01 September 2014

Life on the Streets, One Homeless Man's Story

They say that everything happens for a reason. Bullshit. Some things are totally without purpose or meaning. They might be arbitrary they might be cruel twists of fate and there’s no great meaning attached to them.

They also say that when one door closes another opens. Or maybe a window opens. I forget which. That’s still more crap. A lot of the time a door closes and that’s it. All doors and windows are closed and locked tight. You’re stuck in or out or wherever the metaphor calls for you to be. It’s over. No entrance or exit.

They also say that time heals all wounds. Come on. You can get some real nasty wounds — and I’m including physical and emotional — that will stay with you until you die. And for all I know they stay on afterwards plaguing you in the afterlife.

In other words the ubiquitous “they” talk a lot of shit. There are many people — I should probably say there are many of us — for whom events with no reason have closed doors forever and left permanent wounds. Some of us have suffered some terrible blows that have cost us everything and now we’re living in the streets. You might say we’re bums now. Or you might call us homeless. Or you may even refer to us as losers. You could even call us the economically disadvantaged. There are all kinds of names for us. Whichever one you choose separates us from the fortunate, the privileged, the normal. We often have mental problems. Quite a few of us are addicts. Some of us ran afoul of the law and the criminal justice system has spit us out onto the streets. Many of us have suffered a severe trauma or two or three. We are generally divorced or abandoned by family or likely both. We’re alone in the world save a few belongings. You see us in your cities. You hear us asking for spare change or wailing insanely. Hell you get close enough you can catch a whiff of us. We generally reek to high heaven or to low hell. A lack of laundry facilities and showers and soap will do that to a person. At the very least you’ve smelled the results of us not having toilets. The strong urine odor in parts of your downtown area and in your subway stations can usually be traced to us.

You don’t want us and you ignore us or pretend we don’t exist. Oh sure a few good natured souls toss a coin our way now and again, we even get some folding money. Around Christmas those bills sometimes have a five or even a ten on them. There are also the kind hearted volunteers who set up kitchens to feed us or find shelter to house us or occasionally organize to get us clothes or a blanket. Mind you these are clothes and blankets someone else got rid of not that we're complaining. You'd be surprised how grateful we are for anything.

But we aren’t part of the public dialogue. I mean helping us isn’t. Getting rid of us? Another story. You’re all about that. But when’s the last time a politician, particularly one on the state or national level, talked about solutions, ways to help the homeless get more than just a meal for the day or a roof for the night? When did you ever hear one talk about appropriating funds for the kinds of mental health and drug rehab needs our “community” has? When is there ever a discussion about work programs that will get the homeless jobs?  Or when are economic issues ever addressed in terms of making our society one in which there is a social safety net for the vulnerable who by losing their jobs risk losing everything including a place to live? Doesn’t happen. Plenty of money for dropping bombs here and there. Raising taxes — especially for the wealthy — is not an option. The rich get richer. Those mental hospitals and drug rehab centers will not be opening in the near or even distant future. Plenty of coffee shops though.  Plenty of high end clothing stores. Anything that will generate more money for the already well-to-do. People know this. People know there is a widening gap between the rich and poor. But nothing is being done nor will be anytime soon. Meanwhile the homeless still suffer.

I’d say we’re an afterthought but honestly we’re no kind of thought at all. Not after or before.

Maybe you’ve seen me around. I've got the scraggly beard and tangled hair — dusted with white and gray—  that so many of us sport. I wear a bulky army jacket and jeans and boots and an old work shirt. Nothing too ragged or torn or filthy at the moment. But I’m getting there. I wasn’t in the service so I don’t have a handmade cardboard sign claiming to be a vet. I don’t have a dog with me to earn more sympathy and I don’t hang out with other homeless cackling with laughter or engaging in angry arguments. My duffle bag and I just sit near the subway station by day. I have a little plastic bucket you can toss coins into if you’ve a mind to. Some of you do and I thank you kindly.  I’ve been on the streets for four years now and I’ll never get used to it. That said I’m accustomed to it now.  A person learns to make do.

My descent to here started seven years ago when I gave Tracy Lichtman an F on her English essay. That’s right I was a high school English teacher less than a decade ago. I lived in a nice condo with my wife Judith and a cat named Sniggles. We were a happy couple. No children but that was by choice. We’d saved some money and although it was a ways off, we were already making plans for our retirement. Judith was a nurse in a children’s hospital. Neither of us loved our work but we were neither of us unhappy in it either. We regularly went to plays, the opera, the symphony and an occasional baseball game. Life was okay.

I had gotten nothing but positive evaluations throughout my teaching career which was in it’s 21st year when I gave Tracy Lichtman that F. I got along famously with some colleagues and well enough with others. I’d done turns as department chair and a union rep and served as the T part at PTA meetings. After beginning my career at a rough inner city school, I’d spent the last 15 years in suburbia where the facilities are clean and new and students are not in gangs and don’t live with a crack addicted or crack selling parent. Our school never went on lockdown and we almost never saw a police car drive by let alone be stationed outside.

Most of the kids I saw were pretty well adjusted for teenagers and counselors and tutors were on hand to deal with the few problems that they might bring to school. It was a fairly cushy job to tell you the truth. Especially compared to what I’d seen at my previous school.

I was in a rut but it was a happy enough one. I sure miss it now. I might still be in that same darn rut today if….But isn’t that what life is all about? Our ifs? If I hadn’t done this or if that hadn’t happened or if I had known this or if I hadn’t found out that. Life can change dramatically because of one if. The worst part is that we often don’t have control over the situation. We’re at the mercy of fate. I look back and can’t see a damn thing I did wrong. Oh maybe I didn’t fight hard against the events that engulfed me, but it all happened so fast and was so incomprehensible that it’s hard to beat myself up about it.

So like I said I gave Tracy Lichtman an F on this paper. Actually its far more accurate to say that she earned an F. I had assigned my 11th grade (that’s juniors) class to write a fairly simple five page paper analyzing this short story we’d read by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery.” Well Tracy Lichtman’s paper was just terrible by any standards. It was barely half the required length, and didn’t show any evidence that she had read the story let alone understood it. I’d been pretty sure on a lots of occasions in the past that a student hadn’t read the book or story that they were writing about, but they at least made a decent effort to fake it. Lots of time I’d only be able to stick them with a D or maybe even a C despite my suspicions. But Tracy Licthman’s paper was so vague and off the point that an F was the only possible grade.

Well this was her junior year and so she was applying to colleges and this F was going to bring her English grade down to a D for the semester. Tracy was, in her own words, freaking out. She spoke to me after the class the day I returned the F paper and pleaded with me to raise the grade. When I reminded her that I was not one to raise a grade just because a student wanted me to, she asked if she could re-submit it. I had to remind her that in addition to not changing grades I did not allow students do overs. Then the poor girl made up some hare brained excuse for the quality of the paper that was so convoluted it contradicted itself.  Tracy was a pretty young girl and like many such teenagers at our school tried an adolescent from of flirtation using what I suppose was meant to be a seductive voice while leaning forward and looking into my eyes. I’d seen this act before and was impervious to it as were all my male colleagues. Tracy could clearly see I was not impressed by the batting of a pretty girl’s eyes. Finally: “You are ruining my chances of getting into a good school!” She practically shouted. I suggested she leave before I report her behavior to the vice principal. If only I had. (See, there’s that if.)

Two days later Tracy asked if she could talk to me after school. I saw no reason why not, assuming that she had come to her senses and was going to try to figure out how to improve her work. She showed up with her friend Alexis Renwald who was also a student of mine. Alexis, she explained, had come along for moral support.

Our meeting dragged on for nearly half an hour with Tracy asking me all manner of questions about classwork, readings, extra credit, my grading system and even the purpose of studying literature. I tried to be helpful but I found Tracy’s behavior to be strange, though that’s not so unusual among teenagers. I also couldn’t quite understand what Alexis was doing there. She sat over at my work station and asked if she could “google some stuff” for a history paper. I said sure. It never occurred to me that they had hatched a nefarious plot of which I was the victim. At last they left and I was able to spend the next 45 minutes at my desk catching up on work before heading home to another typically quite evening. Life was never to be so good again.

The next day I arrived at school to find a note in my office “mailbox” asking me to see the principal, Mr. Wilde, immediately. I thought nothing of it and went over and tapped on his door. I sensed trouble the second I stepped in. There was someone from the district office and our current union rep and a school safety officer named Dave all looking very glum and very very serious.

Mr. Wilde got to the point hitting me with the bombshell that I was to go on immediate paid administrative leave while charges of sexual harassment against me were investigated. I felt as though I had just fallen through a trapdoor into absolute darkness. I hadn’t the slightest clue what this was about and when I asked I wasn’t told. The man from the district office, a Mr. Smits, told me that I would be informed in “due time” and that I was to be escorted to my car by the school safety officer. Just like that. I was not allowed to leave lesson plans for my classes, gather any things from my classroom or get the faintest notion what was happening.

Judith was initially quite supportive. She shared my fury at the Kafkaesque treatment I’d received. She insisted that once I clear my name I, in her words, “sue the bastards.” Clear my name. Sure that’s what I was going to do. Seemed so easy. After all I hadn’t done a darn thing. Innocent as a new born lamb.

It was a week before I was given specifics of the charges. An agonizing depressing week that I couldn’t believe was happening. My world had been turned upside down. Upside down with me under it. Buried in other peoples’ lies that I would never crawl out from under.

Tracy had alleged that I had put my hand up her skirt. That she had come to see me for help in class and that I had promised to raise her grade if we had sex and that when she refused I stuck my hand up her dress and tried to tug her panties. Alexis claimed to have walked into my classroom in search of Tracy and seen the whole thing. They further stated I then proposed a threesome for which both girls would get A’s in my class in addition to some cash. Before they could leave I had then, so they said, insisted that they look at pornographic pictures on my computer. They said that out of a mixture of curiosity and fear they looked at the pictures and then left in disgust. The district had seized my computer and easily found porn sites in the history. Because, I can only assume, Alexis had surreptitiously gone to some porn sites while I was talking to Tracy.

Tracy’s dad was an attorney and he had bought his daughter’s story hook line and sinker. He was going to come after the district, the school and me with everything he had. No one was interested in advocating for me. Even the union thought that the testimony of two girls was too strong for them to want to waste their valuable resources on me. It may not surprise you to learn that Tracy was involved in the school’s drama program. She’d been in the Fall play and was quite good in a leading role. Her role as the victim of a sexual assault was evidently very convincing too.

I never taught again. The process was surprisingly fast. School districts and individuals schools hate so much as a whiff of bad publicity, especially when it concerns the horrible combination of adults, sex and students. The parents of the two girls had to be appeased and I had to go. The only concession I got out of the whole thing was that the parents agreed not to pursue legal action against me provided of course that I lost my job. But in the end I lost not only my job but any chance of another one in education as my teaching credential was revoked. I couldn’t even sub.

I was paid through the end of the school year which had another five months to go. My marriage to Judith barely had that much time. She went from lovingly supportive to believing ever word of Tracy’s story. Like everything else this happened so fast it was hard to make sense of. Looking back I think Judith saw that my days earning a steady income were over and so too was her comfortable life with me. She wanted to get out and move on as soon as possible. I guess now that her love for me was pretty superficial, if it existed at all. Who knows how some people wind up together.  I haven’t missed Judith very much to be perfectly honest, there was precious little passion between us in the best of times. Absent Tracy’s lies Judith and I might have lived out a long loveless marriage.

She got everything in the divorce. In large part because I didn’t have the will to contest her on anything. Oh and her brother is a lawyer. Just my luck, Tracy’s dad and my Judith's brother both lawyers. I hate lawyers now. More than I do Tracy or the school district. Within a year Judith found a new husband, this time landing a well heeled business executive, a widower with a pot of money. Lucky her.

By that next Fall I was living alone in a studio apartment in a bad part of town with no income and dwindling savings. I was depressed as hell and couldn’t even imagine how to get into a new line of work let alone look for any. I barely had the will to live let alone make anything of myself. I had very little family and few friends and they were either disinclined to help me or I was too proud to ask. So my response to these dire straights was to start drinking. Heavily. Judith and I had never been big drinkers at all. We occasionally had a bottle of wine in the house that was used during special meals  and we also had wine when we went out to eat. That was pretty much it. But now I found that getting drunk was the only way to keep from feeling miserable. And at that it wasn’t 100% effective. Nothing could take me away from how suddenly my life had become miserable.

Generally I drank alone in my shabby little apartment. I started out drinking the good wines like what Judith and I used to buy. But it wasn’t long before I had to get the cheap stuff. Money was dwindling. Within a year I was broke and had to move out. I sold most of my possessions, put the rest in storage and lived in my car and stayed at a homeless shelters some nights. Then I sold my car. I lost what was in storage when I couldn't pay the bill. Eventually I used my last dollars to take the bus into the big city to begin the last chapter of my life, that part where I live in the streets.

So here I am. I’m done feeling sorry for myself. I’m done feeling angry at Tracy Lichtman. I’m done feeling resentful toward Judith or anyone else for that matter. I’m done trying to make sense of it all of trying to figure out what I could have done differently. I’m just done. I’ve accepted that this is my fate. That somehow this is where I belong. Hell I don’t even feel particularly bad about it. This is just what it is. There is no miracle coming that will lift me out of this. I’ll die living on the streets. Maybe I’ll starve, maybe I’ll get a disease, maybe I’ll be stabbed. There are any number of ways to go. Who cares? If I don’t I can hardly imagine that anyone else would.

Sure I’ve contemplated suicide. A swan dive of a bridge would be easy enough. But you know what? I could never work up the nerve. I suppose if you’re miserable enough you can do it but I’m not in that much pain. I’ve got a kind of lethargic depression.

You might think that I resent women what with how it was Tracy and Judith who are the individuals most responsible for my circumstances. Well I don’t. I’ve always been a kind of male feminist and I’m not turning on one gender just because of the actions of two individuals. I’m not angry at schools or really that angry at lawyers or anyone else. What’s the point? They all do what they do and did what they did. What the hell I was just unlucky.

I do occasionally think of what motivated Tracy to commit such a dastardly act. Such a horrible, damaging lie over one lousy grade? Talk about an over reaction! And she even roped another girl into it. I didn’t know Alexis all that well she was kind of a nondescript girl who generally got Cs and didn’t care. Tracy had always been a nice kid and I can’t imagine she felt that I’d done her an injustice. I guess it was all a game to her. She was 17 years old and people that age don’t always know right from wrong. Who knows what her life is like now? Maybe she regrets what she did and maybe she has no conscience at all.

Water on the bridge. Filthy polluted water but under the bridge just the same. And here I am.

I make a point not to bother anyone. I’m not one of those annoying tramps who come right up to you. I don’t say anything to passersby either. I don’t make eye contact. I do look at people as they pass by. Sometimes I wonder where they’re going and why the rush. I wonder if they are happy. I wonder if they are in love. I wonder if they are rich. I wonder if they have any idea how quickly life can change. I wonder. You may not believe this but I’m never bored. In a big busy city there’s always something to look at something to hear and things to smell. I’ve had a few people talk to me over the years. A do-gooder will ask what I need or someone will ask about my life. I generally don’t say much back. There are a lot of homeless who have much greater needs and some who have much more compelling stories. I talk to some of them too. I avoid the crazies, there's no sense in talking to them. But I talk to others who've still got their sanity. We share stories and talk about practical things like where to get a meal or a good place to sleep at night. Mostly I stick to myself. For most people misery loves company, but I liked sharing my joys -- back when I had any -- and keep my sufferings to myself.

Sometimes I get a hold of book, magazine or newspaper and read. It passes the time. You see I no longer draw any inspiration from literature like I used to. I no longer find meaning in stories. I no longer enjoy how writers use the language. I have no interest in current events or past events or the lives of celebrities or social issues or anything. Reading words just fills up time. That’s all I’m doing really, just killing time. Until it kills me.

But don’t feel sorry for me. Please don’t. You’ve got your own life to take care of. It’s precious. Enjoy every minute that you can as often as you can. Realize that your joys and fortunes can disappear seemingly overnight. Oh I don’t mean that you might end up living in the streets. But you could have an accident or a loved one could. There’s always cancer and other diseases. Terrible things happen to good people all the time. What happened to me was nothing compared to what has befallen lots of other folks. Point being that you shouldn’t dwell on what might happen or what did happen but enjoy and appreciate what you’ve got right now this minute. Try to be happy. God knows I wish I could be.

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