I make a point of remembering important dates in my life. One would think that the first night I slept outdoors, inaugurating twelve long years of homelessness, would be a very important date. That I don’t know the date is telling. Who wants to know a date like that?
I do know that I was prescribed the psychiatric drug klonopin on the morning that my mother was to die (unbeknownst to me) on October 9, 2003. I do know I was asked to resign my teaching job on February 17, 2004. I know that I was illegally evicted from my place of residence on April 1, 2004. Though I became legally homeless on that date, I still had enough money for motel rooms to keep me afloat for another month or more.
The day when I stopped using klonopin was certainly one that I remember. I went off of 4mg of klonopin cold turkey on May 10, 2004. I never even had the seizure they told me I would have, as they tried to convince me to keep taking that God-awful drug that had lost me my shirt. I was so relieved to finally be free of that stuff. My short-term memory returned, I began to speak coherently again, and I started to remember the names of the people with whom I was conversing.
Though my living situation by that time was sketchy — an illegally parked motor home in the back yard of a friend of mine – at least I was still indoors. But then, by May 20, 2004, I had lost my reading glasses after sleeping in Golden Gate Park. It was that day that inspired the first piece of literature I ever had published on the subject of homelessness: A New Pair of Glasses.
So it was at some point between May 10th and May 20th that I sat on a bench at a CalTrain station all night long, sometimes nodding off, sometimes waking with a start — to the sound of a roaring engine, or laughter from late night carousers, or some other noise in the night. Cops would drive by, and I feared interrogation. But they never stopped me. Eventually, the sky grew light. I grabbed a coffee at a nearby doughnut shop, then walked up to the church where for several years, I had been the Director of Music.
Pete, the pastor, had known of some of my recent struggles, and we seemed to be on good terms. I had visited with him more than once in the past few months, and I figured he might be able to help me get up to San Francisco, where my friend Tony had promised to help. As I strolled to the church on that bright sunny morning, I pondered how easily I had made it through the night. There was nothing so far about homelessness that seemed intolerable.
When I arrived at the church, I saw that the Hispanic minister was there, along with two friends. He did not recognize me from the 90’s, where he had seen me at the church organ many times. Walking up to shake his hand, I told him that I remembered him from all of those joint preaching sessions, where he and Pete would take turns behind the pulpit on days when the Spanish-speaking congregation joined in with us English-speaking folks.
But he eyed me cautiously, as though I were somehow suspect. The others looked at me strangely, too. It seemed they did not believe me. I could understand if the Hispanic pastor would not have recognized me. But I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being believed. That seemed strange. I had provided at least enough information for him to have made the connection.
“Pastor Peter will not be in today,” he said, in a guarded fashion. “This is his day off.”
“Oh that’s right,” I said. “He takes Mondays off after preaching on Sundays. Well — I’ll just come back tomorrow again at eight. Just let him know that Andy stopped by.”
“He won’t be in at eight tomorrow. He never comes in before noon, you know.”
“He doesn’t?” I asked, perplexed. “I just saw him a couple months ago. He was in at eight as usual, the same way he always came in at eight every morning for years, when I worked here before.”
“Please, no more, sir,” he said. “I cannot help you, and Peter will not help you. Please go back to wherever you came from.”
At that, a strange mix of fear and anger ripped through my body. The man had not only lied to me about Pete’s schedule, but he blatantly refused to even consider that I might have been telling the truth. Moreover, I had recognized him; I knew exactly who he was, and I could not possibly have changed my appearance so hugely in the past seven years, that he would think I was anyone other than who I said I was.
“And you call yourself a Christian pastor?” I said, outraged. “I’ll have you know I’m a decent guy who’s down on his luck, and you’re treating me like a scum bag.”
“Go!” he shouted, as his friends joined in. “Go! Go! Go away!!”
Talk about your Monday morning!
I stormed away in torment. Somehow I knew at that moment that the worst was yet to come. The worst thing about homelessness, I somehow sensed, would have nothing to do with weather conditions, or malnutrition, or even sleep deprivation — or any of the other things that people always ask about when they find out that one is homeless. It would have to do with something they never ask about: the way I would be treated. I would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.
But if nothing else comes of my recounting this horrible memory, at least I have finally learned the exact date. After all, it was Monday. There is only one Monday between May 10, 2004 and May 20, 2004. So the first night I slept outdoors was May 17, 2004.
How could I forget?
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