Given the fact that I probably never would have seen Whitney, the TV biopic starring Yaya DaCosta, if it hadn’t been playing in the Comfort Inn lobby, I became surprisingly invested in the story. As did the desk clerk. Every twenty minutes or so, he’d leave his perch, lean on the couch, watch.
I liked him—this clerk. Laid back. Didn’t mind that I sat there for a long time, tapping into the hotel’s warmth and wifi, or that I drank and drank coffee to stave and stave off sleep. I remember the coffee station toward the front of the room, near the TV, equipped with one of these swing-lid trash cans so trivial it felt like a frill, there for looks not function, always flooding. This clerk didn’t seem to care if I was the main contributor of drained creamer tubs and straws and doily-thick napkins used to sop up French roast spills.
But you never push your luck places—it’s one of the first lessons of being homeless—so I wouldn’t sit there all day, and certainly not all night; it was only a decent stopgap for feeling cold and fatigued and dim.
I developed an ambiguous regard for sleep during that time, and I gathered I wasn’t alone in this. Waking hours can be budgeted among various places open to the public, hours a through d earmarked for McDonald’s, where as long as you’ve bought coffee or something they’re too booming to fuss, hours e through h at Sheetz based on similar logic, etc. Picking a home for the night is stickier. If you’re fortunate enough to still have a car, which I did, your most immediate surroundings are given, the real estate question one of parking.
Before I met Malcom, I mostly opted for hotel parking lots. Where high turnover was the norm and it made enough sense that the back dash would be cluttered with traveler’s refuse. Which touches on what I considered one of my soundest devices: the backseat tent.
Here’s how it works: you take a couple blankets, one for each side, rope them through the suit jacket hangers in the backseat and tie them tight, running their loose ends under the front seat head rests, which you then clamp down as tightly as possible, and onto the back dash, where they’ll be weighted down with stuff. Any stuff will do. If you have four blankets, use the third to drape over both front seat headrests, sealing that space into a wall. In the fourth you cocoon. The rest of your grocery-bagged stuff is for bricking up the back window. And presto.
The choice of where to park has to account for the morning dismantling of your car tent. There’s always the chance that its joints will have weakened in the night and whole flaps of it fallen down—therefore the consideration of picking somewhere at the cross-section of safety in numbers and seclusion. Somewhere just deserted enough that you’ll have time to yank down the fabric walls and slip into the front seat without drawing attention to yourself.
I can attest to its net usefulness from the many times it worked and its frailty from the memorable times it failed me, as it did the night with the cop.
After I met Malcom, I mostly—like so many musclebound bros whose white shirts over their chests resemble rolling hills of snow—lived at the gym. He advised on that and other things I hadn’t considered. He told me to get a gym pass, it was worth it: open twenty-four hours, fluorescent, warm, water fountains, showers, wifi, magazines, human contact, etc., etc.
He told me about the laundry place, also open all night, where a person could not only improve on the art of spritzing days-old clothing with Febreeze but also—“the very best thing,” he said with a smile—park in the front two spaces, soaking up a strong wifi signal, watching TV if you had Netflix, relaxing, whatever.
I’ll always remember his sincerity in telling me this was the very best thing. I will remember it as the moment I wondered Is he an angel? And though “especially insightful human man” seems likelier, it felt seraphic that he comprehended the very low ceiling set on good news I could handle. While he wasn’t homeless, he was friends with several of us, and I often wondered how much of his wisdom had been picked up firsthand: he had a radical grasp on just how attenuated the world becomes, how little ownership you feel of even its public properties and free entertainment, how quickly you’ll shut out anyone rhapsodizing about wild gains from the nowhere you’re stranded.
He’s the one who told me, “You know John’s homeless too.” Something I already suspected.
John sat across from me most nights at Sheetz. He and I both used our laptops for work and were making enough for, at least, hot dogs and coffee. All memories from then are always vivid pangs, but the one attached to John is simple. I walked in one night and said hi to him and he sighed, happily I thought, and said, “Have a seat.”
John and Malcolm and I talked a lot. Malcolm told me one of his two jobs entailed delivering Chinese food and that he found it hilarious watching people try to contain their surprise at the young black guy bringing them chow mein. People were always expecting someone other than him. I’d already known John a little while when I met him. He was breezy and solid in one effort. The first person who asked me directly: “Homeless?”
From the top, the valley dropping from that question looks floorless. Maybe if you don’t admit it, your own argument goes, it will be less true.
But eventually I said, “Yes,” and he followed it up quickly with, “You know John is homeless too.” And then, “Do you have somewhere safe to stay at night?”
In addition to recognizing I was an amateur whose one half-clever notion of backseat tent building would get me only so far and giving me safety tips, he asked for my phone number and then texted me every so often just to make sure I was okay. I’ve been known to allude to my good fortune in having known a few truly great men in my life—here’s one.
Then one day he asked what happened, and I never went back. Didn’t respond at all, not even when he said he was sorry if he’d been pushy; it just seemed to him like I had a story to tell.
And I do. Hundreds I hope. Storytelling is what there was after everything else had been vultured. This is not one I’ve wanted to tell; it too easily seeps through the net, though, and ends up where it doesn’t belong. Casting misfit shadows over my storylines and coming out of characters’ mouths with the wrong inflection.
Once, not long ago in the grand scheme of things, I was homeless. The fact that there would be nothing of worth to take from the experience struck me when it was still brand new. When I’d known John a day or two and met Sally, who wandered in only to reorganize the sparse furnishings in her backpack and check the weather for that night, I got stern with myself: don’t learn more from this than there is to learn.
Get resurrected or die, body as well as soul, but don’t dwell.
This is a Sahara of meaning—a punishment of some sort. And the only message of a comeuppance so complete, the forfeiture of any constant human space, is not a lesson so much as a laugh. Ha.
You fell and somehow didn’t stop at the ground.
You were holding the camera and trying to back up far enough to get EVERYTHING in frame and you stepped blindly off the earth.
You were always a bit of a freak and loner, and finally you’ve crawled to the fringe.
You’ve appeared human for years, but this you’re doing is the activity of life less recognizable. The exterior configuration may look routine, but behind the walls is a wiring nightmare.
You are home.
But the determination to absorb nothing was a fool’s errand—I was porous to begin with and never so much as then. I made friends and I made memories.
I made the memory, for instance, of waking up in the middle of the night to a cop tapping on the window, getting out barefoot in the freezing cold, and digging through the trunk because he’d asked for my ID and I had no idea where it was. And then he told me to just stop. Get back in the car.
On one hand are all the familiar fears from my life and on the other is the scared I was then, that jagged question mark trailing the thought what’s about to happen to me
I’m writing this because of what he said next. Because I’ve continually looked for places outside myself to store it—because untold it’s undiluted and too potent—and in so doing have injected it in stories only to extract it days later, leaving holes, because the fit was poor. Because it felt like what it was: an imposition on characters who have different things to say.
Which doesn’t mean he was harsh.
“Are you between homes right now?”
He asked it and something unfroze.
I told him yes and he looked into the distance for what felt like an era—I’ve guessed at his thoughts a thousand times since—then he told me to be careful, not to linger too long at any one place lest my car stand out. With my heart attempting to pump blood to the moon, I drove over to my home Sheetz and sat there among the dwindled late crowd and let that word metastasize in my thoughts until it had wedged into all sorts of sentences where it didn’t seem to belong.
This felt more like an afterlife—having died, slept through my funeral, and woken to ghost the old familiar places once the mourners had gone back to work—but maybe that didn’t disqualify it as a zone in between. The climate was that of purgatory. Here a thick white fog shrunk visibility to arm’s length.
Here that fog erased before and after and offered to seep into your pores until inside you were blissfully blank. The wrong question could clear it but the moments it dissipated were stabbing; curiosity more perilous here than in Wonderland. Don’t ask people what happened because you already know endings don’t hatch from nothing, and the getting here was no good story.
In our stories we were afterward versions of ourselves, so densified we could fall hard through cracks. We failed with majesty. We lost our minds, limbs, family, work, any defined tomorrow. We didn’t crush problems in their infancy so they sprinted to adulthood, and grown they were beasts. We were critically hurt and no one saw it. We didn’t see it. We suffered without objecting; we confused hope, desperation, and foresight; we sat paralyzed in homes in which the floorboards were buckling, the walls convex, and the ceilings drooping from the pressure outside, and at a certain point, we determined there was nothing to do but wait for the forces to wad the whole structure like a first draft. Inside we were ill-suited to habitats and eventually our outsides caught up with our insides and down came the walls. The world shook, off it we tumbled, and when we’d landed we looked in the mirror—blood on your face, big disgrace—and found it hard to envision anything other than this version of ourselves. Ourselves in the after.
It’s a resilient idea, that you’ve outlived your own ending, that you’re a ghost affixed to a shadow that looks cunningly lifelike. The thought of being between is something else entirely.
Recently I stopped in Sheetz for gas and afterward drove to the Target where once, before I’d settled on a gym-home, I would go to clean up; they have a sizable bathroom with light traffic. There were things I needed from the store—I was preparing for a trip to Boston with my ghostwriting job—but I also wanted to drive the route again. For the various zigzags I once cut across the city to use up the day and avoid loitering, this was my most common. Here and back. In my memory it took three blocks to drive. In reality, it’s more like seven miles.
Meaning there are two possibilities. The space for that recall has wizened with time, abbreviating the roads as it condenses the endless string of nights into a few nice and less nice memories, or since that time the world has swollen.