From the book TRUTH ACCORDING TO MICHAEL by Stevan V. Nikolic - Chapter Three/ Part I
He was relieved that after so many days, he was going to take a shower, have something to eat and have a safe place to sleep. But six months looked very long for him to be cut off from the outside world. He promised Eliza that he will bring her to New York by the end of the month.
“What will I say to her? he was thinking. He didn’t have the means now to contact her anyway. And for six months he wouldn’t be able to look for a job or a way out of his situation. It seemed like such a long time. But he knew that he had to go one day at a time.
“For now, I am safe. Mid-March and the weather in New York is like winter in full swing. It is so cold. It is good to be here for now,” he thought. “Gives me time to think about what to do next.”
The stocky man in the t- shirt came back.
“Hi guys, my name is Mike. You are Victor and Michael, right?”
“I am Victor.” The man with the big afro said.
“And you are Michael, like me?”
Michael just nodded his head.
“You are now the fourth Michael in the program. There are two more here. I will take you guys down to the clothing room to find something clean to wear, and then to the showers. I understand that you will be staying in the chapel for a couple of nights. It is not that bad of a deal. It is better than outside. I heard that two students are leaving today from my floor. Maybe, you’ll get lucky and sleep in a bed tomorrow.”
They went down the narrow staircase from the second floor back to the reception hall, and from there through the Chapel, they continued to the basement of the Mission.
On the left side of the long basement hall, with walls and ceiling painted in gray, was the clothing room door. Further down the hall were shower rooms. All three of them, led by Mike, entered the clothing room.
The clothing room was a large basement space lit with neon lights and painted white. Alongside one longer wall were metal shelves filled with folded clothing up to the high ceiling. On another side, were clothing racks with coats, suits, and shirts. Lined in the middle were long folding tables covered with piles of unfolded clothing.
“Rick, these are new students. They are going to take showers, so they need a change of clothing. Can you help them?”
“Do they have clothing requisition slips?” the skinny old man, hardly five feet tall, with gray hair, and a strong West Indian accent, asked.
“No, Rick. They are not assigned beds yet, so they will come with slips later. They just need one change of clothing for now.”
“Okay. Here are underwear and socks.” Rick started pointing with his hand around the room. “Here are pants and t- shirts. On other side are dress shirts and jackets. Over there are sweaters. Over here are towels and toiletries. Take one of each for now and when you get a clothing requisition slip, come back and I’ll give you more. If you need shoes or sneakers, they are here, on the shelves. Try to find your size. Toiletry sets are on that table. Each contains razor, toothpaste and toothbrush, and a soap.”
Once they got clean clothing, Mike showed them where the showers were. Michael threw his worn underwear, socks, and shoes in the garbage.
“Hey man, this really stinks. How long you went without a shower?” Mike asked.
“Almost two weeks. I spent the last ten days sleeping on the subway.” Michael answered.
“No wonder it stinks.”
Michael couldn’t remember the last time he enjoyed a shower that much. He kept rubbing himself with soap, trying to remove the stench that got into his skin and his nostrils.
After the shower, Mike took them to the Manager’s Office to introduce them to the Manager on duty, showed them the dining hall, and returned them to the chapel.
“Dinner will be in an hour and a half after the evening service here in the chapel. When service is finished, you just go to the dining hall and get in line with the other students. For now, you can stay here.”
“Mike, can I go out and have a smoke?” Victor asked.
“Well, maybe, this is your last chance. You are not assigned a bed, so you are not technically in the program yet. If you have a cigarette, smoke it now because later you won’t be able to. And go around the corner, not in front of the building. Students are not allowed to smoke.”
Victor turned and looked at Michael. “Do you want to go out too?”
“I don’t have a cigarette. Can you spare one?”
“I have two last ones. May as well smoke them. Come.”
They walked out of the Chapel through the main red door. In front of the Chapel, along the building wall, all the way to the corner, a line of homeless people waiting to enter the Chapel had already formed. Victor and Michael went around the corner to the end of the line, stood on the side under the street light pole, and lit up cigarettes.
“This feels good,” Michael was thinking. “I am clean, in clean clothing, have a place to sleep tonight, and soon I will eat.”
“Can you spare a cigarette?” Michael heard behind his back.
A chubby girl, not more than twenty years old, with curly blond hair, a pale face with red cheeks from the cold, and smudged bright red lipstick approached Michael from the back of the soup kitchen line. “So, can you give me a smoke?” she repeated.
“This is my last cigarette,” Michael answered.
“Listen, bro, don’t be stingy. I’ll suck your dick for a smoke.”
“Sorry, I really don’t have another cigarette,” Michael said and turned towards Victor and away from the girl.
“Oh, what a faggot,” the girl said and went back in the line.
Victor started laughing. “You see, man, if I didn’t give you my last cigarette, she’d be sucking my dick now.”
Michael couldn’t believe what he just heard from this homeless girl. How desperate she was, that she would perform oral sex to a complete stranger for one single cigarette. “How tragic is the world I just entered,” Michael thought.
That night Michael was sleeping on the mat on the tiled floor of the Bowery Chapel. Besides him and Victor, the only other person there was a homeless guy named Francis. He wasn’t in the program, but he was almost a regular guest at the Bowery Mission. Everybody there knew his story and felt bad for him, so sometimes they allowed him to sleep in the Chapel even if it wasn’t very cold outside.
Until five years ago, Francis was a young and ambitious adjunct professor of American History at Baruch College. His colleagues were predicting a bright future in higher education for this upbeat and very talented black man. He managed to rise up and out from his poor childhood in the Bronx projects to become a respected educator. Francis was married and had a two-year-old son. Then one day, in a freak hit and run accident, on Queens Boulevard, his wife and son were struck down and killed. Francis had a nervous breakdown, got hooked on drugs and alcohol and soon after ended up on the streets of Manhattan, wandering around all year around, year after year, sometimes almost naked, covered in his own feces, and refusing any help. The only place he would come for an occasional meal or shower was the Bowery Mission.
Michael was lying down, covered with a blanket, and looking at Francis walking up and down the aisles of the Chapel, mumbling to himself in some strange tongue that Michael could not understand. The light in the Chapel was dimmed and Francis, with his tall and very skinny body, looked almost surreal to Michael. He was barefoot, with ripped Docker pants and no shirt at all. His short black hair looked like strong thick brush coming out of his skull. His feet were sliding over the red Chapel tiles silently, and it appeared to Michael like he was not walking but floating.
“Don’t worry about him, he is crazy, but he will not harm you,” Victor, who was lying on the mat a few feet away, said to Michael. “I’ve seen him before. He is a lost case. Only God knows how he is still alive.”
Soon after, Michael fell asleep. He was really tired after so many nights on the subway trains. Finally, he felt safe. He knew that he needed a break, a place to renew his strength and time to figure out what to do next. The Bowery Mission was his only choice, and it looked to him like the right one as well.
Michael didn’t know what time it was when he was awakened by something very light falling on his face. He opened his eyes and saw Francis standing over him with a rose stem in one hand. With the other hand, he was picking petals from the half dry red rose bud and tossing them at Michael. While wiggling back and forth with his upper body, he was chanting with a screechy voice,
“Wake up, wake up, the end of times is coming,
Wake up, wake up, Santa Maria is waiting,
Wake up, wake up, soldier of Christ Almighty,
Wake up, wake up, Mother of God is crying.”
Michael looked around. All over his blanket and around the mat were dry rose petals. He jumped into a sitting position and said, “What the fuck is wrong with you, man?”
Francis turned around fast and ran to the back of the Chapel while screeching: “He is awake! He is awake! He is awake!” He ran out of the Chapel through the side doors leading to the entrance of the Mission.
A few minutes later, a man dressed in a neatly ironed white shirt with tie and black dress pants entered the Chapel.
“Let’s go, guys,” He said. “It is time to get up. The Chapel will be open soon for morning service. You can go downstairs to the bathroom to shave and wash and then come back here for the service. After that is breakfast. And take your mats and blankets downstairs with you. Leave them behind the stairs. You may need them tonight again if you don’t get beds assigned to you today.”
Michael looked at this man. It was the same manager that he was introduced to by Mike last night. The light-skinned black man, with a completely shaved head, glasses with golden metal frame. With a large shiny watch on his wrist, and his medium build, a bit overweight, and a limp, he looked more like a Bronx car salesman than a manager of the homeless shelter.
Victor and Michael went back to the same bathroom they took their showers in the night before. Michael took a shower again. He still felt the stench on his skin from his days on the subway.
Victor was running a pick through his hair.
“So Michael, what brought you here? You don’t look to me like an addict, he asked.
“I left my wife, made a few bad business decisions and lost money, fooled around with women, drank more than I should, pretty much messed up my life and one day found myself on the N train without money, friends, or a place to go.”
“Yeah, that would do it…,” Victor said. “Sometimes I think that guys like you have it worse than guys like me. God gave you something and then he took it away. So it hurts badly. I grew up in the projects, never knew my father. My mother was constantly high and disappeared when I was twelve. I grew up with my aunt. Never finished high school. Been using drugs since I was fourteen. In and out of jails and shelters forever. This is my third time here. Never had a wife to leave; never had a business to lose. And I always say to God – better don’t give me anything if you gonna take it away from me.”
Then he stopped fixing his hair, turned towards Michael and said with a broken voice: “But he always finds a way. Always… Two days ago, my only baby sister overdosed in front of my eyes, with the needle I gave her. I still see her lying there, her eyes wide open. That is why I came here. I need to break this circle. There must be a better life out there. I need to clean out. I am tired of this.”
Michael didn’t say anything. He just looked at Victor. He never met anybody like him. Never knew anybody from the projects. The closest, he came to stories like this one was on the local evening news. And now he will spend the next six months with people with similar stories.
They went back to the chapel. It was already full of homeless people who came to have breakfast at the Bowery. The way it worked was that everybody would enter the Chapel, listen for an hour to a sermon by the Pastor or a guest preacher, testimonials by the students who completed the recovery program, and then they would, in an orderly fashion, go to the large dining room where the meal was served. It was the same routine for all meals: breakfast at six in the morning, lunch at noon, and dinner at six in the evening. Students in the program were sitting on the chapel balcony during the service, and had their meals before the homeless people from outside.