I was in the city limits of Las Vegas, living out the period of my life between that of a boy and a man. I was hitchhiking from town to town searching for a simple truth in this twisted, twisted world. Searching for the kind of wisdom a father might share with his son when he graduates from high school or leaves home to start his days as a man. My father died on my third birthday. He was killed by drunk driver while driving home from the grocery store. He was bringing the cake back to the house where I awaited him. So alas, I was left to discover that simple truth myself.
The closest thing I found was underneath that highway overpass going into the city of Las Vegas. I was burned and battered from the hot Nevada sun and I needed an inexpensive and easy place to rest. As I scrambled down the litter-encrusted slope to the cover of my vehicle speedway resort I noticed a smoky light peeking out from the concrete structure.
There appeared to be a vagrant making his home within society’s infrastructure. I stopped in my tracks as most people would. From my experiences as a hitchhiker so far I had learned various valuable insights about the unpredictability of bums. First off, one should know that a bum will almost always have some kind of weapon on them so you should always keep your distance unless you’re absolutely sure the vagrant wont stab you with a sharpened tooth brush or some god awful tool of destruction. Also, one should realize that vagrants are the most unpredictable people on the planet and most of the time should be avoided completely (not to be confused with hobos, who ride trains and are usually pretty nice people).
Although, it was on this night that I felt far too burned out to search for a safer refuge so I approached the vagrant slowly, not wanting to look like a threat or worse, a cop. The man looked up for a second and then back at his gas fueled fire and kindly shouted.
“Well, whaddya want then?”
I stopped; this man appeared to be sane. From what I could make out he still had all of his teeth which was a good sign, but there was a strange quality about this man. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“I just want a place to stay the night, that’s all.”
The man chuckled. “So do I son. A place to stay, maybe the Venetian suit at the Belagio Hotel heh.” The man looked back at his fire. “Listen I don’t give a shit if you stay here. I’ll be gone by tomorrow anyways.”
I set my bag down against one of the bridge’s pillars and took out half a sandwich I had purchased at a subway earlier.
“So,” The vagrant looked up from his inferno “what brings you to my humble home?”
“Well I….” I paused, the ridiculousness of my story seemed embarrassing to say to someone who has nothing.
“What? What is it? On the run from the cops? the mob? An ex girlfriend? Trust me kid I’ve heard it all, I doubt yours is something new”
“Well I suppose you could say that I’m doing some soul searching.”
The man chuckled, “soul searching, I should’ve known. Young guys like you are always lookin’ for something. I should know I was young too once… I think.” He spat into the flames and took a swig from his canteen.
“Shit,” he grumbled “there ain’t much to search for. Take it from me sonny boy, I know. I’ve been rich, poor, famous and hated and yet I always know that there’s just one thing that you gotta know.”
“And what might that be?” I asked skeptically.
“Always,” The man said sternly, “always, always, always…. have a source of liquor nearby.”
The bum laughed and empty and wheezing laugh. It was the kind of laugh a clown would laugh after reciting a bad pun, as if there was something sacred to his drunken buffoonery. I sighed, I had expected this.
The Vagrant noticed my disappointment and smiled.
“What?” he said with a yellow grin “were you expecting something a little more philosophical?”
“I suppose” I chuckled smugly
“Hmm, well son let me ask you something then.”
“What?” I prepared myself for another drunken notion which would dribble out of his mouth.
“Do you drink?”
“Yeah, I drink.”
“Why do you drink?”
“That’s a stupid question” I thought, but then I tried to answer his simple question and I couldn’t think of a reasonable answer.
“I suppose I enjoy the taste.”
The man laughed his empty wheezing laugh again. It was starting to bother me
“A real liquor aficionado this one is. Listen son your mother might believe that but I don’t buy it for one second, no sir I don’t. Sure you may enjoy the occasional glass of wine during dinner or maybe a beer after work, but no man truly enjoys the taste of liquor. At least not in the same way a man enjoys a glass of orange juice or else the entire world would be chalk full of alkies. No, you don’t drink for the taste, you drink for the drunkenness.”
I thought about it, the man was right. I did in fact drink for the inhibitions it provided. Perhaps not for the blurry eyed stumble but just for that reassuring feeling it gave me.
“Well I mean when you put it that way I guess you’re right, but so what?”
“So what?” the bum let you his wheezing symphony for a third time and now it was really getting on my nerves “You wanted to know that sacred (hiccup) truth right?”
“Listen old man,” I said sternly “I am really not in the mood for your drunken babblings, so I mean if you’re just fucking with me then I’ll just leave.”
“Whoa! cool it would ya? I’m not trying to fuck with you or anything. I’m not like most bums I have class.” I gave him a cold look “OK, well maybe not THAT much class but what I’m saying actually has a point, so just calm down would ya?”
I gathered myself, the long day in the heat had made me irritable “Listen, I’m sorry for freaking out; this whole argument just seems stupid to me.”
“Ahh bullshit; real life is stupid to begin with so all stupidity is unavoidable. You want a drink?”
I took the canteen and took a sip. Whatever kind of liquor it was it was strong. I coughed.
“Yeah there you go, drink up. Now what were we talking about again?”
“Right. So we’ve established that men essentially drink to get drunk. Now, why do men get drunk?”
“To forget” I said in between sips.
“Well yeah, to forget, give yourself confidence, piss off your wife, whatever. Basically to deal with all the day to day bullshit which would otherwise make us slowly go crazy. So we drink. We drink because we are men and we’re men because real life is stupid, correct?”
“Well what about women?”
“How the fuck should I know? Do I look like a woman?”
“Good point” I thought but there was still some uncertainty to his argument.
“What about the people who don’t drink?”
The man gave me a sly look as if he were expecting this response “I thought you’d never ask. Now we’re getting down to the core, the nitty gritty truth that you have been searching for. You see, all men have problems and any man who claims otherwise is a dirty fucking liar.” He spat, “I’ll say it again ALL men have problems and since all men have problems and for each of those problems there is a vice to counter balance the shit factor so for the purpose of this argument I used booze which is usually the vice. Some guys smoke weed, some guys shoot up, some guys get into fights, some guys meditate, but I mean most just drink.”
“I see, but I still don’t get the point.”
The vagrant just stared into the flames and solemnly said the phrase which I have told my kids and my kid’s kids.
He looked up from the flames and starred straight into my eyes “Know your vices. Understand your vices. Don’t let them control you or you’ll end up dead or worse, homeless.”
I sat down and repeated the phrase to myself. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had found that truth out the hard way. The rest of the night we talked until the late hours of the night only our conversations lit up the empty Nevada sprawl. I learned that he had once been a famous philosophy professor at some point until his drinking got the better of him.
“I soiled my good name.” he said “No point in being sober when I closed all of my doors of opportunity. Redemption only exists in the movies. the reality is that you’re only big once or never in life, after you’re only smaller by comparison.”
I finally fell asleep around three o clock in the morning. When I awoke I was alone. The vagrant had left with $50 from my wallet, a couple apples, and the name of a man I’ll never know. Leaving me only with his wisdom and his canteen which had been refilled.