The Sea and the Old Man

by Brian

“Before outside contact, New Guinean highlanders spent their entire lives within a few miles of their villages, and as far as we know, none had ever seen the sea, which was just 100 miles away. It seems likely the whole world was like this in prehistory.”

-Jared Diamond

I ask the old man if I can borrow his car to drive to the coast.

“No,” he says. But he will drive me.

The old man used to travel the world selling wine.

“Did you enjoy travel?” I ask him. “I’d like to travel more.”

“Don’t bother,” he says. “Most places are terrible.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to India.”

“The people shit in the streets in India.”

“What about China?”

“In China it’s just the children who shit in the streets. Did you know that in China they fertilize with human shit? Well let me tell you, you learn that the hard way.”

“I don’t really know anything about China.”

“There’s not much to know. 5,000 years of continuous civilization, my ass. It’s just peasants, billions and billions of peasants. That’s true of Asia in general—hell, of the world in general. Peasants doing peasant things, and their highfalutin ‘Great Pasts.’ Most countries’ best days are behind them, let me tell you. And I’m sure they’re not as great as they seem.”

The old man is getting excited, swaying a bit over the centerline.

Even the finest, sweetest wines turn to vinegar.

“We may not be the greatest country in the world, but we have the least shit buried under our streets. Not having a history is a wonderful thing. If anything makes us great, it’s that. Great Wall of China, my ass. Great Pyramids of Giza, my ballsack. Neither of them is better than a Costco, if you ask me. Bring a poor peasant Chinaman to Costco and ask him how great his precious wall is then.

“These old countries with their honor and their tradition. They’re like a bunch of old men sitting around reminiscing about their glory days. I traveled to 64 countries selling wine. I filled up 3 passports over 25 years. And you know what? I didn’t take one goddamned picture. Not a single one. Not one picture, one super 8, one goddamned shot glass or post card. What do I want that shit for? So I can sit around looking at it, crying into my beer thinking about ‘the good old days?’ Boy, if you believe one thing I tell you believe this: the good old days were never as good as we think they were.”

He is driving well over the centerline now.

“The one thing I kept for myself from those years was wine. I had bottles of the finest wines in the world that I stacked in a closet, saving them, waiting for them to hit their peak. You want to know what happened? Every single one of those bottles of wine spoiled. Useless. Let that be a lesson to you. Even the finest, sweetest wines turn to vinegar if you hold onto them too long.”

We come around a forested bend and the sea is visible, looking ancient and brooding. Bands of clouds roll in east over the coast. Waves above, waves below.

Remarkably similar, sky and sea. Between two skies at the sea, there is a sense of being outside of time, of forgetting. Soft, beautiful non-remembrance. Between two skies, at the sea, you are only half awake. The other half of you is lost in a dream.

We stop at a beach and walk north towards a lighthouse on a hill that flashes its shy smile. Beachcombers occasionally approach through the mist, bobbing like message-filled bottles, full of urgent news that goes unheard.

“Most of these people are my age,” the old man says. “Retired, probably. They’ve got all the time and money in the world to do whatever they want. And what do they do? Walk up and down the beach, staring at waves like blooming assholes. That’s how goddamned shit-for-brains you become! Your big thrill is taking a walk. They should stroll straight into the goddamned surf and get it over with!”

But it wasn’t just older people walking the beach, between two skies. There were younger couples, teenagers, families. None of us, it seemed, had anything better to do than walk up and down the beach.

A stiff breeze blows south, making our polyester jackets flap like sails. Far out on the water a lone freighter is visible, superimposed on the water. Seagulls wade out into the retreating waves looking for an easy meal.

We come upon a plaque commemorating the devastation of the great storm of 1973 that took out the town’s beachfront homes. In a show of defiance they’d all been rebuilt, further back and behind berms.

What mattered was forgetting.

“Stupid bastards. Ocean’s just gonna knock em down again, sure as the tide’s moving in. No use talking these people out of their paradise, though. You’d have better luck convincing the sea to give up its pearls.

“They say the older you get, the wiser you get. Let me tell you they’ve got it all wrong. Every year you get stupider and more cowardly. Life is too long—you know that? People used to die in their 40s. That seems more natural to me. Maybe if you only lived to your 40s you’d act with greater urgency. People act as though they’re going to live forever. They put their lives off and die as stupid old cowards, full of regrets.”

Turning away from the row of houses and looking at the sea it is possible to imagine one’s self in prehistory, or in post-history. Truly, there was no difference between the two.

A man could spend his entire life not seeing the sea, not even knowing it existed, or he could spend his life gazing upon it, not letting the sea out of his sight, fixed upon it, the idée fixe of the sea.

In the end, sea or no sea, it didn’t matter. What mattered was forgetting.

“Did you know there is a type of rare bird that nests here? This stretch of coast is the only place in the world where it does. If you own property here and the bird decides to nest, the state cordons the area off. I’ve heard of families not being able to use their own beach because of nesting birds.

“I knew a guy building a multi-million dollar home here. He established a successful eye clinic and sold it when he was in his 50s. Wanted to retire young and spend his time on the coast. During the land inspection the state found a nesting site and they pulled the permits, shut down the construction.

“You should have seen the look on the bastard’s face when he talked about it. Ah, there is some justice in this world after all.”