I used to see him every time I took the bike path in Hermosa Beach. If you took the path all the way to the end, you had to dismount and go up the stairs, so the goal was to stay on the path as long as possible, then take a right up one of the little walkways which would put you on the street. That way, you could keep pedaling.
The last possible point of departure was a walkway marked by a big hedge, and he was always there. It didn’t matter how early, and let me tell you, sometimes I made early look positively lie-abed. Five-thirty, six, it didn’t matter.
He was always there.
And he was always drunk.
Not a little drunk, not getting-warmed-up drunk, but drunk. He’d be standing, leaning actually, against the wall that separates the beach from the bike path, and he would be sauced, even though you knew he’d only been up for an hour or so.
His face was drunk ruddy, and his eyes were sad beyond belief. I’d always grin at him and say, “Morning,” and even though he never answered he always nodded this sad, dying nod.
“That dude,” I thought every single time, “is drinking himself to death.” And he was.
What were his demons? What made him so sad? What had he lost, so precious that he wanted to exit this world in a poisoned trance?
Maybe his wife of thirty years had left him, or maybe he’d lost his job, or maybe he was from the Midwest and had come here to drink and drown, to finish up his days on the golden shore. Whatever it was, my pal Rex, who often rode with me in the morning, thought it was something much worse than sad.
“That’s all fucked up,” Rex said on The Morning.
“Yeah,” I said. It was on The Morning that we made our habitual turn and the dying man was leaning on the wall, sauced, and he nodded to us, but next to him was a bike. A beach cruiser with a nasty patina of rust and of course a coozy holder. “Dude’s got a fuggin bike,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Rex. “It’s my old cruiser.”
“You know that dude?”
“No. But I talked to him one morning. He lives a few blocks away and he can barely make it on foot down to the strand. So I gave him the cruiser. Might as well make his last days easier.”
“What’s his story?”
“No clue. But he’s racing to the grave.”
One morning, about two weeks after The Morning, the guy was gone. A solid year of seeing him leaning against the wall, and I knew that the poison had taken its course. This is how life is. Relentless and without pity. I’d never even stopped to ask his name.
Later that year I was in Santa Monica, a long way to the north. I stopped in for breakfast at a cafe. My waiter handed me a menu. “Coffee?” he said with a smile.
He was an older guy, but smiling broadly, and I recognized him. It was Dying Dude. “Sure,” I said. When he came back to the table, I said, “Recognize me?”
“I used to see you every morning on the bike path down in Hermosa.”
He lit up. “Oh, yeah, I remember you. Your buddy is the guy who gave me the bike.”
“You were drinking some hard stuff, man. I don’t think I ever saw you sober.”
He laughed. “I came within a day or two of dying. That bike your friend gave me, it saved my life.”
“Yeah. I started riding it to the strand, and then one morning I just kept riding it, all the way to the end of the bike path, must have been twenty or thirty miles.”
“Yep. I was so exhausted and thrashed when I got to the end of the path that I just lay down for about six hours. Then I pedaled back to Hermosa. I haven’t had a drink since. Got a job at this cafe … commute every day on the bike path.”
He laughed. “No shit.”
I ate my breakfast and got ready to ride back home to PV. The old cruiser was locked to a parking meter out in front of the cafe. I nodded to it, and grinned.