There’s a story I’ve intended to tell for years. I’ve tried to but lacked the words. Perhaps I was too close to it; perhaps I had to work through my feelings about it; perhaps I couldn’t see the virtue in doing so. I’m still not sure I do. But my instinct tells me that there’s something worthwhile to be gleaned from it, if only I can give it form.
Every experience in life is a chance to learn, but it’s the difficulties that teach us the most. I once met a very difficult person—not because he was oppressively irksome but because he was maddeningly complex. I wanted to like him. I did like him. But when I finally walked out the door, I never spoke to him again.
His name was Paul and he was subletting his furnished apartment. I met him over coffee at a Starbucks in 2011. He was a man in his 60’s, gray hair, pale blue eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses, and more tattoos than I can now recall. He was short but looked as though he was powerfully built in his day. I thought age had taken his strength, but it was rather health issues, which I was to learn more about.
I was immediately taken by his candidness and charisma. He gave me all his attention. He spoke with a lot of heart. After our short conversation I felt like I knew him. I trusted him.
I had just returned to L.A. after a year of travel. I didn’t know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. A furnished sublet afforded me exactly the non-commitment and flexibility I was seeking.
I took the apartment, in spite of a few reservations I hoped to work through. The first was easy: I asked Paul if he could stop smoking in the apartment, and he did. The second reservation seemed a simple matter at the time: he was still living there but insisted that within a month he would move out. I was patient. I gave him a month, after which he was still there, seemingly no closer to moving.
Paul had lived in that apartment for many years. I could understand the difficulty in moving; his entire life seemed to be in that neighborhood. But his story didn’t start there.
He was a talkative guy, and we conversed a lot. I wish I could now remember his story in all the detail he told it. Sadly, the best I can convey is but a shadow of his own telling. I hope the reader can forgive me.
I believe Paul grew up in the Northeast, but it may have been the Midwest. It wasn’t L.A., in any event. I didn’t hear much about his childhood, though I know it was hard. He voluntarily enlisted for the Vietnam War—lying about his age to do so—and it wasn’t patriotism that compelled him. A happy 17 year old wouldn’t have done that.
Nothing good came of it. He was exposed to Agent Orange, suffered from PTSD, and became an alcoholic. When he came home, he was spat on by his countrymen. Any wonder that his next stop was running drugs across the U.S. – Mexico border?
He was caught, of course. How much time he served, I don’t recall. But it wasn’t brief.
Paul didn’t talk much about prison. Why would he? Only one story comes to mind. I was watching a football game one Sunday and I asked if he wanted to join me. Paul said no, and explained: in prison, a friend of his changed the TV channel to watch a football game, and another inmate killed him because of it. Paul hadn’t watched football since.
With everything against him, somehow he turned it around. He joined AA and stopped drinking; he hadn’t had a drink in nearly two decades at the time that I knew him. He was an active member of his community. Paul especially liked helping young people. He would cook for them when they were hungry; he’d empty his own cupboards to do it. He was generous to a fault, giving more than he sensibly should have.
It’s strange that I can’t now recall what he did for employment (in 2011 he was retired). Maybe it wasn’t anything special. Maybe it was something I wasn’t supposed to know. I can only speak to his private life, and I can say it was filled with great kindness.
Paul was not well at this time. He had significant health problems as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange. He had regular surgeries scheduled with military doctors, often two or more a month. He was the only Angeleno I knew with a medical marijuana card for legitimate medical reasons. He was in great pain and he smoked a lot to ease it.
His friends were a regular fixture around the apartment, and almost without exception they were deadbeats. I couldn’t say which side of a major drug habit they were on—I saw no drugs at the apartment—but they weren’t right in a way I can’t describe. You had to look them in the eye to see the part of them that was broken.
They flocked to Paul, and it was obvious why: he was one of them, but unlike his friends he had pulled himself out of that pit. Paul was their rock, and they clung to him like shipwrecked sailors. While they were mostly harmless, one of these people—a middle-aged woman—I came into conflict with.
She had a key to the apartment (it was my understanding that she had nowhere else to go). So when there was a burglary in this always-locked apartment with bars on the windows, I wondered, and I suspected. When I confronted her—the very picture of innocence—she said she would talk to some of her neighborhood friends. Within the day, she returned with most of the stolen items in hand.
I suppose I’ll never know the truth to a certainty, but I know the truth in my gut: this jobless, homeless woman with a probable drug addiction stole and pawned select items from me hoping I wouldn’t notice. But I did, and I told Paul, and he kicked her out.
From then on, I took my valuables with me when I left the apartment.
This was shortly after Paul finally moved out. He claimed to have a home east of the city, in the mountains. I never saw it, and given what followed I wonder if he was telling the truth. But for a time he wasn’t there, and neither were his friends. I thought we had finally arrived—after some tribulations—at the arrangement we had made several months earlier.
That lasted for two months at most. Then one day there was a knock at the door—a man looking for Paul. This was the landlord, whom I was meeting for the first time. He said he was having trouble reaching Paul, who was delinquent on his rent.
The rent that I was paying Paul, he wasn’t passing on to the landlord.
Considering the situation, the landlord was very nice. I told him everything I knew. I told him I would talk to Paul and that hopefully this would be resolved. But that was wishful thinking, and I’d be talking with the landlord several times after that.
I started formulating an exit strategy. Clearly this was a bad situation that I needed to get out of. You may be wondering why I stayed as long as I did. I think my year abroad was a contributing factor: I had experienced many hardships in that year to which this one didn’t rank quite as high. Or perhaps it was the optimist in me, pressing on toward a happy resolution that I felt was just over the next hill. But I had to face reality. I couldn’t stay. I thought I’d just slip out at the end of month.
Then Paul came back, and his deadbeat friends with him—including the woman who stole from me. He made short stays in the previous months, when he was in town for another surgery, but he hadn’t been in the habit of bringing his friends. Now they were all back. I just knew this wasn’t a short stay.
His trademark candidness was gone. He was all evasion. For my part, I didn’t confront him. I was days from leaving, and I didn’t see the point. I knew he was a liar. He knew I knew he was a liar. What more was there to say?
But we did have a brief phone call before I left, during which something in him had softened. I could sense regret in his every word. I can’t remember our full conversation, but I can remember him telling me that he wished he had met a person like me earlier in his life. It tugs at my heartstrings to think about, though at the time my heart was stone.
That may have been the last time we spoke, but it wasn’t the last time I saw him.
It was early in the morning as I rolled my suitcase behind me. Everything else was already in the car. As I went through the living room, there was Paul on the couch. He was asleep, but deliriously so—tossing and turning, mumbling incoherently. A caregiver was there and had wrapped him in many blankets—too many for even the coldest L.A. day. I haven’t spent much time around serious illness but I knew looking at him that his health problems were coming to their inevitable conclusion. He was dying. Whether it was this thing or the next that took him, his days were numbered.
And I kept on walking. I walked out of the room, the apartment, and his life. Paul wasn’t conscious enough to notice. I never saw him again.
I held a grudge for some time after that. I often thought about those four months at Paul’s apartment. But in time I let it go. In time, I even came to forgive. In spite of all his faults and wrongdoings, it’s hard to hold a grudge against a man who is probably now dead.
Mostly, though, I wonder. I wonder what his intentions were. Did he intend from the outset to deceive me—to deceive his landlord—and pocket some needed money? Did he know he didn’t have long to live and did what he did because he’d escape the consequences? Or was it his intention, at the start, to play it straight—to properly sublet his apartment—and only later, when he became more ill, that he re-calibrated his plans?
How did he justify his actions to himself? How could he be so generous in all other facets of his life and yet see the righteousness in stiffing his landlord and cheating me?
I ponder, too, his last words with me. He had a good heart—I couldn’t deny it—but life had treated him cruelly and made him someone he wasn’t. He didn’t have many good people in his life. But what if he had? How different would his life have been if he’d just grown up in a happy household with loving parents? What if he had just one good friend?
I remember you, Paul. I remember the good and the bad. And I forgive you. I hope you found some peace before the end.