The Man with the Coconut

“Which branch are you from?” he asks. “Excuse me?” I say, surprised by the interruption. He clarifies: “Which branch of Al Qaeda?”

It’s 10:30pm and I’m sitting in a cafe in Ocean Beach, the neighbourhood nestled between the better known Santa Monica and Venice Beach areas of Los Angeles. I’m ostensibly there for the wifi (my AirBnB apartment’s internet is of dialup-era quality), but the bandwidth here isn’t much better, so I opt to tether instead. The cafe’s vibe is studious, there are power points aplenty, and they’re open late - so while I’m in town it’s become my go-to option to catch up on work and emails after dinner.

But I’ve been interrupted by someone sipping on a coconut, with an odd joke on Al Qaeda (something along the lines of: none of us in the cafe know each other, so we must all be from different branches). Venice Beach is certainly known for weird characters, but this is something a little different.

He doesn’t offer his name, but proceeds to share his take on healthcare systems (American, Australian and Canadian), presidential candidates (Republicans and Democrats are just two separate wings of the one party, he quips), fracking, web development and the advertising industry.

My opinions are sought on these topics at various points, but they are brief interludes in-between his own flowing thoughts. He’s well dressed, clearly intelligent, but also a little enigmatic. When I mention I’m from Melbourne, he asks where that is in relation to Canberra (of all places!). He appears quite knowledgeable, offering facts (a junior manager from a private health insurance company allegedly wrote the bulk of the Obamacare legislation) and figures (95% of Australian health expenditure is for the public health system, apparently) - all the while, assured enough to make me think he knows what he’s talking about.

References to my client projects become references to our client projects. He deliberately translated math (American) to maths (Australian & British) when talking about studying web development - but again, is he riffing on my life, or did he actually do a computer science degree as well? He speaks of attending a fracking industry event earlier this evening, and a Bernie Sanders rally a week or so previous, but avoids a gentle question or two of my own on what he does for a living.

Perhaps he works in the public service, or in politics. Maybe he’s in the health industry - he certainly seems to know a lot about it. I’m curious, but the flow of the conversation makes it clear I’m not going to get any answers on such personal topics.

After 40 minutes or so, I pack my laptop up, and wrap up our conversation. Polite and unfazed, he thanks me for the chat and asks if I can get the US health system looking more like the Australian system before I leave the country. Then he picks up his coconut and wanders further around the cafe, perhaps looking for someone else to converse with.