An uneasy feeling crept into my gut the moment I laid eyes on him. The meth-induced yellow tinge of his plaque-encrusted smile, the wet gangrenous look of his sandelled feet, the dart of his beady eyes, they all urged me to be certain I was never left alone with Steven.
He was 27. His girlfriend, Emily, looked about 15. They, like most people who reach Venice beach and decide to stay, were homeless.
After all, what better place to be home-free than in sunny California?
We met on the boardwalk. Steven and Emily were kickin’ it on the footpath with Billy, a dread-locked busker from Virginia I had bought a coffee for in Hollywood, a blue-haired girl who played a painted saw with a violin bow, and her boyfriend, Matt, a doped-up, tripped-out beatnik with an air of happy destitution about him.
Between the six of us we had a tent, a box of stale dollar-store crackers, two beers, a hookah, and a grocery bag full of weed.
Billy and I set up the tent in the sand, whilst the others tried to escape the drug-induced ramblings of Steven’s “friend” – a cracked out old drifter who, evidently, had seen something in Steven he liked.
After they made their exit (by directing the hobo to a local weed dispensary that gave out free ‘care packages’) we clambered inside the tiny dome tent, each taking a corner so it didn’t blow away.
Matt reached into a tattered pocket and pulled out the fattest joint I’d ever seen.
He didn’t roach it or anything, and when I asked why he simply said, “We got way too much weed to worry about that shit man.”
In Venice Beach marijuana is not just a drug. It’s a currency. If you don’t have any money, but you got a sack of weed, it’s only a matter of time before you find company. But pity the vagrant with no money and no weed. He hasn’t a friend in the world.
Fortunately for these itinerants, they’d returned to California after a summer spent harvesting the soon-to-be-legal fields of Colorado.
The blue-haired girl’s mother was still up there. She’d taken off just before Christmas, leaving her mother behind in the snow because, “they have better benefits and stuff for homeless people there”. Besides, last time she’d travelled with her mother she’d ended up paying for everything, and she could barely afford her own dope as it was.
Matt presented the joint to Billy.
“Thanks daddiyo,” Billy smiled.
“Yeah, I’ve uh… been saying that a lot lately and it’s…”
“No, it’s actually working out for me, you know… people say ‘Yeah, you can have a toke, but only because you called me daddiyo.'”
“That’s the great thing about California man, the sun, surf, sex, and smoke, they’re all free,” smiled Matt.
“Smoke’s not free,” I said, dipping my hand into the cracker packet.
“You payin’ right now?” Steven shot back, delivering a sideways, every so slightly accusatory glance my way.
I knew his game right then and there.
He was trying to make me feel bad. I had money, it was obvious, and here we were, Billy smoking their dope and me eating their soft crackers, for free. He wasn’t really mad, he just wanted to see if he could make me feel like I owed him something.
Billy attempted a conversational redirection.
“So…what are ya’ll doin’ for Christmas?”
“I’m gonna be doin’ heroin,” Steven announced, smiling as he looked across the group, gauging the shock-value. He was a tester… liked to push the envelope and see how seriously people would take him when he did it.
He picked at a loose flap of crinkly wet skin dangling from his big toe.
“Oh… oh no dude… not that kind of white Christmas!” Matt laughed.
The blue-haired girl giggled.
“One time, I was so desperate for a shot, I mixed up some creamer and injected that instead. Just for the feel of it, you know?” she confessed sheepishly.
“How’d that work out for ya?” Billy asked, dumbfounded.
“Oh yeah, not so well. Apparently you need to use the non-dairy stuff.”
“Dude, imagine walking into Star Bucks and being like, ‘Yo, you got any non-dairy creamer? I’m about to lose my shit up in here for some non-dairy creamer!'” said Matt, standing to give his best wide-eyed tweaker impersonation (complete with jilted walk), and knocking over the chop bowl in the process.
“‘You got any non-dairy creamer?'” Steven mimicked in a shrill Jewish-sounding voice.
“That’s America in a line right there,” he said, using his gaze to pass Emily the baton of oratory contempt.
“Fuck America man.” she spat.
His approving glance emboldened her.
“This country is run by a bunch of Washington pigs who do nothing but kiss multinational corporation’s asses all day long… so they can… so they can keep pumping money into the war machine! And the whole fuckin’ world hates us for it!” she parroted defiantly.
“You really think the world hates America?” I asked.
I knew the answer, but it was much more enjoyable to hear it from them.
“Fuck yeah they do. Italy, France, Brazil, Japan… especially Japan. That’s a known fact,” said Steven.
“Pretty much anyone we’ve ever bombed the fuck out of knows that money, no, resources are the reason for all of our wars, War is just a tool to repress the ignorant masses and to make money in the process.”
“But what about people in totalitarian regimes, there’s a reason for them to wage war. Aren’t some people genuinely fighting for their rights?” I asked.
Steven’s eyes widened, a smug grimace lit up his face.
“Well, that’s the thing about rights…”
He met my gaze with a cold, vacant sort of glare.
“…they only exist in your head.”
I looked away.
“Hey man, I was in the navy once, it wasn’t so bad.” said Matt.
Billy and him had been trying to negotiate the complex logistics involved in assembling a hookah, and had missed the chilling profundity of Steven’s last remark.
“Really man?!” asked Billy, wrinkling his nose at the thought.
“Yeah, I didn’t fight or nothin’ though, I was just a mail man.
“I could tell you the story but, ah, it’s gonna cost you a beer,” he grinned at Billy beseechingly.
I liked Matt. He had a sort of endearingly dopey demeanour.
“That’s too bad, I only got half of one left.”
“Well how about half a beer for half a story?”
“How about a whole joint for a whole story?” Billy countered.
The blue-haired girl piped up.
“Aw man, don’t tell him that. At this rate, we’re never going to run out of weed!”
“And besides, I’m getting kinda hungry…” she lamented, emptying the remnants of the cracker box into the palm of her hand.
“Sometimes I eat out of a trash can and I’m not even hungry,” said Steven, trying on the shock tactics one more time.
“I just want people to see me, like, ‘Hey look lady, I’m eatin’ out of the fuckin’ trash! What do you think about that?'”
In the past, I had been quite fond of the image of the utterly destitute man making one last stand, slitting his wrist and bleeding profusely all over an uncaring, disgusted society. Yet in that moment the notion became perverse.
“Money, maaaan. It’s the root of all evil,” said Matt.
“That’s the problem with capitalism. Money is infinite, resources are not,” the blue-haired girl added matter-of-factly.
They could talk like that because they had nothing.
Nothing to do but smoke weed. Nothing to eat but stale biscuits. Nowhere to go but the liquor store, or the beach, or the dollar shop, blazed and bathed in that hazy Californian sunshine wherever they went.
They were never really going anywhere. They weren’t a part of something. They didn’t believe in anything or any one, and why should they? They were right. The American dream was meaningless. I wouldn’t believe in it either.
Their mistake was the way in which they naively equated disassociation with freedom.
I knew there was no real freedom in turning your back on society. You still have to answer to yourself.
As far as I could tell, Steven didn’t appear to have that problem.
That’s something the directionless tend to forget, there will always be someone ready to capitalise on that sentiment, to cultivate it for their own personal gain.
Regardless, I offered to buy them pizza.
It was the least I could do – after all, I was a vagrant by choice, and ten bucks in that corner of the globe would buy enough calories for all of us.
In true hobo style, the four of them left Billy and I to pack up the tent while they headed towards his van.
I overheard Steven talking to the others.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we rolled that fool for his van, and just hauled ass all the way to Mexico? … You know… like a dope road trip across the States?”
It wasn’t quite a suggestion, but it wasn’t a joke either. He was just floating the idea, gauging their suggestibility. Perhaps his delivery was a little too facetious, or maybe the gang was too preoccupied with the thought of pepperoni and cheese hitting their palates. Either way, none of them bit, and he dropped the idea.
After dinner I followed apprehensively as they piled back into the car. If he really was going to rob us, he’d probably wait until he’d gotten his free meal first.
Billy started the engine, and an advertisement for “The Hunger Games” came over the radio.
“I don’t get why the kids in that movie just put a flower on the dead bodies they find,” I said,
“Why don’t they take all their supplies and tools and stuff, to better their own chances of survival?”
“You know what would be cool?” Steven asked, this time without the jocular inflection.
“What?” Emily asked expectantly.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you killed people. And every time you killed someone, you took something of theirs, like their belt, or their shirt or their shoes. And then whenever someone said to you ‘Hey man, cool belt’ you could be like ‘Yeah, it is cool, isn’t it? I fucking killed someone for this’ and each time you wore it, you could remember.”
The van rolled on in a chilled silence.
It was my time to split.
“Well guys, I gotta go. I’m staying right around here.”
I wasn’t, but in that moment I felt safer taking my chances on the dark streets of LA.
Billy pulled over to the curb.
“Is here ok?”
“Yeah man, here is fine,” I said, stepping out of the van. I turned to face the others.
“It was nice to meet you. I’m sure I’ll see you ’round. Bye Billy, bye Matt, bye Emily, bye Steven.”
Steven let out a short, menacing laugh.
I looked at him, confused.
He returned my look with a haughty, mocking glare.
“Steeeeven… ” he repeated, savouring the moment.
“Is that what I told you my name was?”
I let out an awkward laugh and shut the door.
In hindsight, I should have asked him where he got his belt.
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