As a rule I try not to be metaphorical. I try to just let things be what they are, not invest them with personal or prophetic meaning. Clouds on the horizon are just a storm front; a rose blooming in autumn must be near a vent. I don’t derive lessons from nature. Ants may be industrious and bees may be busy, but they are insects and will die within two to four months. The cosmos also says nothing to me. I once thought string theory had implications for my life, but I was very stoned.
But my last day at work in August of 2009 I got this weird virus on my computer. It was one of those ones that’s so annoying, so insidious, that the only way to get rid of it is to save what you can and wipe out the system. Everything: just gone. So that’s what happened. I called the IT guy, and he came and just wiped me out. Everything: me: just gone. And I try not to be metaphorical, but on my last day of work, as I stared into the maw of the Great Recession, I tried not to think about how easily you can be erased.
People were very nice. The director of the organization sent around the let’s-all-wish-Jeffrey-the-best e-mail; a couple friends from the office took me out for lunch. Before I left, I went around to each department to say goodbye to people, and everyone was very reassuring, very kind, very hopeful. “You’ll find something,” they said. But when they hugged me goodbye or shook hands there was a look in their eye I couldn’t at first quite place. But then I remembered where I’d seen it before: in movies about the Titanic.
I loathe irony. And I’ve been ironic myself—though I’ve found that it can be controlled by medication. I have irony in my blood: my grandmother was Irish, Irish Catholic, and irony for an Irish Catholic is more powerful than grace, more mysterious than the Trinity. Irony for an Irish Catholic is the left-handed presence of God.
My parish growing up was founded by a hardworking and ambitious priest named Father Doyle, and had a very strong Irish Catholic contingent. The parish was thriving: baptisms and first communions were up, funerals were holding steady, collections were good, and Father Doyle was a tireless fundraiser. He built a new gym for the school, he repaved the parking lot; it was rumored he even redid the convent. Yet for all his work, his efforts had never really been recognized by the archdiocese, and many in the parish—including, some said, Father Doyle himself—felt he had been slighted.
Then, on the parish’s 25th anniversary, the archbishop named Father Doyle a monsignor. Being a monsignor is really no big deal—you basically just have to get new stationery—but it was enough to appease the Irish. It was also a costume change. Monsignors get to have purple trim on their cassocks and purple buttons, so between the stationery and the purple trim it’s a fairly gay promotion.
Then Father Doyle died. Which was only the first wave of irony, and in no way prepared one for the tsunami that was to follow: the first time Father Doyle would wear his monsignorial robes would be at his own funeral. At the sight of the corpse in its purple-trimmed cassock the Irish in the parish went into ecstasies of irony. Mrs. Connor nearly spoke in tongues.
I loathe irony, and the irony here was that this job, the one I had just lost, was the one that was supposed to have saved me, the one that was supposed to start making things okay. Because they hadn’t been okay, they weren’t okay at all. Before this job, I had been unemployed for four months, from October, 2008, the month after Lehman Brothers collapsed, through February of 2009—four months in which I bounced from crisis to crisis, from anxiety to depression, from Social Services to Housing Court.
When Lehman Brothers went, I knew something serious had happened; but like many Americans, while I recognize seriousness in the world, I very rarely see how it applies to me. Besides, I tend to be the type who lands on his feet. I see myself as hopeful but not optimistic. For years I had moved from one day job to another with relative ease, mostly gypsy proofreading stuff. Unfortunately, though, in social upheavals the gypsies are the first to go. I registered with a bunch of temp agencies. I did great on the tests, everybody loved my grammar, everybody loved my punctuation; then they’d sign me up and tell me there were simply no jobs, there hadn’t been for weeks. That’s when it first hit me that these were going to be hard times for grammarians. But I kept in touch with the agencies, sent them my availability. I checked out six, seven, eight job websites every day. At the beginning I was getting out four or five resumes a day. Within a few weeks, I was lucky to get out one.
In 1916, in the middle of World War I, when Great Britain had already lost over half a million soldiers and people actually thought that the war might go on forever, the War Office initiated a poster campaign throughout the country reminding people to “Remain Cheerful.” You either love the British for this sort of thing or you hate them: British Pluck. I hoped I might have pluck genetically. My grandfather was English. Though he seems to have lacked the pluck gene himself. He was frequently unemployed, more frequently drunk, disappeared for stretches at a time, and finally died in a flop house. On Easter Sunday. The irony kept my grandmother going for years.
The floors at Social Services are color-coded. The purple floor (a listless lilac), is sign-in and pickup; the green floor is housing; the blue is food stamps. The colors are to help you remain cheerful while you wait hours—seven, the first time I went—for a case worker to come out and scream a version of your name that makes you sound like an alien race on Star Trek. I first went to Social Services in November 2008, the first of about twenty visits over the coming year. I was there because I was about to miss my first rent payment and was trying to get an emergency loan.
Somewhere in the fourth or fifth hour, staring at the green wall, I had the strange thought that I had “come down in the world.” What was strange about it in the first place is that if I had indeed come down in the world, it hadn’t been all that great a fall. I simply went from being a midlevel hourly worker to someone with no level, no hours, and no work at all. All I really did was go from being one of the working poor to poverty pure and simple (Somewhere around December I remember thinking, “Oh, this is why they call it ‘abject.’”)
The other reason it was strange is that it’s not an expression I really use. Oh, I know there are a few times when I’ve said, “Well, she’s certainly come down in the world,” but I don’t know why I would be getting campy at Social Services. But then, the real thought wasn’t about coming down in the world. The real thought was about my life now being officially out of control. Some unraveling was underway; my life was beginning to undergo a dissolving about which I didn’t feel entirely Buddhist. At the end of the day the case worker told me they couldn’t help with my rent because I still had six hundred dollars in the bank. But I got food stamps.
A good friend of mine is also on food stamps, and we were comparing notes. You can use them to get candy, but she tried to get this big fancy-ass assortment at Christmas and they said no. You’re not supposed to be able to use them on prepared foods, but they let you use them for the barbecue chicken at the Associated on14th Street. You can get soda with them, but at D’Agostino’s you have to pay the bottle deposit in cash. And best of all: you can use them at Zabar’s. We also compared our cycles. Your food stamps recharge automatically on the same day every month. My stamps recharge on the 9th of the month, Susan’s on the 6th. I told her that if we hung around each other long enough, eventually our cycles would coordinate.
The next few months were a time of dull chaos. A time when I was waiting to be evicted; constantly scrambling for money; bargaining; begging. A time when it first occurred to me that maybe I couldn’t take care of myself; that maybe I had failed. A time when I had moments where I told myself things should have worked out differently—and other moments where I told myself things couldn’t have worked out differently at all. For a while I would get these weird rushes of hope. Then I didn’t.
I fell into a rough schedule: got up; had my coffee; meditated; exercised; ate; read the paper; hit the job websites, got out some résumés, remained cheerful. In the afternoon I’d read and have a small bite to eat. Tea and a bun. The grocery store had these rolls, just sixty-nine cents each, that are great just with butter. So in the afternoon I’d have tea and a bun and read Dickens. It was easier to be hungry if I pretended I was in Victorian England.
The good thing about your life collapsing is that it gives you lots of time to read. I read Hard Times by Dickens, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the abridged version), Kafka’s letter to his father, and a lot of Grimm’s fairy tales. There are a number of Grimm’s fairy tales about sons going out into the world to prove themselves. Sometimes they win the hand of a princess, or come home with a new donkey or a goat. One son who succeeds comes home with cheese. And there are other tales about sons, usually youngest sons, sons with names like Peter Clodhopper and Hans the Dolt, who also go out into the world, and if they succeed, it’s because their particular brand of stupidity was in the right place at the right time. These sons very often end up with princesses, if only for the irony of a princess having to marry a dolt. And it’s a particularly doltish youngest son who gets the cheese.
There’s also a Grimm’s fairy tale called The Death of the Hen. A hen and her husband, whom she calls Cock, make an agreement that whatever food they find they’ll split. But then one day Hen is off foraging on her own and comes across this big nut, and decides she’s going to eat the whole thing herself. But the nut’s so big it gets stuck in her throat, and she calls “Cock! Cock!” Cock comes running, she says she’s got a big nut in her throat and he’s got to get her some water. Cock runs and asks the stream for some water, but the stream says he won’t give him water unless he goes and gets him a red silk thread from the princess. So Cock runs to the princess and asks for the red thread, but the princess says first he has to get a garland down out of a tree. Cock finds the tree, gets the garland down, gives it to the princess, she gives him the thread, he gives it to the stream, the stream gives him water, he runs to Hen, but it’s too late: she’s dead.
Cock is terribly sad. Six little mice build a little cart, put Hen’s body on it, and begin pulling it to a meadow to be buried. Along the way they meet the fox. When Cock tells the fox that he’s burying Hen, the fox asks if he can come along. Cock says okay, so the fox joins the funeral procession, as does the wolf, the bear, the lion, and the stag. But they come to a stream that’s too wide to cross. A talking piece of wood says, “I’ll be a bridge for you!” Cock crosses over first, carrying Hen’s body. But while the little mice are crossing, the piece of wood gives way and the six little mice are swept into the stream and drowned. Now Cock is on one side of the stream, and the fox and the other mourners are on the other. A talking stone says, “You can step on me!”, but as the animals are crossing over the stone gives way, and the fox, the wolf, the stag, and the bear are all swept into the stream and killed.
Now Cock is all alone with Hen’s body. He finally gets so sad he dies.
And I read the newspaper. I’d always read the article about the monthly labor statistics, about how many jobs had been lost, how many thousands and thousands that month, by the end of the year over four million. I read the article about the middle-aged woman who’d sent out over 600 resumes and got three interviews, two of them by phone; who said she no longer had any self-esteem. I read several articles about how unemployed old people would probably never work again. But then I also read an article that said old people shouldn’t feel bad about never working again because probably nobody was ever going to work again. I tried not to read the article about old people who will never work again killing themselves with greater frequency and fervor than other people who will never work again. I can’t say I was suicidal myself, at least not in the traditional way: I didn’t want to kill myself—but I wouldn’t have minded being dead. Dead people don’t have to go to job fairs.
I read in the afternoon; wrote at night; slept; didn’t sleep. November rent never got paid, and in December the landlord started grumbling in earnest. I begged him for time, for patience, and the grumbling was replaced by an even scarier silence. Then I missed December rent, and shortly after Christmas he called to say they were “moving to legal.” I told him I’d have money from a translation job right after the holidays, but he wasn’t interested. A few days after New Year’s I was sitting at my desk when there was a pounding at the door so loud and so crazy I almost called 911 because I thought a maniac had gotten into the building. It was the city marshal with my eviction notice. I had seven business days to report to Housing Court. The good news was that I had only $3.93 in the bank. Maybe now Social Services could help me.
I started to have Greyhound thoughts. I thought that, push came to shove and I was out on the street, I would take whatever money I still had and just take a Greyhound to wherever I could get. I have a good friend in Ohio, one in New Mexico, another in Oregon. They all said I could stay with them. They’d meet me at the bus station, they’d take me home and there’d be a fold-out couch in the basement. I’d get a job at the local diner washing dishes. I’d keep a journal. (In some versions of the fantasy I’d burn off my fingerprints and get a fake social security number.) But the point was: I’d be somewhere. I’d be kind of okay. I’d be safe.
At Social Services I had finally reached sufficient squalor to qualify for an emergency loan. It would take several weeks for it to be processed, but in the meantime they gave me a slip of paper to show at Housing Court. Then Housing Court gave me a piece of paper to show to Social Services. (There are also Grimm’s fairy tales where the dolt son has to carry letters between wizards and evil queens.) The other good news—amazing news—I could tell Housing Court was that I had a part-time job that would start in March.
This was the job that was supposed to start making everything okay: Doing PR and translation for a cultural organization funded by the German government. It was only twenty hours a week, but I thought if I could supplement it with enough freelance, I might be able to make it. But the bottom line was: I had a job. I was working again.
And then I wasn’t. The recession hit Germany, government funding was cut back, and I was low man on das Totempole. So six months after I started, I no longer had a job. That was the end of August 2009. By the end of September I also no longer had an apartment.
A couple weeks before my last day at work I missed my stipulation payment from Housing Court, which meant my landlord could begin eviction proceedings again—for the last time. Earlier in the summer he had sent me a lease renewal with a $100 increase. He clearly wanted me out, and I couldn’t fight anymore. I’d tried Social Services, I’d tried the Coalition for the Homeless, I’d tried the United Way, Legal Aid, the DHCR, I’d tried neighborhood associations, I’d tried the Catholics, I’d tried the Protestants, I’d tried the Jews. It was over. I wrote an e-mail to the landlord saying I couldn’t renew, and that he should just use my security deposit as my final month’s rent. And when I was through writing it, I thought, “When I hit the send button, I’ll be homeless.”
Flying the flag upside down is an old and universal distress signal. It isn’t, however, entirely accurate. With flags that are symmetrical—like Japan’s, Spain’s, or Argentina’s—it’s impossible to tell if they’re inverted. Japanese ships are either always or never in distress. Flags with only two bands of color are also problematic. If you invert the Polish flag, which is white on top and red on the bottom, it looks like the flag of Monaco or Indonesia, which is red on top and white on the bottom. There’s also the possibility that other ships, especially American ships, may not even know whether another country’s flag is upside down or not. Mountain distress signals are based on groups of three, or six in the United Kingdom and European Alps. A distress signal can be three fires, three piles of rocks, three blasts on a whistle, three flashes of light. Three blasts or flashes is the appropriate response. To communicate with a helicopter in sight, raise both arms (forming the letter Y) to indicate "Yes, I need help." It may also make the helicopter operator think you’re doing Evita, but if the guy driving the helicopter is a musicals queen, you’re already saved.
I have wonderful-wonderful friends, and as my life drifted further into flux, my friends were a constant, always there with a place to stay; money; advice. One friend said if I did the Greyhound thing I should definitely blog. For about forty-eight hours I thought I might be sleeping in Washington Square Park—I put a note on the refrigerator: “Check benches.”—when a friend whose son was away at school said I could stay in his room Monday through Friday, and another friend said I could stay at her place on the weekends. The irony here was that both these apartments were better than the one I was abandoning, and I imagine I’m one of the few people for whom homelessness was actually an upgrade.
I put the dismantlement of my apartment on a schedule—first books and accessories; then kitchenware; then clothes—holding off on the desk, the bed, and the couch till the very end. There’s something comforting about schedules. They give you something to focus on—and less time for getting teary over paperback Jane Austens. Still, while I started out calmly enough, focused enough, after a while an undertow of mild panic set in as the apartment got emptier and I realized this wasn’t a move, it was an evacuation.
I took a whole bunch of clothes over to the homeless guys who sell stuff on 6th Avenue by the West 4th Street station—usually records, paperbacks, old magazines, not a lot of clothes. But one guy took the whole bunch, and I preferred giving them to him rather than to the Salvation Army. Those uniforms always creeped me out (though the women’s bonnets are kind of fun). And then there’s just the whole salvation thing…
On October first I showed up at my friend Ann’s with just my clothes, my dictionaries, and my weights; and fell asleep that night in her son’s bed, surrounded by Yankee memorabilia, staring at a new ceiling, grateful, terrified.
I very rarely remember my dreams, but as the surface of my life grew more porous, my psyche started peeking through more distinctly…
I dreamt that I had had my wallet stolen in the People’s Republic of China. I got the wallet back, but everything had been removed except for a phone card in a plastic sleeve. I was traveling with an attractive, dark-haired woman who wasn’t concerned at all and said we must simply find a phone, call Chase, and get some money to get home. We started walking down the sidewalk to look for a phone. China was very dirty.
I had what was clearly an economy dream: I was in a scientific station far beneath the ocean, so far down that I wondered how we weren’t crushed by the water pressure. The scientists told me that the sharks were sick, but not only had they developed a medicine for them, they had figured out a way for the sharks to give the medicine to themselves. “Are you sure?” I said, and they said, “Oh yes, you’ll see.” But we waited and waited, and the sharks never showed up, the demonstration never happened, and I kept saying you couldn’t get sharks to give medicine to themselves and the scientists kept saying oh yes, yes you could.
I had several dreams about my first boyfriend, Joe. He was the first guy who ever told me he loved me, the first I ever said I loved back. I was seventeen. In the dreams I was back in the suburb where we grew up; there was always some kind of party going on: a birthday party; a barbecue. Joe never actually appeared in the dreams, but I knew he was there. There was meat on the grill, people were partying, happy, and there was someone somewhere in the house who loved me.
I dreamt about throwing a bookcase into the ocean, and watching it get torn apart by the waves.
I dreamt that a doctor told me I had cancer.
I didn’t want this next bout of unemployment to be as bad as the earlier one, and I told myself that this time it was going to be different. From day one I told myself, “I will not become myopic and morose.” And I frequently reminded myself not to become myopic and morose. Some days it worked; some days it didn’t. I also thought things would be different this time because this time I’d be getting unemployment. But then, after waiting seven weeks, I was told I didn’t qualify for unemployment because I had worked for a foreign government. So for over a year I lived on a $383-a-month annuity check and whatever temp work and freelance I could round up.
I reminded myself that I wasn’t unemployed. I was a writer. And while the two are often synonymous, I actually had stuff going on: in September, right after my job ended, my first book was published, a fairly popular piece of gay pornography. It didn’t make much money, but it was enough to know I’d made some people happy. Very happy. And that same month I got a gig translating a popular German sex guide called Bend Over! For a while there it looked like I might ride out the recession on cult pornography and anal sex. But I found I needed to keep a boundary between my life as an artist and my life as a wage slave: I nearly got caught at a temp job googling German lubricants.
I kept busy. I did my job stuff, I translated, I wrote, I read, I tutored at the library, I did as much as I could. It made me feel like I had some kind of life in place, none of it self-sustaining, none of it really going anywhere, but life nonetheless. Yet it never quite lost its provisional sense; I never shook the feeling that I was treading water and as soon as I stopped paddling, I’d sink into one of those deep-grey moments when I simply said to myself “I will not cry today.”
I also needed to keep busy because when I relaxed, when I just let go into the feel of my life, I panicked. Ann and I were watching TV one night, I don’t really remember thinking about anything in particular when suddenly I had a panic attack: I felt my chest tightening and my head getting light, and I thought I was going to pass out. The only thing that brought me round was the thought of having to explain to Ann why I had fainted during Gossip Girl.
By now there were 15 million unemployed; 20-some million if you counted the underemployed and the ones who had simply given up—though I don’t know how you count the given-ups. Shouldn’t utter despair be beyond number? And I don’t know if it’s true that misery loves company, but there was something comforting in the statistics, some warped sense of camaraderie, a sense that I was participating in some greater pain.
And, just to jump back for a second: I think having a panic attack during Gossip Girl is perfectly normal.
I turned in the anal sex translation at the end of December, and entered the new year hopeful for success and sodomy. Odd little freelance stuff started dribbling in here and there: I translated the blog entries of visiting German librarians; I proofread the spring catalogue of Cruising News, which when I took the job I thought was some gay thing, but it turned out to actually be about like, boats; and I turned down translating a novel by this woman who could only offer me a flat fee but would also throw in a supply of skin products. Since at this point in my life I’m pretty much just words held together by Nivea, at first I was tempted. But after I read the first chapter I decided the novel itself would be the worst possible thing I could do for my skin.
I read Emerson (Self Reliance), a lot of Oscar Wilde, and picked up The Old Curiosity Shop because I wanted to reread the death of Little Nell. The Old Curiosity Shop was perfect: It has homelessness and mass unemployment—and, of course, the death of Little Nell. Homeless in Chapter 12, dead by Chapter 71. The kindest creature in Victorian literature, she tends her increasingly deranged grandfather as they endure hardship and misadventure across the English countryside. At last it seems they find a safe haven: a parsonage in a small village where they have a humble cottage of their own, symbolically near a graveyard. It looks as if they may finally know some peace, some safety, some comfort. But then Little Nell, exhausted by life and Victoriana in general, catches a chill and dies.
Somewhere in the sixth month it occurred to me that I might never work again. The thought came to me while I was meditating, which indicated to me I wasn’t entirely at peace. If you’re meditating properly, you not only let go of your past but also of your future, and it was the ease with which I could let go of my future that I think threw my breathing off. I would also usually stay in touch with some kind of hope while I was meditating, but now I figured even if the economy recovered, all the work would go to young people who could do the entire job on their phones.
Then I hit a good patch in the spring: In March I had a piece published in the Times, I got a lot of translation work, and a publisher in Berlin wanted to do a German edition of my dirty book; and in April I got a high-paying proofreading gig that lasted into May, at the end of which I had, for the first time in over a year, nearly three thousand dollars in the bank. Which I needed, because I was going to have to move. Ann had for some years been planning on moving out to California to be near her parents, and this was the year she was actually doing it, in the summer. I came into the living room one morning and she was online looking at moving companies, and I thought, “Oh, this is real.”
As long as I was dabbling in reality, I took a look at my own situation and acknowledged that someone with a couple thousand bucks and no job wasn’t exactly top-ten roommate material. And there were no more couches—at least not in the city. I tried to stay Zen on the thing, just go with the flow; I tried to be at peace. But my inner drama queen had just stopped taking her meds. I was no longer going to be sleeping in the park. Now I would be in an old refrigerator box. I’d make a pillow out of Styrofoam peanuts. When I was a kid, we loved it when someone threw out an appliance box. When we got our new refrigerator, the box was my clubhouse, my spaceship, and a mineshaft where I lay trapped for hours with my best friend David in our summer shorts and T-shirts, with our skinny tanned legs and the smell of warm cardboard all around us. So my now living in a refrigerator box would, of course, be ironic. During the day I’d stow my box somewhere at Port Authority and sell apples in front of Madame Tussaud’s on 42nd Street.
I have a friend who’s pretty much selling apples. He had a little shop, but he went out of business over a year ago and didn’t know what to do next. He wanted to get a vendor’s license and have a little table at Union Square, sell something. Not apples. He sells little things. He loves to sell these little things. Things you find when you finally clean your desk drawer. You find this little thing and ask yourself, “Why do I have a Marie Antoinette pencil sharpener?” And you say, “Oh right, that guy in Union Square.”
I told him he should be one of those people with the tables of necklaces. I love those tables. They’re all over 5th Avenue. They’re everywhere, I guess: those tables with all those sparkly necklaces. There’s something about sparkle that calms me. I remember when I was walking home after my first time at Housing Court. It was a horrible, grey, January day with occasional cold spit. Housing Court had, in my mind, made it official that I was a loser and a creep, and I was walking up lower Broadway in a coma of self-regret when I passed one of those necklace tables, the necklaces sparkling dully in the cold January light. And in that moment all I wanted to do was to try on necklaces. I thought, “If I can just try on a necklace, I’ll be alright.”
And someday, not when the Great Recession is over but when it’s really settled in. When there are more and more of us with our vendor’s licenses, more and more of us with tables of necklaces, more and more of us selling apples, more and more of us writing porn. When there are hordes of us. Armies. We’ll wander from apartment to apartment, six to eight to a room now. We’ll gather at night for dinner; we’ll eat the apples that can’t be sold the next day. And after dinner we’ll put on sparkly necklaces and read each other porn.
Then, in the nick of time, a friend who was going to be out of town for three months asked if I wanted to sublet her apartment. It was very small, very cheap, very bohème; I said absolutely and wrote her a check for all three months. I say it happened in the nick of time, though the phrase is meaningless here. Once you’ve been unemployed long enough, time begins to warp. It stretches and gapes. It idles. Everything happens in the nick of time. You wake up in the nick of time; you fall asleep in the nick of time. You watch TV in the nick of time.
So in July, for the first time in nine months, I was in a place of my own, a place where I’d paid the rent. It was a step up, nice to be on my own again, but the moment I walked through the door the clock was ticking: I had three months to get enough money together for whatever was next, and I still had no job, no real prospects of one; I had a small advance for the German edition of my dirty book, a freelance job through August, maybe ten hours a week, and a newer, dumber, version of my resume.
I’m not bragging, but addition and subtraction are about the only math I know. I wasn’t any good at algebra because I never cared what x was. I think I used geometry once by accident when I bought a rug. But addition and subtraction have stood me in good stead, and they did so now, for now the days passed in endless calculation. I would be walking down Broadway; in Central Park; sitting on the train, in the laundromat, endlessly calculating: How much money did I have coming in? Going out? When would it be here? What’s the earliest it might come? The latest? How long would it take to clear? How much money could I have by the end of the summer if I got a job next week, the week after that, the end of the month, the end of the next?
But I got no job the next week, or the week after that or the week after that. There were simply no jobs to get. The poverty level was up to 14%, and I don’t normally put a lot of stock in statistics, but this one, this time, to me, meant that 86% of the population was sleeping better than I was, 86% could buy things, 86% could still tell themselves maybe things’ll be okay.
Anxiety had become the white noise of my life. Since it was the only thing I really felt, I hardly felt it at all except in a sudden wave when I accidentally heard my life starting to echo. Otherwise I told myself I was fine. I kept busy. I wrote. I read. I stayed peaceful, calm; I meditated. But the only mantra I really kept coming back to was the word “October.” One night I suddenly got a call from a friend I hadn’t heard from in a couple years. He’d been out of work for a year and a half, his bank account had been frozen, he was awaiting eviction, and he was enraged. I’d never heard anyone so angry: incoherent rage. I thought, “Well, at least I’m not like that. Not yet.” Though I’d certainly had my moments of rage, and I certainly had my moments of incoherence, when I realized the chaos percolating beneath the calmness. Toward the end of August I nearly ended a friendship with one of my oldest and dearest friends. I told him I felt ignored, unheard, unappreciated, invisible, unwanted, unnecessary, dismissed, and as I told him this I realized that I had loved him enough, felt safe around him enough to have projected the entire Recession onto him. And he loved me enough to forgive me.
In September I had been unemployed a year. The freelance gig had ended in August, nothing replaced it, and the dumb version of my resume wasn’t getting any more nibbles than the smart one had. I didn’t know what to think: I thought I was overskilled; I thought I was underskilled; I thought I had no skills at all. Or, in a kinder moment, I thought maybe I had talent but not skills.
And in September I had to start thinking realistically about October: I had been unemployed over a year and had less than two thousand dollars to my name. Even if I somehow found someplace for October, I was clearly treading water at this point. It was in September I couldn’t stay positive anymore, when I finally realized how exhausted I was with all of it; with survival. In September, between these feelings and a heatwave, I didn’t know that I wanted to live anymore. In September I began to envy the dead. But I was raised in the Midwest. I’m polite. I would never kill myself in a sublet.
When The Old Curiosity Shop was approaching its emotional climax — the death of Little Nell — Dickens was inundated with letters begging him to spare her. He felt, as he said, "anguish unspeakable," but killed her anyway. Readers were desolated. The actor William Macready wrote in his diary: "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain.” A member of Parliament read the account of Nell's death while he was riding on a train, burst into tears, cried "He should not have killed her!" and threw the novel out of the window in despair. And crowds in New York awaited a vessel newly arriving from England. They stood on the dock in the early morning mist and called up to the ship "Is Little Nell dead?"
In mid-September, after a couple roommate things had fallen through, I called my friend in Ohio and asked if there was any room at the inn. It wasn’t as if I thought things would be better in Ohio. In fact, I figured they’d be worse, though as long as I could get online, I could do my freelance stuff. But the struggle was getting to me. I was constantly distracted by my own survival—or by its unlikelihood. I’d been thinking I was undisciplined, that my concentration was off. But I couldn’t concentrate when I thought I might be living in a shelter in two weeks. But I went to sleep that night knowing there was an air mattress with my name on it somewhere near the West Virginia border. I was, as always, grateful for tender mercies, but at the thought of leaving the city I finally felt that whatever battle I’d been fighting had been lost. One of the things I’d told myself every time another layer of my life fell away was that this was a beginning, not an end. It was comforting in a fortune-cookie kind of way until it occurred to me that maybe what was beginning was the end.
I believe it’s a law of physics that you always end up somewhere. Matter always ends up somewhere. Wherever it’s going, it gets there. And stops. So I knew I’d end up somewhere, I just didn’t know where. And I certainly never thought my matter would end up in Yonkers. But four days before I had to leave the sublet—four days, I thought, before Ohio—I got an email from a woman who had a boarding house in Yonkers saying she had a room with private bath for $750. We shot some emails back and forth; she sent me some pictures. I told her what my situation was; told her I might only be there for October. She was fine going month by month. I said I’d come up and see it the next day.
The neighborhood was dotted with rundown three-story Victorians, fixer-uppers that never got fixed up. When I went to look at the room, I told myself the house was Dickensian. But it was just cluttered, dark, unclean, and cold. The landlady presented herself as a whimsical eccentric, and I accepted her as such, though whimsy has always had a brief shelf life for me, and what I initially called eccentric I later came to call nuts. Just: insane. I moved in the next day.
I had an Uncle Leonard on my mother’s side. He was what my parents’ generation called a bum. I don’t know that anyone ever even said it out loud—the “B” word—but it’s what everyone was thinking. He was a bum: alcoholic, moving from job to job, place to place; for a while he was at a rooming house downtown; maybe a shelter, I don’t really remember, I was too young. I think he had a girlfriend there for a while, and I remember a dog, a boxer. He brought it over one Sunday morning. He’d just had its tail cut, and the bandage was still on the stub. I hadn’t known about the cutting-the-tail thing with boxers. I thought it was creepy, and I thought Uncle Leonard was creepy for having had it done. But then he went off again, and whenever it was he reappeared, the dog was no longer with him. His appearances were sporadic and brief: a sudden, awkward emergence at a Thanksgiving or Christmas, turning the cocktail hour to lead and the holiday dinner to Norman Rockwell on crack.
There was a moment when it seemed he was attempting a comeback; that he had reformed. I remember an Easter where he was on his best behavior, sipping a Fresca, beaming over the ham, and he and my mother seemed to have reconciled. It didn’t last much past Easter. He de-reformed. He lost his job and started drinking again, or maybe he started drinking again and then lost his job, or maybe he’d really never even stopped drinking at all and the whole job thing was a lie. By the Fourth of July, nobody was talking about him anymore. He died badly and was buried quickly, and was never mentioned again. I hadn’t thought about him for many years, but I suddenly remembered him when I moved into the boarding house.
I lay a lot of my feelings about boarding houses at the feet of Tennessee Williams. As one regional theater put it, promoting an evening of his “hotel plays”: “Williams set many of his plays in hotel rooms and boarding houses—way stations between life and death, dream and reality.” In one of them, Vieux Carré, which takes place in a rundown New Orleans boarding house, the lead character is a writer who’s struggling with his literary career, poverty, loneliness, homosexuality, and a cataract (just for the record, my eyes are fine.) There are a couple other homosexuals in the house: one predatory, one orgiastic. The predatory one is also tubercular; someone else in the house has leukemia; two old ladies upstairs are starving themselves to death. And the landlady, of course, represents the entire South. The play closed after five performances. So my fears about ending up in a boarding house were actually fears about ending up as a Tennessee Williams character. I didn’t want to start waxing lyrical, over-establishing metaphors, and having sad but redemptive sex. I didn’t want to represent the entire South, and I certainly didn’t want to represent South Yonkers.
My fellow boarders were for the most part divorced men of middle age and foreign students who were learning English in Riverdale. I was both foreign and frequently divorced. At times I felt like I was in a halfway house, but I wasn’t sure what it was I had halfway reached. I fell, as usual, into a schedule: errands and job stuff in the morning; freelance, if there was any, in the afternoon; my own stuff at night. Rinse. Repeat. The weather, and the house, grew colder. I had a very promising job interview that went nowhere, a contract job that fell through. I grew philosophical: I wondered if there was a way to expect the worst without being pessimistic.
I found that I didn’t engage the other boarders very much. I didn’t feel like letting people know I was a disaster. So I mainly talked to the foreign students because their English skills limited us to talking about the weather and food and, to some degree, Riverdale. I’d run into people in the boarders’ kitchen down in the basement, and we’d exchange pleasantries surrounded by rusty coffee cans jammed with tarnished silverware and shelves of packaged goods with people’s names on them: generic-brand pasta, low-salt Triscuits, a dusty box of butterscotch pudding. I was friendly but noncommittal. I didn’t see the point of getting to know anyone when I might not even be there next month.
In November I was a hundred dollars short on the rent, but I bought my landlady a hundred dollars’ worth of groceries with my food stamps. At the end of November some freelance money came in just in time for December’s rent. But no new work had come in for weeks, December wasn’t looking good, and January was looking iffy and cold. And this time I didn’t even have money for a Greyhound.
I had spent most of my life thinking—telling myself—I was emerging, becoming. But that was the winter I didn’t feel like I was emerging anymore. That was the winter I felt like I was what’s left.
And then I got a job.
I got a job. I sent in my resume, I got a phone call, I had an interview, I had another interview, and I got the job. After fifteen months, it was suddenly that easy. My friends said it was miraculous, and I couldn’t help but notice that the better the friend knew me, the more miraculous it seemed. I was astounded, amazed. Grateful. But grateful to whom? To what? I had prayed to Yahweh, Jesus, pretty much anyone I could pretend was listening. A couple saints; the Universe. Other people prayed for me, lit candles, did yoga on my behalf. I meditated until I released the desire to ever work again. I didn’t pray to Satan, but I did some temp work at law firms. And just in case, I also burned a stick of incense to Pure Chance.
But you get the job and they give you a Monday, and you show up on Monday and you realize that everything’s been chugging along quite nicely without you, but now you’re suddenly chugging along with it all again. All of a sudden. In the nick of time. You’ve got a job. You’ve won the princess, or at least the cheese. Because I not only got a job, I got a good job. I work in an office where my eccentricities are honored and my grammar skills respected.
It’s very hard, though, to suddenly feel capable again, to feel you’re doing a good job. It’s hard to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. The first month or so I thought that everything I did was wrong, that I was fraudulent, that people would eventually see through me and I’d be fired. But the more you’re at it, the more normal it all gets, and before you know it you’re overreacting to bad punctuation and trafficking in low-grade gossip. And it’s nice to be back in the workaday world, to feel a part of things. It’s nice to have money again. The first few weeks I was working, I would walk past stores, stores in which I really had no interest, and I’d think, “I could buy something in there. I could just walk in and buy something.” Though I’m still not used to shopping. My first time out I thought I was having a panic attack in Bed, Bath & Beyond, but I was just excited about some sheets.
I’m buying things. I’m paying back friends; paying off creditors. Capital One was an early priority. I figured since they’d gone to the trouble of taking me to court, it’d be polite to pay them first. Once you’ve paid off the entire amount due, the court issues something called a writ of satisfaction, because you’ve satisfied the debt. They send you a copy. It’s fun. And within two weeks of my writ being written, I received a special offer from Capital One: a platinum card for people like me who are getting back on their feet. There is mercy in the world. There is forgiveness. And there’s a 22% APR.
And one night I lit a stick of incense and cut up my food stamp card.
And every night, it never fails: Just as I’m about to fall asleep, my head getting heavier on the pillow, a voice inside me suddenly says, “Where am I?” and I jolt awake, trying to make out objects in the room, trying to remember if I’m at Ann’s or Judy’s or Susan’s or back in Yonkers. Then I remember I’m at home, though it’s not my home; that I’m in my own bed, though it’s not really my bed. And I never really say to myself I’m home. I just say I’m here: “Oh, I’m here.” “Here” is a room I’m renting up in Inwood. I have the bedroom; the woman I’m renting from sleeps in the living room. She has a cat, two fish, and an interest in puppets. I have a view of the Cloisters and an occasional rash. But I’m back. I’m back in the city. I’m here. I’m working. I’m writing.
And they loved the anal sex translation. Now I’m doing fellatio.