To be perfectly clear, "James" isn't homeless. He's been displaced. He's become disenfranchised.
I approach him respectfully; someone I know who knows him tipped me off to his whereabouts and mentioned that he might be up for a chat.
He's nicely dressed in a button-down and pressed jeans. He has a very Elysian way about him.
He props himself up against a lifeguard tower, positioning himself at angles, shifting, sorting through papers in a leather knapsack, reading the immediate surroundings in measured glances. His brow furrows, his lips purse, he shows a bit of a tick, but he's all there, you know, he's present.
He pulls from a cigarette, a pillow of smoke revealing softer, laughing eyes. He forms neat, compact bumps in the sand with his feet, which are bare despite the chilly spring air.
It's a curiously elegant sunset; a lone, bulbous cloud formation moves towards San Clemente Island, which sits just a hundred miles or so offshore -- a military testing ground that has offered up its fair share of visual oddities over the years. As the darkness settles in from the east, you can just barely make out the signature trails from a couple of small, containable fires burning at the ends of the island.
It's a place James used to call home.
James won't give out his real name because he feels that his identity has been marginalized, if not stripped away from him entirely. His family background is unimportant. He's convinced that his soul has been stitched back together, piecemeal.
America, he says, has a wonderful history of forgetting.
You could say that his feelings are warranted. He regards his personal story as cliche - the kind of thing you might hear about but rarely read about because its impact isn't so magnanimous... Not to the masses, that is. After all, stories about failure usually don't grab headlines, but those about "wealth" and "success" do.
To be more clear, James has fought in two wars for America. Two.
Well, two wars that were eventually documented and quietly syndicated in the public domain. His military service subsidized masters and post-doctorate degrees. He took his advanced engineering skills and built a convoy that successfully enabled several, very complex peace corps missions. He's done quite a bit of civil infrastructure work in developing countries. His accomplishments on and off the battlefield are, quite simply, remarkable. At one time, he had a family -- a wife and three children that loved him and for whom he could never live without. It was enough for him to question the value and sanctity of his own actions. You know, the life decisions he's made. Sometimes he made them for love of virtue, or for love of country, or for love of family, but never for love of self. This was a critical mistake, in his mind.
"So what really went wrong?" He slips the question in before I do, with a wry shrug.
"Nothing went wrong, " he quickly follows, then trails off: "It's just that nothing went right, either."
You see, James has been labeled as crazy. Unstable. Batty. Daffy.
If you talk to him, you won't get any sense that he is a mentally unhealthy person, or that he has any preexisting conditions, like bipolarity or schizophrenia.
No. James is very much here, quite articulate, and quite adamant about his belief system. But his belief system, ever evolving, is one that high government and high corporations can't tolerate. "They" don't understand. He knows because he's worked for both, and has believed in both, at one time or another.
James did happen to suffer from post-traumatic syndrome after one of his missions during the Reagan Era. You know, the good 'ole Ollie North days. Central America, the slow McCarthy-ism creep, domino theory failing in irreversibly full effect, et cetera, et cetera.
For a spell, he was relocated to California from Virginia, treated for his condition, and then under Federal law, he was released, like thousands of others, into the streets -- basically dumped like a fugitive or an expat with no food, shelter or a master plan. There's a lot more to this part of the story, but it's safe to say that his options became more and more limited in the quest to live a "perfect life" (or what some consider to be The American Dream).
His opinions and beliefs - an amalgam of extreme experiences and profound cultural interactions - became too quixotic to synthesize and process, even for his own family, or colleagues with whom he spent time in the trenches.
And therein began "the decline", so to speak.
Cut to present day, James has carved out a life for himself doing odd jobs. He survives on a relatively healthy diet of controlled consumption (he's a vegetarian, albeit one that smokes), composing and playing music, reading and writing allegories. His classical piano is flawless -- he shows me some video, and he's a first-class talent, he really is. He sits in on church sessions when he can, and practices during off hours, even though he has no religious affiliation.
Speaking of which, he doesn't challenge the concept of God, although he thinks that human interpretation of the concept is futile. He cites Joe Firmage's illustrious, evangelical campaign on extraterrestrial intelligence as a turning point in our "capacity to change the course of humanity's intellectual hubris", as well as our "tolerance for higher powers".
He thinks Firmage is "just the right kind of crazy" and wonders when he'll make a return to public inquiry.
He practically shudders as the words spill out.
Shifting gears, James hopes one day - perhaps when he is gone - that his provocations will resonate with someone. Anyone.
Hope is something he hangs onto like a child in search of a new canvas. Hope, he says, isn't an option, it's an imperative for action. For being. It catalyzes all that we don't know that we don't know. This is the parallel in which he thrives. His edge, if you will. And, he emphasizes, there's nothing better for him to go to or return to, no "new next" as it were, just where he is in the present moment.
James says that the Occupy movement has been around for a long, long time. He considers it to be a grand social experiment, nothing more, nothing less. He doesn't believe in taking sides when it comes to humanity -- there's nothing to fight over, only something to build and grow. There was a time when he thought differently, and raised his fists for more than a few causes. But causes gave him calluses, he laughs, not a reason to change course.
The fight, he says, is an individual one that involves truth, and at times, one that resembles the Greek concept of justice. But that, he qualifies, tends to manifest as fractured ideaology leaning to "either side". There is no "1%" or "99%", he adds; either is just a label we've borrowed from a milk carton to position ourselves against dealing with the real issue, which is to somehow make meaning out of our existence. And to do it without a serious lack of space or relative time in the physical world, for that matter.
After citing Kant, Foucault and Marx with uncanny precision, James goes on to say that banks and corporations are already a part of the grand experiment. Asking them to lead, or to make indeterminable compromises, is expecting the dummies to lead the ventriloquists. Systems, he says with spritely assertion, are only as corruptible as the people who inhabit them. Problem is, people are ruled by their own fear. Especially fear of the unknown. James includes himself as one of them. He wishes he wasn't.
He concludes that his long view might be different if, in the earlier part of his life, he could've simply "run blind". But of course, he didn't.
Let's be honest though: James isn't crazy.
Maybe he isn't crazy enough. Whatever he is, he's been rendered a casualty. And for whom, the question looms. That's just a matter of human perspective. The rest, we might infer from James's story, is a means of existence according to a personal baseline, or, living between occupy and occupation. What we might call The Zero Point.
What that looks like is perhaps the enrichment of anyone's imagination. To James, it sure beats living in a world of nefarious illusion.
And with that, a smile flits across his face, he turns toward the ocean, stamps out his cigarette, and bids me a pleasant evening with a gentle wave of the hand.
I find an unfamiliar calm in knowing I will likely never see him again, and in knowing I will certainly never forget our conversation.
Not in this lifetime at least.