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.
field4kids2015 - October 17, 2021 7:20 am
Oh, wow. Love this one, Sean. You, my friend, have a way of seeing into the souls of the people you meet. And then you help us see it to. This one will give me something to ponder for the next few days, no doubt.
My daddy was killed in Vietnam when I was 7. Now I’m 61. Alfie and I share the same pain. It’s a pain that never leaves you. Some people just deal with it differently than others. God bless you and Alfie.
🇿🇦Norma Den🇿🇦 - October 17, 2021 8:13 am
🇿🇦My grandfather was in either Marines or Merchant Marine way back in late 1880’s. Met & married Grandma here in South Africa. I’m shocked at the way veterans are treated these days. They should be heroes & provided for, not treated as trash & forced to live hand to mouth on handouts. I don’t really remember “Pa” but my Mom proudly stood & sang “The Star Spangled Banner” till her dying day. God bless ALL Veterans for their sacrifices for the safety of their nations 🇿🇦🇺🇸
Darlene Meader Riggs - October 17, 2021 8:59 am
💔…”There but for the grace of God go I”.
Ruth Gunter Mitchell - October 17, 2021 10:10 am
Ruth Gunter Mitchell - October 17, 2021 10:08 am
I don’t know who is the sadder: Alfie or the couple. He definitely has his challenges surviving, but they have lost sight of their humanity. Thank you for reminding me that every person has a story, and I need to respect each person whether I understand the situation or not. We never know what horrible things a veteran has experienced, but we must remember he/she did it to protect our freedom.
Rich - October 17, 2021 3:02 pm
I lived in Sean’s neck of the woods from 1998-2012 and saw the changes he mentions here. Out of state rich folk coming in to destroy the beachfront and the county commissioners just loving the influx of tax dollars and giving the arseholes whatever they wanted. This young couple is indicative of the type that think they can “buy” the beach. They are part of the reason I was glad to have left the beach.
Becky - October 17, 2021 3:56 pm
My thought was the garbage cans Alfie was gathering cans from most definitely are maintained by the city or county, so what’s the harm? Praying that couple and others like them may someday have a humble spirit.
Tammy S. - October 17, 2021 10:45 am
There could not have been a more perfect ending to your piece, Sean. To have it in our heart to love all people is as, “Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Matthew 22:37-39 NKJV
You, Sean, love so well, and challenge us all to see people and, simply, love them.
Ed (Bear) - October 17, 2021 11:00 am
One thing I don’t like is email adds. You know, the commercials that show up uninvited to your inbox. I’ve tried clicking the “unsubscribe” button link but in my experience, that button only gets you more uninvited commercials. I believe the unsubscribe button just prompts them to sell your contact info. Some folks seem to think they are privileged and that others are to be abused and run off from their God-created beach. I love how you love others Sean. You set a good example.
Karen - October 17, 2021 12:33 pm
Loving and respecting our fellow man is what it’s all about. The Bible makes that pretty clear. Thank you for being the person and writer you are.
Jeanette - October 17, 2021 12:37 pm
That’s what I always think when I see a weathered soul sitting on a bench staring into nowhere, ‘there but by the grace of God go I’.
Nancy Crews - October 17, 2021 12:51 pm
Steve from Wyoming - October 17, 2021 1:36 pm
Sean is the Irish name for John. Like I commented before Iam 73 and I am headed for church this morning. Your gospel readings (John) brings me to tears nearly every morning. Since I started reading your pod cast in July I now feel like I go to church everyday for the first time in my life. God blessed you Sean!!
Patricia Gibson - October 17, 2021 2:07 pm
I pray for all people who find it necessary to be hateful as if the world revolves around them.
JonDragonfly - October 17, 2021 2:26 pm
I don’t know the law in Florida, but in Alabama the beaches are free up to the Mean High Tide line. “Private Beach” means nothing below that line.
Besides, the folks should be glad someone is reducing their waste burden and recycling. They should thank Alfie.
Katie - October 17, 2021 2:35 pm
Curran - October 17, 2021 2:45 pm
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, do this, don’t do that….
Cathy - October 17, 2021 2:59 pm
The Golden Rule is the only way to lead a good and happy life. It never fails and continues to win every time.
Kathi Castee - October 17, 2021 3:15 pm
God bless YOU, Sean!!!
Becky - October 17, 2021 3:44 pm
What a reminder to be thankful for my very humble home. God’s grace and a sufficient. I’m guessing that couple has never known what it feels to live week to week much less day to day. You’re correct that we should lift them up in prayer, as well as, all the Alfie’s out there. May God bless you and Jamie.
Linda - October 17, 2021 3:51 pm
Your posts more than not bring a tear to my eye. I have been volunteering at a mobile soup kitchen that try to find homes for the homeless. The stories they tell are heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
BEX - October 17, 2021 3:52 pm
Sean, your column shows us that it doesn’t cost anything to be NICE to people – everyone deserves respect. I was taught that if I give whatever money I have to a person in Christian faith, whatever they use it for is between them and God. I love your writing and your stories! God bless you and Jamie!
Leia Cathey - October 17, 2021 4:14 pm
You echo my thoughts on giving cash to the less fortunate. I frequently wear a t-shirt that reads Kindness is Free. I try to live by that.
Hannah Davis - October 17, 2021 5:03 pm
No one should have too much until everyone has enough.
Linda Moon - October 17, 2021 4:21 pm
I like your gift of asking. We readers meet a lot of people because of your inquiring mind. You know what you did, Writer, and God bless you for sharing your encounter with Alfie. God bless Alfie. He survived Nam, and hopefully he can continue to survive and thrive, too. I think you were one of those Angels you tell us about….for Alfie!
Christina - October 17, 2021 5:59 pm
And God bless you Sean, our kind columnist!
Cynthia Russell - October 17, 2021 8:24 pm
THANK YOU!! & BLESS YOU !!
Pam Smith - October 18, 2021 4:46 am
So true, as the Gospel says. I do not know if ignorance is really bliss or not. But I get really tired of Narcissistic people.
Karen Snyder - October 18, 2021 8:06 pm
Thank you, Sean, for your reminders of what it means to be a practicing Christian. You gave the self-absorbed couple the benefit of the doubt by stating that they ‘know not what they do,’ while I struggle with the thought that they knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t care. That frustration aside, I fully understand that they, maybe even more than Alfie, need our prayers. I shall pray that they become aware of what it means to love their neighbor, and put that awareness into practice. Thank you, too, for your love of the vets. Many of them receive far too little.