Can You See Yourself Homeless? [ I Could ]
The other night, after Beth and I came back to our home in Santa Cruz after spending part of the day up in Silicon Valley meeting with people and hosting a seminar, we were sitting on our small front porch. Someone was rooting around the trash dumpsters.
This is not unusual. Santa Cruz is a college town, and students are finishing up the spring semester. When they leave, they often dump their old stuff around the dumpsters.
This gentleman, we’ll call him John, was awkwardly gathering up all the student’s discards and putting them into his old pickup truck. It was an old medium-sized pickup with a camper shell that covers the pickup bed. There was also a rack on top where he could store more stuff if needed.
As soon as John heard us up on our 2nd-floor porch, he thanked us for letting him take these items – explaining how he was going to give them to his mother and apologized for making so much noise. He was making a big racket as he scavenged through the dumpsters. Nothing seemed to be going right for him. He kept dropping things as he loaded the truck. When the metal poles and shelving hit the driveway, they would rattle about loudly. Adding to his frustration, the rear door to the camper shell didn’t stay open, so every time he tried to load something, he had to prop it open with his head. It was almost comical.
John seemed familiar to me. He was very polite and articulate as he spoke loudly to us.
I said to Beth, “This guy is a victim. He’s making his life so difficult, and I can sense he feels the pressure of us looking down on him.”
He kept making trips back and forth from the pile of discarded items to his truck. Finally, he loaded the last thing – a queen sized mattress on the top of the camper shell. After he loudly thanked us a few more times, he was ready to go.
I suddenly noticed something very familiar. “I haven’t heard that in a long time,” I blurted to Beth as we continued chatting and observing the commotion below.
“What’s that?” she questioned.
“He started the car before he closed the door. Do you know why you do that?”
“I didn’t even notice.” she said, “Why?’
“You do that when you aren’t sure the car will start.”
I remember growing up with very unreliable cars. I’ve been stranded many times – with my family as a youngster and by myself with my own clunkers. I’ve spent many hours deep under the hood trying to coax an engine to life so I could get home, to work, or to school.
I knew first hand that when you drive an old beater, you make sure it’s going to start before you bother closing the door.
Today we live on a very small street with the communal dumpsters at the back. John had to turn his truck around in a small space to leave. With all the commotion and noise he made loading his truck, the other neighbors had their lights on and were looking to see what was going on outside.
As I continued to stare down at John and watch his every move, Beth said something that was both insightful and hurtful.
“I can see some of the old you in him.”
I was instantly hit by feelings of anger, sadness, and surprisingly, a sense of pride. I knew she was right. I could relate to this guy on so many levels. In my mind, I was just a few choices away from being him.
I could have let depression keep a tight hold of me and continued down one of the many spirals of despair and hopelessness I’ve lived through. I remember during one particularly painful bought of depression, thinking should live somewhere warm near the beach if I was going to be homeless. My plan was to move to San Diego when the time came, but I could have just as well settled for Santa Cruz.
After hearing Beth’s comment, the old me would have gotten very angry. I would have lashed out and told her she was picking on me, and she didn’t know how that made me feel. I would have stomped away and gone someplace to sulk and feel sorry for myself. I’ve reacted this way so many times in the past.
This time, I said, “It hurts for you to say that, but you’re right.”
I could hear what she was saying and, while I had a touch of my old defensiveness, I was able to listen to the truth.
She also said, “I’m proud of you and the person you’ve become. The changes in you, especially in the past few years, is phenomenal. I love you.”
John finally tried to back out of the street, but not before running into a car and being confronted by the dozen or so neighbors who were now outside. I could hear him pleading with them to let him go. He offered to give them his last $300 to repair their car if they would let him drive away. He said he was homeless and was sure the police would impound his truck. He didn’t want to sleep on the street again.
Poor John, I thought. He is living such a tough life. It was odd for me to be sitting up on my beautiful patio, with my lovely wife, living my now fulfilling life.
I could relate to John on such a deep level. I know how easily I could have been him. That’s what drives me to write and share all I’ve learned and try to reach out to people, including those like John and the old me.