While in Florida for work, I had a few hours one evening to visit a nearby beach. If you’re visiting Florida’s west coast sometime soon and have never been to Indian Rocks Beach, I’d suggest going. It was very down to earth, no high rises or gaudy hotels. No strip malls. Lots of locals to talk with and few tourists.
I hit the beach with my sigg, a towel, and my camera and spent the first hour or so walking along the shore, picking up shells and letting the water cool my feet. After a while I started to observe the people around me. Mostly everyone was with family, small kids and friends. Lots of people were busy building sand castles and applying sunscreen and reading magazines under a large umbrella. There were a few men fishing and some wake boarding.
While walking back towards my towel I noticed for the second time a man who was alone. It was obvious to me that this man was enjoying himself. He had a mini radio softly playing classic rock hits and was bobbing his head to the tunes while laying stomach-side down on his towel, smiling at anyone who walked by. I had to pass him to get back to my towel and although now I can’t remember why, part of me hesitated. I figured it would be obvious if I walked out of my way to avoid him since had seen me sitting by my towel before and knew where I had to go.
As I walked timidly past I started to sing along with the song that had just started playing on his radio. To my surprise he quickly turned the song down and switched the channel while smiling up at me and declaring “Some of those ACDC songs just aren’t the best to blast when kids are around!” just as a small boy ran by us dragging the tail to a kite.
“I guess you’re right, but half the music they listen to these days isn’t any better- often worse” I replied. His smile grew wider as I followed with “Care if I take a seat?”.
I ended up staying for almost an hour and most of it was spent listening patiently as Rick eagerly spilled his life story to me. We discovered some connections we had- after receiving scholarships for basketball and football he had gone to Westmont, a liberal arts christian college like the one I attended and which I knew well since I played against them at the national tournament for women’s soccer. We talked about some time he spent in Buffalo, NY, debated who had better wings The Anchor Bar, or Duffs (I voted Anchor Bar since I lack in knowledge about their wings but know they have great pizza) and both shared of the times we had visited Niagara Falls.
He shared that he’s been through three marriages, a million dollar career as a real estate agent in Huntington, California, and although I didn’t learn how he eventually ended up on that beach that day, I finally inquired about his current state. He told me he was homeless. That he had come back to Florida after things got bad in California to be with his mother but she didn’t want him around. They had gotten in a fight and his eyes got angry and he grabbed my arm as he declared “She hit me on the head with her shower rod and then called the cops on me and they put me in prison for 3 months! I know i can’t go back there. So I’m here. I’ve spent the past 4 weeks trying to get a job but it’s been dry.”
His grasp softened on my arm and a look of defeat came over him.
“Where do you sleep?” I asked.
“Please don’t tell anyone because this is a great spot and I don’t want to be kicked out. You know that doctor’s office back on main street? They have a small bench in the back and I’ve been sleeping there. It’s hidden from the parking lot so cops can’t see me but there’s a light that stays on at night so I can see.”
When it was time for me to head back to my hotel and get ready for the work event I had to attend that evening, I hesitantly asked if I could take his photograph. I told him I wanted to remember him and his story. I half expected him to soberly glance my way when I lifted the camera to my eyes to shoot but he immediately struck a pose and gave me a warm smile.
He was a laughing and talking with me while I snapped a few quick shots.
“Wait- before you have to go let me show you something.”
Rick’s possessions were held in a torn plaid duffle- his most valued fitting in the small front pocket. He reached for the photographs with excitement.
“See? This is me when I was 9. Handsome devil, huh? I told you so.”
“And I wasn’t making that stuff up about being a football star- see? Look at my hair!”
He showed me a few more photographs before gingerly placing them back in the pocket.
I stood there knowing it was time to go but wanting to say something. I wanted to help this man. I wanted to assure him that everything would be ok, that his life would turn around, that someone would give him a home, that he would find a job, that something would happen to make all of this right. Emotions swelled in me as I looked into his eyes and stammered “Is there anything, anything I can do to help you?”
“You’ve already done something. You listened to me.” He said.
“But, I wish I could do something for you. I don’t have money to give you. I don’t live here so I don’t know how to help. I wish I could. ” I sputtered.
Rick’s striking blue eyes welled up with tears and he told me “Just know that I am trying. That I want things to get better. That I am doing the best that I can. Just trust me. I’m trying.” He noticed that I had started to tear up and patted my arm as he said “Oh, and remember my name. Put my face on a poster and make me famous.” His original smile reappeared as he shook my hand firmly.
While reading an article a few weeks ago about the death of Tyler Clementi and the other young men who committed suicide due to bullying and pranks, I was deeply moved at the author’s words:
“…because we may now finally be compelled to tell the truth about ourselves: that we are broken and beautiful at the same time, and that none of us is fully who we claim to be. We are stumbling pilgrims trying to figure out what it means to be human. And if I tell you the truth about me, then maybe you might feel safer to tell me the truth about you.”
I thought back to my interactions with Rick and his plea for me to believe that he’s trying. I realized that I’m trying too. Just like Rick and Tyler and this author and everyone else. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be human. We’re working through struggles and we’re all stumbling around as lost pilgrims. None of us has it figured out.
My hour spent on the beach with Rick was easily one of the most impacting times of my life. I realized how deeply bruised we all are but I was able to rejoice in the pure beauty of another human being. I was thankful that Rick was compelled to tell the truth about his life to me and that we were able to encourage one another. Ironically, my time spent with this man who has no home, friends, family, or means of provision was one of the deepest expressions of hope I’ve ever witnessed. And hope is something we desperately need to cling to today.