musings of a man I had met on my way home from the Sunday farmer’s market where I had bought the Fallbrook avocados.
I had woken up feeling sad by my mom’s passing; it had only been a five weeks, but I was surprised at how I couldn’t shake off what felt like daily depression. Cristi and Hope had been visiting since before I learned my mom was in a coma, and I was happy they were there but I wanted some time by myself to recharge and hopefully stop dwelling in the past, so I left our condo early that morning and walked up 6th Avenue towards the farmers market. It’s only a mile away, and it’s a beautiful walk through Balboa and then through the urban streets of Hillcrest.
There’s no denying it when you approach Hillcrest. It’s one of the world’s most expensive zip codes, yet remarkably diverse, socioeconomically and ethnically and everything, and one of the most densely packed of San Diego’s neighborhoods. It’s walking friendly streets are packed with shops, restaurants, thrift stores, six grocery stores and what’s advertised as the world’s largest and most phallic LGBT flag pole and it’s perpetually flying giant rainbow flag. It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, and it was exactly what I wanted that day; freedom from small talk and phatic questions common in a small neighborhood. I didn’t want to chat with anyone.
Earlier that week, Cranky Ken had asked me about Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman, and I had been lost in thought about that, too; because to me, Jimmy Hoffa and my grandfather’s plots against the Kennedy’s were inextricably related to my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. She was a 16 year old petite but beautiful and full figured 5’1″ girl tall who met my dad, Edward Grady Partin Junior, a tall and ruggedly handsome drug dealer at her high school, around the time that President Nixon sent Audie Murphy to Baton Rouge to offer a presidential pardon for perjury to my grandfather if he changed his testimony against Hoffa; at the time, Hoffa was in prison, and promised to fund Nixon’s reelection campaign and endorse him to 2.7 million voting Teamsters if Nixon would do that favor. My grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior, refused and Audie died in a plane crash a few weeks later, and Hoffa endorsed Nixon, anyway, and Nixon pardoned Hoffa on December 23rd, 1971. Coincidentally, Wendy lost her virginity to my dad three weeks later, and I was born on October 5th, 1972.
A persistent myth is that pregnancies last nine months; our gestation is closer to ten months, and the nine month myth probably began as a way for families to celebrate birthdays nine months after a wedding ceremony rather than feel embarrassed by prenuptial conceptions. My family was no different, and I was born nine months after Wendy and my dad dropped out of school and got married an hour away from Baton Rouge in Mississippi, where local laws didn’t require parental permission for a 16 year old girl to marry a 17 year old boy. They returned home as Mr. and Mrs. Ed Partin and awaited my birth.
Between the time of my conception and birth, Walter Sheridan, the head of the FBI’s Get Hoffa task force, was completing his book, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” about the almost twenty year effort of him and the Kennedy’s to convict Hoffa of something. Anything. The Get Hoffa task force was lampooned on national news since the 1950’s as the most expensive failed police effort in America, a waste of taxpayer money and an affront on J. Edgar Hoover’s overhyped FBI; and the public battle between Jimmy Hoffa and US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was dubbed “The Blood Feud” because it was so open, intense, and visceral. It was more like a boxing rivalry than politics. Hoffa had even tried to choke Bobby on national television, and had publicly celebrated President Kennedy’s death and said that “Booby,” as he called the Attorney General, was “just another lawyer now.” By the time I was gestating, Walter was retiring and wanted to tell his tale, and of course my grandfather was a major part of his book, second only to Hoffa himself. The nation awaited it, and Walter followed my grandfather’s daily life in 1971 and 1972, while Hoffa was still in prison, and he covered what was happening to my grandfather extensively. Walter didn’t mention my 17 year old dad or his four siblings, and even though Walter and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was retiring that year, had endorsed my grandfather’s testimony against Hoffa, public information had made it hard for even Walter to refute that Edward Grady Partin Senior was immersed in extensive criminal activity and yet, inexplicably, under the protection of multiple federal agencies that provided state and federal immunity. In short, my grandfather had free rein as long as he held fast to his 1964 testimony and Hoffa remained in prison. My dad may have been under similar protection, and he was arrested but never convicted of drug dealing, much to the surprise of the newly named Mrs. Wendy Partin, who was living with my dad in one of my grandfather’s houses.
To compound matters, my grandfather was arrested around that time for stealing $450,000 from the Baton Rouge Teamsters Local #5 safe. The safe was soon discovered at the bottom of the murky river near our home, empty and without fingerprints or other evidence, and the only two witnesses were found beaten and bloody. The survivor refused to testify.
This made national news – at the time Edward Grady Partin Senior was relatively famous because of his testimony against Hoffa and collaboration with Bobby Kennedy – and Wendy was terrified of what she was learning about her new family. My dad left us to ride to Miami with friends on motorcycles and buy drugs wholesale, and she had a slight nervous breakdown and abandoned me at a daycare center and left for California with a man she had just met; he had posted a handwritten note on a coffee shop asking to share gas money, and she took her only savings, about $150, and acted impulsively. She came to her senses and returned on her own, but by then I had been saved from the daycare and removed from their custody by the state and placed with a guardian, a man named Ed White, who had been a custodian at Wendy and my dad’s school.
My parents filed for divorce and the East Baton Rouge Parish family court judge awarded my legal custody to my dad but insisted that I remain in the physical custody of Ed White, who dictated that Wendy couldn’t keep me overnight and my dad could only see me around holidays. That judge died of an alleged suicide in 1975, coincidentally around the time Jimmy Hoffa famously vanished from a Detroit parking lot and my family’s federal protection officially ended. A new judge took over my case, JJ Lottinnger, a thirty year veteran of the Louisiana state legislature who had worked with multiple governors trying to prosecute my grandfather, and for reasons I don’t know took an interest in my custody case and in 1976 he reversed the deceased trial judge’s decision and removed me from Ed White’s physical custody and Ed Partin’s legal custody and granted both to Wendy. There would be a few more unsuccessful appeals and I’d remain in Ed White’s care until about two years later; then, despite Lottinggers ruling, my dad bullied a still young and naive Wendy into a unique shared custody where I spent three months a year with him in a remote wilderness of Arkansas, where I used knives and machetes to help him grow fields of marijuana, and nine months a year with Wendy to attend school.
My dad went to prison for drug dealing in 1985. I rebelled against my criminal family in the opposite direction, perhaps like a military brat may rebel and become and drug dealer, and in 1989 I went back to the East Baton Rouge Parish family court and met with Judge Bob and asked to be emancipated from both families. He, too, knew my family and supported my decision, and I became a legal adult before my senior year of high school and was allowed to join the army at age 16, coincidentally the same age Wendy had met my dad. Towards the end of my senior year of high school, shortly before I left Louisiana for the army, my grandfather died on 11 March 1990 and his funeral made national news. Walter Sheridan even attended, and I had met him briefly and felt he was a nice guy who was simply too uninformed to write a thorough book about what happened between my grandfather and Hoffa. I left Louisiana, and somehow thirty years had passed quickly, and Wendy had passed away a few weeks before, on 05 April 2018, still a young woman, and someone who had overcome a lot and successfully faced one of America’s most brutal families – one that stymied governors and FBI and mobsters and Teamsters – and she had died without anyone but me knowing her history.
All of that had been on my mind ever since I returned form her funeral a few weeks before, and the timing with all of Ken’s thoughts on The Irishman had flooded my mind with thoughts of what life must have been like for her back then. I didn’t want to talk about it – I take a long time to process things – and I didn’t feel like faking feeling fine with people who thrived on small talk. Instead, on that Sunday morning, I was enjoying the autonomy of walking in the densely packed urban area of Hillcrest, a neighborhood on the northern border of Balboa Park, when I saw an old man sitting by himself in a wheelchair. He was remarkable enough to pull me from my thoughts.
He seemed frail and almost incapacitated and was sitting too close to the street, I thought, and in the autonomy of a bustling walking city people passed him by without seeming to notice. I stopped, perhaps because I, too, was feeling alone that day, and though I’m adverse to small talk, I appreciate genuine conversations with diverse people, and I believe in helping any neighbor in need. I stopped and accessed the situation to see he needed assistance before I got too close or said anything.
He twitched slightly with muscle convulsions that shook a 99-cent super-sized drink in his hand and spilled sticky bright red fluid onto his pants. By the look of layered stains, I thought he must have been wearing those pants for a three or four days, at least.
Two 99-cent hot dogs rested on one of his legs, still whole and in the bright white and red 7-11 carboard boxes, as if someone had bought one for him and rested it on his leg and then another person had bought one and set it beside the first, perhaps not taking time to notice the uneaten hotdog already there.
He was not a threat by himself, but San Diego had just made national headlines for a hepatitis outbreak that began in the homeless camps down the hill from the farmer’s market, in downtown San Diego. I always assume someone’s contagious when I approach them, and even if hepatitis is only communicable by consuming contaminated food or water, or not washing your hands before eating, it’s hard to tell if someone has tuberculosis, RSV, the flue, or, by now, Covid. I was once a paramedic, and knew to remain a few feet away and assess the situation before approaching, even before the Covid pandemic tried to get everyone to stay six feet apart. I approached cautiously, simultaneously checking his ABC’s of first aid and reading the writing on his clothes and chair, looking for any other detail that would help me understand if he had unexpected medical conditions and why he was there alone.
His wheelchair had a metal stamp that said, “Property of the San Diego VA.” That hospital was north along the Highway 163 that bisects Hillcrest and then north on Interstate 5 for a few miles, but they have a direct bus linked to Hillcrest, and I imagined that he may have been waiting for the direct bus between Hillcrest and the VA Hospital, maybe to return their wheelchair that was also stamped “Please return to the San Diego VA.”Perhaps he was an old vet, simply following orders out of habit.
But then I noticed that his right wrist had a bright, clean admissions bracelet from Scrips Mercy hospital, the Hillcrest charity hospital only six clicks away and along flat sidewalks, and I assumed he had been a 5150, the California police code for a potentially mentally ill patient.
A 5150 code is unique to California; it uses taxpayer money to pay for up to 72 hours of emergency room care for a potentially mentally ill patient who may be a threat to themselves or others. All American hospitals must treat all emergencies, but most emergency rooms aren’t prepared to handle 5150’s, especially ones that could disrupt the ER during a multi car accident or explosion or disease outbreak. California voters had pushed for some what to address the many facets unique to our disproportionately large homeless population, drawn to dreams and unincentivised to leave the mild climate, or without somewhere else to go. One solution had been the 5150, and for up to 72 hours of free healthcare in any emergency room in California for a potentially mentally ill patient who could be a threat to themselves or society.
Scrips Mercy was a charity in Hillcrest, about a mile away from the weekly farmer’s market and along a flat, paved sidewalk with safe crossing zones because of the diverse population that included a school and housing project for blind people and multiple retirement communities; and, of course, the charity hospital and it’s frequent visitors. It’s likely the old man had come from there, either on his own or with a good Samaritan’s help pushing him to the crowded bus stop by the 7-11. That Samaritan may have even spent $2 on a super sized drink and hot dog before leaving and assuming someone would help the man onto a bus.
I’ve seen it many times before. 24 hours a day police and ambulances and paramedics bring homeless people from all over San Diego County there because there are few alternatives for the poor or homeless, even in America’s Finest City. The hospital is stocked with some of the best healthcare medical devices on Earth, partially because of its proximity to highly profitable and publicly traded medical device companies headquartered in San Diego. But even in the best of times, they are overwhelmed by the immense need in a county of 4 million people and a city of 1.2 million, and they often can’t wash a patient’s clothes or take time to address the root cause of illness; they are an emergency room, and must release people who aren’t in urgent, life-threatening need, and that’s fair; their hands are tied, and they are only allowed to provide emergency care for 72 hours, to treat the bullet holes but not stop the snipers, and they do the best they can.
Scripps Mercy gives three days of care and food and then releases 5150 patients back on the streets in their original clothes. Many patients were brought from all over the city of San Diego to the neighborhood of Hillcrest and have nowhere else to go and they stay for a while and become our neighbors. Some return to Scripps as quickly as they can, happy for a safe place to sleep and a meal or two and someone to talk to for a change. The cost approaches $75,000 per day for a 5150, and every time I met one of them I wondered if it would be cheaper to hire people to care for old men in wheelchairs. Granted, I wouldn’t do it now, voluntarily, but when I was younger and a paramedic earning $4.60/hour on the night shift I would have gladly accepted a salaried job taking care of people, especially for disabled veterans. They seem to have had interesting lives, though few people can listen or relate to war stories.
Our homeless population has had 4x more veterans than other cities since at least WWII, when San Diego became a major naval station in the Pacific theater, and then became the outprocessing station for all branches of military returning from Vietnam. Most had been drafted, unable to attend college or flee to Canada, and returned home via San Diego with no where else to go, and the pleasant weather all year makes San Diego a fine place to be homeless for a while. I can’t fault elderly, frail, sick, and lonely people who accept the costly 5150 service, and the least I can do is stop and listen every now and then.
I said hello and waited for him to acknowledge me; I didn’t want to startle him or make him spill more of his drink.
I asked if he’d like to be pushed into under the shade of the bus stop.
He nodded “no” strongly enough to be noticed over his twitching body.
I offered him water, and he nodded no just as loudly.
I said my name was Jason, and I asked if he needed anything.
He said no in a voice that was muffled by lips that flapped in and out of his mouth. His breathing was forced and was punctuated by gasps of breath common among COPD patients, an acquired disease from things harsh to our lungs, like smoking; or Hillcrest warehouse asbestos, Kentucky coal mines, or Vietnam Agent Orange, Desert Storm dust and debris, etc. His neck veins bulged from his COPD, and, because of decreased oxygen, his face was a slight purple color, barely noticeable under his sunburn, but evident in his lips and one of his eyelids, which was squinted shut.
He looked about the age to have been in Vietnam. I couldn’t tell how tall he was because he was seated, but about 5’6.” He was thin and his flesh seemed weak, but his arms retained hints of former physical labor or exercise, perhaps from pushing his wheelchair, though he appeared to struggle with it that Sunday. In my periphery, I watched the diverse people shuffle by the bus stop and 7-11, and none seemed to notice him struggling, but I don’t think I was imagining it.
He was almost bald, and his forehead was bright red from the San Diego sunshine. Most of his front teeth where missing, which would explain why he mumbled and why the hotdogs hadn’t been touched; missing teeth was common among elderly homeless people, who rarely receive dental care.
The corners of his mouth were dotted with pinpoint open sores that I did not recognize an hoped for the best. He had one eye open, and it was a lighter blue than the cloudless skies above us. His face was red and wrinkled with deep lines, as if from many cycles of burning and healing over a lifetime. His other eye was squinted shut, which is how I had noticed its slight purple hue earlier, and I assumed his eye socket was hollow; by squinting, he somewhat resembled Popeye the Sailor, and I smiled and remembered Mr. Ed White, who had bore a remarkable resemblance to Popeye, a popular cartoon character when I was a kid.
I leaned in closer and asked his name and rested my left hand on his wheelchair, by his head where I could see my watch. His pulse was beating through his neck veins, and he was breathing through his mouth and his flapping lips were easy to see with each breath. Upon closer inspection, I still didn’t recognize the pinpoint sores. They were not herpes or a type of pox, I hoped. The sores were similar to razor burn, but he obviously hadn’t shaved in several days and they were slightly inflamed and not sunburnt, as if a recent outbreak of something that may have been triggered by UV light. I was unsure, and made a mental note to search the internet after I left him and after washing my hands two or three times.
He had an Adam’s apple, which is always a wise thing for some tourists to notice in Hillcrest; in WWII, it was known as a prostitution hub catering to sailors from San Diego’s navy base, and is still a mecca for diverse people seeking other diverse people. Otherwise, nothing was remarkable about him.
I repeated that I was Jason and asked his name, calling him “sir” to be polite. He waved his hand as if to dismiss the idea of a name and said “Daniel or Dan or Danny; it doesn’t matter!” His hand fell back to his lap beside the other one and he clasped his super-sized drink.
He could breathe through his nose, and his bulging neck veins pulsed with every heartbeat. I kept my hand on the top of his wheelchair so I could see the time in my periphery; ever since I was a paramedic, I’ve used an analog watch because I can quickly see when a quarter of a minute has passed, regardless of when I start looking, and I find it easier to multiply breaths and heartbeats times four when I don’t have digital watch numbers involved. His breath and pulse rates were high but not dangerously so. HIs ABC’s were fine; or, at least, not an immediate threat that would warrant a call to 911; and, thankfully, would not require me to perform mouth-to-mouth on him.
I smiled at the small joke in my mind – a gift of gratitude from having performed CPR in unsavory situations before face masks were invented for first responders, the way a mountain is defined by a valley, and I relaxed and looked at the time on my watch. I was expected home, but I was lucky to have time to spare and that I knew that. I focused on Danny, and felt remarkably relaxed. This, to me, was more real than any quick phatic question from people on my normal walk home, and I appreciated being pulled from my thoughts for a deeper connection to one of my neighbors, even if he was transient.
I asked Danny if he’d like my hat to protect his head from the sun, and his eye perked up and his lips formed what I assumed was a smile and he mumbled yes! I took off my LSU baseball cap and handed it to him; it had been one of my older ones, faded and practically colorless, but still with a quirky purple and gold quirky old school Tiger that made me smile. I smiled, and he smiled back.
He stuck his drink between his legs and took my hat and moved his hands so deftly that I was shocked; it was as if he had instantly transformed from a feeble old man into a spry magician doing a magic trick with a hat. He seemed delighted, and he quickly bent the bill into a smooth curve and tucked the top in closer to the front. Satisfied, he slid the hat on his balding head in a quick motion and lowered the bent bill over his eyes and peered up at me with a broad smile. He looked sharp.
He was breathing through his nose by then, and he seemed calm and happy. Or at least more calm and happier, using the same analogy of lows defining highs. He started speaking more slowly, and with less forced air through his flapping lips, and I could understand him better.
He said that in the army they used to fold his cap in a duck bill, like the special forces, and I assumed he had been a veteran from the Vietnam Ware era, when President Kennedy tried to use a few Special Forces teams instead of expanding the draft. He was about the right age, and that would have explained the hint of musculature lingering in his arms. I looked at his smiling face and realized that with his LSU cap pulled low and folded like a duck bill he looked like me, or what I’d probably look like in 10 to 20 more years. Of course, he was older and smaller and more frail. I’m about 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, somewhat fit though obviously enjoying a few tacos or Po’Boys now and then, but we still bore a remarkable physical resemblance, perhaps because of the hat, especially with old and faded Tiger patch that resembled the Viet Cong Tigers.
And his look, his countenance and his gaze, even if only through one eye. There’s a unique look in the eye of someone who feels unthreatened. Danny had it. I had seen it ever since I was a kid; it was a combination of my grandfather’s charming yet threatening bright blue eyes and my dad’s intense and unthreatened dark brown eyes, like mine. It’s a unique combination – charming yet intense – and the few people I’ve know who share it all seem to have interesting stories to tell. I wondered what had brought Danny to the bus stop in Hillcrest, not just a 5150, but a lifetime of experiences that were probably more complex than a simple sentence or two could describe.
I didn’t have time to think much more about it, because Danny stopped smiling and leaned towards me and began talking quickly, telling me seemingly disparate stories without pausing between them; I didn’t know where he was getting the air, because I didn’t notice his breath rate increase. I could barely understand him, so I leaned in and tried to be mindful of the spittle that flew from his flapping lips. I tried to balance caution with leaning in. I didn’t want to offend him, but I was interested in hearing what he had to say and couldn’t understand his mumbling from that far up. I knelt and tried to stay alert and avoid his breath and spittle, and made a mental note to wash my face and change my shirt before hugging anyone at home; and that’s when he said something that brought my full attention to him.
“Do you think a story about an IRA is funny!” He asked rhetorically, with a twinkle in his eye. “Ha! No!”
I had been trying to write a book about the IRA I had inherited, the one Wendy had inherited from her mom, who had also been a single mother fleeing a family, and how they had been wise investors despite not having traditional educations. The coincidence was startling, and I shook my head and refocused and tried to ensure I wasn’t mishearing Danny. Of course, my mind briefly jumped to the Book of Daniel, where he receives his inheritance after escaping the lion’s den, and perhaps that made me look at Danny differently.
“Tell them about a veteran who takes experimental medicines and falls asleep in the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital,” he said.
I was now more surprised than I had been in decades of helping my neighbors and listening to stories. I stopped analyzing Danny and forgot about caution and waited for what he’d say next.
He paused for the first time since he started talking and opened his eye wide and pointed a finger up at me for a moment, and then he told parts of a few funny stories about veterans and it was difficult to follow what he was saying, even though I was focusing as best I could, given that he was a mumbling man and the area was full of distractions from passing cars and pedestrians.
“Tell them about a good friend who’s annoying, rubs dog shit under your care door handle!” He mimicked rubbing dog shit under a car door handle, and his face lit up in a joy that I didn’t understand, and he continued.
He spoke of aliens that know what we’re feeling. “From exactly,” he said, emphasizing his words by lurching his finger at my face with every syllable, “14,” point, “miles,” point, “away.”
He pointed the final time and held it steady for a few moments to… make his point, I thought to myself, and I smiled.
He leaned back into his wheelchair and smiled back up at me, then he quickly leaned forward again and continued talking ceaselessly and continuously laughed at other people’s naiveté.
“How would you explain a duck to an alien?” he asked, smirking slyly, and allowing me time to ponder. I had no idea, because I wouldn’t know how they communicated or what they already knew of Earth, and I was pleasantly amused by the brief moment that Danny allowed me to consider what he was saying.
Suddenly, his face animated and he shouted, “ Quack! Quack!” and he laughed loudly and with his entire body, closing his eye so that crow’s feet bunched around both of them in what seemed like genuine joy, and spewing spittle from his flapping lips and slapping his hands on his food and beverage stained pants.
I felt awkward at the attention, and I glanced around at the people walking past the busstop and stopped in their cars at the red light in front of us, and saw that noticed that no one seemed to notice us, even with Danny quacking loudly between fits of laughter. It was as if we were surrounded by an invisible field of someone else’s problem. I felt a twinge of anger and cynicism; Hillcrest is America’s second largest, self defined gay community, with a huge brightly colored rainbow flag celebrating LGBT and a host of other acronyms demanding equality, yet no one stopped because, apparently I felt, not everyone who asks for recognition gives it. Hypocrites, I said to myself, then caught my negativity and refocused on Danny. He stopped laughing and resumed talking, unconcerned about the people passing us or ignoring us. He was probably used to it.
“Ha! They think a compass helps them get where they’re going,” he said with a smirk, as if he knew where he was going. I was unsure if he meant his army field navigation days, or the people staring into their phones as they walked by or waited for the traffic light to change.
“Magnetic fields aren’t important!” He said as he waved his hand backwards, towards north of Hillcrest and the hospital, and dismissed the magnetic field by saying, “It changes every 45,000 years, anyway.” He swirled a hand around his head a few times to emphasize the magnetic poles flipping. He was probably right: constant streams of volcanic lava cooling on the ocean floor are polarized by the magnetic field, and we can measure the rate of oozing and the field and assume that Earth’s magnetic field flops every 45,000 years or so. I was so distracted thinking about flip flopping magnetic fields and what that would do to us that I missed what he said next, though I know it was something about focusing on what’s real, or what’s important.
He spoke of so many things that I didn’t understand that I can’t recall them all, like tales of a giant plant with a single tap root that circled 2/3 of Earth. “What happens when they cut it?” he asked, continuing without a pause. He spoke of a one legged table and people trying to eat from it, and asked what happens when they cut the leg. I imagined people standing around a one legged table, eating and drinking mindfully, so that everyone could take turns as long as they remained balanced. He spoke enthusiastically and incessantly, perhaps happy to have someone listening for a change, even though my mind was still surprised about the coincidence of his name and his comment about an IRA and the images I formed from stories I did hear.
I listened without interrupting for 20 or 30 minutes. People passed by us without seeming to notice, carrying bags of groceries from the farmers market or walking in and out of the convenience store. Cars stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop and drivers checked their phones or adjusted their stereos without paying attention to us. I began to feel uncomfortable, both physically from kneeling and, for a reason I didn’t understand, slightly embarassed, as if I were watching people with more health and resources and judging myself for not being them. I’m human, and most humans seem concerned about what others think; but Danny seemed unworried, like he had been unworried if his name were Dan or Daniel or Danny, or whether or not I was listening.
I had been with Danny for almost 35 minutes and my knees were sore and my neck ached from leaning in and I remembered my bags of groceries to carry home before the fruit spoiled in the sunshine. “Danny… Danny… Danny…” I repeated until he paused and looked up at me, then I stood up.
“I have to go now,” I said, and his eye lit up and he apologized and said he was an old man who liked to talk too much and he asked me to sit and tell him about myself. I said sure, and squatted, because sitting hurts my lower back, and I ostensibly listened for another ten or fifteen minutes, unable to understand most of what he said and worried about being late, and finally I pushed up on my knees and stood and interrupted him again and apologized and said I had to go.
Danny stopped shaking and glared up at me, and then he opened the eye that had been squinted shut all that time, and he stared at me with two sky blue eyes, alert and focused. He was smiling subtly, and calmly breathing through his nose.
Later that evening, when I would sit with Cristi on our Balcony and tell her about Danny, I would say that I almost shit a brick when he opened both eyes. I knew I’d be late getting home, but I collected my bricks and kneeled beside his wheelchair again, and I stayed and leaned in and concentrated on listening to what he had to say, trying to ignore the distractions and give Danny more of my attention.
“How would you explain Love to God?” he said, speaking clearly and with a calm, concentrated countenance, much different than when he had asked about describing a duck to an alien. But he didn’t give me time to ponder, and he said, “How could he explain it to you?”
He paused and I stared, mesmerized by a feeling I did not understand. He pointed a finger at my face, remarkably no longer shaking, and said, “Point to the sky,” and then he pointed to the sky and so did I. “Now touch your belly button,” and we both did.
“When they cut the chord, what did they sever?”
He pointed back at the sky and said, “How do you know if it’s wind that moves the clouds?”
I was shocked, but only because I had misunderstood him. I pronounce my mother’s name with a Baton Rouge accent that makes it sound like “windy,’ and for a brief moment I thought I heard him ask about my mother, if was Wendy that moved the clouds that day.My breathing became shallow and my lip quivered and I concentrated on letting the sadness pass without crying; her story was long and atypical, and I hadn’t talked about my family history with many people and was still processing her loss.
Despite my sadness and twitching lip, I kept an eye on Danny’s eyes. I was sad, but I was simultaneously confused by what was happening and therefore my default nature of curiosity was allowing the sadness to dissipate without me attaching to it, and I was ready to listen to whatever Danny said next.
For the first time that afternoon, he had been silent until I was ready to listen again. He resumed telling stories and kept both eyes open, but he was shaking and mumbling again, and I didn’t understand much of anything he said, even though I was focused. I thought that was remarkable, too, and I remained focused and watched both of his eyes animate like his single eye had before.
He spoke and I listened for another 20 minutes or so about things I didn’t understand or can’t recall. When I stood to leave again I asked, again, if he’d like to be pushed into the shade. He said yes this time, and I pushed his chair under the covered bus stop in front of the convenience store with people walking to and from the nearby farmer’s market. I threw away his fly covered hot dogs and asked if he’d like some strawberries from the farmer’s market. They’re fresh, I said, and delicious. His eyes lit up and he smiled and mumbled yes, and I rested a pint of strawberries on his lap. He popped one in his mouth as deftly as he had put on my LSU hat and slid the juicy berry to the back of his mouth, where he still had a few teeth, and munched happily and thanked me through red strawberry stained gums and lips that flapped like a loose sail in the wind. I said I was writing a book and asked if I could tell his stories, and he mumbled yes and waved his hand backwards, as if brushing away my worries about quoting him. I collected my four bags of groceries, wished Danny well, and began walking home.
I was too sore to put into words, just like every time I sit or kneel too long, like any office job or on a long flight to Baton Rouge. The discomfort is like a buzzing, not unlike being shocked by a light socket or touching your tongue on a 9 volt battery, but all over. It’s distracting, and my mind was overwhelmed with buzzing and racing with thoughts about Danny’s eyes and everything he had said. My knees and hip and back and neck were shrieking in pain, shouting at my mind, demanding its attention, and something kept clinging on to the words Danny had said, trying to remember words that made no sense at the time.
I limped back down 6th Ave, distracted, and stopped at one of the children’s playgrounds in Balboa Park that has adult-sized pull up bars and exercise stations, and I tried to stretch and clear my head before going home.
I rarely discuss this, but after my grandfather died I entered the army and became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne division, which spearheaded the first gulf war; they are America’s quick reaction force, and were the first to responded to President Bush’s call after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and then, along with French forces and followed by the largest allied force since WWII, crossed the border and began the ground war that was called Desert Storm. Because of the threat of Saddam Husseins chemical weapons, front line forces were given experimental drugs, Pyridostigmine Bromide pills taken daily, to possibly protect us from nerve agents, at least long enough to fire a few more shots or get evacuated.
Though Saddam didn’t launch chemical weapons, my platoon, Anti-Tank Platoon #4 of D-Company, 1/504th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, was the front line for four days of nonstop fighting and captured Khamisiya Airport and then blew it up, unleashing the only chemical weapon explosion known to affect Americans. Interestingly, and perhaps why I remember it so vividly, I was the youngest soldier out of 560,000 Americans; a result of being emancipated from the Partin family and allowed to join the army at 16 without parental consent, the same way Wendy had been allowed to marry Edward Partin Junior without parental consent. Over the war, I grew almost 5″ and gained 60 pounds around the time of the explosion; it’s unknown how the experimental medications and chemical exposure affected me.
The VA Healthcare System ranks me as a 75% disabled veteran due to a wide range of injuries to my spine and bones and joints, which isn’t uncommon after seven years of service and many parachute jumps and more battles than I care to recall; the landings were always worse than the jumping; and, because I’m here to write this, the battles turned out better for me than for others. Perhaps that’s why I listen to people like Danny with a level of empathy few other Samaritans, no matter how well intended, can.
The office handling the case is still called VA’s Office of Agent Orange, a redundant department of redundancy, left over from the 1970’s and built upon the office that had and still is investigating the effects of American warplanes dropping Agent Orange on Vietnam and affecting Americans; I don’t know what we do about the Vietnamese people affected and still living there. I heard that that office had handled the consequences of experimental nuclear tests after WWII, though w of those soldiers are still alive. I had met one once, and many Agent Orange sufferers, because I often sat beside them in the San Diego VA hospital and listened to their stories. I’ve never seen one fall asleep, no matter how long the wait has been to see a doctor, and many seem to enjoy the rare opportunity to talk with someone, anyone, about anything. Perhaps that’s why I stopped to pay attention to Danny in his VA wheelchair.
My medical history has been tracked by the VA since I was a 16 year old little boy, and I’ve been a part of three congressional committees investigating the effects of the Khamisiah airport explosion and the possible causes of what has since been called Desert Storm Syndrome. The syndrome is a range of symptoms that overlap with the general population, people who had never been in war, and the cause and effect of the diseases isn’t obvious. Statistical significance comes from analyzing symptomatic and asymptomatic people in large populations, trying to separate variables and then reanalyzing with each new piece of information or technology, mostly using Analysis of Variables and the classic student’s t-test to get a “p” value that people agree is significant enough; and then analyzing various treatment methods using the gold standard of learning cause and effect and assessing efficacy of treatments, a randomized double blinded clinical trial. After thirty years and hundreds of thousands of patients, the VA had concluded that approximately 60,000 soldiers were impacted by Desert Storm syndrome; and, statistically, those patients were within 100 miles of the Khamisiya airport when we blew it up, had taken Pyridostigmine Bromide pills, and had a naturally occurring protein detectable in approximately 40% of the general population. Symptoms include developing asthma, sinisitus, irritable bowel syndrom, fibromalaysia, skin rashes, and a few other physical maladies. Mentally, it’s linked to depression, PTSD, insomnia, and general irritability; though, in fairness, there are many things that can make us cranky, and that’s been one of the most difficult things to statistically link to Desert Storm. According to the VA, I have almost all symptoms, though any time I feel cranky it’s usually after waiting line at the VA and filling out piles of paperwork and listening to older veterans tell their stories, and seeing news of the most recent wars on the waiting room television feeling frustrated that we don’t seem to learn how to avoid sending more young people to war.
Danny stirred up a lot of memories and emotions in me. Most were coincidences, like the experimental medication, and a few were specific, like how I had inherited my mom’s Individual Retirement Account, and how, in the old testament, at the end of the book of Daniel he survives the lion’s den and comes into his inheritance. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something special about Danny and about the things he told me. Though I didn’t understand everything he said – not just the muffled words, but the meanings of what I could hear – I was repeating his words in my mind again and again, and simultaneously pondering the coincidences of taking experimental medications, falling asleep at the VA, and, of course, a story about an IRA not being funny. I didn’t know what to think about him surprising me by opening both eyes, and how similar to me he looked when he placed my LSU baseball cap on his head.
With that on my mind, I walked home, happy to see the park across the street from our place being used by a few families. But I was still distracted, and thoughts planted as seeds by Daniel were germinating and swirling and competing for my mental bandwidth. I was looking forward to focusing on something fun, like making avocado toast with a lovely little lady, and maybe telling her a few stories from my youth. Not all of the stories, of course, because that would take a lifetime. But, bit by bit, I’d like her to gain wisdom faster than I did, and hopefully make wiser choices for herself and her family one day.
I looked up at the few clouds sprinkled across our bright blue sky, took a deep breath, and I felt lucky to be alive, and lucky to see the transition between how I had felt only moments before and how I felt at that moment. I began thinking about lunch, and how much fun it would be to teach Hope to use a knife safely, and how delicious our avocado toast would taste on the balcony overlooking Balboa Park.
As I approached home, I felt a deep sense of gratitude that few people ever experience: no one was shooting at me, nothing was blowing up nearby, I had handfuls of fresh food, and I was still able to walk home; and there was someone I loved at home, and I could focus on that instead of dwelling on the past. I was looking forward to making avocado toast, and I thought about funny stories to tell Hope about how giant sloths once roamed Balboa Park, and I thought we may even take a walk to the Natural History museum; it would be fun, and she could see that my stories are true.
But, I reminded myself, I should wash my hands and change clothes before making lunch with Hope, just to be safe.