A Place to Stay

I remember how dark it was, and windowless. It was impossible to find anything in the stacked unmarked boxes. My requests for a certain toy or belonging went without answer.
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homeless person asking for help
homeless person asking for help

I recently found myself alone with about an hour and a half before I had to pick up my son from school. I rushed to the mall for some extravagant me time -- I bought a bottle of shampoo, returned some pants, snuck a latte into my drink holder. I was all by myself, with no one asking me for anything, demanding to be carried or requesting that I play the same song over and over again on the car stereo. Freedom! It was great, until I hit traffic on the way back to get my son and anxiety set in about whether I could get there on time.

As I was driving the long exit ramp toward Shattuck Avenue, I noted a panhandler stationed at the end of the off-ramp at the stop sign. There's almost always a guy standing there, but I was surprised to see a woman. She was a spunky, fairly clean-looking person with blonde dreads, a leather motorcycle jacket and some black leggings. My knee-jerk response was, Well, she probably isn't homeless, she just wants to get some cash. Still, I was drawn to read her sign, which stunned me. "Help a homeless pregnant lady." Under her leather jacket was indeed a baby bump. Immediately, I started trying to imagine changing a baby's diaper without a changing pad, maybe on a piece of cardboard? Where would you store the diapers? How about wipes? Where would mama and baby sleep? And what would she do when the baby woke her every couple of hours in the cold night air?

All of these thoughts seized my mind in the single moment of pause called a stop sign. And then it was time to drive, to get to my child, who was waiting for me, who I was late for. But he was safe at school, and when I got him we would go home and drink hot chocolate and snuggle on the couch in our nice house. Still, the image of that woman haunted me. I tried to go back a few days later to offer her some help, or just to talk, to find out what her plans were, locate some resources. But she was gone, and a different person was there. Where was she? What would happen to her baby?

When I was 9, my parents had to sell their house, due to multiple code violations they couldn't afford to rectify. It was a scary and sad time for us, as we were essentially forced to give up our home. With the sale of the house upon us, my parents believed we would have two months before we needed to vacate and find a new place to live. English being their second language, and neither literate in legalese, they signed the contracts and thought they were done. A few nights later, my father came home from his barbershop, furious, yelling in Greek about thieves and liars. He announced that the real estate agent had come to tell him that the signed contract specified that we were to vacate immediately.

We didn't have anywhere to go. My immigrant parents didn't have extended family anywhere nearby. We were in a heightened state of anxiety. Now, when I think of it, I wonder what was scarier to me: not having a place to live, or having parents who could be easily tricked. Like a lot of kids with immigrant parents, our parents relied on my sister and I to help them manage language barriers and deal with people in "official" positions -- people like doctors, or salespeople or even the butcher who sometimes thought our requests for certain parts were odd, like my father's fondness for lamb's head.

Luckily for us, our neighbor agreed to let us stay in her garage. We packed up all of our things and transported them down to her dark, below-grade garage. The boxes were stacked at least six feet high, took up most of the footprint of the garage, and felt imposing to me. My parents set up a bed in a basement room behind the garage. The neighbor allowed my sister and I to come upstairs at bedtime to sleep in a spare trundle bed. In the morning we'd go back downstairs and spend the day in the garage. It was a long summer.

I remember how dark it was, and windowless. It was impossible to find anything in the stacked unmarked boxes. My requests for a certain toy or belonging went without answer. We set up a makeshift kitchen in the garage. It consisted of a loaf of bread, some canned food and the occasional fruit. My favorite meal was Libby's canned Corned Beef with white bread. The can opened with a special key that came with it. It was perfect because you didn't even need a can opener. We'd slide the canned meat out onto a plate and divide it into thick slices. It was a pretty shade of violet red with swirling pink fat congealed around the outside. It somehow seemed like a treat as we ate it cold in the garage.

Eventually, my parents did find a new house for us and our time in the garage ended. I remember moving day being very bright, and squinting my eyes against the sun as the boxes were moved up the sloped driveway and loaded into the back of our station wagon over and over again. I remember not wanting to lose my doll, the one with the blonde hair that had slim wires throughout so you could curl her hair.

To this day, I don't know if the real estate agent intentionally fooled my parents into thinking they had two months to vacate, or if my parents simply didn't understand the contract. But for much of my life, I've believed that they were cheated, because that's the story that I heard. It opened up the possibility of being cheated again, of having my life disrupted by someone else, someone with more power, more education, more guile. It created a certain vigilance in me to never be fooled by others, to be able to defend myself, and to be deeply protective of my family. But honestly, being vigilant is exhausting, and sometimes you want to just relax into things being easy. No fighting. No conflict. A sense of safety.

Recently, my son showed me a house he built in Minecraft. "This is my room, I have a hot tub on the deck. See the view? And Mom, this is your room, so you always have a place to stay with me." I was warmed by his unexpected generosity, and suddenly reminded of the neighbor who took us in when my family had nowhere to go, and the pregnant homeless woman looking for help. As parents, we always want to make sure our kids are safe and happy, and that sense of security starts at home. I hugged my son and promised him that he would always have a place to stay with me, too.