I was homeless, once. For six months. I was 24 years old.
I will understand if that statement causes you to have a particular image of me. I think most of us create a picture of what we perceive a homeless person to be; perhaps someone who is lazy, or simply chooses not to work or be productive. Perhaps you imagine frail, dispossessed bums sleeping under plastic bags in subways and doorways. Perhaps you imagine beggars who reach out a shaky hand for coins, or the insane screaming out profanities while searching through dumpsters. I suppose those are the obvious images. But I promise you that there are homeless who walk among us we would never recognize.
I was one of those. I thought of myself as homeless in panty hose.
I left my husband in the middle of the night. The truth had finally come out that I had fallen in love with another man, and my new relationship was controversial to say the least. Hardly anyone approved, and I was seemingly ostracized over night. It had been an exhausting weekend; my new lover and I met with parents, siblings and friends who screamed, shouted and cried about our choices, begging us to come to our senses. But there was no going back for either of us; we were in love.
This emotional spectacle culminated Sunday night when I went home to tell my husband. It was a draining marathon of heartache and arguing, and I was so exhausted from emotional stress that I wanted nothing more than to get into my marital bed and fall asleep. It was about midnight; I had come in earlier and awoke him to tell him my news. After hours of tears, my husband was still in our bed, covering his face with his hands. As much as I wanted to suggest that we continue the discussion in the morning, I knew that it would be cruel to prolong his agony. I opened the closet and pulled down a suitcase, hurriedly stuffed it with clothes and toiletries, zipped it shut, then softly said “Goodbye.” I wanted to tell him that I loved him and that none of it was his fault, but the words never came. I waited for a moment to see if he’d respond, but the room was quiet. I walked out the front door and never looked back.
I used a joint credit card to fill my tank with gas as I sped away from town. It was the last money I would use of the funds I shared with my husband; I left with only my clothes and nothing else. I never fought for 50% of our assets, and I signed off on property that we mutually owned. That night after I filled my gas tank, I cut all of our credit cards in two. Then I put my key in the ignition, and when the engine came to life, I felt I had sprouted wings, and that I was flying to freedom. I had no idea where I was going. But soon I had turned up the radio loud, and I was singing.
The future was unknown, and I was excited to begin a new life. The only problem was, I had nowhere to sleep and I had to be at work by 8:00 a.m. And I had no watch.
That first night of homelessness is as clear to me as any other memory of my life. I parked my car at a rest stop at the beach, and then sat for a long time on a chilly precipice, staring out over the ocean highlighted by a blue tinged moon. I had no idea the time, but I knew it was very late. If I wasn’t so exhausted that first night, I don’t think I would have ever fallen asleep. But I climbed into the backseat of my car, rolled some clothes into a ball to serve as a pillow, and covering myself with a jacket, I soon fell asleep.
When I awoke, it was daylight. I jumped out of the car and started going through my suitcase, hurriedly looking for my work clothes. Soon I was sitting on a rock; the sand blowing in my face, and the ocean crashing loudly beside me. It was cold and the wind was whipping through my hair. But I laughed as I realized what a comic sight I was. I was struggling to put on my panty hose; one foot at a time, and trying not to rip them as I stood on the rough terrain of the cliff.
In those days I wore skirts, hose and heels to work; it was what was considered to be appropriate business attire. I detested panty hose with a passion, and the heels would make my feet ache by the end of every day. But on this morning, it was more disturbing than usual, I remember, trying to crawl into them on the beach. I was homeless in panty hose.
I turned on my car engine and the radio, praying that they would announce the time so I had some idea as I slipped into a business suit. It was later than I had thought.
Needless to say, I was late for work that morning, as well as other mornings thereafter. The ironic thing was I had always been exceptionally prompt; but waking up in a car without a time piece made arriving at work on time somewhat difficult. When my boss called me in to his office to complain about my tardiness, I spat back that I was homeless and living on the beach. He was a lot more lenient after that. It was my first accounting job, and I worked in the Accounts Payable department. Earnings were meager, but I was saving every available penny I could toward first and last month’s rent for an apartment of my own.
Well, not every penny. I made a very important allowance. On weekends, I would meet my new lover at hotels. It was a big expenditure, but a necessary one, as it was the only time I was able to shower. It was also a reprieve from my every day existence, which was more than surreal. For two days I would have love, luxury and soap, and for that brief time I could distance myself from my cruel reality. But Monday morning would come too soon, and my new boyfriend would return to his family home, where he still lived with his parents. I would go off to work, and once again become the lonely waif sleeping in the salt air by night, and working at a job I despised by day.
My dinner routine was the same most evenings. Down the street from my office was an upscale bar and restaurant. They featured a fabulous happy hour, which featured a complete spread of delicious appetizers. I would order water with lime with a straw; so no one ever suspected I was eating for free. I realized that looking well dressed and coifed offered me many advantages that other homeless people did not have. And I took advantage of it whenever I could.
But that wasn’t the only way I got food. I remember one painful night when I spotted a group of patrons leaving a pizza parlor with nearly a half of a pie left on the table. I watched them through the open door of the restaurant, still certain that they would end up packing up the pie and taking it home, but they all got up from the table and just left it there. I wanted that pizza so badly; I think I could have done nearly anything to have a slice of it. I was literally salivating at the thought of a hot meal. It was a moment of truth; I knew I wouldn’t have long to take it before the waitress cleared the table; but doing what I was contemplating doing was mortifying. At the last possible moment I dashed in and scooped up as much pizza as I could in a napkin, and skulked out the door like a thief in the night. I disappeared into an alleyway to eat my score; and it was so hot and delicious I couldn’t eat it fast enough. At that moment I didn’t feel that different from the homeless that search the dumpsters. The only difference is that I had a camouflage, and could sneak into an establishment without raising an eyebrow. I think that was my first real lesson in compassion.
Although most of my family and friends had washed their hands of me and my choices during that period, I had a few friends that stepped up whenever they could. My best friend at the time was planning on going to Europe for a month and offered me her room in her flat in San Francisco. She lived with two roommates I had never met; both gay psychiatrists. It was a difficult decision for me, because she didn’t offer me her room for free; I would have to pay her share of the rent for that month, which would delay my saving up money for own apartment, which was a priority. But I was so desperate to have a bed, shower, and a kitchen, that I took her up on her offer.
The first night that I arrived, I was shown to my room by my new roommates. Being that they were both psychiatrists, I was excited to meet them; and I also felt it might be soothing to be in the bosom of trained professionals who would understand my stress, and maybe even help me. But I was wrong. “We know what is happening in your life, and frankly we don’t approve. So we know Sheila is your friend, and you’ll be here a month, but we want to see the least of you as possible. Tonight we’re having a party, and we don’t want you to come out of your room. So if you need to buy something for dinner, we suggest you buy it now. There’s a market across the street.” Their words stung me to my core.
“Is there a television I could borrow for the evening then?” I asked. I thought a television might make it somewhat tolerable. I felt on the verge of tears.
“No,” was all they said, and with that they turned a very effeminate heel toward the door. That evening was painful, as I sat on the bed trying to read some silly magazine I found in her room, with the sounds of frivolity right outside my door. I was starving and didn’t have fifty cents in my pocket. I wondered what delicious appetizers might be displayed in the next room. I would have loved nothing more than to have a cocktail and mingle with people and laugh and forget. But it wasn’t to be.
The first two weeks in that house were a nightmare. But it all changed the day my biological father called me there. He asked me what my address was, and after I gave it to him, he informed he was coming over to kill me.
I suppose on most levels, I knew he wasn’t going to kill me. He was a passionate Sicilian after all, and he was angry with me. But I still didn’t know him very well at that point, and there was a modicum of doubt that crept in my psyche. I burst into tears.
The two doctors overheard me, and for some unknown reason, they were suddenly gushing with empathy. They sat on either side of me on my temporary bed, and flung their arms around me; and they told me it would be okay. They urged me to open up about my side of the story; why I had left my husband, and the controversial relationship I was now involved with. Because my new relationship was unusual and rather taboo, they related their own experience of being chastised for being homosexual to mine; and we talked long about prejudice. And by the time the three of us heard a hard angry knock on the front door, we had become the best of friends. “We won’t let your father kill you!” they announced, and ran down the stairs to confront my father. They protected me like fierce kittens; and wouldn’t let my father inside the house until he agreed to behave himself.
I had two weeks more in that house, but after that, I was back on the street for several months in a row. I remember I had one delicious respite in all of that time, and that was the evening that my friend Linda offered me her beach house for one moonlit night. She and all of her roommates were leaving on an overnight trip; and she gave me the key to her house. It was a lovely sprawling home; sitting right on the cliff, with the ocean crashing against the enormous picture windows that lined the living room. She had left me a series of notes all over the house, leading me on a virtual treasure hunt of delights. My first note was on the dining room table next to a bottle of red wine, a corkscrew, and a glass. It read, “It’s time to kick off your shoes and transport yourself to a world of tranquility. Begin by enjoying this wine.” Next I was sent toward a group of candles and a box of matches. “Light these candles, sip on your wine, and listen to the ocean.” Following that, I was instructed to turn on the stereo, where my favorite artist was playing. My hunt then led me back to the kitchen where a gourmet meal was waiting for me. “Pop this in the oven at 350 degrees, and enjoy. There’s a salad in the fridge.” The last note led to my bed. I laughed when I entered the bedroom; I encountered an enormous bright pink velvet bed; something you might find in Cinderella’s castle. It was piled high with pink silk pillows. I felt like a fairy princess, and I didn’t much care where I’d left my glass slipper. The crashing of the waves sounded very different that night than they did when I slept on the beach, and I learned a lesson that night about gratitude. But when I awoke the next morning, my carriage had turned back into a pumpkin, and the only bed I had was the back seat of my car.
My last reprieve came after about five and a half months. Another friend had a room that had become vacant, and she said I could move in for awhile. For free.
I was thrilled with this opportunity. I was so close to saving up enough money for my own place, and this would give me the last push I needed. I decided I was going to be the best house guest ever; I would leave my room every day as if no one lived in it, with the bed made and my suitcase hidden in the closet. I would arise before my friend, have my coffee and leave no trace, and allow her the morning to herself. On weekends, I would disappear entirely, to spend time with my new lover. I behaved the way I would want a roommate to behave. As if they weren’t there.
But interestingly, she wasn’t pleased with me at all. She had wanted me to move in with her to be her girlfriend. She wanted a gal pal to drink coffee in the morning with, and to share our trials and tribulations. She wanted a friend with whom she could spend evenings cooking dinner and weekends hitting the bars.
I sensed that she was unhappy with me. But at this point, I had possibly saved enough money for first and last month rent for a place of my own. I knew I wanted to live in Mill Valley, about an hour away, and I scoured the Marin newspaper as often as I could.
That week, I came down with an illness; I was sick and dizzy and had a terrible sore throat. I was lying on her couch covered by a blanket, making phone call after phone call, answering want ads for apartments. At last I found something I could afford. It was a one-room “tree house,” or at least that is how the ad billed it. I was intrigued. Coughing and gasping, I talked to the landlord that evening. I told her I was very sick; could I come and see the apartment the following evening. She agreed.
But I never would wait until the following evening. My friend came home that night and said that her mother had been helping with her mortgage, and she had said that unless I left that evening, that she would cut her off. She apologized vehemently, and she felt even worse that I was sick, but I had to pack my bags immediately. I called the landlord up again and said I had to leave my current residence that evening, and would it be possible that I see the room that night, and hopefully rent it immediately. I think she took pity on me and agreed.
That night I packed up my suitcase for the last time, and armed only with a roll of toilet paper for my leaking nose, I thanked my friend and stumbled into the darkness, for a long hour drive toward my new home.
I’ll never forget climbing the stairs to my tree house that first night. It was difficult to see, and it looked like the stairs led straight up into a tree. She flung open the front door, and switched on a light. And there it was.
It was tiny. Much smaller than a hotel room. It had enough room for one double bed, but not much else. The kitchen went against one wall; and there was a separate bathroom and shower. But it was charming; all wooden and nestled in the trees; the kitchen cabinets were beveled decorated glass; and I found it to be very sweet. “I’ll take it.”
“The phone works,” she told me. “But it will be cut off this week, so get it transferred into your name immediately, okay?” I nodded.
When she left, I called my half sister. I told her I had found a place, and I was located only about a mile away from her. I was deathly sick; and I needed some comfort. “Could you bring me a blanket and a pillow?” I asked her. She agreed.
When she arrived, she was also carrying a bottle of wine. I had no glasses, so I remember us both guzzling it straight out of the bottle. That would be the start of many gatherings in the tree house, which we later dubbed the cubicle. I had a sign near the front door that read, “Cubicle sweet cubicle,” and I eventually got a free couch that folded out into a bed. When I was alone, I would leave the bed out; I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen while sitting on my bed. And when people came over, I’d turn the bed back into a couch, and we’d all sit on the floor, drinking wine and being perfectly happy in this little square that we could call our own. Being homeless had taught me that I would never need much in this world. And I’ve always been grateful for what I have.
I lived in my cubicle for three years, as I once again saved money for first and last on a larger home. I was grateful every day; for the warm bed, and the heater. My boyfriend stayed with me on the weekends, and I always felt like we had our own private haven, a sanctuary far from the noise of judgmental friends and family. I was happy.
I saved my money in a little box that was on the shelving that was built in on one wall of the tree house.
In retrospect, I realize it was very foolish to save money that way; I had a bank account; but I didn’t want to know exactly how much money I had saved. It was a little game I’d play with myself; shoving every spare dollar I had into that box; but never really knowing how much I’d saved. After a few months I’d count it and would be delighted with the results.
One night I came home and there was a note on my door from the landlord. “Your toilet broke and I had to let myself and the plumbers into your house today.”
My toilet wasn’t broken.
I immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. I walked into the cubicle and went directly to the bathroom. I kept a dizzying array of decorations on the back of my toilet, and I knew at first glance that my toilet hadn’t been touched. It would be impossible to work on it, and not disturb everything I had surrounding it. I felt something else in that room; something smelled of a lie. I immediately ran to my box on the shelf. I opened it. It was empty. The money was gone.
I took a deep breath. Every instinct I had told me that my landlord had stolen it. She had decided to snoop in my house when I was gone, came across the money and had created the plumbers as a diversion, and as the possible thieves.
I marched down to the main house and told her that my money was gone. She feigned sympathy; she was beside herself telling me what a terrible thing it was; and that it must have been the plumbers that stole it.
“May I have the name of the plumbers you called?”
She gave me every excuse under the sun as to why she couldn’t give me their number, but I wasn’t listening. Because I already knew there were no plumbers. I went back to the tree house and called the police.
I never did recover my money. But the police gave her an exceptionally rough time; I could hear her screaming and crying below. “Do not call me a thief in front of my kids!” I heard her cry, and I felt glad. The police told me that they believed it was her, but nothing could be done. I had been kicked back down to square one, with nothing to show for myself but an empty box.
The next chapter in my life wasn’t much easier than this one. But I embraced my hardships gladly, as I was living truthfully and following my passion. I no longer felt like a fraud. I was wildly in love, and that relationship would endure happily for sixteen years. And as I had always known, the difficulties made me more and more prolific; I was inspired to create poetry nearly daily. I had absolutely nothing. But I was still living my dream.
I had always known that suffering opens our minds. When things come easily, we only learn a fraction of what we learn when they don’t. I know that the more possessions we want, the less freedom we will have. I know that the more we can bear, the more fearless we become. And I wanted to be fearless. I wanted to be a bald eagle surveying the countryside from the highest peak, and then I wanted to spread my wings, and to dive into freedom. I still feel that way.
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