A Meandering Story About the Time I Was Homeless
Some years ago, I was headed into my West Village real estate office, worried about all the things a new business owner worries. Staff issues, overhead, clients, accounting were all weighing on my mind. Then, as I stepped off the F train at the West 4th station, I blindly walked into a strip of yellow tape while fiddling with my phone.
While blithely checking my emails, I nearly bumped into a transit worker. But, unfortunately, just beyond her lay the body of one of New York’s thousands of homeless individuals.
Growing up in the Bronx in the ’80s, you get to know a little about death. Whether it be gangs, police, drugs, or just plain bad luck, you learn the frailty of life pretty quickly. The difference, however, is that death typically has a name. Andre, Beamo, Ms. Heyward — the lives that passed before and around me all had context. They all had a story. But, on the other hand, the man who lay before me on a subway platform, covered in a dingy blanket (presumably his own), told no story and likely left no legacy.
My deepest fear lay before me as the mass of humanity rolled by: a life lived with no presumable impact on the world — no good works and no memorial. Yet, ironically, in the end, I have become the memorial of that man. His influence on me is still as real as anything. A stern reminder that life comes without warranty of defect nor guarantee of happiness.
Aristotle said we are what we repeatedly do. The truth is, we are what people know we repeatedly do.
Years later, I found myself on the PATH train shuttling from Newark to Lower Manhattan. It’s winter, and I’m newly homeless. The corporate gig I got after years of trying to find a decent-paying job fired me. My supervisor was one of those people who liked to micromanage while giving vague direction. Thanks to my severance and unemployment, I would have been okay, but the friends from whom I was renting a room got evicted.
I had never experienced an eviction firsthand. The humiliation of grabbing all your shit and laying it out on the street with no plan was some of the worst I have known. When everything you own is stretched out on a pissy sidewalk, you realize just how little you have; some books, a bed, some electronics, and my clothes were the sum of my worldly possessions.
It is the scariest form of vulnerability I have ever known.
Comedian Deon Cole has a bit that I think about often. He said you shouldn’t date a man with too many keys, and you shouldn’t date a man with no keys. The man with too many keys has a lot of responsibilities to manage. He doesn’t have time for a relationship. The man with no keys has nothing to bring to the table.
I was a man with no keys.
I was what I call fresh homeless. I slept on the train wearing a leather bomber with a lovely cable knit cardigan with another heavy sweater underneath, boots that were more fashion than function, all paired with matching wool gloves and scarf. I carried a two-thousand-dollar laptop, a thousand-dollar cellphone, and three-hundred-dollar headphones in my faux-military backpack. If I ever needed to beg for money, I wouldn’t have gotten a dime.
The only one on the train who knew I was homeless was the conductor who would walk the train when we reached the last stop on either end of the line. She was cute, beautiful actually. A Black woman, probably in her mid-thirties, her uniform looked like she got it made custom for her curves. She had the confidence of a woman who knew she looked good, had good credit, and didn’t need anybody for anything. I would be as embarrassed to see her as I was happy. She would smile at me as she walked by. It felt like she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It felt like she’s seen niggas like me before and knew that it would all work out in the end.
The faith of a mustard seed.
When morning came, I would take a bus to the town where my ex-wife and son lived. I’d go from café to café buying coffee so I would have someplace to sit until the library opened. I’d sit there filling out job applications and trying to sort out where to stay until it was time to see my son. I’d hang out with him until bedtime and then made my way back to the train.
The truth is that I had friends who would have taken me in. I stayed with them for some months after I moved out of my marital home. But pride and practicality made that an undesirable option. I couldn’t bear telling them I was in trouble again. Failing is hard. Telling people you failed is even worse. Even if I could manage to tell them what happened, they lived too far away from my son. I couldn’t stand only to see him a couple of days a month as I had before.
Some of my friends still don’t know that I was homeless.
I found a shelter just a couple of blocks from my son. They made an appointment to speak to a social worker. I explained my situation, showed that I was actively looking for work, and took a piss test. The next day I had a bed.
It was the best sleep I had in years.
The shelter was an old, large colonial chopped up into several smaller rooms. The first floor was the kitchen and common area. The second floor was for the women and the third floor for the men. The men’s floor was essentially a finished attic, so there were random slants in the ceiling that, if you didn’t pay attention, you could bump your head on.
As thankful as I was to have a bed, the shelter closed from seven in the morning until six in the evening. So I maintained my routine of going to the café before the library opened, except for Fridays. Every Friday, I went to the diner to have a proper breakfast. It was the one treat I allowed myself when my unemployment check cleared.
The shelter had a strict schedule. You had to be out by seven. If you weren’t back by 10, you would be locked out and risk having your bed given to someone else.
Holidays were the worst. The library was closed on holidays so there would be nowhere for me to go during the day. The first thing you learn being homeless is sitting down is expensive, especially when it’s cold or raining. One holiday I tracked my walk for the day. It snowed the day before, and the cold froze the snow into hard, jagged slates of ice. I walked 13 miles that day. I wandered, trying to be circuitous enough not to appear to be as aimless as I was.
Homelessness is one of the best exercise routines in existence.
I eventually got a gig driving for a senior daycare in town. It was one of those jobs where there was no interview. I found the listing on Craigslist, showed up, filled out some paperwork, and started driving octogenarians that same day. I call it an “If you’re willing” job. The job only paid eight bucks an hour, and I would have to give up my unemployment which was nearly double the money, but I figured the guy with a low-paying job stood a better chance of renting a room than a guy on unemployment. It was a gamble I had to take. I was already two weeks past the 90 days the shelter allowed folks to stay. The social worker lost track of my time. When she realized her mistake, she gave me two weeks to find a new spot.
The train was calling.
The job, despite the shitty pay, wasn’t all bad. For the first time in what felt like ages, I had a reason to get up in the morning. I found myself driving all over northern New Jersey, picking up and dropping off seniors. It also allowed me to run my own errands between trips. Most weeks, I could scrape up enough overtime to take my son to the diner with me.
I only had one genuinely awful day as a driver. It occurred a couple of months into my working at the center. It was on my afternoon route where I took a group of the seniors home. My last stop was a woman; we’ll call her Sarah, who, in addition to having dementia, had recently suffered a severe stroke. Her condition should have disqualified her from attending the day care. Unfortunately, we weren’t equipped to give her the care she needed. But I suspect that her daughter couldn’t afford to stay home with her or to have a home health aid.
So every day, I would help Sarah climb down from my van, and by help, I mean I basically carried her. Once off, I would put one forearm under each of her arms (I was deathly afraid of being accused of doing something inappropriate, so I avoided using my hands). And slowly walk her to her front door, where her daughter would take over.
The last day I took Sarah home was especially tough. She had declined to the point where it felt like I was assisting a body that once carried a soul. In my mind, if there was an afterlife, she was already there. Instead, I was transporting an empty vessel. It was the equivalent of the brief moment a lightbulb stays lit after you flip the switch off.
As I walked Sarah to the door, I felt something warm running down my leg. I knew what it was as distinctly as you do reading this. For Sarah’s sake, I had to manage my repulsion till I got to the door. I handed Sarah off to her daughter and left without saying a word. I drove home, showered, and changed clothes before returning to work. My supervisor was annoyed that it took me so long to get back until I told her what happened. She apologized and explained what I already knew. Joanne was there because there was no place for Sarah to be.
Sarah died a couple of days later. It was one of those deaths that brought as much relief as it did sadness. It made me think of my father, who worked diligently as the primary caretaker for his older sister, who had also suffered a debilitating stroke. I remember her living around the corner from him and us going back and forth to tend to her, including feeding and bathing. The latter he detested for obvious reasons, but he cared for her lovingly for years until she died. I remember feeling more happiness for him than sadness for my aunt, who, toward the end, also felt like an empty vessel.
I was running out of time at the shelter and didn’t have much in the way of prospects. I could scrounge enough money to rent a room somewhere, but I didn’t have any security deposits. I needed someone willing to roll the dice on me. I had been asking my co-workers to keep an ear out for any prospects.
The other hard lesson that you learn being homeless (or just poor) is that transportation is one of the most significant barriers to economic stability. I didn’t have a car, and public transportation in New Jersey is spotty at best. The lack of reliable transit meant I needed to live as close to the senior center as possible. I typically had to be to work at six in the morning. At which point much of New Jersey transit isn’t even running. If I lived in a place like New York City, I could live wherever I needed knowing that I could get anywhere in the city at any time. But America is so dependent on car ownership that many people in my position elect to live out of a car instead of finding a home because the car is the shortest path towards a better life.
Cynthia, one of the other drivers, told me she had a friend looking to rent a room in her house. It was about a mile and a half from the job, which for me was walkable. Plus, I would be in the same town as my son, so short of a room made of asbestos and lead, there was no way I wouldn’t take it.
Cynthia set up the meet.
The house was a typical one-family home. A long driveway leading to a cute little backyard with a deck and enough grass to play catch and have a small dog run around happily. Leslie, the owner, was a kind woman. A single mom of two college-aged boys, she needed to find a way to make ends meet. She let me in the side entrance of the house and led me down the stairs.
The room was small. Just big enough for a bed, a chair, and a television. The concrete floor was covered with old brown carpet that matched the wood paneling on the walls. I would soon discover that, technically, there were no walls. Behind the paneling, there were only studs, wiring, and insulation. The ceiling, which was low enough for me to touch easily, was foam squares set on a criss-cross aluminum frame. Outside of the room door was the laundry room which had a shower. It was an awkward setup because I would have to time my showers with when Leslie did her laundry. She took me upstairs and showed me the kitchen, which she said we could share.
She was leery of renting the room to a man. I assured her I was clean and quiet. I also explained that I was reasonably handy and would be happy to help with minor repairs and chores like mowing. She asked if I had any references. This was a bit of a problem.
I had done well not to let anyone know my situation. I didn’t want to tell anyone who didn’t already know that I was in such a rough situation. I thought for a moment and said, “What about my ex-wife? I have to be a decent guy if even my ex-wife will vouch for me.” She laughed and agreed. I called my ex and asked her to do me this favor.
I proudly told my social worker that I found a place and would be leaving. I asked my supervisor to borrow one of the vans to move my stuff into my new place.
For the first time in roughly five months, I would get to sleep in privacy on the bed I purchased before my life went haywire. For the first time in months, I would get to shower without another grown man banging on the bathroom door complaining about it being his turn. For the first time in months, I wouldn’t be shoved out the door in the early morning because the place I “lived” was closed. For the first time in months, I didn’t have to pack my valuable belongings and schlep them out of fear of one of my roommates stealing from me. For the first time in months, I didn’t have a curfew.
For the first time in months, I had a key.