"I'm One of the Good Guys!"

composed 8 November 1997


12:10 AM

As noted above right, I wrote this in 1997, a few nights after it happened. It's about an encounter I had in the San Francisco Tenderloin.

I never made a habit of being in the Tenderloin after dark (I worked there during the day, though - Century Theatres was still three months away from moving to the new headquarters in San Rafael).  However, at the time I was technically homeless myself. 

In preparation for the move of the corporate office, I was planning to move to the area - or over the bridge in the East Bay, anyway, that's where I was looking.  I had moved out of my old apartment in Daly City at the beginning of October - rents had just gone up an astronomical amount and I was not willing to pay it.  I figured this would give me incentive to find something quickly - hahahahaa! 

I had actually found something at this point (the apartment in Richmond near Hilltop Mall) but it would not be available for another two weeks.  I moved in to a bare apartment just before Thanksgiving and it was another couple of weeks before my furniture and other items would be delivered from storage.

So I was homeless for awhile.  I spent a couple of nights with a friend but another person was visiting from out of town and she ran out of room - and I think her roommates were uncomfortable, too.  I spent one night in a motel, but it was so unpleasant I never went back.

The rest of the six weeks was spent sleeping on the floor at the office.  I'd come back late in the evening (when everyone was gone) and got up early (before everyone came in).  So sleeping on the bare floor of my own apartment was a step up.    (I was still very happy when my stuff arrived out of storage.  A year or two later I got rid of all the second hand crap and bought new, real furniture for the place.  But I digress.)

Anyway, this is about a homeless person I met during that period.  It made an impression on me and the next night I wrote it all down.  I even distributed it with one of my letters in my book club (The Fellowship of the Speckled Axe).  I'd planned to rework it for my website, but thought I'd post the original version since I'm reading The Lower Depths and commenting elsewhere on my site.

“I’m one of the good guys!” he told me.  “Ain’t but 6% of us in the whole world.”

The other night I was stopped in the street by on of the denizens of this frightening area of San Francisco.  Got right up to me, telling me about the men he killed in Hanoi.

It began when he asked me for a cigarette.  I told him I on’t smoke and kept walking.  “I’m one of the good guys!” he said.  Breaking a cardinal rule for this district – especially at night – I stopped, thinking I’d inadvertently offended him, that he thought I was lying about the tobacco and just didn’t want to bother with him.

He was drunk, but that wasn’t the reason for his mental state.  He repeated his comments several times.

“I’m – I’m one of the good guys!  Ain’t but 6% of us in the world.  You can look everywhere and you won’t find but 6.  There’s only 6 percent.  In 6 years there’ll be 3%, in twelve years – we’ll all be gone.  It’s true!”

He had maneuvered himself into my path.  His eyes became clear for a bit, and they looked… crafty, for want of a better word.  Not clear, and certainly not calculating, but something seemed up.  This is when he told me he’d killed seven men outside of Hanoi, and got right up to me to say this.

Damn straight I was getting nervous.  He didn’t seem out of it anymore.  I wasn’t making any sudden moves, and I wasn’t turning my back to him.  It was early, not yet 8 PM, and people – people with homes or other destinations – were still passing quickly through.

So I listened, watching him, his eyes.  I don’t know if he was thinking about getting violent, but through the cloud, he calmed down, and instead of anger, eventually all that remained was pain.  Occasionally a wry smile.

He repeated himself, and would circle back to stories he’d just told me.  It all came back to “I’m one of the good guys.”  Eventually, I pieced this much of a story together, though I’ve no idea how much may be true and how much delusion.  Maybe all; maybe very little is fantasy.

He was in the ’Nam and one of his missions was freeing a dozen or more chopper pilots.  The enemy (according to his story) had “strung them up”.  They were being horrifically tortured.  (He’d wondered a time or two how anyone could do that to another person, but he never said more than “they were strung up” and he had to “cut them down”.

He says that Nixon presented him with the Medal of Honor, and asked him, specifically, “what the fuck were you thinking?”  His answer was just that someone had to get them.

He had two dogs.  I forget what he said they were, the breed.  But he used to run them everyday along a 3½-mile stretch of beach on the other side of San Francisco.  Seven miles total.  Everyday.  He raised them.  He said when his wife divorced him, the court gave her everything, including his precious dogs.  “It ain’t right!”  He practically cried every time he talked about the dogs.  “It ain’t right to take from a man what’s his!”  He said he hadn’t cared about the money, house and car, just the dogs.

He told me a story about George Bush that he’s heard, about how he’d gathered at the White House a group of men who’d saved his life in Korea.  (I don’t know if this story is true, either.)

He said he had a friend coming, flying out from New York.  A lawyer.  One of the pilots he rescued, coming to help him.  He was going to help him sue and get what’s owed him, some money.  His dogs were implied.  (I really doubt this part of the story.)

He said he’s dying.  He can feel it.  He has his own little corner on the sidewalk where he’s been staying recently.  Sometimes he seemed almost happy to talk about some of the stuff.

And at one point he said “I’m one of the good guys!”  And he pointed to himself as always.  His usual litany broke here and he said to me “You’re one of the good guys too, I can tell.”  Then his usual script ran again.

This is all very linear, but it was in fragments, out of order, and sections repeated many times before I got all of this.  I did begin to maneuver myself around him.  He smoked a rumpled cigarette.  He bummed (I hesitated to write that word) a cigarette from another passerby.  Finally, after half an hour or so, I had told him that I needed to be somewhere.  (Actually, I just wanted to get to the office and my pocket TV to watch Friends – at least, that had been my destination before I encountered him.)

He decided to walk with me.  We stopped now and then.  When I finally completed the two-block journey, he kept walking as I entered the building; even though he’d left his stuff, he kept walking down the street.

He mentioned a little more, but that was the gist of it.

As I said, I have no idea how much of it actually happened to him – but that’s his story, that’s his life.

No – there was one other thing.  Though his Bush story was set in Korea, it would have to be WWII, of course.  But he told me about his mom.  When he was in Vietnam, his mother was dying.  Reluctantly, the marines let him go.  (Special Forces.)  (I didn’t ask to see a tattoo.)  He took care of her and was there for her when she went.  I told him I understood, since I lost my mother last year.  He was always asking “Do you know what I mean?” in earnest, so on this point – and a few others – I answered.)

But he told me his father came back from Korea in rough shape (practically hamburger to hear him tell it).  His mother stayed by his side and nursed him, took care of him.  One day his father told him “Neither one of us would be here if she hadn’t taken care of me.  The best thing I ever did as a man was to marry her.”

And then he would cycle back to the dogs and his ex-wife.

It began scary but became a heart-wrenching encounter.

I hope I never forget it.