Sympathy for the Van Man

It’s around 10 p.m. when we hear the sound. A clanking and crashing, the sound of metal on metal, and metal on something not metal. Then, a dull thud. Some muffled voices, a groan, followed by . . . someone breaking up trash to fit in a dumpster? Maybe detritus from the construction site across the street? But then there’s something else: a man hurrying down the sidewalk across the street, yelling back toward a beat-up blue VW van.

“If I ever see you again . . .” Or maybe, “Just wait, you’ll get worse.” The sound of someone sobbing.

I try to reconstruct what happened just before this moment, to pinpoint the minute the night shifted.

It starts with just us, Billy and me, sitting outside, enjoying the rare lovely heat of a summer night near the beach. No wind from storms on the ocean, no marine layer — so nice and warm, in fact, that we order our houseguest, Gary, outdoors too.

“You have to drink vodka and tonics with us,” I demand. “It’s the price of your beach lodgings.”

He obliges, and then a neighbor, Scott, walks by, and we invite him in through the crumbling wooden gate. The four of us sit, talking about — who remembers what? The conversation seems so long ago now. Something about the beauty of Humboldt County, where Scott has a house; about Alexander Humboldt, the German expeditioner whose name graces the U.S. map more than any other; about how old we were when we first heard Elvis. “On a cold and gray Chicago morn/another little baby child is born . . .”

Drunk couples amble by, giggling. Dogs bark. I sip my icy drink.

Then, the sound. Clanging metal. Sickening thud.

Before tonight, we called him “the van man.” He has lived across the street in that beat-up blue VW van as long as Billy can remember. Years, we don’t know how many. In the months I’ve lived here, he and I have never exchanged more than cautious looks. Once, I ventured a hello that was met with silence. He has long hair, a tan, a trimmed beard and spectacularly straight, square white teeth. On many afternoons, he plays solo acid rock on his electric guitar, which annoys Billy so much that he once brought headphones over to the van man, who belligerently refused them.

Over time, the van man became a point of contention between us. When I yelled at a reckless driver and Billy shamed me for it, I invoked the van man in my defense.

You’re bothered by an electric-guitar player who lives in a van,” I’d counter. “Reckless drivers are actually dangerous.”

But tonight, forget about the electric guitar.

“What was that sound?”

“Garbage, probably. I think it came from the other side of those bars, in the parking garage.”

“But I heard yelling.”

“Hey, hey, you guys?” The voice whimpers out of the darkness, weak and high. “Can you call 9-1-1?”

The van man stumbles into the street, long hair flowing, arms at his sides, palms facing out as if he is holding a body. Blood streams from his forehead and covers his legs. He seems to crumple under the weight of some invisible object.

Gary and Scott run toward him.

“What happened?”

“Some guy just beat me up with a shovel.”


“Because I wouldn’t move my bike.”

He gestures toward the familiar black bike with its high handlebars, locked to a construction fence a few yards away. Then he backs up and collapses against the wall of a building.

Billy runs inside and grabs the phone. Someone tells me to get paper towels. I come back with them and a glass of water. I hand them off to the bloodied man. I look inside the van and see a bong standing placidly on a small table under a tiny golden light, next to a little boom box playing some sort of ambient electronica. The bong is full, just ready to smoke. Worried the police will see drugs when they come, I quietly close the van door as flashing colored lights and sirens move up our narrow street.

Greg. His name is Greg. Well, not really. But that’s what I’ll call him here. I know his real name now.

Here’s what else I know that I didn’t before: Fire trucks, not police cars, show up when you report an assault. And the people who ride in them don’t care about bongs and drugs. One of the paramedics, a young blond guy, calmly puts on latex gloves and takes Greg’s blood pressure. The others ask questions. “Did you know the guy?” “What was the fight about?”

Greg covers his face with the paper towels and moans. Blood soaks through the towels. His hands tremble violently.

“Shock,” says Gary. “He’s going into shock.”

Greg reaches up and hands one of us an empty CD envelope covered with blood, and we pass it around gingerly, careful only to touch the white parts. A license-plate number is scrawled on it.

“What does this say to you?” asks the crew’s captain. “Is that one-A-D-one or one-A-D-I?” The captain is a good-looking fellow with an abundant head of brown hair and a matinee-idol jaw. He smiles broadly, not with joy but commiseration. “This is the seventh assault tonight!” he says, his eyes widening. “The seventh assault! It’s the heat. It’s all the homeless people they’re sending down here from Skid Row. It’s people just going crazy.”

The paramedics put Greg on a stretcher and take him away in an ambulance. The fire captain hangs around, scribbling in a notebook. He opens up the van door and takes it all in — the light, the boom box, the bong.

“Wow,” he says, smiling. “He keeps it nice in there. He’s even got a little TV.” Then he closes the door.

The next morning, I’m surprised to see Greg’s bike moved from the fence where he’d had it locked up last night. His van door is open and I hear music playing. Then he steps out and waves to me. His legs, which last night had gashes so deep I could see muscle in them, are bandaged up. When I get closer, I see that there are stitches in Greg’s forehead.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“I guess,” he says. “Thanks a lot for calling last night and for helping me.”

Billy comes out, and tells him we’re surprised to see him.

“Homeless people,” Greg says. “They don’t keep us in the hospital long.” He says he’s seen the guy who beat him up around the neighborhood but doesn’t know his name. He tells us the police came to see him in the emergency room.

“But they won’t do anything,” he says. “They never do anything for me. But if I do something wrong — bam! — they got me. Once I got 30 days for nothing. Nothing! I wasn’t even convicted.”

We stand there a little longer, in awkward silence. It’s already the longest conversation we’ve ever had. Then Greg asks us to wait a minute, and goes inside his van. He comes out with his blue electric guitar. It says “Squire” on the headstock, and it’s ruined. The strings are all broken and there are deep gouges in the wood on the body.

“This was all I had to protect me,” he says, holding his ax in front of him, like a shield, not looking at us. “Imagine if all those cuts would have gone into me?”

“You might have been dead,” I say.

“I would have been dead.”

He laughs and looks away, flashes those amazing teeth, ponders what it all means.

“This thing saved my life,” he says, laughing, jostling the instrument affectionately in his hands. “This guitar saved my life.”


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