During the height of the 2008 economic recession, I spent a very brief period of time without a residence in New York City. It was a life-changing experience and it took me a while to realize that.
I spent a few nights taking short naps at the very top of an apartment building stairwell. It was the dead of winter and the cold air seeping through the rooftop access door didn’t allow me to get any rest. The concrete floor and cramp space didn’t help either. After a couple of days, I became paranoid every time I heard people open the stairwell doors below me. I thought the apartment security would find me and kick me out into the cold or call the cops.
I managed to make those sleepless nights productive though. I wrote poetry on napkins that I lifted from a Dunkin’ Donuts, and some of those poems ended up getting published a year later.
One sleepless night, after a close call with a security guard at an apartment complex, I took the F train to Rockefeller Center and walked to Times Square. It was 2 in the morning and the city felt so alive. I sat in the middle of the Square and watched humanity flow past me. I also made a few bucks taking pictures of insomniac tourists with my old point-and-shoot camera. There was a drug store nearby that had a photo printing kiosk and I just printed the photos with the little bit of money I had. I then gave it to the tourists waiting outside and they happily gave me $20 for 4 bucks worth of prints.
I bought a stupendously-greasy-but-delicious halal gyro and a can of Pepsi, and still had money for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of subway rides. The rates were a bit cheaper back then. New York taught me urban survival.
During the day, I spent hours at the Queens public library. I read books on philosophy and urban design; wrote shitty screenplays and short stories; slept on the comfortable cushioned chairs they had by the magazine racks; talked to strangers and librarians about politics; used their Wi-Fi to look for jobs on my busted Motorola Sidekick.
I also made up my mind that I was too proud to ask my family for help, and that I would rather hitchhike to South Florida because it was warm there. I had read somewhere that the Keys were actually “homeless-friendly” — whatever that meant. I figured I could at least sleep on the beach, wash up in public restrooms and hunt for low-wage jobs during the day.
After spending hours at the library, I would go to a Filipino restaurant a few blocks from the library–which, unfortunately, is no longer there–and sweet-talked the owner, in Tagalog, to let me eat lunch in exchange for cleaning the restrooms, tables and mopping the floor.
I gained 5 lbs. that day, because they practically gave me a feast. I remember eating a particular dish that my parents used to cook all the time and thought of home. When something that was once familiar to you fades away, it suddenly becomes sacred.
I eventually gave up trying to plot the logistics of my migration to Florida after realizing that job prospects were not looking that good down there either. I knew I had to look for shelter soon. My phone finally had enough of its miserable existence and committed suicide on the sidewalk. I was running towards the subway entrance to catch a train in Forest Hills when my phone leapt out of my jacket pocket and exploded into six different pieces on the pavement.
I suddenly found myself disconnected from family and friends. In a sense, I felt disconnected from the world. My life had become the parable of the modern man caught in a system, in a cold machine, that functioned automatically, and the moral of the story was a disheartening one: don’t ever think that you can control or destroy the machine.
My aunt and uncle used to babysit me when I was 7 years old, because my mom’s shift at St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn sometimes overlapped with my dad’s schedule at the Marriott in Manhattan. I went with my aunt and uncle on errands, driving around the outer boroughs.
My uncle would tell me corny jokes, his eyes smiling at me through the rear-view mirror, as my aunt smacked his shoulder, yelling at him to focus on the road. Whenever we went to Pioneer — that endearingly dysfunctional “supermarket” where you could find cereal boxes with taped up rips and half-used tubes of toothpaste — we would always pass by a Catholic church that sat on top of a hill. As soon as we drove past the front of the church, my aunt and uncle would simultaneously make a quick sign of the cross.
I stood outside the church looking at the cross on the peak of the roof. It was very windy and my hands were completely numb. I knew the sanctuary was closed, but I saw a few cars out front and decided to try the office. I went to the side of the church, which is actually part of a large monastery complex, and opened the door. It was very warm inside and my blood slowly thawed out. I was greeted by a lady who was walking by. I asked her if I could use a phone and if she knew any homeless shelters nearby or in the city. The easygoing smile that she had turned into a look of concern and asked me to have a seat at what looked like a meeting or dining room.
A few moments later, a petite elderly nun walked in and greeted me. She introduced herself as “Sister Karen.” Right off the bat, I knew she was someone you did not want to mess with. Memories of Catholic school flashed in my mind and thought of the nun who I got into an argument with during Religion class about reincarnation.
She had piercing green eyes. She was friendly and showed deep concern about my situation. After explaining to her all of the intricate, spaghetti-plot details as to how I ended up on the streets, she offered to pay for my bus ticket home to Texas.
That was the last time I had hit rock bottom. I felt like such a loser, a complete failure as a person. She assured me I was a “gift from God.”
I cried harder than I’ve ever cried before.
The morning I left New York City, hours before I found myself at the footsteps of the church on top of that hill, I spent my last little bit of money I had to reload my MTA card with a single-ride subway fare. I rode the train back and forth, end to end, several times, going in and out of sleep, worrying about what to do next. The heater in the train was broken and the temperature outside was -10 degrees.
When I was passing through Brooklyn — the borough I once called home as a child — I looked out the window and realized we were on elevated tracks. The sun had just started rising, glimmering over brownstone buildings, illuminating a city that has given me so much love, so many memories, so much heartache, and I swear, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.