It was the year 2008 — the year in which I lost over half of my so-called “friends” and at least one close member of my extended family by sending a single three-sentence email that I guess they couldn’t handle. The word “homelessness” might as well not have even existed in that email.
The few friends who cared wrote back with advice that had to do with anything and everything other than the fact that for over four years now, it had been all I could do to keep a roof over my head. One person even advised me to look at its contents when I was “sober” — as though assuming that a person had to be drunk in order to express that he could no longer handle the ongoing conditions of Homelessness. I had written that somebody had to believe in me enough to let them stay at their house long enough so I could get back on my feet — or else, I would do something drastic.
I would take my own life.
Record gales were assaulting my entire body in Golden Gate Park. Do I die of hypothermia tonight, or do I spare myself the trouble and do the deed of my own courage and power? I had just heard yet another landlady claim that I had to leave my cottage because her daughter was separating from her husband and needed to move in. In California, they call this an “Owner Move In.” It’s the easiest way to get rid of a renter whom you don’t happen to like.
I had been working as an accompanist for a Gilbert and Sullivan company, the Stanford Savoyard Players, at the time. When I lost the cottage, the musical director kept paying for my motel rooms so I could finish the show. This was more than gracious of him, but of course I could not expect such treatment to continue once the show was over.
I had been in so many different programs, shelters, and board-and-care homes — in addition to all the rentals that somehow only led to irreconcilable conflicts, owner move-ins, and finally a crash landing back on the streets — I had stopped counting long ago. None of those situations had ever put a single dent in the rock hard armor that is Homelessness.
In this case, I guess my $900 monthly disability money vis a vis my $550 rent was making the landlady nervous. And though she knew I’d landed the Stanford gig after finishing my opera coach service at Peninsula Teen Opera, she still came up with the Owner Move In. Last I checked, her daughter never even moved in. Guess she didn’t like the way I looked.
Sure, I remember pacing the floor in her living room, when I was supposed to be staying inside the college. I remember her approaching me, asking: “How did I ever wind up with the likes of you?”
I remember the incredulity she expressed when she didn’t believe that all of my family members were refusing to let me stay with them.
“But why should they let me stay with them?” I asked her. “You won’t even let me stay with you, even though I’m paying rent.”
“You’ve got a point there,” she shrugged. And of course, she still kicked me out on my ass.
So the show ended, and a couple days later I found myself completely lost in the kind of “summer” that Mark Twain claimed to be the “coldest winter he had ever spent.” I crawled into the Simple Pleasures Cafe on Balboa, and after breaking my last five dollar bill, bought a minimum three dollar hour on their public computer.
It was then that, overwhelmed with despair, I emailed at least one hundred people at once with these words:
I am stuck in a T-shirt out in Golden Gate Park in the freezing cold wind, and I do not believe I can make it through night. I am writing to let you all know that I can no longer handle the ongoing conditions of Homelessness. Please, somebody let me stay over tonight, or show me where I can go, because at this time, I am prepared to take my own life, to avoid what I feel is coming.
And though I indeed lost at least a hundred formerly positive contacts with a single email, the revelation of humanity that poured forth from exactly three people whom I hardly knew was astonishing.
An Actress: Andy, I’ve been there. Give me your number; I will do everything I can possibly do to help you.
A Bartender: Andy, I’m driving over from Lodi to get you. Tell me where you are — my dad says you can stay at his house for a night or two.
A Poet: Andy, check your PayPal. I just shot you eighty bucks. Get yourself a hotel room, get inside for tonight, and take it from there. Tomorrow is another day.
Of course, the final offer was of most immediate appeal. I used my last two dollars to hop on a SamTrans bus and check into a cheap motel in Belmont for the night.
In the morning, I woke up, scratched my head, and scanned my options. I knew that Greg the bartender was willing to come get me. But it seemed as though something more important needed to happen first. So, I walked up the hill to Sequoia Hospital, and told them everything I just told you.
I explained how my job contracts had ended, and how it would be a bit of a lull before I could find another gig. I expressed how I had thought that surely now, with both employment and a rental, I should have managed to get back on my feet. Before, I explained, I either didn’t have a job or I didn’t have a place to live. This time, I had managed to muster up both at once. And yet still the Homelessness loomed larger than any of that.
I told them how two nights prior, I had written to all of my family members to beseech them to let me stay at their homes for just a couple nights, and no one at all replied. I told them I had been trying to deal with my mental health issues ever since a first-time manic episode in the year 2004 had lost me my job, my car, and my home. I told them how every time I entered into some kind of program, something would happen, something having to do with my inability to get along with others in close quarters, and I would get kicked out. Or else I would finish the program, and then what? Where would I go? All roads, I told them, led to Homelessness.
I told them I completely understood why people didn’t want to have me over, because I probably would’t want me over either. But at the same time, I asked them, where is compassion? Who has a heart? Can’t somebody bend for a little while? When is anybody going to realize that I’m not going to be able to solve any of my “boundary issues” or exacerbations of ADHD or bipolar disorder if I don’t find that somebody loves me enough to make a simple sacrifice – and yet, nobody will.
“Can I possibly be that bad of a piece of shit that nobody will let me stay with them?” I asked them. “I’ve let homeless guys stay at my place before. I didn’t like having my space invaded either, but I had compassion. Sure, Tony slept for twelve hours and left a mess in the kitchen. So what? Was I supposed to let him die out in Golden Gate Park on a night like this? Why can’t they get that I won’t be able to solve any of these other problems of mine if I can’t first solve the much more enormous problem that is Homelessness?
“And why, why, why doesn’t anybody love me anymore?” I cried. “How can they keep saying they ‘love’ me, yet forbidding me to even so much as knock on their door, or to come over for Christmas dinner? What is wrong with me? Am I that horrible of a human being that, for all of my God-given gifts and musical abilities, I am supposed to die in a damn gutter? Why can’t anybody give me a break?”
I shut my mouth and ceased my appeal. I looked in their eyes, fully expecting them to say the usual:
I’m sorry, Andy. We’re not a spa or a ski resort. I know you want to get your meds fixed and find some help here, but we can’t just let every homeless person on earth over for a 72-hour stay. We feel for you, but you will just have to receive help for your condition somewhere else.
Tears were flowing down my eyes. I stayed silent and gazed at the three women in front of me, who in turn gazed at me.
And I tell you — when those three social workers rushed up and hugged me, I remembered again the Revelation of Humanity — that inkling of hope, not just for me, but for the entire human race.
I was not a piece of shit.
I was not “worthless homeless scum.”
I was not a “dirt bag.”
I was a human being who needed and deserved real help.
Sure, I lost at least eighty professional contacts, maybe twenty people I had thought were my friends, and another person whom I very much love, with a single email. But what I gained from this experience was far greater.
I thought I would end my meaningless, worthless life. Instead, my life of worth and meaning had just begun.
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