Vagabond Heart- My time with the homeless.

To give you some reference as to how one of the “King Kongs” of social stigmas visited my doorstep, I’ll have to start at the beginning, with a life altering phone call. It was mid-summer during a heatwave, and I’d just awoken in the back seat of my truck. This was by no means one of my usual practices, the night before while I was on-shift working as a paramedic a large fire had broken out at a skilled nursing facility and our city’s 911 system was working tirelessly to battle the blaze while evacuating the elderly residents. At one point we had to call in a mutual aid request to neighboring counties to keep up with the demand. After working my 12-hour night shift, I was approached by the supervisor who advised me that mandatory-callbacks would be likely and that I shouldn’t stray too far.

Now, when I had shut my eyes to grab a nap it was relatively cool, but hours later when I was stirred by the digital chime of my cellular phone the heat was so stifling my eyes felt like somebody was stepping on them. Quickly, I kicked open my rear door and tumbled out onto the even hotter asphalt, my mind consumed by a thick fog. Even so, I’ll never forget the words on the other end of the line, because it wasn’t my boss as I’d expected, it was actually news that my best friend had taken his own life.

Oddly enough I didn’t cry, not right away anyway, I just continued in a perpetual fog feeling as if someone had placed a cup over my right ear. You know the feeling. One minute your hearing is full stereo and the next one of them decreases in volume followed by an annoying ringing sound. Usually this goes away as soon as I drink a glass of water, but I didn’t have the luxury seeing as I was about to be crushed by a tsunami of sorrow. To divert some of the impending force I hung up and immediately engaged some of my co-workers by launching into a tirade about how sleeping in my car had been one of the worst experiences of my life, which wasn’t even remotely true.

At the inception of my career, I was something of a misfit. I had been born with an insane amount of allergies that led to my doctors placing me in an actual bubble environment at an early age. Let me tell you, not being able to eat beef and all things dairy was a walk in the park next to mother nature causing your skin to erupt into hives. This led to a lot of time alone in my room reading. Long story short, by the time I reached full immunity in my teens I was super passive and my male bonding skills left something to be desired. Really what could we talk about? Seeing as I couldn’t play sports, I never bothered to watch them either and that was a huge stumbling block in conversation. This placed me at a serious crossroads in life. After all the books I’d read growing up, I didn’t match the image of me within my mind. So, I eventually came up with my own nature versus nurture experiment. I’d simply become a First Responder and force myself out of my comfort zone.

I bet you’re thinking I was in over my head and you’re right? I was practically drowning in fear and uncertainty. I was seconds away from rethinking my career options when Manny entered the scene. Fiercely independent, he had battled his way free of the gang culture that saturated his neighborhood, to become something of a prodigy. He had over five times the average amount of ride-along hours to apply for paramedic training. He was brilliant, popular with every clique in a job that smacked of a caste type society, and as a twist of fate would have it, he became my commuting buddy to school two hours away. As most people that go through a stressful period do, me and Manny began to depend on each other greatly. Those first two hours of the commute were filled with determination and grit as we shot quiz questions back and forth to prepare for the exam, but the return trip was filled with hopes and dreams of what we could accomplish and how it would impact the world.

After graduation it was only logical that we’d move in together as roommates. It was a time of infinite possibilities. I immediately met a girl and introduced Manny to her friend, and together we learned to laugh and love. But of course, nothing lasts forever and after two years we parted to start families.

Fortunately, when you work 911 it’s fairly easy to keep in touch and when we weren’t running into each other at emergency responses we could always catch up at birthdays and our yearly group vacation. Then something strange happened. One night while working as a firefighter Manny fell from a ladder injuring his back. With plenty of effort it would eventually heal but his taste for opiates would not. It would eventually cost him everything, his career, marriage and house. A lot of us in the First Responder community were caught off guard because he’d hidden his addiction so well.

At his family’s request I consented to move back in with Manny and keep him on the straight and narrow as he entered an out-patient drug rehab program at a local hospital. How could I not? A lot of formative lessons that I should have learned in my younger years were experienced with Manny. If not for his patience and understanding, I wouldn’t be who I’d become.

Now I’m not going to lie, I absorbed a lexicon of knowledge about addiction, but I also labored under the illusion that my friend would one day come back to me as if he were a crashed car being released from an auto-body shop with all new parts. When that didn’t happen, when he never drove right again and constantly had a tendency to veer to a certain side of the road my eyes were opened to a harsh reality of life.

In a lot of ways our brains are a veritable Eden and once the chemicals that make it such are imbalanced through substance abuse, you could search a lifetime to restore it but never achieve it. Everything from that point is akin to replacing a light bulb with greasy hands. Although the bulb of intent is new, the smudges from the fingerprints that coat the surface will cast shadows. Case in point, drug usage bombards the receptors with a huge amount of the neuroreceptor dopamine and after they’re damaged, they don’t really repair or replace themselves the way people think. From there happiness and the positive traits they used to exhibit are something of a chemical plateau that’s too hard to reach. Months after reaching sobriety Manny was dealing with some hefty depression, which catches us up to speed.

Looking back on my life I’d been to a handful of funerals but never anybody that young and as a result I didn’t mourn like one would normally do, instead, I burned like a star over the senseless loss of a million unsung potentialities. An hour later you would think I’d have spent all my grief, but I was barely getting started. Through tear glossed eyes I glared at the portrait of my friend in his dress blues uniform resting atop the tripod on the stage and made myself a solemn vow. I would move heaven and earth before I ever let another person go through a similar experience.

In my mind I had the framework for a series of novels that revolved around the key points of interest regarding drug use, one that could keep a young adult’s attention where most informative websites had failed. So, I quit my job, shut off all forms of social media, locked the front door to my house, and set out onto the open road with nothing more than a laptop and a mission. My travels would take me across the great state of California. I spent a lot of my time writing free-hand at state-parks and public libraries. At night I’d sleep in my truck, which seemed fairly ironic given the beginning of this piece, but it was the cheapest alternative. Then for brief stints I would get a hotel room and use voice software to get the story into DOC format. Then of course, there were the odd days, ones where my muse refused to whisper in my ear. It was times like that, I would walk the streets meeting people. A meal at a local shelter, but never a lodging, because of the stringent rules and the fact that I’m a night-owl. I wrote the entire first book that way and went right back into the work force as if nothing had happened, which isn’t too shabby for a boy who once lived in a bubble.

My point of writing this wasn’t to expound on how difficult life can be. Everybody knows that the Wheel of Fortune can be fickle, and we each handle it differently. In case you’re curious, though, being homeless isn’t too different from spilling a glass of merlot on a light-colored couch. It irrevocably stains, seeping into corners of your being that won’t be uncovered for years. As unwanted as the stain may be, it’s really only a perception. The couch sits no different than it did before, and its structure is just as sound. Theoretically speaking the only thing that’s changed is your fear of spilling anything at a future date. And that in itself is a grand alchemy I like to refer to as the Vagabond Heart.

On any given day our populace is choking down stress that’s ingrained into our psyche like chalk scratched upon a black board. Going completely off the grid had wiped me clean, though. Don’t get me wrong the first few weeks were uncomfortable, but I would continually remind myself why I was going through the process. I couldn’t very well write on topics that were foreign to me, and every bit of experience I gained would find its way into the characters. In a lot of ways, it was like fasting. Every few minutes your brain sends you a message that it’s time to eat and you have to over-ride the impulse until a few days later it goes away. In the same vein, one day I awoke and the overwhelming need to text my friends or jump on social media was gone. I skipped entire seasons of my favorite shows and didn’t bat an eye. What made this possible for me was the firm belief that I was doing this for a greater good.

Of note, there is actually a point where you become so liberated that you realize all you really need to survive is love and a few basic necessities. At that point I doubt anything can really call you back, not the siren’s call of a paycheck, not a thing, and that was a line I refused to cross. Once the first book was done, I slid the situation off like a jacket, hung it up and stepped back into my old life. It’s weird but I rarely talk about it, even though it is easily one of my most prized possessions. The feeling that if only for a little while, I was completely, unabashedly free. And how many people in this day and age can say that?

Posted on: 19 December 2022