During my years in the construction business (1986-1988), I mixed with high-school dropouts, Vietnam veterans, alcoholics, drug addicts and men with big tattoos. Jesse had all these qualities. That man with the screaming eagle tattoo played a prominent part in my writing while I was at Sierra Community College from 1985-1988. I wrote the following for an English Composition class in the fall of 1986. I got an A- grade from a teacher who proudly proclaimed how tough he was on grading our first stories for the class. I think I got the only A grade in the class for that initial composition.
The teacher droned on. Would he ever quit? I shifted my attention from the blob at the front of the room and stared out a side window. My eyes lost focus in the spring sunshine and I imagined I could see Jesse.
Curly blond hair matted with sweat sat on top of his block head. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. Shirt off, his bronzed skin glowed in the sun. The outstretched talons of a screaming eagle tattoo reached across his back and dug into his broad shoulders. I laughed when I first saw the eagle, thinking I could hear it scream.
Jesse joined our landscaping crew at the bottom of his luck. He had earned eight dollars an hour with the paint crew but with us he’d make four.
I was Jesse’s foreman. Initially confused and uncomfortable with telling a man twenty years my senior what to do, I soon learned that when it came to digging a 20-foot ditch for PVC pipe, well, better he than I.
Jesse worked hard. Hunger does that to a man, and Jesse was very hungry. Our boss wouldn’t give him an advance to buy food. The boss had been ripped off too many times before. I, however, was young and naive. I lent Jesse $80.
I worked with Jesse for about a month and we had a lot of time to talk. Jesse said that he dropped out of high school to serve in ‘Nam. He didn’t like the war. The tight leathery skin on his face grew even more constricted when he talked about seeing his friends die.
Jesse had been a sniper and an excellent shot. He didn’t die. He wasn’t even physically hurt. War means kill or be killed, and Jesse killed.
“Several people,” Jesse said.
Jesse began drinking heavily in Vietnam and he took drugs. “Everyone did,” he said.
After the war he returned home to Pennsylvania. He bought a small farm, married, fathered two daughters, and worked as a pastry chef.
During the recession in the early 80s Jesse lost his job, then his farm and finally his wife in a divorce. Jesse moved to California – the land of opportunity.
Jesse worked construction and saved several hundred dollars which he sent to one of his daughters. “I thought I’d be OK,” said Jesse. “I had a good job.” Not for long, though. He moved on to another job as a painter. After several months, he lost that job also. He moved on to another one. Lost it and moved on.
In his latest job Jesse built fences around the Springview Apartments in Rocklin. Now he dug with us and lived in the woods.
“Woodstream?” I asked, referring to a moderately priced apartment complex in Rocklin.
“No,” said Jesse. “In the woods… In a tent across the railroad tracks from Pacific Street and just behind the Springview apartments.”
Ants had been a problem, said Jesse. They had gotten into his last loaf of bread. He’d eaten some of it but had had to throw most of it away. He had no money. Could I help him? I could.
For a man struggling to eat, Jesse smoked a lot. I never saw him when he wasn’t dragging on a cigarette. Often in the morning he looked bleary eyed and smelled of beer. At those times his shoulders hunched, and the eagle seemed to dig its claws deeper into his back. I learned later he was an alcoholic.
Despite his problems, Jesse worked hard. Looking out from his shiny blue Mercedes, a real estate titan was impressed. He asked me for an evaluation.
“Jesse is a top guy,” I said. “Salt of the earth. I recommend him highly.”
The rich man nodded and said he was going to hire Jesse.
“We’ll miss him,” I said.
We did miss Jesse, but not because he quit to take another job. He just didn’t show up for two days. The third day he did show up, reeking of alcohol. He wanted his check. He said his mother had died and he wanted to go back to Pennsylvania for the funeral.
“Not so fast,” I said. I took his check from the boss and drove Jesse to the bank. I cashed Jesse’s check for him and took out all he owed me. I then gave him the small amount left and he walked off.
The last I remember of Jesse was seeing the outlines of that eagle on his back. Its talons seemed to dig even more deeply than ever into his shoulders. I thought I could hear the eagle scream.
“You remember Jesse?” my boss asked me a couple of days later. “Yes,” I replied. “He’s in jail. Police got him for stealing a car. He tried to get back to Pennsylvania on the cheap.”
A commotion roused me from my reverie. Students leaving their desks headed out the door. Class over. I walked outside. The sun hit me in the eyes. I squinted and kept walking. My head filled with a picture of an eagle alighting on a man’s back and digging in its claws. I saw blood and I knew the eagle would never let go. I could hear it scream.
POSTSCRIPT: I talked about Jesse in my persuasion presentation for Speech class in the fall of 1987. I think most of the quotes in the following are accurate to my speech but the sex stuff was all made up in this 1988 write-up.
I jarred them out of their suburban complacency. Confused, edged forward on their seats, they listened to me berate them.
“That’s how you think of the homeless. As shit, as the excrement of society. If the homeless were human, we’d have obligations to them, wouldn’t we?
“I think that you’re more disturbed by my use of the S-word than by homelessness in America.
“I can still see Jesse walking into the hot afternoon, that screaming eagle digging into his back. So disfigured that he hardly looked human.
“He returned from fighting communism to get spat on. Talk about vicarious atonement. Talk about suffering for sins.
“Jesse suffered so that Americans could feel good about imposing their morality on ‘Nam. Talk about a suffering servant.
“I quote again from Isaiah. ‘He endured suffering and pain. No one would even look at him – we ignored him as if he were nothing. But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne. All the while we thought that his suffering was punishment sent by God. But because of our sins he was wounded.’
“Jesse was despised and rejected. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
“There are many Jesses out there. Many homeless men are Vietnam veterans. What have we done to help them?”
The blonde in the front row leaned forward. Her lips opened and she breathed rapidly. Her breasts trembled. I paused, stood on my tiptoes to look down her shirt, and then continued.
“Jesus said the poor would be with us always. I say that’s an excuse. Jesus was wrong. The poor do not have to be with us always. For the price of 20 Stealth bombers we could eliminate hunger in America. Let us build low-income housing, instead of MX missiles. Make homes not wars.
“But if you must make war, make war on poverty.
“What’s in it for you? How will it help you to reduce the number of homeless? What’s so wrong with a sink-or-swim society?
“This is what’s wrong. People who drown like Jesse, first thrash about in the water. They may take you down with them.
“It’s in our self-interest to love our homeless neighbors as ourselves.
“I close with a specific request.
“Tonight and every night, St. Vincents homeless shelter in downtown Sacramento needs volunteers. People to cook, to serve food, to arrange bedding, and perhaps most important of all, to listen. I know it’s in the downtown and I know it’s Catholic, but there are people out there tonight who need our help. I’m heading there right now. Will you join me?”
They would. They clapped loudly, took down the address I wrote on the board, shook my hand, climbed into their cars and drove away to do good. The blond lingered and I lingered with her. We decided against going to St. Vincents that night. Instead we went back to her place.