Winter 2002, South Florida
The day was cool with a frigid breeze blowing off the Atlantic westward up Calle Ocho, as I walked hastily in the same direction. They evicted me from my cheap room at the San Juan Motel on Southwest 22nd Avenue; and I was going back to retrieve my two bags, one with wheels.
A conversation I just completed with a stranger put me in panic mode. My mind was in overdrive.
“What do you mean?” I asked the homeless man, sitting on his cardboard concrete comforter in front of Camillus House, a homeless shelter on Northwest 2nd Avenue, not far from the Freedom Tower.
“What, are you deaf or stupid? He said, ‘You won’t get a bed in there tonight.’ They’re already taken! Only five of us in line will get one of the remaining beds. I’m number twenty-five waiting in line for a bed and dinner. Not all qualify.”
My body was shaking; I was in shock. I asked, “Where can I get someplace to sleep tonight?”
“Don’t you have a friend that can take you in?”
I was distraught at what was happening to me. My nerves were taking over my body. “No, I’m on my own.”
“If you can wait until later tonight, after ten o’clock, flag down a police car. Tell him you became homeless today and he’ll have to take you to Chapman’s shelter over on North Miami Avenue for the night. You look clean cut, so that won’t be a problem for a night.
Inside the shelter, they have their rules, and you’ll have to meet their requirements. Don’t you have any warmer clothes, a blanket, or anything?”
“It’s going to be cold and rainy on the streets tonight.” He looked up from the sidewalk, wearing what seemed to be two or three layers of dirty clothing with a ripped gray jacket over them.
“Why won’t you get one of the beds in Camillus House?”
His saddened brown eyes looked at me, shaking his head. “Not tonight; I was in there the night before last. I think.” I thought: Strange, he didn’t know what day it was. Maybe you lose all concept of time living on the streets. A chill went up my spine.
A stroke of fear overcame me. “Why couldn’t you stay in there?”
“You get only a bed and a shower once or twice a week in there…too many people waiting in line.” He pointed to the men in front of him. They were standing or sitting on the hard surface.
He pointed to the people across the street in front of a boarded-up-run-down building. It had some covering from the light rain that just began. Obviously, he knew his way around. “Those guys are waiting in line also. We are aware who’s who down here.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I stretched out my arm. He took my hand and shook it. I introduced myself, “My name is Don Quixote Smith. What’s yours?”
“Derik…Don’t use your full name around here. Only give it to Camillus staff. Use a nickname.”
“Thanks, Derik. Call me Q, then.”
“Okay, Q. Where’s your stuff?”
“My stuff is back at the motel on Calle Oche.”
“Well, go get your bags and get in line. Those here and across the street are in line. Get your luggage and put that coat behind me. I’ll keep your place. They serve dinner inside to all comers. Only a few get a bed for the night.”
I hesitated. Give a homeless man my only coat. What is he nuts? This leather jacket cost me a hundred and fifty bucks. I looked at him and said, “I don’t know if I’m coming back.”
“Suit yourself. I can’t hold a place for you without something covering the space behind me.”
I replied, “That’s okay Derik. I’ll take my chances. I might not be right back. I have to call a friend first. Will you be here if I return?”
“I’m not going anywhere. Can’t you see that? They serve hot food in an hour.” He looked at me as if I was a foreigner, and I was.
“Take it easy. I just hope this won’t be my situation after I make my next call. I must go back and get my bags. I hope I don’t see you later…bye.” I left Camillus House for what I thought was for good.
So here I was, with little chance of getting a bed for the night, rushing up Calle Ocho to retrieve my only possessions that they locked up in the motel I had lived in for the last three weeks. My stomach was aching. I drank a lot of water today and hadn’t eaten for the last twenty-four hours.
My mind was not in harmony with my body. I walked into the Calle Ocho Cafe and the Bakery, looking for some free samples they put out for patrons. “May I have a glass of water?” I asked the young woman across the counter in Spanish.
She answered back in Spanish, “Yes, sir,” and poured me a full cup. I noticed some sweet cakes laid out for buying patrons. I took more than an average person would have. I was famished. I got a dirty look from what looked to be someone in charge. I exited in haste with my dinner.
What happened next was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The abundance of water and the small amount of food in my stomach started to exit my body. It must have been my nerves. My body took control, and I literally shit my pants a block away from the motel.
I had no room to run to clean up. I released - I was homeless with a brown watery substance filling my underwear and flowing down my legs when I walked into the small empty motel lobby. I stood rigidly and let nature take its course.
Things weren’t looking up. I tried to smile.
“Mr. Smith, is there anything wrong?” The clerk behind the counter asked. He couldn’t see the little puddle next to my right shoe, but noticed my worried face.
“Yes, I just need to use the bathroom. Do you have a towel?”
“Wait a minute.” He left and came back, handing me a small thin white towel, which you only find in hotels that rent by the hour.
“Where are my bags?” I asked.
“Right here,” he replied, placing them at the end of the counter. Hearing a ringing telephone, he went into the office to answer it.
I bent over, took out a new pair of underpants from my carry on, and entered the bathroom at the end of the lobby before he could see what I was doing. Completing my due diligence, I looked in the mirror. Putting a smile on my face, I said with determination, “Showtime.”
Arriving back at the front desk, I happily didn’t see the clerk, so I left without saying goodbye in a hurry. I walked out the door with my shoulders straight and my eyes looking forward into the unknown, leaving the towel in the puddle on the floor.
I dialed the pay phone, next to the bus stop at the side of the motel’s building. It was a collect to a friend.
My friend’s wife answered, “Hello.”
The operator said, “This is a collect call from Don Smith. Will you accept the charges?”
“Yes; why not?” I could hear the irritation in her voice – why is this man always calling collect. It’s my telephone, not Fred’s.
“Hi, is Fred in?”
“Yes, wait a minute.”
I heard her yell, “Fred, it’s your friend Q… again.” She seemed a little pissed off at my interrupting something and calling collect, again.
He answered, “Hi-Q. Did you find out about Camillus House?”
“Yes, but I won’t be staying there tonight.”
“Long story, I’ll tell you when I see you tomorrow. Has Joan changed her mind? Can I stay with you for a while?” I knew the answer but made another attempt.
“Sorry. She has her sick brother here to take care of, and you know all the rest. I’ll help you out with a little money tomorrow.”
I understood. Fred was walking on thin ice, living with his ex-wife and having his current calling his cell all the time. He might have bought the house, but she wouldn’t let go. He had no rights.
She got the house in the divorce settlement. He was also married to a woman in the Dominican Republic, which his Joan had no idea of it. Joan was in charge.
“No problem, I understand. So it’s off into the night I go, and where I land nobody knows.”
Fred laughed, saying, “Q, you are crazy and the most active person I know.”
“See you tomorrow. Don’t let me down.”
“Eleven O’clock…in front of Camillus House…we’ll go for lunch…my treat.”
“It’s the least you can do.”
“I know. Bye.”
“Talk tomorrow. I gotta find me a cop.”
“It’s a long story. See you.” I hung up the phone, knowing I would see Fred tomorrow at eleven.