On clear mornings here at the beach I’m out on the balcony waiting, like every other early riser, for the sun to poke up out of the ocean. This morning I woke earlier than usual, while it was still dark except for a thin strand of pink beginning to stretch across the horizon. I made a quick trip outside, shivering in my summer nightgown, dancing around in my bare feet, leaning over our fourth floor balcony rail to check out where the waves were hitting the beach.
It was high tide–so high the waves covered the beach to within a few feet to our building steps. Between the darkness and the tide it would be a while before the shell seekers would be out, but off to the north, just past our building, I could make out a figure standing in the water. It was a man, fully clothed, dressed in black, and he stood firmly planted as the waves kept coming, splashing past his legs. His arms hung limp at his sides and even in the semi-darkness I could see that this was not the usual sunrise watcher.
On clear mornings the watchers sometimes line the beach waiting for the sun to appear on the horizon. Some of them bring chairs, some set up their cameras on tripods, some do Tai Chi. None of them stand in the chilly water fully clothed.
I was cold, my toes were freezing, I could smell the coffee and I needed it now, but I couldn’t turn away. What was he doing? He began to move. He walked deep into the waves, then back to the sand. Over and over. Through the binoculars I could see that sometimes he would stop and stretch his arms toward the water, palms up, as if to try and halt the sea. Sometimes he would shake his fist at the sky.
I could see that he was wearing heavy black shoes. I was convinced by then that he was going to commit suicide, and moments later he satisfied my worst fears by diving headfirst into a crashing wave. I held my breath, but he came up and ran–I mean ran–back onto the beach–far enough where I could no longer see him. I grabbed my cellphone and waited, ready to call 911, but he was gone. Thank God.
I got my coffee, put on a robe and went out to the balcony again. He was back. This time he was agitated and pacing back and forth, in and out of the water, but the waves had calmed, as they often do at sunrise, and somehow I knew he was safe, at least for this day.
The sun began to show itself and it must have been his cue to leave. He saluted toward the east, picked up his things and walked away.
I’ve witnessed before how the allure of oceans and beaches draws more than just tourists; it draws odd characters and lost souls–those people looking to ease their sorry lives in the kind of replenishing beauty only found where the waves meet the shore.
On Maui the down-and-out sometimes live in caves conveniently carved out by the sea. They come out to panhandle or to look for odd jobs but they pose no danger. In fact, they’re probably in more danger every day than the locals or the tourists. Still, the island police periodically route them out of their caves and send them off to find somewhere else to live. After a few days they move back into the caves. And a few days or weeks later the police get around to clearing them out again. There is no real reason for all that upheaval except that there are some fabulous resort hotels farther down along those beaches and they don’t want their patrons exposed to bums.
Here, where the tourist digs aren’t anywhere near fabulous but are still money-makers, the police drive their SUVs down the beach at night, shining powerful lights under the decks and into the rocks, looking for people so down on their luck they have nowhere else to sleep. They are people who are, for the most part, harmless, but the beaches aren’t for everyone, you see.
I don’t know anything about the man I saw this morning except that he was young and physically able, but hurting in a way that seemed desperate and near the edge. I don’t know where he lives or what he does, or if he was contemplating suicide, but I know a troubled soul when I see one. Even at sunrise on the beach on what promises to be a beautiful day, a troubled soul is visible from a great distance.