From the book TRUTH ACCORDING TO MICHAEL by Stevan V. Nikolic, Chapter Three / Part II
Michael and Victor climbed up a narrow wooden staircase to the chapel balcony. There were about eighty other men there already. They were all different ages and of different origins. From twenty to over sixty years of age, most of them were black or Latino, with a dozen white and a couple of Asian men. “The real New York in small.” Michael was thinking.
The Pentecostal preacher who spoke that morning was a novelty for Michael as well. Before in his life, he attended many different Christian Churches, but they were all mainstream traditional denominations: Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran. But he was never in a Baptist or Pentecostal Church, and never met any of newborn Christians. He couldn’t hear everything the preacher was saying because of the bad sound system, but he heard a Bible verse that the preacher repeated several times: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” It was Jeremiah 29:11.
After the service, the students went to the dining hall. It was a large room with fifteen round tables each seating ten, and with the serving line and kitchen in the back. Breakfast that morning was simple, oatmeal and fresh bananas. Michael took his plate with oatmeal and looked around the hall to find Victor and sit next to him.
Victor appeared with a cup of milk from somewhere.
“Do you want some milk in your oatmeal? It will cool it down. It’s too hot.”
“Sure,” Michael replied.
“So, you guys are new here?” A chubby young man with thick glasses sitting across from Michael asked. Michael looked at him. He couldn’t figure out if this kid was Latino or white, but he couldn’t be more than twenty years old, Michael thought. His thick greasy hair was dark brown, almost black, but his eyes were blue and he had red chicks and pale white face.
“Yes, we came last night,” Michael said.
“Do you have beds yet?” The kid asked.
“No, we slept in the chapel last night. They say maybe something will be available today.” Michael answered.
“Oh, by the way, my name is Jeremiah.”
“Michael,” Michael responded and nodded his head.
“I’m Victor,” Victor mumbled trying to swallow a mouthful of oatmeal.
“There are two guys going from the second floor to the fourth or fifth floor today, I think,” Jeremiah continued, “All new guys are given a room on the second floor the first month. After that, they move to either the fourth or fifth floor. Those rooms are bigger and they have seating areas. I am still on the second floor. I came two weeks ago.”
“Good morning.” Rick, the old man from the clothing room came and sat at their table. “How’s your first night at Bowery?” he asked Victor and Michael.
“We were with Francis in the Chapel. He was walking up and down the aisle all night,” Victor answered.
“That lunatic, I don’t know why they allow him to spend nights here. I think the Mission director has a soft spot for him. He is allowed to do many things that nobody else can do,” Rick said. “The other day I gave him pants before a shower, and he threw them back into my face while yelling ‘bad man, bad man.’ I don’t know why he called me a bad man, I didn’t do anything, just gave him pants.”
“Oh, he lives in his own world. Who knows what is in his head,” Jeremiah said.
“Hello, gentlemen,” A tall and well-built Hispanic man in a dark gray suit and blue shirt without tie, cup of coffee in hand, came and sat at the table. “We have newcomers here, I see.”
“Welcome, guys,” he continued while looking curiously into Michael and Victor. “I know you,” he said to Victor. “Were you here before?”
“Yes. Twice, but I haven’t completed the program. The first time, I was kicked out for leaving without permission and getting high; the second time, I just left before the end of the program.”
“The third time’s a charm. How about you, young man?” he said with a bit of irony in his voice while looking at Michael.
“It is my first time here, or in any place like this, for that matter,” Michael answered.
“I hope it will work out for you. It did for many. I am Pastor Lee Quinones. I have been a counselor here for the past twenty years. Twenty-four years ago, I came here the same way you did, as a homeless man.”
“And they kicked you out three times,” Rick said with a smile.
“Yes, I am not ashamed to admit it. I was a wild kid, hooked on everything that was available on the streets. It took me four times to complete the program. But I did. Anyway, you two probably don’t know who will be your counselor yet, but if you need anything ever, my office is on the third floor. Also, I am the only counselor who lives in the Mission, so pretty much, I am available twenty-four-seven.”
“Thank you,” Michael said.
Michael finished his oatmeal. He didn’t know what to do next. As students were finishing their breakfast, they were leaving the dining room and going to get ready for morning Bible classes. But since Michael wasn’t assigned to any room yet, he didn’t receive his schedule either. All he knew was that he could not leave the Mission anymore without permission. And he didn’t have the desire to leave anyway. Still tired from sleepless nights on the subway, all he was thinking of were rest, food, and peace.
He stood up and took his tray with the empty plate to the station for dirty dishes at the corner of the dining room. He looked around. Homeless people were already taking the chairs of the students who were leaving. There was a big contrast between them. All of those in the program were in clean and often brand new clothing, shaven and clean, while most of the homeless from the outside were in ripped and smelly clothing, unshaven, and they all looked very stressed.
There were quite a few women with small children among the homeless. It was a sad picture to look at. It was the world Michael didn’t know anything about. But for the last ten days, he was a part of it. He knew that for some of these people being homeless was the only way of life they knew. He couldn’t understand how they could cope with it.
The last ten days had been like being in hell. And it seemed to him that he had escaped by a thread yet again. The more he looked at the students around him, the more he was convinced that he got lucky by joining this program. They all looked well nourished, well dressed, and content. The program would give him time to recuperate, recharge his batteries in peace and in a safe place. That is exactly what he needed.
That afternoon Michael got his bed in a room on the second floor. The admission counselor gave him a slip for clothing and he went to Rick in the clothing room to pick everything he needed. He got four pairs of jeans, four t-shirts, four dress shirts, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, two new sweaters, a leather jacket, sneakers, brown dress shoes, and slippers for the bathroom. He also got four towels, shampoo, and more toiletries. Most of the things he got were brand new. Nothing one would expect to get in a homeless shelter.
“This is crazy. Like in a candy store where everything is free,” Michael said.
“We call it “Blessing-dales” department store, you know, like Bloomingdales,” Rick answered. “Most of the students come here without any clothing and by the end of the program, they have so much clothing that they don’t have to buy anything for at least the next two years. The Bowery is one of the oldest and best-known Missions in the city and has many big donors. Some of the best fashion houses, like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, donate clothing directly to the Bowery. So you have a homeless guy just coming from the streets into the program suddenly wearing a three-hundred-dollar shirt and a suit worth over a thousand.”
“This would be a good place to work,” Michael said.
“It is good, but it is not easy at the same time. Twice a week we have a crowd of about two hundred homeless men from outside taking showers down here and we are providing them with a change of the clothing. It is like a mad house. Half of them are crazy, the other half wants only brand new clothing, so they can sell it after they walk out of here, and then after two days they are back in their old rags; and again demanding brand new stuff. Some of them are really nasty; like it is their right, not a privilege.”
“But if you want, you can ask your counselor to send you here to work,” Rick continued “Just so you know – I am the boss here, and there is a lot of work every day. We receive bags and bags of donated clothing and all of that needs to be sorted out, folded, and placed where it belongs. The good part of working here is that you get to pick the best pieces for yourself; of course, carefully, nothing in excess. Otherwise, other students will complain.”
It took Michael only a few days to adapt to the new situation. He was assigned to a counselor, Pastor Charles Jourdan. He was a Haitian man in his fifties, always with a smile on his face, and always starting every conversation with a quote from the Scriptures. Every Monday morning, at 9:00a.m., Michael had to go for a session with the counselor to discuss the progress of his recovery, his plans for the future, and anything else that may help him get on the right path after the completion of the program.
Most of the working days in the Mission were the same. All students had to work one of many jobs within the Mission. Some were working in the kitchen, some as ushers in the Chapel, others in the clothing room or any other duties needed in running and maintaining of the Mission.
The lights would go out at ten in the evening and by that time everybody had to be in bed.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays from ten in the morning until noon, students had the right to go out to the nearby park, to walk around or play sports. Michael used that time to walk to Barnes and Noble on Union Square, look through the new magazines, and check out new book titles. After a while, he started feeling normal again. He started thinking about the future. He still didn’t know what he would do after the Bowery Mission, but he was gaining his confidence back.
He managed to be assigned to work in the clothing room. It was a good place for him. He was good at organizing things, and he also liked good clothing. After just one month of working there, he had quite a nice wardrobe that would have cost a lot of money, if he had bought it in the store.
The only thing that bothered him was that he was completely cut off from the outside world. Yes, he could walk around the city twice a week, but there was no way for him to get in touch with anybody if he wanted. He didn’t even have a quarter for the phone. And the use of internet in the computer room was limited and supervised.