That right there is your humble narrator on a trip to Magic Mountain in 1989 – the one in the baseball cap. Yes, I know I was sexy as fuck in High School – that’s why I was fighting the ladies off left and right to go hide in my room and listen to Iron Maiden records in the dark with a bottle of Jergen’s.
Late last night I was having a very deep and personal IM conversation with someone from my past – a person who has witnessed the metamorphosis of who and what I have become over a certain period of time in my life. One of the interesting things that I took away from this conversation, was that even back in the early part of this decade, I was already well on my way to becoming this thing that I am now – a man who doesn’t like to suffer my own foolishness for very long.
You see, back then, I had just got off the streets. I had been homeless for a patch there, and my ability to decipher who was or was not my “friend” was a little askew. After spending your nights rummaging around in fountains outside of churches to procure enough silver to drop into the Coinstar machine so that you could get some non-perishables to carry around in your beat-up Dickies satchel, your ability to see things for what they are is a little off.
Trust me on this one – I know.
While homeless, I spent a lot of my time hanging out outside of the coffee joint at a very rich and ritzy mall smack dab in the highest-income bracket Phoenix had to offer. They had this huge patio area that was perfect for me to loiter in. I would usually go in, buy myself a cup of coffee, and sit out there for hours, scribbling away in my little notebook/journal thing. I tried very hard not to bother anyone there – I just wanted to be around people who were going about their daily lives. I never begged anyone for change or any of that shit – wasn’t my style. Plus – asking people for help of any kind has never been something I have ever been any good at.
I wasn’t the type of cat to make my situation – my homelessness – my thing.
After a while, this weird phenomenon started to occur daily. The young kids – all in their late teens/early twenties – would just randomly come around and start talking to me. Some of them I knew peripherally, seeing them at this spot all the time, acting all foolish into the night like I used to at their age, hootin’ and hollerin’, making all the older folks uneasy and skittish. Some of them I’d noticed in different ways, observing them in the late afternoons, knocking out their classwork in silence at their tables, shoving their schoolwork into overstuffed bags and backpacks as soon as their peers arrived on the scene. Those were usually the girls – it seemed like they didn’t want the boys to know they gave a fuck about school, or even about their futures. So very Rydell High of them, I know.
Mind you – I am playing with time and space right now. This is not necessarily the chronological order of things as they actually played out. A lot of these kids were already sniffing around, back in the previous months when I was running around with Chongo and The Squirrel – before The Squirrel had her massive freak-out and Chongo was able to finally act as if an Agent of Karma, leaving me with nowhere to go but the streets. If you happen to be someone from this period of my life, and you’re reading this ramble and take offense at what I’m riffing on – that’s your problem – not mine. Go write your own shit.
These kids started to swarm me a bit, just pushing the envelope on personal space without any regard for etiquette, sitting down at whatever table I had occupied, pulling smokes out of my pack as if I, like them, had parental units funding my lifestyle. Far from the truth. I never had it like that even when I was a kid – I always had to work for my own shit. Regardless, I now found myself in a situation where I needed to draw lines in the sand with these little Trustafarians-in-the-making.
I started keeping all of my shit stowed away in my satchel, with the straps of the thing wrapped into the legs of whatever chair I was sitting in. I didn’t trust people very well – what with the never-ending array of shit that would invariably end up missing – smokes, lighters, pens, hell – once, one of these little fuckers even stole my bar of soap out of my bag when I left my satchel on the table. Who the fuck steals a homeless guy’s bar of soap? Was it a trophy of some sort?
I was trying really hard to find a job – but Phoenix was a tourism-driven Economy, and this was Post-9/11. Resorts were laying people off left and right. Restaurants were folding all over town. All of my contacts from that world wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole – who was going to hire someone without an address or a phone, let alone someone who had a history of abusing cocaine? I was using a friend of mine’s telephone number as a point of contact for potential employers, but nobody was calling him at all. People looked at me funny when I handed them a job application that had a PO Box as an address, even after I told them that was just where my mail went.
Everything was kind of closing in on me.
I certainly wasn’t going to call my family and ask them for help – that would have been stupid of me. I did, at one really desperate and panic-stricken point, call someone that owed me some money, only to have them tell me(I shit you not) – “I’m really kind of struggling myself right now, my job is only paying me $75k, and I’m still used to making more than that – wish I could help you, good luck bro!” To this day, I still cannot look that individual in the eye – and I probably never will.
I’m not sure how it finally played out, my memory of this particular snapshot being a bit hazy – either I called her, or an ex of mine did – but my grandmother ended up floating some cash so that I could get into a ratty, rent-by-the-week joint. I had been keeping my homelessness from my grandmother – still calling her every Sunday as if everything were okay for months, using coins I had collected from those church fountains, continuing the illusion that my life was “on track.” The ex deposited the check into her account, took out enough cash for me to put the money down to get into my spot, and then rationed the rest out to me for a little bit until I found a paying gig.
Funnily enough, I ended up getting hired on at the very same coffee spot that I had been spending all of my time at – the Manager of the place interviewed me maybe two days after I got off the street, and gave me a morning shift. Which, on my first day, I came close to blowing, as I did a very typical Sean-move and overslept. She was stern but fair with me, and truly ended up being one of my favorite people I have ever had the joy of working for/with.
Meanwhile, all of those rotten kids were still buzzing around me like vultures. Most of them begging me to glad-hand them free coffee, pastries, or whatever else they could get their spoiled hands on. I was just thankful to have a purpose other than wandering the streets aimlessly – a job that allowed me to feel like I was worth something again, even if it wasn’t where I had been before. Unfortunately, I still spent far too much of my time there at the spot, because heading back to my little rat-hole meant dealing with all of the crackheads and shady nature of a rent-by-the-week joint.
Some of the kids found out where I lived, after one of them had given me a ride home one night. Now possessing a cell phone again, my number started to circulate amongst them. Late night “Hey man, you got any weed?” calls starting coming in. Random people knocking on my door. Getting accosted in the laundry room by drunk Navajo bikers asking me if I knew where to get any methamphetamine. The odd sexual encounter with friends of co-workers.
Basically – life getting back to normal. Or at least Sean Normal.
I remember sitting in my place with the aforementioned friend. We had just returned from the coffee spot, and she was incredibly agitated about the way that some of these kids spoke to me, the way that I let them sometimes treat me. She was going off – talking about how they all had no idea how lucky they were that I even gave them the time of day, and about how I needed to start really thinking about closing my door to them a little bit more. About how they were all using me, as if I were some cool accessory they could show off – the older cat with all the tattoos and the wisdom the could milk off of him. The guy that had been through it. The guy who was too nice to tell them to fuck off, even when they deserved it.
I remember the next morning, waking up and thinking that my life needed to be more than all of this. I sat on my bed, watching the way the light caught my cigarette smoke in waves, floating up to the ceiling. I remember standing in the shower, hot water scalding me as I brushed my teeth, thinking about all of these people in my life – about how they were all a distraction from a much larger disease.
I had hardly ever in my life had any real friends.
It was mostly my own fault – I kept myself so guarded after my teen years. I had been betrayed – or so I thought – by so many different people. It felt as though every time I had ever trusted anyone enough to let them “in,” they were sinking a knife in between my ribs while shaking my hand or hugging me, talking shit about me behind my back or just flat-out demeaning me in their presence. Here I was – a grown man – lamenting for the loss of my High School sense of self? What the fuck was that all about?
Back in High School, I was the really smart kid who didn’t want anyone to know he was smart. I started getting high and hanging out with all the metal and punk kids my Freshman year – distancing myself from all of the other kids in the AP classes I had tested into. I was talking back to my teachers. I was ditching classes. I was running with kids who weren’t like me – most of them had no choice but to be who they were, as the system in place wasn’t going to lend a hand to them, wasn’t going to show them that they mattered in any way. To me, school really was a prison with bells. The High School I was going to was full of kids I had grown up with after moving to Phoenix. It was also full of a lot of kids who had prosperous families. Not all of them, but plenty of them, received cars for their sixteenth birthdays, being the exact opposite of me. Most of them were tooling around, having a great time in High School. I couldn’t say the same – not with me riding around on a beat-up skateboard, having grown men jumping out of cars to kick my “punk” ass, because people didn’t understand a kid with blue or purple hair back then. That High School was a nightmare for me. I could have run circles around everyone academically if I actually applied myself, but it was just so much easier to slip through the cracks in that place – to disappear into a cloud of smoke.
I just didn’t fit there.
I got asked to leave that school before the second semester of my Sophomore year had even started. During finals week. My mother was so disappointed in me – a kid who had scored a 1275 on the PSATs while having a 103 degree temperature – she didn’t know what to do, where to turn. I had to beg the Principal of the “Alternative” High School to let me go to school there, promising him I would get no lower than a B-average. Promising him I would have perfect attendance unless I was genuinely ill. No cutting classes. No bullshit. He made me not only sign a “contract” of sorts, but he made me pinky swear with him right in front of my mother. Dude didn’t play around.
I remember the first day I was allowed into classes there – I was fucking terrified. In my mind, all of these kids were refugees from Juvie, burgeoning hardened criminals. I wasn’t sure if I belonged there. I remember sitting in that first class and noticing that the other kids wouldn’t even look at me. I figured there was going to be some sort of hazing, some sort of rite of passage that I would have to endure and survive. It was English class, and the teacher handed out a Xeroxed copy of a Vonnegut short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” We went around the room, with the teacher calling on one terrible reader after another, kids reading words that didn’t appear, or words being mispronounced in ways that made my mind hurt.
Then the teacher called on me.
I sat there for a second or two, coming to a decision – I wasn’t going to try and keep acting like The Stoned Kid anymore. I was going to be me, irrespective of what anyone else wanted me to be. I didn’t care if I was friends with any of these people, not in this moment. I wasn’t going to hide who I was – I was just going to be Sean.
It took a while, and after many stops and starts, I started to make friends there. My Junior and Senior years at that school were great, other than my little trip to The Bughouse at seventeen, and the weird shit that happened upon my return that caused me to drop out for a little bit. After some prodding by my teachers and some friends, I went back to school, and finished up with my class. And I felt really good, like I had not only made my family proud – but also my teachers.
But I disappeared after that – drifting my way into some basic writing classes at the local Community College, since we didn’t have any money for me to go to a University. I hid out, away from almost everyone. Ditching the people I had grown close to, keeping myself somewhat separate, alienated. I was embarrassed on some level, the kid who was smart but couldn’t even get a grant to go to school because his parents made just enough to ruin his eligibility. After my father left us again – this time for the last time – I joined the Navy, completely cutting all ties to everyone I had been close with – most of them very puzzled as to why I would do such a thing, me being this overly-political kid with huge problems with our government and everything, and me not even giving anyone anything resembling a set of reasons for why I signed myself up.
After all of that – I still couldn’t maintain any friendships. I tried to rekindle some of them when I returned after my time in service, but most people weren’t warming to the idea, and I really couldn’t blame them at all – I was a terrible loud-mouthed prick at that point. I would run my mouth about all sorts of shit, pissing everyone off around me in less than ten seconds flat. After trying and trying to get people to trust me again – I just ditched everyone. It took me years to realize the mistakes I had made, to own my own bullshit and behavior.
I was pretty alone for a long time after that.
I remember deciding to walk to work that morning instead of taking the bus. I kept on thinking about all of the friends I’d had in my life – all of their faces sliding into my vision, some with a huge red X super-imposed like on a Game Show. Some of them looked warm and kind. Then my mind starting moving quickly into scenes that had baffled me – scenes of conflict and strife, scenes of gossip and bullshit, scenes of misunderstandings that would never be explained or unraveled – not with my propensity for running away from shit that made me vulnerable or uneasy.
Now I’m older, but not necessarily so much wiser. Sure, I’ve been able, at least over the last few years, to develop real friendships with people. And in this ridiculous age of The Internet, lots of faces from my past have sprung back into my view – some by my doing, some by theirs. And even though I’m still scattered a bit emotionally when it comes to the concept of friendship in the traditional sense of the word, I’m learning to pick and choose my spots a little more. Learning that not everything is easily explained away. Learning that even at the age I am now – I’m not always the best judge of character when it comes to friendship – and that’s okay. It’s okay, because I am a better friend to myself than I ever have been before. I’m honest with myself, and in my dealings with other people – especially with the people I hold close to me. I’m not going to allow myself the old and all-too-familiar refuge of hiding behind easily-built walls. I’m not going to run from genuine and justified confrontation in regard to my behavior or my reaction to the behavior of others – because that’s just bullshit.
Just know this: if I call you “friend,” it means something.