A short story by Breeze contributing writer Sheli Ellsworth
It’s dawn. The streetlights have ceased their eerie glow. Since daylight savings stopped, the sun is up sooner, the days are longer, so I feel safer. I sleep better lying down, but here on my cement Posturepedic, propped up against the rough stucco wall next to a FedEx drop box, I can see anyone approaching. I usually steal a couple of hours of shuteye in early morning, but sleeping on the sidewalk takes a wretched toll on my back and neck. I wake up unable to move and pain seers my head. Sometimes I rent a cheap room with another lose shirt, usually at the beginning of the month or around the 15th, and get a good night’s sleep and a shower. People are more generous around payday.
How many times did I walk or drive by a homeless person without worry? How many times did I think about giving them a couple of bucks but stopped because I didn’t have much cash? Or figured I shouldn’t encourage begging and the lifestyle it promoted. A lifestyle? This isn’t a lifestyle. It’s just waiting for things to get better—waiting for my ship to come in.
Harold stirs on the other side of the metal drop box. Harold is probably in his sixties but looks older with missing teeth and sunken cheeks. He’s pretty harmless. Harold would rather sleep with a bottle of Wild Turkey than a woman. I’m safe with him although the pungence of whiskey and clothes that cry for a match light can be stifling.
I stand up, stuff my blanket into my backpack and walk toward the liquor store. If I’m careful, I can urinate in the bushes behind the building without detection. Not having a real restroom is difficult. When I was living out of my car, I could drive to places with public facilities and clean up. Now, sometimes I walk to the mall and use their restroom for a quick washcloth bath. Stores get suspicious if they see you more than once. They start asking questions and shoo you away. Harold buys his hooch at the liquor store, so they let him use the bathroom there.
When I return, I see Harold’s second hand sneaker protruding from worn dark chinos. “Hey Harold, how ya doing?”
“Aw, I’m good. I guess. It wasn’t too cold so I got some sleep.”
“I’m gonna walk down to the mall today. You wanna come?”
“Naw. I’m gonna go to the river and clean-up, then down to the pier,” he says with resignation. Harold’s days are planned around whatever time he chooses for happy hour to start.
“Okay.” I pull out a Rice Crispy Treat for breakfast. I found a box of them behind the grocery store last night. Wally’s keeps the dumpsters locked except when they toss stuff on the midnight shift. Once I found a bakery cake: red velvet with white icing and sprinkles. There was a tiny bit of mold on one edge of the piped icing, but for the most part, it was perfect. The sweet vanilla smell reminded me of cakes I used to buy before I lost my job, beautiful three-layer cakes with cherries and chocolate curls for birthdays. I shared the moldy cake with Harold because, well, I can’t carry a whole cake around all day and stashing stuff has its own problems like bugs, thieves, and the mold wasn’t going away.
When I was in nursing school, we studied molds and fungi in microbiology. They’re categorized as opportunistic pathogens, saprotrophs, and thermophiles. Funny I can still recall that. Penicillin revolutionized medicine and it comes from the mold Penicillium chrysogenum. Even a cholesterol medication is derived from a mold, but I still can’t eat moldy food. Expired food, food thrown out by restaurants and delis is okay, but not mold.
The mall doesn’t open until ten o’clock, but I like to get there early right after the restrooms have been cleaned. It keeps me from picking up viruses and worrying about being sick with no insurance, no bed to recover in, no money for cold medicines and the like. I try not to look in the mirrors though. It’s better if I don’t see my reflection. I used to always wear mascara and lipstick. People said I was pretty. But living on the street, I’m better off looking unkempt. It’s safer. My street-friend Sophie would always put on lipstick. Sophie was raped and when she reported it, they took her away. I haven’t seen her since.
I finish the Rice Krispy Treat and bid Harold a salut, since he used to teach high school French. It’s early enough that I can walk slowly, normally. Usually, I walk fast like someone who is just getting her morning exercise because I’m less likely to be recognized and pitied by people who knew me when I was a nurse.
It’s ironic that the whole house of cards started to teeter when I was treating a homeless woman in the emergency room. It was three a.m. and when she came in with a sore throat and sores in her mouth and nose. I was bending and squatting, looking for enough samples for a complete round of anti fungals when my back went out. I finished my shift, went home, took an NSAID then went to sleep. The next morning, I could barely roll out of bed. I used ice packs, took more anti-inflammatories, but was no better when I had to go to work three hours later. I had some Vicodin left over from a dental problem. I took a couple and they got me moving just enough to go in to work.
I tolerated the pain for week with the help of the Vicodin and the NSAIDS. Finally, I got Dr. Mecham, the ER doc, to give me a prescription for muscle relaxers. They seemed to help, but when I took them with the Vicodin I was virtually pain free. When I ran out of the Vicodin, I asked the resident orthopedic surgeon to x-ray my back. He came up with a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. I could’ve diagnosed that for myself, but he gave me a prescription for another hydrocodone. It kept the pain in check for over a year, but every month I had to increase the dosage. And I did feel better. I felt so much better, I was able to work double shifts in the ER. I even started to do my own yard work.
Then I began to run out of the medicine before the prescription could be refilled. I talked the inexperienced night pharmacist into refilling it once or twice, but the doctors told me I needed to see a pain management specialist and stopped giving me scripts. Because my pain wasn’t continuous, I wasn’t eligible for surgery. I bought a script from one of my ER patients. By the time I had it filled—without insurance—it was almost $300. What was worse, the medicine I needed was within my reach. I had access to drugs that relieved my pain and I was handing them out to people with sprained ankles and bad hips. People who could go home and use ice and bed rest to relieve their pain, while I had to be on my feet for twelve hours at a time.
So, I started to pocket a pill here and a pill there. Just enough to keep me going, because now the rebound effects of the pain were increasing. I could hardly move without the meds. And the more I tried to reduce the meds, the more depressed I became. I figure it was a result of the pain and withdrawal. Whatever it was, my brain stopped functioning at its normal capacity. I began to make mistakes. I was late to work. I tried to dispense the NSAIDS instead of the hydrocodone’s to my patients and keep the pain meds for myself. But a hospital is not a place where people suffer in silence. I found myself dispensing more pain meds than normal and some of the doctors became suspicious.
After a while, I was asked to leave. As soon as I had to start buying the pain medication on the street, I couldn’t afford to live in my house. I slept at sympathetic friend’s homes for a few weeks. But when I started to run out of money, it became more difficult to get out of bed and do anything more than look for vikes. I lived out of my car for quite a while without anyone knowing how bad things were. Then my car was impounded when I left it in a tow away zone because I had to give some sleazebag more than money for a script. It was probably for the best anyway. My registration was about to expire.
But this morning is beautiful. Walking to the mall, I realize how wonderful this area is. I couldn’t live on the street in New York. The cold weather combined with my back problem would be deadly.
Sometimes after I wash up and refill my water bottles, I ask people in the mall parking lot for money. If I can get five dollars, I’m good. If I can’t get any money, I’ll scavenge for plastics and aluminum cans. It’ll take all day but today I have the Rice Crispy Treats, so I’ll make it. But, maybe I’ll just go look for Harold and hang out at the beach. In some ways, I feel lucky.
My kids are grown and done. I’d hate to be younger and homeless. Now, I just worry about myself. I don’t worry about mortgages, insurance payments and giving to charity. I worry about today. I worry about my next meal. And if I am having a bad day I just go down under the pier and sleep it off. There is a certain freedom in being without.
My back still bothers me, but I’m not on the pills anymore. Once I ran out of resources, I quit cold turkey. Harold says he’ll help me apply for disability, but I may have to ask the same doctors at the hospital I was fired from for medical reports. I also have to get an address or post office box first, which isn’t free.
Sometimes, I just have to be alone and cry it out. The tears remind me that I’m still a human being. I’m still a person, even though I don’t get a paycheck and people usually look away when they see my backpack and shopping bag and realize I’m homeless. Then I think about how happy I was when my children were babies. I tried to be a good mother and wife. I didn’t worry about pain or meds. I worried about Easter baskets and tooth brushing. I worried about not being too critical and buying shoes with good arches. I cooked broccoli and made flashcards. I tucked my children into bed and then exhausted, I pulled my own covers up. Later, when they were in high school, I went to nursing school and made flash cards for myself. After my husband left, I graduated and sent my son and daughter to college.
I have much to be thankful for. I did for my children what my parents couldn’t do for me . . . my dad was an alcoholic. It was a good day when he drank so much he passed out.
Maybe I’ll call my daughter on the east coast next week. It’s her birthday. I don’t want her to know where I am or why my cell phone is disconnected. She has babies of her own. She needs to worry about them, not me.
I think Harold has the right idea. I’m going to go to the beach instead of the mall. Once or twice, I sneaked into the big hotel on the water and washed my clothes while I laid out on the sand. Then I figured out it was cheaper to buy things at a thrift store than put coins in a machine. And sometimes thrift stores throw good stuff away . . . . Another reason to go to the beach hotel is that sometimes people who get room service leave leftovers outside their door. So, if I’m careful, I might slip in and see if someone’s Eggs Benedict found its way to the hall.
But I do love the beach. The steady sweep of the waves is almost womblike and the smell of salt is welcome refreshment. Some people abandon their beach umbrellas and I’ll claim one for my own and stay under it as long as I like. Under an umbrella, I don’t feel homeless. I have a roof over my head. I could be anyone. I could be a rich lady from Beverly Hills who loves the sound of the ocean, a nurse on her day off enjoying the breeze and the surf, or someone on vacation with her family. I could be anyone at the beach.