By no means a writer, but here is a story I wrote for the intro to fiction writing class I dabbled in.
No one expects to be homeless, I certainly hadn’t and neither had Rob. As we walked down the street under a pink umbrella, Rob told me about his time in the army and how he ended up on the streets. I thought about my own life and my stint with homelessness. Graduating from Georgetown Law School in 2008 I had expected to go out, get hired by a firm, work my way up to partner, make millions. Looking back now I realize how naïve I was. The recession meant there were fewer people who could afford lawyers, and that meant firms were not hiring, especially people fresh out of law school. I ended up leaving law school $196,504 dollars in debt, unemployed, and with both parents dead, no place to live. After fourth months of job searching I ended up as a clerk for a local, independent lawyer in Seattle, but when his office was forced to close I found myself unemployed again. Jobless and crushed by interest payments on my loans I was driven out of my small apartment and onto the streets. Helpless and alone I remember consigning myself to the fact that I would forever be poor and homeless, that I was stuck where I was with no future. No one would help me. I told Rob the story of how that all changed, how I regained my life and how it all led up to me helping him. How we would not be talking if Karl had not almost hit me with his car.
Rain fell in Seattle, pattering against metal roofs and washing down skyscraper windows, then pooling into the puddles that filled every dip in the pavement. Taxi cabs blared their horns at jaywalkers, while those on the sidewalks rushed ahead with chins pressed to their chests, splashing through the puddles that dotted the pavement.
I sat under the two foot overhang of a small Mom and Pop convenience store. This was the thirteenth overhang that I had taken refuge under this night. Shops with “No Loitering” signs really meant it, especially when it came to homeless people. I didn’t blame them, though, what shop owners would want a smelly, dirty man huddled outside their door? Either I would dissuade customers from entering stores by asking for spare change, or I was waiting for the right moment to steal something. I’m not sure any of them even considered that I just wanted to get out of the rain.
I didn’t have a watch, but I probably sheltered outside the store for forty-five minutes before the owner threatened to call the cops. I double-checked my possessions (three AAA batteries, an empty chewing tobacco tin, my father’s wallet holding $3.87 worth of change, a light green headlamp, a woolen blanket, and a pair of winter gloves) and swung the camping backpack I had found in a Dumpster outside a camping store over my shoulders. I set off into the nighttime rain. With my departure, the shop owner leaned out his door and bid me farewell, “You wouldn’t be homeless if you weren’t lazy!”
I slowly made my way down the street, skirting the many puddles that confronted me. There was no rush. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I wasn’t in the mood to get shouted at by another shop owner, so I continued my shuffling march down the street.
Out of the darkness an unusually large puddle appeared. This puddle wasn’t like the others I had passed earlier in the night. It wasn’t formed because of an imperfect flatness of the laid cement. This puddle was hiding a pothole. What’s magnificent about a pothole is that it is different. Having started out like all the other puddles on the street, some additional imperfection caused a small hole to form. Then, as people trampled over that small hole it grew larger and larger, sometimes by small chunks, and other times losing large pieces of concrete. The pothole would gather all the shit and garbage that was left on the road. Like an infection, the pothole would have grown until, finally, people noticed it, then they would try to skirt the pothole, avoid the problem. No one wants to drive their car through a pothole, it shakes them, makes them remember that all around them there are imperfections in the road. The best thing about potholes is that even once they start to become a problem no one will bother to fix them until you can no longer change the course of a car to avert the rude bump. Once the pothole is unavoidable, someone comes by and applies a patch to the spot, and voila! the pothole is gone. Drivers then go over the new cement relieved that the problem has been fixed, that they can now ignore the problem. They pat themselves on the back and say “That’s our tax dollars at work, actually fixing things!” It’s funny they think the pothole has been fixed, because most patches don’t last long. Give it some time, and that pothole will reappear as if nothing was done to fix it in the first place. Drivers will then become disgruntled that the old problem has resurfaced. It’s a constant cycle. The pothole circle of life.
I can relate to potholes. Every poor or homeless person in America can. That’s why potholes are beautiful.
A weary, dirty, bearded man stared up at me out of the pothole.
“How’s it been friend?” I murmured. “How have the past three days been treating you?”
“It’s been good, huh? Something good happened to you? Did some generous soul let Alexander Hamilton buy a meal for you? Or no… it couldn’t be…”
The man in the pothole gave a knowing shrug, and a smirk creeped across his face.
“You dog, you!” I shouted, dancing my way around the pothole. “You’re off the streets? You have a house, a job, a refrigerator?”
I looked back at him. The man in the pothole was bent over, chest shaking, yellowing teeth stretched ear to ear.
“FUCK you!” I jammed my foot into pothole man’s face. He shattered, features rippling and distorting.
“Don’t rub it in, man,” I whispered. “Don’t do that to me.”
I didn’t look at him again, but I knew he was back. He always comes back. He’s the only person I’ve hit who hasn’t run away.
A car turned a corner and began to speed down the street towards me. I didn’t move. The darkness and my dirty clothes made me hard to see. I heard that being hit by a car wasn’t the worst way to go, so long as you got hit the right way. A quick impact and it would all be done with. I would no longer bother shopkeepers by squatting in front of their stores, people would get to keep their change, I would stop losing my mind, and I would cease to be a reminder to the more fortunate that this city, this country, isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.
The car was close. I closed my eyes, but still saw the illumination of the headlights through my eyelids.
There was a squeal of braking, and a wave of water from the pothole soaked me. Eyes still pressed closed, I heard a door slam and the quick approach of steps.
“Jesus buddy, I almost hit you! What are you doing standing in the road at night, trying to get yourself killed?” I felt a hand grab my shoulder. “Hey buddy, you doing okay?”
I cracked my eyes open slowly and found myself face to face with a broad shouldered, clean cut man with a touch of gray at his temples. He held himself like he was used to commanding people.
“Yeah…I’m uh, fine, sir.”
“What were you doing in the road?”
“Just talking to my friend.”
“What friend?” The man turned, searching the streets and sidewalks for pothole man, but he didn’t find him.
“He must have left” I muttered, lowering my eyes. This interaction with a real person was more than I had had in a long time, and even though I had become accustomed to my disheveled state, I still felt ashamed when seen by others.
“What’s your name?”
“Why do you care?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Look at me! Now look at yourself,” I jabbed a finger at him. “We are different. You made it I didn’t. You’re a success and I’m a failure.”
The man’s face didn’t change. It was as if I hadn’t said anything. This man was not going to leave until he knew my name.
“Paul Stevenson,” I mumbled, shoulders dropping.
He grabbed my hand and shook it firmly, “I’m Karl Benning. I’m sorry I almost hit you, Paul. Is there somewhere I can give you a ride to? Would hate to make you walk anywhere at this time of night in the rain.”
“That’s okay, I’m just going around the corner. My place is there.” I wanted this situation to be done with.
“Well I’ll take you there. I insist.”
“No really, it’s okay. It’ll be faster if I walk.”
Karl sighed, “You don’t have a place do you? This is your place isn’t it?” He swept his arm widely, taking in all the concrete, puddles, and alleyways. A raindrop fell from my nose, rippling the surface of the puddle. Pothole man giggled at me.
Karl turned his back to me and looked towards his car. He stood there for a minute contemplating. This was not the kind of man I could just walk away from without permission.
“Damnit. Alright Paul, you’re pretty fucked up,” he said tapping his head, “but get in the car, you’re coming home with me. You’ll stay the night, and tomorrow we’ll get something figured out. Get you some help.”
“What? Why?” My inability to grasp what he was saying annoyed him.
“I’m taking you off the street, and you are coming home with me. I don’t think you want to sleep out here, and I sure as hell don’t want to spend my evening in the rain. Now get in the damn car.”
The sun shone brightly, reflecting on the polished storefront windows and heating the sidewalk that Sandra and I strolled upon. It was a good day, not a gray cloud in the sky. Life was good. I placed my arm over Sandra’s shoulders pulling her close, she smiled and wrapped her arm around my waist. We continued this way for several blocks until we came to two small children next to a small plywood lemonade stand.
“Lemonade?” the smaller of the two asked.
“How much for two glasses?” Sandra said.
“Well,” the larger one said “its $3 for a cup, so two cups would be…” she quickly punched 3+3 into the “cashier” (a calculator) before proclaiming “$6. $6 for two cups of lemonade, please.”
Sandra and I chuckled at the outrageous price, but I decided that the presentation provided by the children justified the cost.
“Here you go.” I handed them a $10 bill. “Keep the change.”
“Thank you sir!” they chimed in unison. The larger one read from a slip of paper a note that must have been written by their parents. “We hope you enjoy your lemonade and have a wonderful day.”
As Sandra and I turned and walked away sipping our lemonade, the smaller one ran after me, tugged my arm, and said “Thank you for your generosity, sir,” before scampering back to the stand.
“That was kind of you,” Sandra beamed at me, “even though this lemonade is awful!”
It was only another few blocks before we were stopped again, only this time it was for a bag in the Michael Coors store. I gave Sandra my credit card to go inside and get the bag. As I was placing my wallet back into my pocket my fingers slipped, dropping my wallet into a pothole next to the sidewalk.
“Shit,” I grumbled.
My wallet had fallen into a small pool of water at the bottom of the pothole. As I pulled my wet wallet from the pool I caught a reflection of myself in the water, and I saw him: pothole man. He was as shocked to see me as I was to see him. I took a deep breath and paused. I knew it was really just my reflection, that pothole man and Paul Stevenson were really the same person, but for an instant it felt like it had been him. And seeing my old friend brought back memories of my darkest days. Memories that over the past ten years I had tried so hard to bury; memories of the creature that I had been.
During that car ride Karl had taken my story in complete silence. He then did more than I could have ever dreamed of, more than any government program could have done. Karl gave me a room in his three-story house, and most importantly, a job. Karl owned a business making medical equipment for hospitals, so he put me under one of the company’s lawyers in charge of writing sales contracts. It was incredibly dull, but I had a knack for it and I wasn’t about to squander the opportunity. After three years there I had gathered enough experience and courage to apply to several law firms in Seattle. I landed a job doing real estate law and, over the next ten years, slowly climbed my way up the corporate ladder until I got to the position I am in now, partner. I had more money than I knew what to do with, and I had Sandra.
Seeing pothole man in that puddle terrified me. Was I losing control? Was I sinking back to who I had become? I didn’t want anything to do with that life, and I never wanted Sandra to know what I had been. If she knew, she might leave me. I turned from the pothole just as Sandra exited the store with her new bag.
“Thank you Paul, it’s wonderful,” Sandra said, admiring her shiny black bag.
“Great,” I said more quickly than I meant to, “let’s go.” And without waiting for an answer I turned and walked down the street.
That evening I walked home from dropping Sandra off at her apartment. I hurried through the streets of Seattle with a pink umbrella that Sandra had let me borrow. The beautiful day had turned into a heavy evening rain that I had been unprepared for.
As I gingerly picked my way around puddles, I passed under a storefront overhang and, not watching where I was going, kicked a dark form.
A grunt of pain came from the huddled form followed by a raspy “Watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“Course you didn’t, no one ever sees me. No one wants to see me.”
I bowed my head in shame. The middle-aged man sat wrapped in a threadbare blanket, two brilliantly colored hats crammed on his head, a small collection of plastic bags filled with god knows what rested by his side, and a small cardboard sign sat in front of him with the words ‘I fought your wars for you, got any change?’
“I’m sorry, I really am.”
As I turned to go the man thrust out his sign and rasped “Hey, you know I wasn’t always like this, I had a future. You got any change to help an old vet?”
I opened my mouth to express superficial regret on how I couldn’t help him, but a shiver down my spine froze me. I knew exactly what this man had gone through. I had been there, felt the same fears, the cold, the hate, the hunger, the hopelessness. I wanted to help this man. I had been this man. But as I opened myself up to the pain I knew he was suffering I felt those old fears returning, bubbling up inside of me even as I frantically tried to squash them.
“Are you going to give me some money, or are you going to keep staring at me like I’m one of them chimpanzees at the zoo?”
My face turned red, ashamed. What a hypocrite I was, what a coward. Helping this man wasn’t going to make me homeless. Being homeless had been a part of me, and I was never going to escape that fact. All those fears would forever stay with me, I would never outrun them. I needed to accept who I had been.
“What’s your name?”
I stuck out my hand, “nice to meet you Rob, my name is Paul Stevenson. If you’ll trust me, I’d like to help you.”