Don’t let the title mislead you – this isn’t some grand celebration of the American Dream or some rags-to-riches parable built to inspire you. On the contrary, this particular adventure is characterized by a concatenate string of failures and a great deal of luck.
It all started when I wrecked my mother’s car when I was 18. I had mostly borrowed her vehicle in the dead of night and had been street racing with some friends outside of the city. One blind turn, one Mustang going 90 miles per hour, and one patch of gravel had resulted in little ol’ me being in a whole mess of trouble. I tried to convince her I had been trying to avoiding a deer. I don’t think I told her truth until seven or eight years later.
I was kicked out of the house and ended up living with a good friend of mine and his family in a shoddy part of the city. There is actually a series of very interesting events that occurred around this time, but I’ll save those for another writing session. The point was that I was on a deadline in this living situation: get out in 30-days. The deadline seemed a little arbitrary at the time, but now that I have my own nice little house I understand it. People who need to “crash” with you never leave unless you put some sort of time constraint on their visit. But timing – that will undoubtedly be a theme of this story so keep it in mind.
Anyway I worked a bunch of fun odd jobs, picked up one at a chain restaurant as a bus boy but still couldn’t lock a place down in time before the 30-day deadline. I was booted out. All I had to my name was a pay-as-you-go cellphone, thirty dollars, and a change of clothes. In preparation for this event I had visited virtually every church within walking distance (roughly four miles by my estimation) looking for generous Christians willing to put a homeless kid for a bit. The results were less than stellar.
Let me take a minute here and explain a little a bit about the delusive generosity of modern Christianity. The easiest place to start is with a small amount of Biblical analysis. Jesus was homeless. In fact by the time he and his crew got together and started pissing off Jews and Roman’s alike, the entire gang: Peter, Paul, Simon, Judas, Bart, Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew… I want to say Ricky? And those other guys… they were all functionally homeless. Now the ideological or, if you want to be religious about it, theological reasoning behind Jesus and friends exiling themselves into poverty was that material possessions functioned as a two-fold affront to Jesus’ qua God’s project. Affront Numero Uno was fairly straight-forward: material possessions served as unnecessary distractions that bound their possessor to the material world and its rulers rather than the divine (e.g. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…”). The second affront was that a concern for material possessions and their practical connection to things like security and well-being offered up some semblance of certainty in place of faith. That’s a fancy way of saying: people want money to stay alive rather than live in faith and trust that God will provide.
Well it turns out neither of these two affronts were taken all that seriously post the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Catholic Church developed a firm political economic foothold in Western Europe and that meant that the epicenters of religious piety from region-to-region had to extend and perpetuate this political economic power. I’ll spare you a lot of the historical minutiae but this started to come to head with the rise of the mendicant orders (e.g. Franciscans and Dominicans) around the turn of the fourteenth century. Basically a question popped up as to whether is was cool to live off charity and own nothing, if that was true to the Gospels and the life of Christ, and whether the Church should technically own property and collect money in the fashion that they were. Pope John XXII got a little fussy with question and in 1323 issued a papal bull basically making it heretical to talk about or act like Christ didn’t own property. More exciting things happened between 1323 and 1331, but let’s just say the Franciscans and company basically lost the battle, and Christianity has hence forth been about manifesting your own wealth and collecting possessions rather than relinquishing them and trusting in God to provide.
With that in mind, I called up a sort of anti-religious guy I had met at some Methodist church. He was in his early thirties. Nice chap. Wasn’t blown away by the whole Christianity thing, but had gone to church since he was a kid and kept it up as way of engaging with his own tradition – just my kind of guy. So far as I could tell, Church for him also served the purpose of stimulating that part of the brain that likes to engage with bigger questions. I told him I was basically homeless and I needed a place to stay for the night. He gave me his address and I hoped on the train around 11 pm and headed to another part of the city. Somehow I got lost on the way there. I called him with like 5% of cell battery remaining and managed to pick me up in his car. We went back to his dismal little apartment where he offered me his couch, a few dollars for the train the next morning, and a sandwich. He was wonderful human being.
I woke up around 5:00 a.m. I had to catch the train back to my neck of the woods where I had prearranged with my friend to pick me up on a street corner and take me to my morning job where both he and I worked (my cell phone was dead and I had left my charger at work). Apparently I mistimed my arrival because my friend was long gone by the time I got there. I wandered to a small Russian Orthodox Church up the road, it was out of the way and quiet. I slept on the steps until 9-10 am. When I woke up I reminded myself of the story of Diogenes on the steps of a temple. As an homage, I looked for a bug to squish as a sacrifice to the gods but there was none to be found. The gods would go wanting that day.
I know it seems like I was going to a lot of Churches at the time. But let me impart upon you a lesson I learned from that time in case you ever end up without a place to go. Christians are oddly, but not in all cases, trusting (perhaps more than some people at least); I promise you that there is Church within a 20-block radius of you that leaves at least one door unlocked 24/7. The ones that have kitchens will also have unsupervised food to steal, and – because of some paradoxical form of socially ingrained religious reverence – you’re less likely to be accosted by vagrants or picked up by the police if you’re on Church property. The point is that they’re easy locations to drift around if you’re looking for a place to stay warm, possibly get a meal, and not get roughed up. The best part about going to Churches? If you show up on a weekday, dress sort of nice, use the right language, and act moderately pious you can usually get around the whole building unnoticed. I stole so many things (including some exquisite relics) from Churches because of this crucial little oversight on their part – just following in the footsteps of Pope John XXII really.
Well another night of this same thing went by, I slept outside the Church and waited to here back on a room I was trying to rent near my restaurant job. I was a recent hire as a bus boy. It was a fast moving place and I was going through training in about as clumsy a manner as possible. The rule for employment as a bus boy was that you had to have a table bused and clean within 50 seconds. My manager would stand there and time me – I have to wonder what the customers thought of the practice. No one said anything, but it seems pretty sick in hindsight.
I was consistently behind my allotted time for busing tables. Consistently just a few seconds over one minute. I’d take my bin full of dishes back to the kitchen as my manager would shake his head and point at his little stop watch. The bastard. This particular night was especially vexing for me and pivotal for the operations of the company. It was a Friday; lots of crowds and obviously the availability of seating is a top priority in those sorts of eating establishments. About half way through my evening shift my manager pulled me aside and told me that if I couldn’t make the 50-second mark he’d fire me that night. He told me that he thought I had “so much potential” and he was “disappointed” that I couldn’t meet this one single time demand. It had to be around this time that I realized capitalism was really just a means for brutal exploitation of one group over another. I mean let’s face it: potential? To do what – be a better bus boy for the benefit of the company?
Well he sent me on a 15-minute break to think over my failures. I went outside and stood next to the dumpsters. They were clearly getting some use that evening. I chuckled to myself that while I might lose employment at this place, it’s dumpster could just as easily become my home. I ran through options in my head. My ultimate conclusion was suicide. There was a tall building that I knew I could get to the roof of, and it was not all that far from my work. I’d jump off head-first and wouldn’t have to worry about this nonsense anymore.
Suicide is powerful tool. One we often overlook in America. I’ve always had a close relationship with the idea of my own demise. I like a fair amount of the conceptual underpinnings that go into the act of suicide. It wasn’t until years later when I started reading Marcus Aurelius that the idea crystallized in my head that one can always see suicide as a positive and readily available force while still living a good life. It’s a shame we don’t spend more time communing with our death in this country. It’s one of the most enigmatic, wretched, beautiful, and simple concepts to ponder.
That night at my restaurant was actually the closest I’ve come to preparing myself for death. In my head I was already dead. The plan was simple. I didn’t even need to go back to work if I didn’t want to. Really I just wanted to wait until it was darker. Less people out meant less chance of discovery and less chance of someone calling an ambulance. What you don’t want in a head-first roof jump is to somehow hit the pavement and live to be resuscitated by medical personnel . Paralysis, brain trauma, facial disfiguration – those were the sorts of permanent maladies I didn’t want to learn to cope with. No, I wanted to simply die and I was ready for it.
As I sat outside next to that smelly dumpster I cried a little bit. Cried because the book was over. Cried because I had grown attached to this little thing called my life, but realized it was time for it to end. Like euthanizing a beloved dog – it was for the best and even though I didn’t want to, I had to do it. It was a unique set of tears. Not sad about my status, not upset because life seemed like failing. Just sad that it was finally time to say goodbye.
Oh beautiful Fate. You sly temptress you. I believe I owe you an ode, a celebration of your mischief and cruelty. A praise of your eternal patience and tenderness.
With impish exactitude you pull at my heart
And batter me with your whims.
Yet when apart,
I only sign your hymns.
For you are my only true counterpart.
I pray for you swift return.
Yes, Fate had her way yet again. As I turned away from the dumpster and began my trek toward the building of my choosing, my phone rang. 9:30-something at night and a random person was calling me. I answered. A girl on the other end said she had seen I was looking for a room on a website and needed to get someone in immediately. It was surreal. Completely and utterly bizarre. I promptly accepted, took down all the pertinent information, told her I would see her after work, and hung up. I double checked my call log to make sure I had indeed received that call. Was it madness? Did such an event actually happen on my path to the Acheron River?
With a renewed – somewhat duty-bound – sense of purpose, I went back to work, hit my 50-second mark (I broke a glass in the process which I only learned later was both expected and not something the company cared about so long as the table was available), and spent the night in my new room that evening. No bed, but it was a comfy carpet.
Within three months I was fired from my bus boy (and by that time host and occasional server) job anyway. A comically irrelevant turn of events given that I had just secured a job as a marketing rep for large company by fortuitously charming a wealthier patron who was drinking at the restaurant bar. I’d be a mid-level marketing manager there in a month. But the actual tale of that escapade is, perhaps, best left for another day.