“What do you know about life” he sneered at me. “How old are you anyways?”
“19, sir” I replied.
“19. You know what I was doing when I was 19? I was killing people. I was fucking girls. I was Alive!” He reached down and adjusted his wheelchair. He motioned for me to lean in. “I was serving my goddamn country” he hissed. “And what are you doing at 19 years old? Nothing! Coming here, talking to homeless people.”
I bared a fake smile. “I’m trying to do some good things I guess.” I handed him a sandwich we had wrapped back at the church.
Sarcasm dripped from his voice. “Good things. You don’t know good until you’ve done evil things in the name of ‘good’.” He rolled a cigarette between his fingers, contemplating smoking it. “At nineteen years old, your life is ahead of you. You’re at the best point in your life. Look at me.”
My eyes had wandered across the street. An older homeless woman, skinny as a stick, stood at the stop sign, waving her frail hands at the cars driving by, weaving a red scarf through the air like a flag raised over a conquered battlefield. She was soliciting sex.
I turned my eyes back to the crippled veteran as he commanded. His wrinkled skin, the thick, green military style jacket, the whiskey on his breath. He was a different creature than I. A man who had loved and fought. By any measure his life should have been counted as a full life. A lover and a fighter, a sage man who has seen the glory of better days. But sitting before me was a man more worn down than the donated jacket draped over his shoulders. The unwashed hair that must not have felt clean water in years. The sum of his appearances were mild however, compared to the bitterness in his voice. This was not the image of a content life.
“I’m a native american. We’re a warrior people. I joined the US army because this is the best fucking country in the world. And I wanted to serve it proudly. They sent us to Vietnam. Do you know the feeling of looking a man in the eyes, and pulling the trigger before he does? Blowing his damn head off. Putting bullets into a man’s chest. I didn’t want to do it, you know?” his eyes searched mine for redemption. Then he whispered, “…but I had to. I had to shoot him before he shot me. Or shot my friends. It changes you, knowing that someone is dead because of you. Knowing that you took someone’s life, and knowing that it ended then and there, at your hands. And the blood…” he trailed off.
I didn’t know what to say to the man. He was right by all counts. I knew nothing, compared to him.
“But look at me now, I’m old. I’m useless. You…” he jammed a bony finger at me. “…you ever slept with a woman before?”
I shook my head, embarrassed.
He chuckled. “You’re a virgin?” he uttered. “Even more useless than I thought. Then you know nothing at all. Sex, oh it is a beautiful thing.” He smiled and closed his eyes. “The girls that I’ve been with… I’ll tell you, when you have sex, you see heaven.”
He stopped when he noticed how uncomfortable I was. I, standing there, listening to a homeless Vietnam war veteran discuss the sex life of his better years.
“There’s nothing wrong with sex, you know,” he said. Before I could object and tell him I never said it was, he asked, “You’re not a homo are you?”
“No, no, definitely not. Believe me, I like girls. I just haven’t had a chance to find the right one.” I hastily replied.
“Good. Because when you find a beautiful girl, that changes you too. You become a better person. ” He drifted into his thoughts.
A wiry black man approached us wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. “Hey, you still got that stuff we bought? I want my share right now. I’m gonna go get high over there if you wanna join me.” he asked the veteran.
“Can’t you see I’m talking to this young man right now? You should be respectful around him. He’s here trying to do us some good, give us some food. You better watch your mouth around him, you hear me?” he barked to the tall junkie.
Looking at me, the junkie looked sincerely sorry. “My apologies, sir.”
I nodded. “No worries.”
The junkie walked off.
“Look, kid. All I’m trying to tell you is that you don’t know much. Not as much as I do at least. You haven’t seen the things I’ve seen. You might have learned them, or read about them, or heard about them, but life… Life is so much bigger than that. You’re trying to tell me about Jesus, and tell me how I should live my life. Look, I appreciate the sandwich, but you need to know that your whole life is ahead of you. Don’t miss it. I appreciate you trying to tell me about the gospel, trying to save my soul. But young man, I know who God is. And He sure as hell knows who I am. I’ve lived my life. It’s time for you to live yours.”
He thanked me again for the food and the conversation. Then he rolled his wheelchair off, to find the tall junkie