A sex offender stole my chicken. That chicken was the only protein I owned. My tenants told me they saw the small man cramming bags of meat in his mouth.
I had kicked him out of the building before.
He looked like a tiny wolfman. I imagined my tenants watching shreds of chicken tumbling off his wrap-around beard and the connected bushy eyebrows. Why was he in the rooming house I managed, crouched on the floor of the empty room upstairs?
A rooming house is like an apartment with shared bathrooms and kitchen. If a “New York penthouse” sits at the top of the American social ladder while fulfilling the need for “shelter,” the rooming house is the very bottom rung. It’s the one homeless people are grasping at and slipping off of. It’s for people who can’t afford first and last and deposit.
A big part of my job was using my “sense of people” to figure out who to let in. I got to choose what kind of criminals would share our home. Screening applicants through personal conversations was important, because folks who ask to live in a ghetto don’t look good on paper. I never once ran a background check that came back without criminal convictions.
The man who had been seen eating my chicken had passed neither my conversational screening nor the background check. I had many reasons for not allowing him in the house, but poverty was not one of them.
Being at the socioeconomic “top” of America does not guarantee that person is a good person. Modern America illustrates this quite clearly.
If people don’t have money, it doesn’t necessarily mean there‘s something wrong with them. A large part of America really needs to learn this correlation does not mean causation.
Being poor doesn’t mean there’s something wrong you. But usually there is.
There was certainly something wrong with me. Before becoming manager, I’d used a room for mourning loss and drinking seven hundred beers.
I had some money from working construction, and I isolated myself in behind a locked door. The gig had given me time to think about what happened in the previous months. Images of her would flash through my mind. When it was occupied with nothing more than cutting steel or swinging a sledgehammer, her pain and my loss filled my mind.
I had watched her beat cancer. She did not beat her childhood trauma.
I’d wake up in the rooming house room, and notice I was still conscious late in the day. That required another beer run. When returning from a second trip to the store one evening, the owner of the rooming house asked me to have a seat in the kitchen.
My first sixteen drinks could have gone either way. But on that day, they had brought convivial good cheer.
So I sat down at a wide countertop that filled the room as it erupted from the center of the floor.
She asked me how I had ended up in her rooming house. She was open and honest. I was drunk. The conversation quickly deepened because of these things.
For a few years, I had been sober. I started there. A business I had created, and the mind of a person I loved, had thrived for awhile and I had cherished them. Consciously, I made the choice to be alive years previously, and it was easy to continue making that choice when it brought gifts.
When I lost what I loved, I headed back to the Midwest with nothing but a backpack and my sobriety. The hard feeling of pavement distracted me from feeling much else, for awhile.
Cooking donated food in a commercial kitchen for rows of men and women, and sleeping on the floors of churches alongside them, made me feel a part of something. I had not felt that before. That was an unexpected gift.
While cutting steel for twelve hours before collapsing in a trailer parked somewhere in Minnesota, I lost the feeling of gifts. I lost the sense of meaning and purpose. Days were spent swinging a sledgehammer and knocking down a piece of a strip mall, then sawing and drilling a new store in its place. In my belief system, the world would derive little benefit from long stripmalls.
Nights were spent in a box at the end of a trailer. One of the other guys on the crew was also an alcoholic, except he wasn’t “struggling” like he explained I was. The smell of booze from the coffin below me woke up a part of my brain that had tried killing me many times before.
When I rode back to the Chicago suburb locals called “Kenowhere” with a pocket full of hundred dollar bills, I got my own room and alcohol.
I looked at the owner of the rooming house, over my folded hands. She sat across the kitchen table, eyes large and calm. I admitted to her that my rent money was running out.