When I Was Homeless…
It took me a while to find the right Angel…
A few days ago, I was sitting on top of the world, thrilled with the launch of my new book. And then, just a few hours later, I came crashing back down to Earth as I learned that the job I had for 14 years was gone, as I was laid off. Due to the coronavirus, it was explained to me, the company had to close.
Naturally, I was pretty distraught. I have a wife and 2 kids that I’d been providing for and I hadn’t been in a situation where I needed to be concerned about paying the bills and buying food, not for a long time.
And, since Congress hasn’t gotten its act together with a stimulus package yet, I was staring a harsh reality in the face of NOT being able to provide any more. Very scary.
I shared my feelings on a live broadcast on Twitter, reaching out to folks who have commiserated with me over the years, showing that we are all going through something real, and that the fallout from non-action to this crisis has severe, personal consequences.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with many folks sending their well wishes, prayers, love, and suggestions. Quite a few had recommended that I start a GoFundMe, so they could donate. And I said no, that’s usually what folks do when they are in a desperate situation, and I’d much rather work things out on my own.
It was inevitable that at least ONE jackass would strike out at me with some bullshit…
…because that’s what they do. Trolls are pretty horrible, and I usually just block them. But what one particular troll said was SO disgusting, so repugnant, I had to screen shot it. He wrote: “You’re unemployed and going to be homeless. Hopefully you fucking kill yourself.”
I reported it, and proceeded to let those words recede to the back of my mind, locked in a box that reads “NEVER OPEN THIS BOX AGAIN.” But that comment kept picking at me. And picking, like picking at a scab that just won’t heal.
Because I had already experienced homelessness. And it wasn’t pretty.
My homeless situation was not something that I could blame on anything or anyone but myself. After all, I had been the beneficiary of an excellent private school education: I had a scholarship to The Dalton School, an exclusive prep school from which I received an extraordinary head start. And I had a family and friends that loved me.
But addiction doesn’t discriminate…
…and it affects people from every walk of life, every social class, every educational background. During much of the nineties, I fought a recurring battle with drug addiction to crack cocaine, in and out of drug rehabs with relapse after relapse.
In 1993, after having prematurely left one rehab, I went back to work (as a graphic designer). The money was decent, but my head most certainly was not right. I rented a room above the apartment where my then wife lived with her mother-in-law and our 2 sons.
Within 3 weeks, I had relapsed, and when I showed up at my mother-in-law’s house asking for money at 3AM, my now ex-wife told me “You need to leave that woman’s house upstairs. Because if you steal anything from her, you will humiliate me and my whole family.” She was right: I would have DEFINITELY stolen something, anything, everything I could. So I left.
Thus began my adventures in homelessness. They were not glamorous.
When I started out, I didn’t even consider myself homeless; I was so busy getting high, I didn’t need to sleep or eat for days at a time. I somehow managed to borrow money from folks whose bridges I hadn’t yet burned, with whom I still had some credibility.
This was before the look (and smell) of homelessness took hold of me. As it turns out, when you go for months without a shower, without washing your hair, or brushing your teeth, or changing your clothes, you REALLY smell. The kind of odor that clears a subway car in a hurry.
So, officially fitting the description of a homeless guy, I stayed in buildings, on rooftops, wherever I could lay my head for a few hours before being awoken by a cop banging his nightstick, screaming at me to get off the train, or someone chasing me out of a building for trespassing.
To make the transformation complete, I started collecting cans and bottles, but that was really hard, time-consuming work, and using a wire hanger to break into people’s cars to steal the change from their ashtrays. I was a petty thief; never mugged or robbed anyone, because that wasn’t my nature – I stole when they weren’t looking.
Eventually, so much of my soul had been replaced by crack-driven urges…
I began to shake a cup for donations. I will never forget the look of disgust mixed with bewilderment at my position: WTF is this young guy doing, shaking a cup for change? Well, it was cold, and malnutrition had made me weak, so begging for change was the EASIEST way to score more drugs.
One day, while I was shaking a cup near Union Square in Manhattan, I asked a young woman who recognized me. From The Dalton School. A part of me, buried deep beneath the layers of addiction, felt utter shame and humiliation as she reached into her purse to give me some money.
My Christmas Light…
Later that night, on Christmas Eve, I asked a doorman for money, and he asked me what had happened to me. He looked into my eyes and said he could tell that was NOT the way I was meant to live. He asked me if I’d say a prayer with him, and I told him “But I’m Muslim.” And he said, well, it doesn’t look like your God is listening to you, so let’s pray.
Why was this guy wasting his time WITH ME? In my mind, I was a complete and total failure, having been in and out of rehabs where the lesson never seemed to stick, where I always seemed to outsmart myself. I wasn’t even worth the time, I thought. His sincere concern for me felt undeserved. I wasn’t worthy.
Fine, I said, just wanting to get to the part where he gave me money. But then, on Christmas Eve, it started snowing. And I don’t remember the words he was using, but he asked God to help me, and he said within 2 weeks I would be helped. I barely realized that I was crying at the time when he handed me some money.
Two weeks later, I was in rehab.
Fast forward to today:
I haven’t shaken a cup for donations in over 2 decades, as I have managed to string together 16 and a half years of sobriety, and the sting of humiliation is somehow STILL fresh in my memory from that episode.
But suddenly, the circumstances have changed. I’m not high anymore. I think of others now, instead of just myself. My 3 sons from that first marriage are fully grown and working, but I now have 2 little ones who traveled across the globe with their Mom (my Wife) from New Zealand to be with me.
We’ve had a serious talk, my Wife and I, about asking for help. It goes against every fiber in my body right now – even when hauling groceries into the house, I like to be Mr. “I-can-handle-all-15-of-these-bags-myself” Husband. And I am stubborn. And proud.
But that pride, I have found, can be a dangerous drug, too. The kids are now fully aware of the situation, but they do not yet know how dire it is. I’m in debt over my head, with mounting bills and no job, and my ex-boss has forbidden me to work freelance for our previous clients – even though I was the ONLY designer he had on staff.
While I didn’t sign a non-compete agreement with my former boss (none of us did), he is a Breitbart-reading trump supporter who kept video cameras pointed at our computers to ensure we didn’t surf the web (while he stayed on Breitbart and Facebook), and couldn’t WAIT for a good reason to get rid of me. And so, here I find myself asking for help, buried all the way at the bottom of this impossibly-long written piece, secretly hoping that most of you will have given up reading at this point (tl;dr).
If you folks who are still reading at this point can spare $5, or even $1, every single dollar is appreciated and welcome.
My Cashapp account is $MAJIDPADELLAN.
My Venmo account is @Majid-Padellan.
My pride is kicking my ass right now, and I am certain that this piece will open me to more attacks from nasty trolls, but the memory of homelessness is even stronger, and I don’t want to expose my Wife and kids to it.
Thank you for letting me share.