I recently spent a week in New York City. I stayed at a luxury hotel. I went to Broadway shows. I drank twenty-five dollar cocktails and ate in lovely restaurants where the staff encourages upgrading from gratis water to something bottled and aerated.
And I am almost homeless.
Pop-Pop, my paternal grandfather, went every morning to mass at Saint Peter’s Holy Roman Catholic Church to which he gave ten percent of all he earned, he watched Lawrence Welk and the evening news religiously, seldom spoke other than chanting the evening rosary, considered his very rare hissing “son of a snake” a curse requiring confession and penance, and he never had a charge card. He paid for everything with cash and if he didn’t have savings enough for something, he didn’t buy it. He faithfully filled tiny journals with two column lists of every purchase and its price. The once a week trips to the grocery store were followed by his re-writing of the sales slip into these notebooks, where also were entered amounts spent on gas, heating oil, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, doctor visits, medicine, and the not infrequent loans and gifts to relatives who were less frugal than Pop-Pop, which, in the end, turned out to have been almost all of his descendants of which I am considered one of the most flagrantly, hopelessly, failed and profligate. Financially. And, well, in other ways too.
Perhaps I am. Perhaps, not.
When I arrived in New York for my birthday trip,unwilling to spend money on a cab, I lugged my bags on a beautiful walk from Penn Station to the Algonquin. I, like Pop-Pop before me — under very different circumstances in a very different world — have no charge card. My entire trip was an incredibly generous gift from friends, the hotel stay paid in advance, but when I tried to check in I was informed by a desk clerk who was quite rude, increasingly loud and seemingly intent on embarrassing and shaming me, that the Marriott Corporation’s policy required I have a credit card to cover expenses I might incur while staying in their hotel or I would not be allowed to check in to my fully paid for room. I wonder if Pop-Pop was ever reduced to weeping because his lack of a charge card inspired Marriott (or, other corporate) tools to treat him like a criminal, unworthy of the benefits of capitalism, an outlier of society unwelcome in their place of business?
Other patrons in the lobby and employees behind the desk averted their eyes from me and my situation, as if, somehow, my place on the financial grid was contagious; that I didn’t fit the profile the Algonquin/Marriott corporation required to treat me with respect and decency not only left me feeling humiliated and guilty, but it made everyone else in my vicinity uncomfortable. I might as well have been the fellow sitting half a block away, his “I’m down on my luck” cardboard sign asking for change. How had I gotten there and what was I doing, making all those other credit-card-carrying folk have to pretend I wasn’t happening?
I asked myself the same question.
Let me be clear, my life choices were mine. I own this. To the degree that here, where I am, going (or not going), is the result of my own intemperate dissipation and self-indulgent dissolution, so be it. Let me also be clear, I am grateful to those others who have given me kindness and assistance and support of every variety — financial, emotional, spiritual — from which I’ve benefitted. I have been helped and held and housed by some of the best (and some of the worst, but that, not the story today) and my journey has been full of much joy.
Yet, as I sit here suffering stress-induced IBD, spastic colon, and cramping, filling out financial forms with cover letters and references trying to explain why I’ve made so little money in each of the last five years I haven’t had to file taxes; to make clear why the bankruptcy almost two decades ago over less than five thousand dollars seemed the only way out at the time; being asked to justify the life I’m now leading — this semi-off-the-grid, not trying to spend another twenty years working at something to have to lose it all/give it away, uninterested in the having to have a degree/title -play the game -build the brand – spin the spin – just want a way to read, eat a little, go to the gym, take care of my Mom and others, and be left quietly alone world in which I live, I can’t help but feel a bit hopeless. And a lot — a very lot — tired.
And failed. And, did I mention, tired?
I’ve been homeless before. Felt homeless before. I was asked to leave my Mom’s home when I was sixteen. Not without cause. But I knew then, felt then, “I will never have a home again.” It was scary and awful. I lived a lot of places, my favorite being Libertytown, in the home my grandfather had bought and we’d owned for nearly 100 years when by family decision it was sold when just my aunt and I lived there. I was asked by another aunt and uncle to stay with my aunt for that move, my aunt who had NEVER in her sixty-plus years lived anywhere but that house in Libertytown, who had rightly (I think) believed that having spent her entire life taking care of Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom and everyone else (me included) she would get to die there. I knew then, felt then, “My base is gone, this center of who I am won’t be here for me anymore.” And just a few years ago, something not dissimilar but too invasive of another’s privacy a story to tell occurred and again, I was without a home, without a part of me with which I’d long identified.
Stories. We all have stories. Others might have thrived or blossomed from these homeless-nesses. I didn’t. I deliquesced. Again, a choice. I wanted, that last time, to become simpler. To have less to carry with me. To depend less on what the world said ought and should and must be.
A choice. Perhaps, not so wise. And so…here I am. Almost homeless, again.
There is a memoir to be written of my life, but, it seems I won’t be the one writing it, and, truth, everyone’s life deserves a memoir. And everyone’s life, eventually, disappears. When I was still teaching theatre, I would regularly introduce into conversations the names and work of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman and Barbara Cook and Judy Garland, about whom fewer and fewer knew. When they didn’t even know who Barbra Streisand was, my life seemed to lose most of its meaning. And, never, in all my years of teaching, did any of those children have any idea who Joan Didion or Dorothy Parker were.
Last night on Power Player Jeopardy, Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, was unable to come up with the “what is the NAACP” when asked what organization Julian Bond had been chairman of from 1998 to 2010.
History fades. Things disappear. We are not remembered. We do not have charge cards and so we are not worthy. We may once have held people up and taken care of others and tended to them and encouraged them and worked in the corporate world and owned our own businesses and saved and earned and played the game, but, when we don’t, or when it’s over, well then, we are no longer entitled to occupy space on the game board.
But dear ones, had I managed to not go bankrupt; to get another job in insurance when that company folded; to stay in one of my abusive, emotionally crippling relationships and maintained financial stability that way; bought fewer books; said yes to men or women I didn’t care for who might have taken care of me; fought instead of surrendered; queried two thousand agents; auditioned more; gone to Jesuit boarding school as a child when the church wanted to send me; taken a few more pills when I was fifteen and tried to off myself; left that New Haven bar with the guy who wanted me to snort coke off his cock in the bathroom; learned to say no; if/then — maybe I’d still have savings or a job or a lover or less despair, and maybe A and B and J and D and P and J and others would have behaved differently, loved me more, judged me less, stood up for me and with me.
So what? The ending is the same. We disappear. We are, at most, relics of lost times and stories on display in a museum for someone to maybe see, maybe understand, maybe not.
This blog is my cardboard sign, I suppose. My “down on my luck, spare some change?” please notice.
But, I recently had a magical week in New York where much of my time was spent with people much better at the game than am I, than I ever was. People whose choices were better, who worked harder and with more acumen at things I might have and perhaps should have done, people who planned better, believed better, loved better; people who would not have started crying at the Algonquin front desk, but, rather, would have stood up (or sat in or something-ed) for themselves.
I also spent time with an illegal Russian immigrant, P, who left his country and home so he wouldn’t be killed for being gay. Who works catering jobs now using a social security number he “rents” and who hopes to make it into a dance company. In the meantime, he turns tricks as a masseur/escort. He’s virtually homeless.
Bad choice: I asked him to marry me to get him citizenship. Here’s how good I am at love: he told me I was too gullible and should go home. Which I did. Although, now, see there, I am almost homeless.
Neither P nor those New York pals who are deservedly successful are my life . It isn’t who I am. And while — as I said — the choices I’ve made were my choices, my responsibility and I own them — I never really fit anywhere on that grid of what is called “success” and during the periods of my life when I seemed part of the upwardly mobile climb, I felt always a fraud and afraid of being found out.
I was always more like P; a visitor, borrowing part of someone else so as to be allowed in, dreaming crazy dreams, waiting to be expelled, found out.
Well, I’m found out now. I am poor. I am almost homeless. And I am not ever going to really have a place on that grid. So, as I have in the past, I will have to find some way to make who I am, how I am, what I am, where I am, work.
Until I don’t. Until, somehow, I find, again, home.
Or, someone gullible asks me to marry him. I, unlike P, would say yes. No doubt he could tell I was a bad risk. Ah life.
Later pals. Need to fill out some more financial forms because, you know, there’s always an Algonquin clerk somewhere eager to sneer at you for not having a charge card.