The first night I was on the streets I was pretty terrified. I had been able to coast by for the first little bit of almost-homelessness because friends of mine would offer up a couch or a section of floor. As soon as those offers ran out, that’s when shit got sideways for me. An ex-girlfriend of mine who was in the process of moving had allowed me to stay the last few days she had left on her lease in her vacant apartment. Those few days were spent in complete silence. Well — other than me laying around in a puddle of sweat on the floor, listening to the creaks and groans of the apartments surrounding it. Not to mention the middle of the night screaming and weirdness going on. She left me a couple of days worth of non-perishable goods and was kind enough to buy me a couple of packs of cigarettes.
I ran out of food and smokes pretty quickly. Probably the second night.
I remember being completely fucking ravenous and rummaging around in the dumpster behind the grocery store near the apartment at three in the morning. In one trash bag I found a goldmine of just expired yogurts that still had the chill of the refrigerators on them. I also found loaves of bread that had been baked in the bakery, some dented cans of pork and beans, and a couple of smashed cans of a coffee drink. There was also a Burger King in the parking lot, and the next night when I was just as starving as I was the night before, I waited until I saw the last of the employees leave and then popped open their dumpster and did the same disgusting thing. I found a few burgers that had been cooked but were still in their wrappers and took off my shirt, filling it with whatever edible remnants I could carry.
When I got back to the apartment, I emptied out my findings on the kitchen floor. I sat and opened up each burger, looking for creepy-crawly critters or anything that would give off tell-tale signs of food borne disasters waiting to happen to me. I remember crying when I took a bite out of one of the burgers, because it tasted so dry and felt awful in my mouth — like a mouthful of meat-flavored sand and grit. I really had no idea what the hell I was doing — most of my life up to this point I had somehow managed to take care of myself and my business enough to not be in this type of situation.
I must have been around five or six years old the first time I really saw a homeless person. I was with my mother, and we were headed from Bensonhurst into Manhattan to see my father at work. I remember walking with her, and seeing a man who was wearing ratty and torn clothing, shoeless and really disoriented-looking. He was standing just outside of the entrance to the subway, and was drinking out of a paper bag. This was in the mid 1970s, and New York City was definitely a much different place then. My mother wasn’t really good with dealing with shit that frightened/upset her, so I remember being led away pretty briskly by the hand.
Something inside of me, even in that fleeting and foggy moment, always knew that whatever that man was experiencing — I would know that place at some point in my life.
Like most red-blooded American teens, I had done the typical running-away-from-home shit that we all do at some point — basically camping out in a park for a night or two and then knocking on the door, tail tucked firmly between the legs. I remember an extremely heated argument with my mother when I pierced my ears that resulted in me going and staying with my friend and his father for a long weekend where we ended up going to a lake and doing fun shit I never did with my own family. Then when we got back, my friend and I went out for a few hours, came back, and then we caught his father in the back office with a street hooker.
One of my earliest memories ever is of me waking up in the darkest part of the morning before the rest of my family. I wandered around the house in my feetsie pajamas exploring everything in the dark. I even went down into the basement by myself. I couldn’t have been older than four or five, but I might be wrong — parts of the memory are really clear, and other parts are really kind of foggy. I do, however, remember being down in the basement and going through the cabinets underneath the bar that was down there. I picked up something that was in a purple velvet bag — it looked like some sort of treasure that I would find in one of my comic books or something. Inside of the velvet bag was a little bottle. I remember opening the bottle and smelling what was inside of it. It smelled hot to me, and the vapors that wafted up and into my nose had me curious, so I took a long drink from it. I still remember licking my burning lips afterward, and how my stomach felt like it was on fire.
That was probably the first drink.
After that I went back upstairs and looked in on my parents sleeping. They weren’t stirring — my father was snoring like a bear. I then went into the room I shared with my little sister and watched her sleeping for a minute. These moments, even when I think about them now — there is something about the way I observed everyone in those tiny moments, something that has never gone away, this curiosity that I have inside of me to see people when they do not know they are being seen — these moments alone in the house before the sunrise were the beginnings of the me I have turned out to be.
I remember quietly pulling myself up and onto the counter where the sink was, and then watching as the sky changed colors outside. From the darkest sky to a slow bruise to a low simmer to rays coming through the blinds. I waited until I couldn’t really sit on the counter anymore because it was starting to hurt, and then I went and got back into bed, falling fast asleep.
I still love the stillness and solitude of watching the sun rise. It might be my favorite part of the day.
The first girl I ever kissed was a friend of my sister’s, Suzanne Lewis. It was her birthday, and she cornered me and told me I wasn’t allowed to leave without giving her a birthday kiss.
I never saw her again, but I used to walk by her house all the time, wondering how many other boys at the party she did that to.
I think it was probably the second or third week I was using the bathroom at the Starbucks on 16th Street and Camelback as my personal shower/get-yourself-cleaned-the-fuck-on-up-so-nobody-knows-you’re-homeless center of operations when one the girls that worked there knocked on the door. It was maybe ten minutes after six in the morning.
“Hey — when you come out we need to talk to you, okay?”
I was stripped all the way down, scrubbing out my white t-shirt in the sink with a bar of Dr. Bronner’s while my socks and underwear were hanging off of the safety railing for the toilet, dripping onto the floor. I had already washed myself down and brushed my teeth and all of that. I figured that they would eventually get wise to my routine and ask me not to come back.
This was the routine I was doing to keep me from losing my mind: I would get there right as they opened, order a coffee with a bunch of change, and then go into the bathroom. Once inside, I would strip down, wash out my underwear, socks, and t-shirt — being sure to wring them out as best as I could before putting them into a large ziplock baggie to put into my satchel. I had the clothing I had washed the previous morning, and swapped them out. Then I would go back out into the Starbucks, grab my coffee from the girls and then go sit outside on the patio, drinking coffee and reading the paper while I rolled a bunch of cigarettes from the halfsies I pulled out of the sand ashtrays at all of the grocery stores in the neighborhood.
The moment I walked out of the bathroom, one of the girls was standing outside of the door, holding out an envelope toward me.
“We know that you’re homeless. We also know you probably won’t take anything for free from us, so we’ve been pooling our tips together for the last couple of days and want you to have this. Please take it — we can’t keep watching you roll all of those cigarettes.”
Not really knowing what to say, I just shook my head at her, smiled, and went about my regular routine. As I was sitting at the table rolling up all the smokes, the other girl came outside, put her hand on my shoulder, and then shoved the envelope in my satchel. The moment I started to make even the slightest sound of protest, she shot me a really awful look and said —
“Fuck you, man. You know what really sucks about this? We actually feel safe here in the mornings with you here now. Before? There were always these creepy fucking joggers and suits making gross eyes at us and shit. Take the fucking money and don’t be a dick about it.”
I quietly thanked her, and as she went back inside I couldn’t hold back the tears that were welling up as soon as I came out of the bathroom.
I was working at the Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor at the Paradise Valley Mall the first time anyone ever put a loaded gun to my head. It was a Friday night, and we had been pretty busy. I was making my last rounds through the restaurant while the other busboy/dishwasher was finishing up the last of the dishes so we could split. I was concentrating on finding all of the shit that kids typically threw on the floor underneath the booths, so the sounds I heard coming from the kitchen area were pretty garbled and didn’t register at first.
It totally registered when I looked up and saw the crazed-looking guy with the gun pointing at me while he had one of the waiters in a chokehold.
“ARE YOU FUCKING DEAF? GET YOUR ASS IN THE BACK OF THIS MOTHERFUCKER RIGHT NOW, BEFORE I FUCKING SHOOT YOU!”
He stood there at the double-doors leading into the kitchen and waited for me to walk by him until he followed, kicking me full-on in the ass and knocking me to the ground. This guy was out of his mind — he told everybody to lay down on the floor and not to look at him, all while he was screaming at the manager to open up the safe. I was sitting on an empty pickle bucket when he realized I was watching him and studying his face.
“MOTHERFUCKER — WHAT IS IT WITH YOU AND NOT LISTENING? I AM GOING TO SHOOT YOU IN THE FUCKING FACE. GET OFF THAT BUCKET ON YOUR BELLY ON THIS MOTHERFUCKING FLOOR, NOW!”
For a really brief second I actually thought I might be able to knock the gun out of his hand with a sheet pan or something, but then realized if I was wrong he was going to shoot at least a few people. As I was getting down onto my belly on the floor, he threw an empty glass jar that shattered on the ground right next to my face, some of the glass hitting one of the waitresses in the face.
“Asshole, stop fucking throwing shit — you cut her face, and you‘re scaring everyone.”
As soon as I said it, he leapt over the top of everyone who was laying on the floor between us, shoving the barrel of the gun into the back of my head so hard that my teeth crunched into the tile floor. I saw stars and heard nothing but a torrent of screaming and yelling about how fucking stupid I was for messing with him, and about how he “FEELS LIKE KILLING A WHITEBOY TONIGHT,” and about how I “JUST MIGHT BE THAT MOTHERFUCKING WHITEBOY.” Then he hit me across the top of my head with the gun, and I do not remember anything until I heard one of the waitresses screaming from outside the back door.
When the police came, I found out that after he hit me, he got the manager to open the safe, took the money, and then grabbed one of the waitresses to make sure nobody tried to stop him on his way out. When he got her outside, her took her engagement ring and her other jewelry, and then ran to a waiting car. The police had all of us separated throughout the dining room, but I could overhear everyone saying that I almost got everyone killed by acting like an asshole. The policeman that was asking me questions asked me to describe the guy as best as I could, since I was really the only person other than the now shell-shocked waitress who got a good look at his face.
“He was black. His eyes were black and glossy, like they were filled with gasoline. He was wearing a green baseball hat. The gun was black with a brown handle. He was wearing work boots. He smelled like alcohol.”
The other busboy/dishwasher looked the policeman dead in the eye, and then said “Sean is just being polite — he looked like a typical nigger high on PCP, that’s what he looked like.”
I watched the policeman’s face change when the other busboy/dishwasher said that. It was like seeing my father when he got angry. The policeman then asked us a few more questions, took down all of our information, and asked us if we would be available to pick the robber out of a line-up if the need ever came about.
Later on, I was sitting in Denny’s with the other busboy/dishwasher. We smoked a joint in his car, so we were pretty high, enjoying plates of fries with ranch dressing and bottomless coffees. I asked him why he said that, why he said what he did about the robber.
“I said it because it was the truth. And everyone is right — you could’ve gotten all of us killed.”
He was probably right, I wasn’t thinking about ramifications at that point. What nobody else noticed, was that the robber didn’t touch any of our tips that had been stuck to the order wheel on top of the counter at the ice cream bar. When everyone was still freaking out waiting for the police to show up, I went out front into the dining area to make sure nobody else was around. When I saw that money on that spinner, I just casually walked over and put it all into my pocket.
Fuck it — it’s not like anyone else got hit in the head.
When I ran out of couches to sleep on and people started backing away from me a bit, and after that period of time in the vacant apartment was through, I slept in a city park, Los Olivos Park, on 28th Street and Glenrosa. The park was pretty quiet most of the time — I think the first four or five nights I was there I didn’t see another stray at all, mostly drunks in cars coming to the park to make out or fool around. Every now and then I would see a crew of teens hanging out on the fringe areas of the park, passing bowls back and forth, which made me feel really nostalgic — my friends and I used to do the same shit.
Because it was Summer, the park would sometimes get irrigation — water flowing freely into the park, creating a grassy lake between small berms. I remember one night watching as the water slowly crept its way through the park, almost like time-lapse. I had scrounged up enough change from all of the church fountains to buy myself some granola bars, a bottle of red wine, a hunk of mozzarella and some dried pineapple, so I was enjoying my little feast at a picnic table while I watched everything become submerged. I kept the wine in a paper bag to not draw any attention to myself, and was scribbling in my notebook when a police car drove right through the water in the middle of the park to the bench I was sitting at.
“Please step away from the bench and get down on your stomach with your hands to your sides.”
The police hadn’t even left the car — this was the voice coming out of the speakers. I was already embarrassed enough as it was about being homeless, or a “vagrant,” so I felt really awful that this was happening. It was so loud. I was afraid that the people in the houses and apartments that lined the park had heard them, and I was going to get run out of the safest place I had been able to find for me to sleep.
I stepped back from the picnic table and got down into the grass. The water level was rising, so I was completely soaked. I felt scared and angry at the same time. One of the police officers, the male, came over and was shining his flashlight in my face. He asked me for identification, and I told him my wallet was in my back pocket. As he took it out, the female police officer came over and stood to the side of me, talking into her radio.
“You know this park closes at 10PM, right?”
“Why are you here, then?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go — I’m homeless.”
“You could go to a shelter.”
“Have you been to one lately? I don’t think so.”
Her partner called her over to the car and she told me not to move as she walked away. I could hear them talking quietly, and then I could hear them walking back toward me again, their boots sloshing in the water that I was craning my neck to keep out of my face. The male officer told me that I didn’t have any warrants, and then started asking me really personal questions about why I was homeless.
“Are you a drug addict?”
“I ran your Social — you’ve never been in jail. Wife kick you out?”
“Are you a Veteran?”
As soon as I said that, they changed the way they were dealing with me. They told me to get up and sit at the bench again, and actually the both of them sat down as well. I kept on hoping that neither one of them would be able to sniff out the tiny bits of marijuana I had in my satchel. I realized I had a dry shirt and socks in my bag, but wasn’t about to open it up and change in front of them. The female officer asked me if I had looked into the homeless shelter they had over at the VA Hospital, but again I told her I wasn’t going to go to a shelter — I was better off on my own.
“Well, you can’t stay here in this park. It’s either let us drive you to the VA, or you go to jail. You choose.”
In the car on the way to the VA, the female officer asked me if I had any family I could call, or if there was anyone they could call for me. I told them that I didn’t have any family anymore, and that anyone they would call would probably not know what to do — I had already slept on every couch available.
When they dropped me off at the VA, the female officer asked me again if there was anyone they could call. I just smiled at her, and politely thanked them for being kind enough to drive me to the shelter, and thanked them for not taking me to jail. They seemed pleased with themselves, like they had done something nice for someone, and I wanted them to know that I genuinely appreciated their concern.
I waited a good ten minutes after they drove away to start walking away from the VA.
Sometimes when I am staring off into space, I am not really staring off into space at all. The inside of my head is like my very own movie theater, full of recollections and faded Super-8 footage that spins around with no real purpose. I could be sitting at a table outside of a coffeehouse sipping on a latte, but in my head I might be on the beach in Pattaya, watching the way the sun reflects off of the Gulf of Thailand. I might be sitting on a crowded L Train with a book in my lap, but in my head I am crawling into some Oleander bushes to try and go to sleep during the hottest part of a Summer day in Phoenix. I could be waiting for the guy at the deli counter to take my order, but in my head I am standing in my parents’ walk-in closet, taking money out of the secret place they stashed it, so I could go buy a bag of pot.
I know a lot of people who tell me that my memory, or my ability to remember details of my life is something they wish they had. I’m not so sure if that’s what I would wish for if a genie popped out of a bottle in front of me. Sometimes it can drive you closer to the edge of what you would call sane. I think that my memory is why I tried to destroy myself with drugs and alcohol for so many years — to try and use the chemicals to blast myself free of the ghosts of who I used to be, of the things I had seen.
Now that I am clean, I embrace these memories. They make me who I am. I’m no longer afraid of who I have been, because without being that person, I would not be the person that I am right now.
I don’t know if this is how it works for anyone else.
I just know that this is how it works for me.