I got someone sent to prison this week. When all was said and done, I felt really sad about it. That night I cried for the young man, who looked like he could be 15 (he was 20).
I had seen him prowling in my backyard earlier in the day. I called the police, and they caught up with him a few blocks away. We've been having problems with break-ins and squatters in the neighborhood, and I really just wanted the kid to know that my block don't play, and that the next time he felt like casing houses he could just choose another street, bucko.
The cops made me identify him, pulling the guy out of a car several feet away and holding him there like a debauched marionette. I couldn't quite identify him exactly, so I asked the police to pick his shirt up so I could see his underwear — if it was him, there'd be a big yellow stripe on those boxers. There was. The whole thing had to be humiliating for the kid, and I felt a fast pang of sadness. "I feel sorry for him," I said to the well-scrubbed, white cop.
"Yeah, when I first started I felt sorry for people, too," he said. "But now I know it's a choice." He said they were going to book him for trespassing, a misdemeanor. I reluctantly said OK.
Later, when I had to go out for Bouncer, I had a strange mixture of thankfulness (yes, some people's problems are way worse than mine) and guilt. I am also always intrigued by fate, and the trajectory that some lives take, or are forced to take, or — as the cop suggested — the directions that are perhaps chosen by people. I had to chew on that last one. The trespassing kid was messed up. Was he even born with a chance to make the right choices? Or was he doomed at the gate?
I went to Jack's in Potrero Hill, a nondescript dive with a surprising lack of signage, doodads, or cutout beer chick stand-ups. A simple wooden decorative arch curves over the bar with a modernist ring pattern and two stuffed animals in the center, some sort of quasi-taxidermic homage to Japanese pop art. In the back is a pool table. The clientele is Latino, local, and working class. Here's what I liked about the place immediately: On one TV they were playing Sanford & Son, on the other, The Planet of the Apes. That's right people, no sports.
I went with my new roommate Ed, his love interest Bonnie, and their friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a well-built, stocky dude with a tattoo down his right arm that said "Unity."
"Skinhead?" I asked Jeremiah, looking at his ink. He said that he used to be a lot more involved in the movement, albeit as a nonviolent, peacenik type of skin, and that he and his friends even got the racist skins kicked out of Venice Beach. He added that the worst of member of that Venice group was a black guy who was a white supremacist.
Okay, let's talk about fate. What the hell path leads a black man to become a white supremacist? I wanted to find this guy and interrogate him. (Jeremiah said that he had been murdered. So much for that.)
In five minutes we went from discussing Jeremiah's life as a squatter skin in Venice Beach to his teenage years as a born-again Christian to whether or not God exists and if people have souls.
"21 grams," he said, referring to the idea that when people die, a mystery 21 grams of something gets subtracted from their weight and they are suddenly lighter. Some people think these 21 grams are the soul leaving the body.
Fred Sanford was clutching his chest on the TV, staggering in a mock heart attack.
I told Jeremiah that I am an atheist. He is no longer a super Christian, but he still believes in a deity. I asked about fate, and free will. Do we have choices in life?
"Of course," he said, finishing off his beer. He said that a deity that allows for people to make mistakes, sin, and choose their own paths actually has more omniscience than one that guides everyone and maps everything out. This was sort of deep and I still need to think about it. In short, I have no idea what he was talking about.
Here's what it came down to with me, the cop, and the perp (to use a CSI term). I can see what the policeman was saying about a choice. I wasn't so much sad because I thought that the kid was getting busted unfairly. I was sad that he had lived a life that led him to be so desperate as to case houses at the age of 20. He had a baby face, he was tiny. Maybe he was only operating on 18 grams. Maybe he had long since died and was going through the motions.
Jeremiah said he knows that there is such a thing as a soul, because he has seen someone's eyes at the moment of death. He saw his grandfather die with a soft smile on his face, and he saw the 21 grams sail out of him.
I wanted to ask Jeremiah how he ended up a homeless squatter in Venice Beach after being an evangelical, but I wasn't sure how to pose the question.
"What the hell are you two talking about?" asked Ed, who had been patiently drinking Miller and chatting with Bonnie about which was better — staring off into space, or reading a book?
Jeremiah and I were actually pretty relieved to be interrupted, because we were reaching full-profundity brain saturation.
We quickly changed topics to the skate park down the street and then called it a night.
The cop eventually came by my house and had me sign some forms. I was shocked to see that the kid was being charged with a felony. Apparently he was on probation for trespassing, had a few warrants for other things, and, to quote the cop, "had other issues."
"He's going away for a long time," the policeman said proudly. I had a knot in my stomach.
"I can't help but feel bad for him," I said again.
"Don't," said the cop bluntly, a little exasperated. "We all make choices in life."
Then he gave me a copy of the paperwork, shook my hand, and drove away.