“Get off the street and get a job!” he yelled as he drove by me in his glistening silver BMW. The anger in his face matched the cold whipping winds of this Minneapolis winter, temperatures below zero, a cold heart that is indifferent to human suffering. All I could do was pray for him and try to ignore the implication that I am a lazy excuse for a man, both tasks are difficult to accomplish, but somehow the hateful words don’t seem to sting as much as they did two years ago.
I stand on the corner of 4th avenue and 10th street, my feet are sore – well at least what I can feel of them, my cheeks have become callused and scaled and are showing the beginning signs of severe frost bite. Even though I don a couple of layers under my coat, it still feels as if my bones were separated and placed in deep freezers. I suppose it would help if my clothes were clean and free of rips and holes, and if my coat still had the inner liner which is now long gone on another homeless man’s thieving back. Alas, I am here, today I live with a familiar prickly cold hint of humiliation as the pampered young adults drive and walk by me; children of middle-to-upper class families taking for granted not only the college education they are being handed, but also the warm meals shared with friends, and the dry comfortable mattresses within the bedrooms they call their own. They look at me as if I was a burden on their groomed block in dinky-town. I am seen as a blemish, an oozing, repulsive comedone on the pristine face of the Twin Cities. The comments become old news as the weeks and months wear on, and the general consensus of those rude enough to express their ignorance is that the homeless are a society of slothful, second-class creatures who are out to take what is not rightfully theirs. These people pass judgment as if they are a superior race, immune to suffering and bad luck.
The snow underneath my feet has become a solid pad of ice, and in the summer, it looks like the balding spot on the top of my head. This place is where I have faithfully stood for 2 years, day in and day out, where I hold cardboard that hopefully tells the passers-by that I am honest and out of other options. I do have a family who still lives in Maplewood, however they have decided that my ‘issues’ are too heavy a burden for them to manage. I cannot go back to Linda and my two daughters due to a restraining order which was issued almost exactly two years ago, on March 10.
I never thought this would be my life; I am a college educated man, and a master’s degree in finance seemingly secured my job with an accounting firm downtown. It is the truth that I once was the ignorant man in the fancy car judging that which I did not understand. My paychecks were fat and so was my stomach as I ate out daily and ritually imbibed a six dollar large white chocolate mocha every morning.
It is mind-boggling to me that a disease of the mind could so quickly rob a successful family man of everything he has.
About two and a half years ago, in my 3 bedroom, 3 bath colonial home on the edge of an elm tree studded golf course, my fate began to change. My wife Linda, stunning with her long dark hair and voluptuous figure walked into the sitting room where I was mindlessly watching the game. The lines creasing her face and the desperate look in her eyes were enough to pull me from the tv. “What’s wrong Hun?” I pried, “You look scared, what’s going on?” Without a second’s thought, tears began to stream down her pink porcelain cheeks which had since turned red and warm, “Why are you so moody Jon? You have been out of control for the past couple of days,” she stopped as a realization hit her, “you act like you don’t even recognize me or your daughters.” I was shocked at her comment; I felt my face become very warm and my palms began to sweat. I wasn’t entirely sure what she was referring to, “I don’t know what you mean Linda.” I seem to have no memory of the previous days; she can sense this in my tone. Desperately she asks “Are you seeing someone else? What is going on?” The soft tears have now turned into heaving sobs as she looks me dead in the eye, “I have a right to know Jon!”
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as I flashed back to a conversation my father had with my mother on the wraparound porch of my childhood home about 25 years ago. At the time I did not understand what was happening. There were weeks on end that my mother would act as if the life she was living was foreign to her. Her normally calm voice would contort as she would scream at me “Who are you young man? Why are you in my house?” She would panic as if I were an intruder, “You don’t belong here, get out,” she would point at the white screen door at the front of the house, “GET OUT!” My father calmly explained the outbursts to my mother, who was unable to remember such breakdowns. She became frustrated and felt mistrusted, she knew that something was wrong, but would refuse to see a doctor. About a month after their conversation that summer, my mother was checked into a psychiatric institution which was four hours from our home. My father explained to my seven year old self that she had a problem with her brain called schizophrenia. Six months later, we received a letter that my mother had committed suicide.
With this image springing up from what seems like a lifetime ago, I panicked. It was happening to me. My first instinct was to run as fast as I could away from everything, alcohol would be the easiest way to do that, however I knew that when the stupor wore off I would still be screwed. I decided to sit my wife down to explain the disease that robbed my mother of her life. I had not shared with her previously because I was terrified that I would end up with the same disease – I figured if I ignored that my mother was ill, I would be immune to the passing of the gene.
Linda stared at me in disbelief and quickly made an appointment with a psychiatrist across town. We hoped that I was just suffering from a mid-life crisis. Apparently her initiative was threatening enough to trigger a surge of anger within me. My last memory was my standing in the kitchen feeling faint and clammy. I assume some time had passed because the next thing I noticed was my home. It was ransacked and the police were coming in the front door. I had blacked out. Broken glass was strewn across the great room where an antique vase had been thrown against the wall. The counter had been completely cleared of its contents and in the rubble laid a family portrait taken not a month ago, which was now shattered and torn. A foreshadowing of my future I suppose. My wife was shaking in the corner with hot tears leaping onto her jeans like rain. She looked at me as if I was a rabid animal. My adrenaline shot through the roof and I felt dizzy and out of sorts as the officers came down the hallway and into the kitchen where they escorted me out of my own home.
24 hours after my arrest, I was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. The doctor talked to Linda at the door of my hospital room, he shook his head slowly and formed the words “It’s severe schizophrenia. I am sorry; we need to hold him for observation.”
After a 72 hour hold, I found that my insurance did not cover severe mental illness or the treatment of it. I received a prescription for an anti-psychotic medication, and was sent home. As the taxi pulled in front of my house, I noticed Linda waiting for me. Gosh I missed her face. When I approached, a sad look rested in her tired eyes, “Jon, I filed for a restraining order today. I cannot risk having you hurt our children.” She looked at the maple tree on the front of the property as if she wanted to crawl into it. At that point I knew there was more. “You need to take your clothes and leave. For good.” Her face turned cold and disconnected, “I want a divorce.” Those words pierced through my tough exterior and reduced me to a man begging for a second chance.
Over the next couple of months, the divorce proceedings moved quickly through the courts as I was deemed an unfit parent and Linda was awarded custody and most of the marital assets. I lost my job, and was hopping from couch to couch until I ran out of friends willing to help me out. Little did I know that without insurance, the medication would empty my bank account and leave me on the street. My father had since passed away and I had no other extended family who could support me. I was alone.
Without the medications, I faced possible death due to exposure, it is impossible to keep track of where each of my selves are and what they think their life looks like – let alone get them to cooperate and agree on a place to keep safe and warm. I spend what money I get from the state on my prescriptions and that which is left over is spent at the Salvation Army, or on small bits of food that I can afford with whatever change I have left over.
It is a wild juxtaposition really; I am trying to survive like a prehistoric human in the setting of the greatest technological and economical advances in the history of the world.
When the dust settled, I had to survive in any way I could. I have been living on the streets of Minneapolis, where I can get two modest meals a day at the mission. Every now and then I receive a couple dollars from compassionate motorists waiting at the stoplight where I stand with my cardboard sign. The majority of the drivers are indifferent and avoid eye-contact, but every now and then, there is a gem that hands me a dollar or two scraped from the bottom of their passenger seat. During these short interactions, I am commonly asked what I think about all day. I reply that I pray for each and every one of them - even as they look at the ground and scurry past. While I am around many people every day, I find myself suffering with a throbbing loneliness which is felt deep within my core.
I walk to this spot every day from my tent which this week rests underneath some rubble directly below the Mill City Museum. It’s not a bad place to stay when there are no other options as it is covered by the western edge of the stone arch bridge, and is sheltered by large stacks of crates – presumably left behind by the barges that go through the St. Anthony main. If I am lucky, I am able to have the area to myself, however, being homeless in Minneapolis during the winter is a tough feat, and there are few places that are sheltered enough to be livable. The walk is refreshing in the morning after a stiff night of fitful sleep interrupted by prayers for warmth. The exercise gets my blood pumping and allows my skin to thaw if just for a couple of hours. On the way to my daily post, I stop at Union Gospel Mission, where I can get a bowl of instant oatmeal and an apple both of which dull the hunger pains in my stomach and the intestinal cramps caused by yesterday’s questionable second hand deli sandwich.
I arrive at my spot around ten o’clock in the morning and pull out the ratty cardboard which I had rolled up and stored in the waistband of my jeans. Business as usual today, I am hoping for enough money to afford lunch and a ‘new’ winter coat from the Salvation Army. I receive a couple of five dollar bills, and a packet of crackers fished out from the passenger seat of a young woman’s car. The heavy feeling in my head and chest has been growing all day, and I am feeling the need to take a nap, which is unusual as naps are not easily afforded in this line of ‘work’.
At about noon, a black SUV rolls up to me. A woman, sophisticated and polished, peeks out of the driver’s side window. Her soft voice matched her hair and it echoed in my head, swirling around like melted chocolate. She asked if I would join her for lunch. While I dread the inevitable questions regarding my lifestyle, I am grateful. I accept her offer and suppose it’s the small things in life which are blessings. I am able to take a deep breath, and for the first time in months, I am able to smile, even if only for an hour.