Do You Have a Home?
Some stories are true. Whether you want them to be or not.
“Miss? Excuse me, Miss!”
I turned toward the source of the voice. A man who was striding toward me, fast. I grabbed my daughter and shoved her behind me. Wondered if I should run, if I even could run, with my little girl’s legs already on overload as we hustled our way through this industrial section of San Jose.
He must have seen the fear on my face. Most of the time, we were left alone, but occasionally I was harassed, usually by freaky guys looking to party who would stare at me, and my little girl, like we were made of a particularly rare and tantalizing flavor of candy they couldn’t wait to try. I’m not sure why my presence at a bus stop gave them carte blanche to proposition me, especially with a three-year-old by my side, but damned if they didn’t.
Their eyes were hungry, without any kind of propriety, boundaries. "Hey, you wanna party? Your little girl can come too."
"Fuck no. Leave us alone."
Hands up, they'd back away, laughing. Sometimes they wouldn't laugh, just shrug. And they never stopped staring.
I’d learned to hustle my way from one bus stop to the next, talk to no one, and get where I was going as quickly as possible. My little girl would alternate between a fast walk and running on her little legs to keep up with me.
He held his hands up. “I don’t mean to scare you. I just… I just see you here every day, walking the same way.”
I made a mental note to go back to changing up my route. I didn’t need anyone knowing where we were headed or where we lived. I stayed silent, my hand on my daughter, pressing her close to me.
He continued. “I just wanted to ask you if, well, if you have somewhere to live.”
My heart was hammering in my chest. Partially from the fast walk, but mostly from fear. Fear of strangers, fear of Social Services, Children’s Division. I nodded quick, probably too quick.
“Yeah, we’ve got a place.”
I felt the tears threatening then, but I stifled them, shut them down. I wanted to tell him the truth. I really did. To ask him with wild panic to help me please, make this life, the one I was living, disappear, poof. Tell me I had somewhere to go. Somewhere safe. Somewhere comfortable. Where I was welcome, cared about, and wanted.
But now was not the time to let the tears or weakness or fear show. Not here. Not in front of this strange, yet kind man, who appeared genuinely concerned for me and my little girl. After all, concerned as he was, it didn’t mean he wouldn’t report us to children’s services, or get a social worker involved, were he to see where we lived. No matter how kind his intentions, he was firmly in the not to be trusted camp, along with most of the rest of the population of the world.
Those long moments first thing in the morning, before anyone else was awake, when I lay there on the hard futon in the small shop space in the dark, long before the sun kissed the sky. Time when I was alone with my thoughts and silently vowed there in the dark that today would be different, today I’d find a way out of this paralyzing poverty. If I just worked a little harder, pulled in some overtime, figured out a craft I could make and sell, maybe took a college course or two, something would change. I would figure it out.
Each morning I would fix those positive thoughts firmly in my mind, get up, and fill a large water bucket with water and microwave it in this ancient microwave for ten minutes. That made it warm enough to use to take a sponge bath and wash my hair in the tiny, filthy, half bath in the outside hallway, where only cold water flowed out of the tap. I’d go inside, lay a ragged towel on the floor and peel off my clothes, hanging them strategically on the doorknob so they wouldn’t fall on the filthy floor. After a quick sponge bath, I would lean my head over the equally gross sink and pour the water over it with a cup, suds up with a little shampoo, and use the rest of the bucket to rinse it clean. I did my best to clean the sink, but we didn’t have any money to spare for cleaning products and others in the industrial park used it and made a daily mess of it.
During the winter it was extra miserable to sponge bathe, but summer wasn’t too bad. My little girl had it better. She was a little big for it, but I could manage to still bathe her in her baby bathtub in the shop room. After I finished, I’d go back into our little shop room and start prepping breakfast and lunch. We had a hot plate so I could cook hot cereal, the little one ate Cheerios with milk, and I’d fix a sandwich for my lunch. Then it was off on a half mile or more trek to get to the nearest bus stop, to go into the city to drop off my little girl, and back out of the city and back past the stop we got on at, to get to my warehouse job. Rinse and repeat at the end of the day to get my little girl and go back home.
“I’m uh, I’m just one my way to my husband’s work.” I added as the man stared at me. This wasn’t a complete lie. I did have a husband and he did seem to work all day. Not that he brought in much income, but he certainly seemed to stay busy and was reluctant to come back to the smaller room even late at night.
The man’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled. “Okay, that’s good to hear. Hey, can I get you something that might help? Wait here I’ll be right back.” He turned and jogged back into the small building and returned a couple of moments later with two ballcaps. “To keep the sun out of your eyes.” I took them and thanked him, put the ballcap on my head and the second one on my daughter’s and continued straight on my way, due west, into the sun.
There were two constants during those two plus years there in that shop space – my endless optimism each morning, and my crippling depression every evening. It would creep up, this depression, as I lay in the dark at night listening to my daughter’s steady breaths just five feet away from me, her crib mattress still in use, but now on the floor, a concrete floor covered with cheap carpet and tons of staples left over from the previous tenant. I wasn’t homeless. But I certainly wasn’t in a home. I was on the knife’s edge of homelessness. If the owners of the industrial park knew we were living there, they would kick us out. If we didn’t make the rent on the tiny, unheated room, there was nowhere left but the streets.
No health insurance.
No paid time off.
No safety net.
The deeply discounted daycare was still more than we could afford. Without it, though, I couldn’t work and my husband refused to take care of our daughter insisting it was my job. A whopping $135 went each month to the daycare. I was lucky, it was a wonderful daycare.
Our food budget for the three of us was $60 per week. Granted, this was thirty years ago, but $60 didn’t go far even then.
We had a car. A 1971 Satellite Sebring that had expired plates, no insurance, a door threatening to fall off its hinges, and my husband flatly refused to drive me to work or our daughter to daycare. “Take the bus. Walk. It’s your fault we don’t have an apartment anymore, anyway.”
I was 21 years old. He was 30. So, obviously, he was right and I was wrong. Anytime I even began to argue this, he would call my father up, tell him God knows what, no doubt what a horrible wife and mother I was. My dad and his girlfriend would come by for a visit, talk over me, past me, and add random threats about calling children’s services like some intervention from hell. “She’s been difficult since she was a kid.” I remember my husband repeating my dad’s words, “Always lying.”
And lying there alone in the night, too tired to stay up until my husband returned from working I would fall asleep with the opposite from the positive words I summoned each morning running through my head.
“This is it. This is how life will be. You will struggle, your entire life. You will never be able to make ends meet. You will never be able to make your dreams come true. You will never have a life worth anything at all. Stop it with your pie in the sky dreams of a house and a yard full of flowers. This is it. Get used to it. This is your life.”
Poverty is debilitating. It is damaging. It leaves its mark on our souls. So too, is emotional abuse, although I had neither the maturity nor the upbringing to recognize it as such.
It took me a long time to claw my way back out of that existence. To find the strength to realize that there was a singular reason for our poverty, and that it wasn’t me or my doing at all. Nevertheless, it marked me in ways that I can still see the scars. My insistence that we always have backup condiments and never run out of anything, or my panic if I ever see a bank balance dip below a certain level. It has marked me in ways I cannot name, and will not.
I wonder if that man knew I was lying.
He could see I was thin. Ragged, worn-out clothes. Tired. That much was obvious. I wonder too, if I had told him the truth, what would he have done? Would he have told me, as a few others tried to do, that I was listening to the wrong people? That I was blaming myself for not being able to singlehandedly be the answer to it all? That I shouldered all of that responsibility – motherhood, wage-earner, wife – and struggled to make ends meet not just in a vacuum, but straddling a black hole of a marriage? And if he had, would I have believed him? The phrases I had heard for so long were on a loop in my head back then.
You suck as a mother.
You’re a liar.
You can’t be trusted.
You aren’t a good person.
You can’t be depended on for anything.
It’s all your fault.
Over and over. Rinse and repeat. Day in, day out.
Scars laid like tracks. Well-driven, worn deep.
The next day I took a different way home. We got off at the next stop, crossed the train tracks after looking carefully in both directions, climbed on top of an upside-down grocery cart, balanced at the top of the fence, climbed down a stairstep of big barrels stacked on the other side, and slipped through another gate. Five minutes, maybe ten, off of our walk. Our routine changed.
I never spoke to the man again.