I was 22. My girlfriend wouldn’t let me sleep because she wanted to fight, so I left the house. It was 3am and I didn’t have a plan.
I would have slept in my car, but she had driven the car home that night, so I didn’t know where it was parked.
I ended up on a park bench by a public building, just a few blocks away.
I started in a sitting position but woke up laying down.
Or, was woken up…
By a cop, flicking feet with his big gloved hands.
“Sit up,” he demanded.
I sat up, looked around, there was another man on the bench across from me, as disoriented and disheveled as I was, also sitting up. The cop must have started on that side of the street.
“Can’t sleep on the bench,” he said, looking around.
I’m not good at being woken up. I’m totally disoriented for a few seconds. I say things that don’t make sense but I say them as if they do, which is a good way to sound crazy.
“I wasn’t sleeping here yet.”
He looked at me funny.
It was the 90’s so I was in full grunge regalia, which meant both knees were showing through holes in my pants, which had paint splattered on them. My flannel was 3 sizes too big, flappy cuffs covering my hands. My sneakers were unlaced.
And of course my hair was unkept, almost dreaded and running down past my shoulders.
This was the look I chose: not caring. But it was carefully sculpted — my shirt was from Urban Outfitters. My shoes were old Jordans. My hair was unkept because that’s the way novelists are — but it definitely wasn’t working for me at that moment.
The sun was hot on me like a spotlight.
I stared straight ahead.
I was startled and scared, probably much like the guy across the street.
“What’s your name?” the cop asked.
I told him.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
I told him.
“You have ID?”
I patted my pockets.
The look on his face… I’d never seen someone look at me like that before.
“This isn’t your bedroom,” he said.
My brain came out of its fog. I started to realize what this looked like.
“I’m not homeless,” I blurted, which was probably the best way to prove that I was.
He looked me up and down.
My outfit was solidly in fashion but perhaps this guy didn’t listen to Nirvana.
It didn’t matter that I’d just graduated college a year ago, that I worked at the bookstore a few blocks away, that I’d just gotten promoted, that my boss loved me. He didn’t care that I was working on a novel, that the paint on my pants was mine, from painting at the Museum School in Boston, that my parents loved me.
All those details had been whisked away by 1 desperate act and some unfortunate wardrobe choices.
I was a thick, meaty buffalo staring down a bayonet.
I was, for all intents and purposes, homeless.
“You’re new,” he said, staring down at me, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to talk.
He had his hands on his hips, tapping his index fingers, middle fingers, and ring fingers on his belt in unison.
Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
Maybe he saw the real me. Maybe not. Maybe this was the real me and the bookstore, the unfinished novel, my degree, that was all just a cover up. His gaze was heavy, his silence, cruel.
Despite all I had written and all I had painted, the great high-ceiling rooms I had filled with meaningful discussions, I was just a kid on park bench. Maybe not even that.
I had no story: a blank page, an empty canvas.
“Sad,” was all he said. And walked away.
The future, no matter how hard you work for it, is always unwritten.
As if to underscore this universal truth of the thin line between hope and despair, I got a head nod from the guy across the way. Then he stood and checked his pockets for important things.
We walked in parallel on opposite sides of the street, a mirror image of each other separated by double yellow lines, our steps slow, the gait of dreamers woken up, in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.