Days Gone By (remembering homelessness in NYC)

Homelessness is a funny thing. I mean, just last week I was sitting on a subway train when those kids come through with the dollar candy–and thought, “Wow. You know, they must have kids sell candy so that they know what it will feel like to be a homeless person some day.” I recalled my own door-to-door days, selling girl scout cookies and wondered if it was preparing me for a life as a door-to-door vacuum salesman.
Until I found myself homeless, I couldn’t imagine it–or, perhaps I could, but it was far from the reality. Homelessness is one thing–but homelessness with a 10-pound Persian cat is quite another. It’s harder to find refuge in McDonald’s, at least. Harder to find refuge anywhere, for that matter.
Of course, I’m not like most homeless people on the streets–I have a graduate degree, friends I could call for help, couches offered to stay on–but this doesn’t make things better on a hot July day when you’re wandering the streets hauling 20 pounds of cat, litter box, and personal belongings.
My homelessness officially began on Independence Day, of all days. I vacated my old apartment, saving July rent money to put down as a deposit on the new apartment I had found. My best friend generously offered to let me stay on her couch and keep my things in her living room for the two weeks until July 15th, when the lease on the new place went into effect. She was out of town for a couple of weekends, so it really boiled down to my cohabitating with her only about a week. And all was fine. The cat was comfortable, my belongings stacked in the dining room, and anticipation built for moving into the new apartment and finally having my feet beneath me.
July 15th came and we went to get the keys. The realty office told us that our realtor wasn’t there and we should come back at 3pm when he would return. I trekked back from Williamsburg to Clinton Hill and waited, hoping to be able to scrape enough money together to rent a car service to transport me and my stuff and cat from the friend’s to the new apartment. The new roommate returned at 3 to the realtor’s, and was told that now the realtor wouldn’t be back until 7pm.
I began to get nervous.
Soon, 7pm turned into 8pm, turned into 9pm. I was pacing my friend’s apartment, feeling like biting my hands off. My roommate’s brother and the third roommate for the new place were waiting outside the new apartment, and although it was late, I decided to go and see what was happening. The hope was that Eric would show up and meet us with the keys. Even though it was too late to move that night, I figured I’d get the keys and do it first thing in the morning. The roommate, the brother and I waited outside the apartment, commiserating on the fact that this was ridiculous–why would it take 10 hours to get a set of keys. Something was amiss. Eric arrived, driven by the realtor, who told us that although he had signed the lease, although we had paid the deposit and the first month’s rent–they had given the apartment to someone else. They did, however, have another property to show us–which was available immediately. Somewhat in shock, we piled into the SUV and he drove us further into Bed-Stuy. I am not sure I was breathing. We pulled up at a corner, across the street from the Myrtle Projects, and the realtor took us upstairs to show us an apartment very much in the middle of reconstruction. The floors were sanded but not stained, there was no refrigerator, no stove, and although it was 3 bedrooms, it was 1/2 the size of the apartment we had taken. They wanted the same rental rate.
I began to panic. I was in the ghetto at 11:00 at night, being scammed. I asked them to take us back to where we had begun, explained that I needed my money back immediately, and that I had been staying on a couch for 2 weeks waiting for this apartment. I did NOT want to live by the projects–but now I had no choice but to find an apartment in the next 24 hours–so I needed the money to put down for a deposit. The guys (the roommates) and I were dumbfounded. Shocked beyond belief. Personally, I was also scared beyond belief. What if they didn’t give us our money back? These people were obviously capable of anything, so what if they didn’t? What was I going to do? I had taken the generosity of my friend, not only in staying with her, but in borrowing money to put down on the deposit. Now I had nothing.
So I went back to my friend’s, did not sleep, and sat up chain-smoking until the dawn. The next day I went to work and waited for word from Eric, who was supposed to be going to get our money back in the morning. I didn’t hear from him, and after several texts and no replies, I began to hit hard panic mode. I would say it waged far more than panic, and ended up somewhere near massive hysteria. I had a complete emotional meltdown at the spa. My coworkers and boss were sympathetic, and let me leave to go to Williamsburg myself to see what could be done. I walked home to my friend’s apartment, unsure if I was going to live through the day.
Eventually, Eric called and had gotten our money back. I finally breathed. Now all I had to do was find a place to live. And fast.
I told Eric and the other roommate, Chris–that I would be more than happy to live with them if they found another apartment, but it had to be an IMMEDIATE vacancy, because I had already overstayed at my friend’s house and needed a place ASAP. So the hunt began. My friend Amie at work was leaving town for the weekend and offered me her studio apartment to crash in while she was gone, so I took her up on it. I wanted to give my friend space, as I’d been inhabiting her living room for 2 weeks now, and having a place to myself sounded ideal.
My friend was happy to have the weekend to herself and I planned on leaving before she came home from work on Friday so she could relax after a tough week and do so alone. However, when I went to the spa I discovered that Amie had to go clean her place first and wouldn’t be there until probably 7pm. 3 hours… With what to do with myself? And my cat? Surely, I could stay at my friend’s a while longer, but I really didn’t want to. I felt guilty enough for having stayed as long as I had, and who doesn’t want to unwind after a long week by themselves? Without their “homeless friend” splaying anxiety all over the room. So I loaded up the cat in his carrier, emptied the litter box and packed a few clothes… And left.
Wandering the streets in July is not a fun business, but wandering the streets hauling 20 pounds of cat and bags is hell. Utter and complete hell. I literally made it 4 blocks from my friends and nearly collapsed. I stopped to buy bottled water and then cursed having to carry something else. So I drank it, and had to pee. I made it to the subway and thought, “Fuck it. This is it. We’re riding the rails, Java. It’s the only way we can get air-conditioning and I can sit down.” So down we went into the subways. I have never been so happy to get on a subway. I sat down and then, instead of riding the train end to end, decided to get off by Amie’s and go sit in Prospect Park while we waited it out. It was rush hour, and I knew once we hit Manhattan, subway surfing was not going to be so much fun–with all my difficult-to-maneuver luggage. So off we got. Another 30 minutes hobbling in the heat and I thought I was going to die. Again. I got to Prospect Park and sat down on top of the litter box and let Java out in a small quiet clearing, away from anyone in the park. Java, for all of his life, has never been an outdoor cat. Sitting in Prospect Park, I think I discovered that he’s actually agorophobic. One look around at the vastness of nature, and he bolted back into the carrier, leaving his tail the only thing outside the door. I tried giving him water–he was panting–but he had no interest in it. He was panting more from anxiety, I think–his version of hyperventillation. So we just sat. It was hot, but I was not moving or carrying anything, so it was bearable. We lasted about 30 minutes in the heat and I had a moment. “This is really it. This is what it’s like to have nowhere to go. This is as low as I have ever been in my life. I am homeless in New York. You can’t get any lower than that.”
Eventually I decided we should go find another haven. So I loaded up the cat … and walked. And walked. And walked. I wandered the neighborhood searching for someplace to escape the heat and the walking. I finally found a little Mexican cafe and sat outside, hiding the cat carrier behind my seat, as the sign stated that “Pets are not allowed in the outdoor seating area.” I figured it was the best I could do, and although it was still hot, it was less likely I could discreetly slip a cat and litter box inside to sit, so this was going to have to be it. The time passed and Amie called and came by to meet me and then we went to her apartment. I believe I sweated off 20 pounds yesterday–at least a pound for every one I was carrying. Amie left for Massachusetts, and Java and I sat. Java pretty much just collapsed on the floor and looked depressed. I pretty much did the same thing. We were quite a sight.
And I spent my first (and hopefully my only) 3 hours on the streets as a homeless person. With cat.
The good news is that Eric and Chris and I found another apartment. We are submitting the application on Monday, and if all goes well, we will hopefully be able to get in on Tuesday. And then I will officially end my days amongst the Homeless of New York. It has been quite a week. Most assuredly, the worst of my entire life.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the apartment Monday. And my toes. And every single hair I have on my body. Because if there is one thing I know–I cannot take much more of this.


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