Last week I set out to participate in a ‘Story Slam’, at the Housing Works Café Bookstore in downtown Manhattan. It was being sponsored by the very popular National Public Radio show, The Moth.
The way it works is you show up a half an hour before the show, sign in, and if your name gets drawn, you tell a five-minute story without using notes. You improvise.
The story I was going to tell was, ‘No Shit, An Artist Saved my Life.’ It was from a memoir I wrote called, ‘An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net.’
The Bookstore has two levels and there were between 500 and 800 people crammed into every nook and cranny of the store.
This would be the first time I would be telling a story from my book outside of the secure confines of (small) group therapy sessions.
So of course I was a bit nervous, though as I looked around at the crowd, well, a downtown NYC audience in a bookstore is not exactly the John Birch Society. It was not hard to imagine that my audience was a very large group-therapy session. I wasn’t selected to read; but it’s a random pick-from-a-hat selection process so it doesn’t make any sense to feel personal disappointment. And I did learn what makes a story teller engaging, and what listeners respond to. Next time.
But the story is still fresh in my mind so I’d like to share it now with you:
Nearly five years ago, I found myself without a place to live and no money. But when I went to Social Services I was told that not having a home or any financial resources does not make you homeless and destitute. (Yes, this is Kafkaesque: think K and the Castle.) According to HUD (Housing and Urban Development) in order to be considered ‘officially homeless’ and qualify for assistance, you had to prove (in writing) that you were no longer able to live where you used to ‘through no fault of your own’. (Like who the fuck would choose to be in this situation?)
I was living in my home, but I had a court order to move out. That was ‘too vague’ for Social Services, so I had to go back to court and get a formal written eviction for a specific date. When I got that, I was told to return to Social Services, but only come the day before my eviction date. They would then check to see what was available.
Boy, was that assuring.
My eviction date was on a Sunday (the Lord’s Day) so I stopped in to Social Services on Friday. So what could possibly top prancing around like Kafka in a bureaucratic nightmare? How about a trip down the Rabbit Hole with Alice in Wonderland?
This was in January, so it was the off-season for shore motels. Some were kind enough (for a price) to allow the State to dump its forlorn human detritus into their rooms until summer. Ready?! I was told that the name of the motel where I would be staying was The Purple Plum. In order to get the key for my room I would have to go see a woman who owned an adjacent establishment called The Cookie Lady Cafe. (And this isn’t even the ‘no shit’ part.)
So this is funny; and it’s also not so funny. The home I had to vacate was modest, but it was also clean, bright and sunny, and filled with warmth and love. It’s where, on and off, I had taken care of my elderly parents for the past ten years, both of whom died at home with me at their side. The room in the Purple Plum was small, dingy, and reeked of stale cigarettes, boredom and despair. I was here, and no longer at home, because my sister was a very aggressive, successful and wealthy estate agent, who saw the house, and me, only in relation to that.
I could have fought the eviction and won, or at least got an extension, but the home no longer seemed like the sacred place where by parents spent the last years of their lives; it was now just another thing of a certain dollar value in the housing market. I’ve lived most of my life in America; people who think and act like my sister are the ones who are admired for being realistic, practical, responsible. I’d already been to court in order to get legal guardianship of my mother. I was tired of it all and just wanted to get away; to grieve, heal and get on with my own life. Besides, imagine telling a US court that you want to remain in your home because you feel it is Sacred? Look what that argument got for the American Indians.
As I’m sure you can imagine, uprooting into the complete unknown sounds easier and better than it will turn out. Especially under these circumstances: I’d spent the last two years helping my mother deal with Alzheimer’s and I was physically and emotionally worn out, stressed and anxious.
I discovered that it is very important during a challenging transition period such as this, to create positive experiences for oneself and avoid people who want to complain and feel victimized by whatever happened in their lives to bring them to The Rabbit Hole.
I still had a car (though no insurance) and I noted while driving around looking for an apartment, that there was going to be a free live chamber music concert at a church located about ten minutes from the Plum on the very next Sunday, just a few days away. .
This was the bleakest and most trying time of my life, so I looked forward to going to the concert like a little kid would Christmas.
It was a huge church. Protestant: they had money. By this time, it was early March and the inside of the church was filled with fragrant and brightly colorful spring flowers; light streamed in softly through stained glass windows. I thought to myself that I would simply declare asylum, and refuse to ever leave here.
Then the musicians appeared. A cellist accompanied by piano. The cellist looked like a character from a 19th century Russian novel. Dark hair and beard; gaunt facial features; not shabbily dressed in a dark suit, but not smart either. The pianist was a short, round man with a ruddy complexion and shiny bald head. He had a perpetually giddy expression on his face that would make you think he woke up every day of his life with a winning lottery ticket. Even some of my Plum-mates lit up on crack would appear like dim bulbs compared to him.
They played Dvorak. The cellist played as intensely and soulfully as he looked; and the pianist bounced around on the keys with astonishing speed and precision.
I closed my eyes and felt transported: I was a kid again, hanging with my dad at some Eastern European Social Club on the Lower East Side. Men with warm wool coats and dark hair like the cellist; and the intoxicating aromas of strong coffee, cigars, pipe tobacco, brandy. But most of all, to be surrounded by huge strong confident men who sounded like steam-pipes when they coughed or laughed, and all of whom treated me like a son. I would always be this safe, protected, valued, loved…
Then, of course, eventually, the musical program concluded and the spell was broken. But I felt better; a whole lot better than when I got here and that was the real point of the mission. Something, anything, to make me want to keep going, living…
It was a small audience, twenty-five people or so, so the musicians accommodated a brief Q & A session afterward. There were a few boring technical musical questions, and then I heard myself gush forth, unfiltered: ‘How can you do something so good and make a living?’
I was dead serious, but everyone seemed to find it amusing and thought I intended my question that way.
I was no longer (seriously) entertaining the idea of asking for asylum, but I didn’t want to leave right away either, so I wandered up to the altar where the musicians and parishioners (I guess) were talking informally.
There was only one person I wanted to talk with, if I wanted to talk with anyone, and it was the most alive person in the room, the cellist. We made eye contact and smiling he walked up to me and thanked me for the compliment, which I really didn’t mean as such. But hey, I’ll take it.
He asked me about myself, which was generally a subject I avoided at this time, especially with ‘normal’ people living happy conventional lifestyles. But he didn’t seem normal and sounded genuinely interested. You get pretty isolated (and lonesome) when you are living alone on the margins, so I guess I let it rip.
I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do remember the Purple Plum coming up. He cut me off and made an excuse to go and talk with someone else. I was left hanging in Limbo, and now I was feeling even worse then before I came here.
This is a scary feeling; you feel like you’ve just fallen off a steep cliff and there is nothing under you now, forever. I felt like an ancient hunter who needed to bring home some game in order to survive for another day – only my game was positive feelings and some hope. Now I was empty handed and there wasn’t much time left in this day.
I felt flush and that I should go out and get some fresh air; but I was also temporarily paralyzed by fear and anxiety. What would I do with the rest of this day? And tomorrow? Why even bother?
Then I felt a finger tapping me on a shoulder. When I turned to see who it was it was the cellist. Though now he had a more sober look on his face (like he did when he was playing). He apologized for reacting like he did. He wasn’t expecting to meet anyone here who was ‘living like that’.
Before I had a chance to say ‘fuck you!’ he went on in a very deep and assuring voice (that brought me back to the men’s Social Clubs). He told me that when he was young his father, who was also an excellent musician, never learned to speak English and had a very hard time getting work and supporting his family. They had rough times; he knew what it was like; understood what I was going through. Then he embraced me in a manly hug and wished me good luck.
Well, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the rest of the day, but I was no longer considering doing that. So maybe an artist did save my life….