Note: This is NOT a commentary on how anyone else should or could feel, when they’re facing adversity, particularly homelessness. Nor is it a “recipe” for how to be less miserable when life flat-out sucks. It’s just a story about my own experience.
Anyway, 25 years ago today, I was just starting to get my act together. As we often will, in my early adult years, I had made a series of unfortunate and ill-informed choices about how I was supposed to live my life. The net result was that in the winter of 1990, I was in a life situation that was completely wrong for me — and was causing a lot of people around me a fair amount of pain.
That tends to happen when you make life-defining decisions based on what everyone else tells you to do, versus what you know you’re supposed to do — and are best at doing.
Anyway, long story short, things came to a head in January, 1990, and by the end of that month, I had removed myself from the home and relationship that everyone around me said was the “right” one for me to be in. I went to stay with a friend who offered her couch for me to crash, should I ever decide to get free. Then things didn’t pan out with that friend (she was too hungry for details that I didn’t care to share), so I took my bag, and at about 11 p.m. on an early February night, I stepped out onto the streets of Center City Philadelphia without any idea what I was going to do next.
I wasn’t sure where I was going to go. I didn’t know who I could stay with. I had one other friend who could possibly offer me shelter, but when I rang her doorbell, there was no answer. And on that bitter cold night, I found myself walking down dark streets with my bag over my shoulder, looking for a doorway to shelter in. It was cold, as I recall, but it wasn’t snowing. All I needed was a place to hole up, until daylight, when I could go to work, wash up and change my clothes, and see what my options were.
Now, at the time, Center City Philadelphia was not the most hospitable place to be after 10 p.m. There were a lot of drugs being sold on street corners, and “wolf packs” of young men were often on prowl looking for folks to rough up. I had no idea where I was going to go, or what I was going to do — beyond getting through the night and going to work the next morning. And in retrospect, maybe my situation wasn’t all that great.
But honestly, none of the realistic concerns weighed me down. Oh, sure, I knew the dangers were there. Absolutely. I had no plan on actually sleeping in a doorway – that would have been crazy and asking for trouble. I knew I was vulnerable, alone, and without any real way to stay completely safe. But that didn’t hold me back. If anything, that awareness just kept my feet on the ground.
And a good thing, too. Because the one emotion I remember feeling so very, very clearly, was elation. Sheer joy. Almost intoxicating levels of happiness.
Because I was free. I was out of that domestic situation, and I was out of that home that felt more like a prison than anything else. I was on my own, making my own choices, taking my own chances, and from that point on, I had only myself to thank for what was going on in my life. I had no one to answer to, other than myself, and it was sheer bliss.
No, things were not perfect. Yes, I could have been in dire danger, had I crossed paths with the wrong folks. No, there was no guarantee that I’d be able to find shelter that night… or the nights to come. But none of that mattered to me. All that mattered, was that I was cut loose from an anchor that was dragging me down, and my fate was squarely in my own hands.
I kept walking the streets, looking for a likely doorway to spend the night. I passed up a bunch of different options, because they either didn’t have a good line of sight, or they just didn’t feel safe for some reason. Eventually, I came around the block again to the front door of the one friend I had, and this time when I tried the doorbell, she answered. And she let me in, with my bag and my giddy elation.
So, I found real shelter for the night — and it lasted for the next month or so, till I found my own room to rent. If I hadn’t been able to hole up with that friend, that night, I would have just kept walking. On the street. Keeping moving so I wouldn’t be an easy target. On my own. I was out of house and home, and I didn’t care.
Because for the first time in a long time, I was happy.
By the end of March, 1990, I had found a room to rent which was in a perfect location to get a real feel for South Philly — right down the street from the two cheese-steak places — Pat’s and Geno’s. The trolley stopped nearby, so I could easily get to and from work, and the house was clean and well-kept. I only stayed there a few months, till I found another place in Center City, just a few blocks from my job, but it was good while it lasted.
Things were in a bit of a shambles, family-wise, but I had my own life back, which was all I really cared about. And it was really, really good.