The following originally appeared on another blog on April 7th of this year.
I walked out of the shelter and hefted my suitcase into the back seat of Bellissa’s truck. Together we rode towards Rudy’s.
“I have to ask you this,” Bellissa was saying. “Are you on any drugs?”
“Nicotine,” I replied.
“OK. So, nothing? Because if you need any kind of counseling, any kind of treatment, I’ve got hookups in that department too. I just want to make sure you’re taken care of in that regard too, if that’s the case.”
“No drugs, no nothing. Just me and my karma.”
We ordered our burgers and fish sandwiches (me the former, vegetarian-esque she the latter) and one Schaffer beer each. Bellissa paid. I was grateful. The Wednesday night Rudy’s crowd was a decent size. We talked about moving me into her spare room for awhile, and about what I can do for her in exchange and for how long it should go on. I would move a gigantic pile of sticks and branches from one part of her backyard to another. I would crush and destroy the bamboo-like weeds that had taken over one corner of the yard. I would put together her new entertainment center, install “grippy tape” on the front steps to reduce the chance of someone slipping, and help to unpack a room full of boxes and distribute their contents around the house where they belong. The latter is the only one I never got around to, because it turned out I was out of there and into my own place in a week.
Meanwhile, Bellissa drove me around, bought me lunches and dinners, introduced me to her friends and brothers and her basement roommate, talked with and counseled me about my options for the immediate and near future, and took my thousand thanks gracefully, eventually asking me to stop thanking her. I couldn’t help it. Although I was helping her out around the house, I still felt that yanking me out of the shelter and putting me up for a week was a true gift. She was, and continues to be, a true friend. We laughed, we hung out, we even drank and made merry one night around a bonfire in her backyard. The fire burned an invisible igloo of warmth in the still, cool air of the opening days of April as we sipped on Bud and nipped at a small bottle of Southern Comfort. I felt completely at ease in her presence, yet also oddly responsible and productive.
I continued the blog from her place and considered my plans. Ultimately the blog drew forth a number of Good Samaritans (much like paramedics to a crash site) who offered all measure of things helpful: money, jobs, housing, food and coffee outings for discussing life and its vicissitudes, kind sentiments and powerful words of encouragement. The blog also drew forth a some chastisement from old friends who I had wronged at one point and with whom I had not yet made amends. Even that was OK, as it just felt good to be reaching out and talking to everybody.
Two people expressed doubt that I had ever been homeless. I felt immensely complimented and encouraged to hear that I was just “a professional writer riding a trend” of homelessness and poverty in the literary and pop culture arenas.
Perhaps I never made myself sound desperate enough. Maybe my positive attitude in the face of hardship wasn’t typical. Certainly I was not living in the shelter for very long, but now wait just one minute, fellas. I have known poverty all my life. I grew up on Section 8 housing and welfare checks and grossly early Social Security benefits. When I was little, my mother and I usually had enough money left over for a Friday night donut date at the kitchen table. Silently, gratefully, and full of mischievous giggling, we slurped our half a donut each by candlelight. Dunked into milk sopping wet dripping. This was our treat for the week. I’m grateful for the donut memories.
Welcome to the story of my life: not having much, being resourceful, trying not to think like a poor person, being a chronic spendthrift when you get a few extra bucks in your pocket, only to find yourself broke in a few days and having to pawn something or ration the milk. Fine. Not so bad. Have you ever heard me complain?
Bellissa related the story of how she once asked a poor old man, Rawls, a jazz saxophone player, why he would spend $200 out of his $300 monthly government cheese on a handheld DVD player.
“When you’ve been poor your entire life,” explained Rawls, “you really are not interested in counting your pennies. If you get a little extra cash, you want to get something nice for yourself. You just want to feel normal, like other people.” And then you’re broke for days or weeks and you have to beg people for food. That’s thinking like a poor person. Again: welcome to my world.
One of the Good Samaritans who responded to my blog, Faith is her name, offered to put me up in an efficiency apartment in her house in exchange for 20-30 hours a week of work around the house. I could choose the jobs as I find things that need doing – raking, picking up trash, doing dishes, general cleaning, painting the unfinished woodwork around the window sills – what-have-you. It would also include feeding the stray cat, Squeak is his name, “because I want you to learn how to take care of something other than yourself,” Faith intoned in all seriousness. That sounded great, so I took the efficiency.
And that’s where I am now. I have a cozy little room – not too little, but little – enough room for walking loose figure eights, a writerly pace of pondering – with my own bathroom and kitchen. This is more than I could have ever hoped for, especially on a work exchange basis. The house is situated right off the New Haven Harbor, which is an inlet off the Long Island Sound, which is an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. I can open my side door and see saltwater. It comes in violently in big tumultuous waves when it rains all day, like it did three days ago, but when the weather is stiller sits patiently in the cold early April breeze, lapping the shore like a stray tabby cat to its stairway water dish.
Is this the place where I can write my Great American novel about how I am not Great at all, hardly even consider myself an American in the popular sense of the word? There is seclusion and solitude here; Faith, ever faithful, assures me the place is well protected by His divine love. I can write my life and my memories and my nows and forevers, and I can take a bus or walk an hour into town for a little social healing, a healing I need so badly.
But it’s the solitude I love. No sirens can be heard. No nighttime ambulances in a steady procession towards the Yale New Haven Medical Center, almost on top of which I lived when I was over at George and Howe, before I was evicted on sincere threat of violence.
No. This place is peace, here in my “kingdom by the sea”. So I’m grateful, I’m not homeless, and I’m ready to move forward in life. Tell me, please: Is that so boring?
Note: Some names were changed to avoid drama.