Her name was Free.
“A day-tripper,” I had jokingly called myself before that day, which was the day I became homeless. It was also 9/11/01.
My headlights on my otherwise wonderful little Subaru didn’t work.
“You can go to Walmart parking lot to sleep,” a teenage friend of my son’s suggested.
My son said I could sleep on his sofa, but I gratefully declined.
I had just moved out of a house where the well water was seriously contaminated. Eventually, sewage backed up into the bathtub. My landlord was twiddling her thumbs across the street, where the water was good. I’d had no choice but to leave.
My furniture was in storage and I’d made a good plan, but like all plans, you need a backup. I failed to make one.
I had obtained a house sitting position from a friend who was leaving for one month.
She was flying to Connecticut on September, 12th, 2001. Her house was in town and convenient for me to go look at rental places. She said my dog was welcome. Like I said, it was a good plan.
I moved out of the sewage filled house a few days before my friend’s scheduled flight. After bringing in drinking and cooking water for an entire year, living beside people who put rebel flags in their yard and a few times called me in the middle of the night to tell me that I was, “going to hell in a hand-basket,” things were looking up for me.
I used the first few days of my transition freely. My dog and I went to my favorite camping spot on Mt. Pisgah. I would meet my friend and get her house key the night before her flight.
That morning I packed my things. It was foggy and quiet on top of the mountain. I was the only camper, which is how I liked it up there. I had my coffee and took a slow walk around the campground with Free.
That afternoon I drove down the mountain into town and decided to visit my son and use his phone to call my friend. I walked inside his apartment and as usual the television was on. I sensed something was wrong. My son and several friends were sitting there with stunned looks on their faces.
“Do you know what happened Mom?” my son asked.
“We’ve been attacked by terrorists,” he said. I thought for a second that it was another conspiracy idea one of his friend’s had.
I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t see the details of the television footage. “What is that?” I asked.
“Dude!” one of the visitors said. “It’s the Twin Towers burning.”
I watched the billowing smoke on the small television screen for a few moments. I was confused. I didn’t know what to think or feel or do.
Terrorists I thought. What the hell does that mean exactly? I wasn’t used to hearing we’ve been attacked.
I walked outside and called my friend about meeting her for the house key. Being a day-tripper meant I needed to work my plan before dark. Shelter was on my mind and time was getting away from me.
The basic necessities in life call you to action no matter what else is happening.
“Everything is cancelled until further notice. I don’t think I’ll be flying anywhere for a while,” my friend said. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I know you were depending on staying here while you looked for a place, but I’ll be working since I can’t leave.”
My friend worked at home as an acupuncturist. The environment was not right for my dog and I to stay there with people coming for quiet healing sessions.
I didn’t know where to go or what to do.
The thought of sleeping in my son’s apartment was intolerable to me for several reasons, one of which was the condition of his girlfriend’s cat’s litter box and another was the hippies who drifted in and out from all parts of the world.
My son moved out when he was sixteen to travel across the country with his girlfriend. They returned after a couple of months, got jobs and rented an apartment together.
I never imagined that my son would leave home that early, nor had I imagined I would ever be on his or anyone’s doorstep wondering where to sleep.
I’ve learned in my life that anything can happen. Things we imagine could never happen to us, can and do.
I knew many people. I had many friends. I’d be fine, I thought.
I assured my son I was safe for the night, but when I told him I was going to the nearby Blueridge Parkway to sleep in my car at one of the look out points, he became worried. “I wish you would stay here, but Walmart would be safer than the parkway Mom,” he said.
I wasn’t going to Walmart to sleep. I knew that much.
Free was with me and I felt that she would keep me safe. I figured the parkway would be quiet at night. I soon discovered that my son knew more about that than I had.
I left my son’s apartment and went to a place where I could think, The Waffle House. Free slept in the car.
It was late Autumn and the weather was nice, but that would soon be over. Winter was on the way, which I suddenly became acutely aware of.
“James!” I said. “What a surprise seeing you here.”
He pointed to his table. A woman smiled and waved. I assumed he was on a date.
James was an eccentric, but level-headed man in his late fifties. I knew him from downtown Asheville. We often found ourselves in the same groups; gathering around coffee, artists and good conversation.
I told James of my unexpected plight. I tried to keep myself together, but James was an odd character. Being around him made people want to tell the truth. His eyes filled with compassion and understanding.
“Here, take this,” and he put a fifty dollar bill on my table. “Go across the street and get you and your dog a room tonight. I know the owner. I’ll call him and tell him your dog won’t hurt anything and he’ll let you stay. The price is forty-five even. That’s all I have now or I’d give you more.”
James always did show up at the strangest times. People often talked about him downtown. The hippies thought maybe he was an informant. They were a little paranoid. Others thought he was with the CIA and some spoke of him being an angel. They said he would show up right when somebody needed saving from a situation. I’d seen it happen a few times myself.
“Thank you James. I really appreciate this.” I remember him holding my hand for a minute before returning to his table.
I don’t remember anymore the order in which the events occurred over the following weeks after 9/11.
I remember feeling numb about being homeless. I listened to the radio stations reporting on the tragedy every day. I felt like I didn’t have the right to feel bad over my situation. My family and I were alive and this became the most important thing in my mind and heart.
My family lived four hours away. I wanted to stay in the mountains to be near my son. He may have moved out, but he still needed a parent. I just had to go about it in a different way than most parents of teenagers do.
The friends I had either couldn’t or in a few cases, simply wouldn’t let me stay with them because I had a dog.
The way people treated me when I didn’t have a place to live surprised me. Perhaps the tragedy of 9/11 had an effect on their perception of my situation as it did mine. I’m not sure, but the people whom I had considered close friends sure changed when they feared I might ask something of them. I don’t know what they thought I would ask for, other than a place to sleep for a few nights and a phone during the day, which I quickly learned was too much to ask.
I think people are scared that if they help someone a little, then the person will take advantage of them and never stop needing the help.
Other people quickly assume that no matter what the situation, like a bathtub full of sewage and contaminated drinking water, that if you’re homeless, then you got yourself there.
Three nights of sleeping in my car on the Blueridge Parkway was enough. My son was right. Walmart parking lot would have been safer.
My next plan was to rest for a couple of days at my mother’s home, which was about four hours away. I needed to recover from shingles. I needed a bed. I needed to know that somebody cared if I lived or died.
My only and older brother called while I was there.
“Hello,” I answered.
“Michelle!” my brother said surprised. “What are you doing home?”
My brother and I had always had a knack for using humor to talk about hard times or difficult emotions.
“Well,” I responded. “I’m homeless.” It was the first time I had used the word and I used it casually hoping, I guess, that we would laugh about the situation.
“You’re what!” he screamed.
“Homeless,” I said, truly clueless about what was coming next.
Fortunately, the time I was homeless lasted less than three months.
Telling how it all came to be, what it was like being homeless and all that happened as a result is a lot of telling.
The family ordeal over the harsh words my brother said to me over the phone that day had a strong and long-lasting impact on me and my heart. My relationship with my brother has never been the same.
I could tell about the amazing cell phone my mother helped me buy. Amazing not in features, but in power. I haven’t charged it in years and it still works!
The phone was my connection to my son and Mother. I’d never before felt such a strong need to be in contact with the both of them every day, as I did during the weeks following 9/11. I wanted to know where they were and that they were both safe. I wanted them to know I loved them. I was scared.
I could tell about the beautiful camping area Free and I stayed for a few weeks and what happened there, but that story stands alone.
I could tell about the mysterious way I met the housing inspector who knew about the bad water where I had lived and who offered me a garage apartment without charge, which is where I stayed for one month.
The photo above is my beloved Free lying beside the bed in that apartment. It was a brand new bed with the plastic still on it. The place had hot water and power. I was very blessed.
Mostly, I remember the radio. All day, every day and at night, I would lie there on that bed beside Free with a camp light on and listen.
I remember having to take medication for anxiety. It was a very hard time.
I called hundred of landlords, but nobody would allow a dog.
Finally, I received a call from a woman whom I had never heard of. “I’m calling you about the rondette,” she said. I had never heard of those either.
“I’m not sure you have the right person,” I said to her. I assumed the place she was describing would be way out of my price range.
“Oh yes,” she said in her self-assured way I would learn to like. I wrote your name and number down to call you back about it.”
“Okay,” I said. “How much is the rent?” A rondette on the side of a mountain sounded pretty cool.
I gasped when she told me it was only $350.00 per month. “Do you allow dogs?” I asked her right away.
“I’m actually leery of people who don’t have dogs,” she said laughing. “Tell me about your baby.”
I was there shaking hands with her within an hour.
It was a magical beautiful place. There were old time flowers growing in the garden by the bedroom window. They smelled like my grandmother’s face and hand creams. Windows surrounded the little space. From the small, but very green and cozy backyard was a view of the city below.
“I don’t know if this place is big enough for you and your dog,” she said.
I liked her. We had on nearly the same outfit and literally, the same brand of shirt, same color and same size. A purple soft cotton LL Bean button down.
She turned out to be the best landlord I’ve ever had. She was trusting, helpful, kept her properties in great condition and rented below the fair market price.
“If you don’t rent the place to me now,” I told her, “tonight we’ll have to sleep there,” I added, pointing at my little Subaru.
Her eyes widened, but I had told the truth. The garage apartment had been rented to a family and I had to move out.
“Call it home then you two!” She smiled, handed me a key and went on her unusually merry way to a funeral.
It was home and it was sweet.
Free in her chair in our little rondette.
Tiny visits and curls up in my new bedroom.
From this room I could literally watch the old time flower garden grow.
- Review: The Girls’ Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp (bookdout.wordpress.com)
- Firefighters rescue man from roof of Waffle House (seattletimes.nwsource.com)