I am not sure where he’s from, but his accent is interesting to me. Nasal. And he talks lightning fast. New Jersey maybe? Philly? I am a Florida guy, don’t know much about the nasal region of the country.
What I do know is that the old man is walking the vacant beach at seven in the morning, collecting aluminum cans from trash bins. When I meet him, I find him rifling through a trash bag in a public beach access.
He has long hair, bleached from the sun, a beard peppered with white, and his skin is the color of aged boot leather.
“Name’s Alfie,” he says.
Alfie rummages through each receptacle, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Each soda can he finds is a cause for minor celebration. He tucks the mangled cans into a homemade satchel worn around his shoulder—a Hefty garbage bag.
Since I have a gift for inquiring about the obvious, I ask what Alfie is doing.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” he says, lifting an empty Michelob Ultra can, still leaking its contents. “Fifty-nine cents per pound, amigo.”
I smell whiskey on his breath from ten feet away.
He’s a nice man, sociable, and an Army veteran. Soon, we are lingering on a wide, empty beach, having a conversation, chewing the fat, watching the sunup. Behind us is a large beachfront McMansion which is roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial.
Alfie tells me that today has been a great day foraging. He hit the jackpot over in Destin. Someone threw away two cases’ worth of Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans.
“The motherlode,” Alfie explains.
Then our conversation becomes more biographical. Alfie tells me about his time in Vietnam, when he was twenty.
“Me and my little brother enlisted together, on the same day. We did everything together.”
The night before they left for basic, they hit the beer joints pretty hard. It was their last evening together. Alfie still remembers it.
“I remember hugging him goodbye,” says Alfie. “We just knew, somehow, it’d be the last time we saw each other.”
And it was. Alfie doesn’t say anything else about his brother except that, a little over one year later, a triangular-shaped folded flag was delivered to Alfie’s parents’ doorstep.
Mid-conversation, we are interrupted. Alfie and I are approached by two people exiting the McMansion. A young couple is about to go for a stroll on the beach. They are well put together, nicely dressed, with sixty-dollar alligators sewn onto their ten-dollar shirts.
And they are apparently angry at us.
“You can’t be here!” the woman barks at us. “This is a private beach. Can’t you read!?”
The fuming young woman points to a poster which reads, PRIVATE BEACH. GUESTS ONLY. Alfie and I did not see this sign. We had no idea we were trespassing. Truthfully, I thought the beach was just the beach.
“Sorry, ma’am,” says Alfie. “We were just sitting by the water. Don’t mean no harm.”
“I don’t care what you were doing,” she says. “This is ridiculous. We’ve seen you, digging around in those trash cans, you have no right. We’re calling the police if we see you on this beach again.”
Alifie ducks his head. “Yes’m. Sorry, ma’am.”
The young couple angrily walks away, although “sauntering” might be a better word for their particular gait. A large piece of me wants to speak up on Alfie’s behalf. But this isn’t my fight, and Alfie tells me he just wants to let it go and get on with his life.
When the couple is gone, Alfie merely grunts, “Some people.” And I can tell his feelings are hurt.
We part ways. I shake Alfie’s hand. And before he opens his mouth to offer a goodbye, I can tell he is about to ask me for money. I am immediately embarrassed for him because I know he is going to make that speech many homeless people must make because their survival depends upon it.
You know the one I mean. They explain themselves to you. Then they tell you they’re good people, pointing out that they aren’t criminals. And even though you believe them, they try desperately make you understand that they are just regular folks. And they reassure you that they aren’t going to use your cash to buy booze.
It is the most humbling and human spiel you will ever hear. And if it doesn’t break your heart, you ain’t got one.
But the fact is, I don’t care what Alfie does with the money I give him. I have six bucks remaining in my wallet, and I wish it were six hundred.
“God bless you, sir,” Alfie says, pocketing the cash.
I God-bless Alfie back. Then I silently God-bless that young couple in the distance.
For they know not what they do.