I Don’t Mind Being Homeless… I Just Don’t Want To Look Homeless

In August of 2008, I decided to drive back to the East Coast from Santa Fe where I had just completed what would become my first master’s. That was the one in Asian Classics. The seeds of this trip had been planted a year earlier, when I’d first flown out to California to pick up my dad’s old car from my step-mom and drive it to New Mexico in the first place. I wanted to complete the cross-country trip. I had virtually no money when I left the Southwest. By the time I puttered into Charlottesville, Virginia and took a stroll across their Downtown Mall that I’d been arrested on more than once, my bank account was even drier than my gas tank. Classes were starting for me in New York in less than two weeks.

At my mom’s in Richmond, she helped me add a new pair of black motorcycle boots to my wardrobe. My last pair had been lost at the end of my time in Charlottesville before my dad had passed away back in 2004. I’d been living in a dead-end room with no lock on either my door or the door outside. Back then, I was so paranoid, I booby trapped my own door with a can of pink paint, thinking if somebody tried opening it, they’d knock over the paint can, and that would wake me up. Apparently, one night while I was passed out, this girl who eventually got away with my Flannery O’Connor books tried getting into my room to tell me something. She panicked when the can crashed, but in all fairness to her, she taught me a Buddhist chant one day out in the mountains. That chant kept me still through many moments of madness.

The paint spilled, but I didn’t wake up, which was probably for the best. Back then, I slept with a knife under my pillow. As out of my mind as I was in those days, who knows what I would have done… The next morning, my two shirts, my one pair of jeans and the motorcycle boots I owned were all pink. I’d bought that pair of motorcycle boots in New York for my 25th birthday right after September 11, 2001. They were a feel-good gift from me to myself. They’d carried me through my last year in that city, brought me back to the streets of Richmond and dumped me out into the mountains of Charlottesville. Now that I was returning to New York, the city I’d always wanted so badly to be my home, I hoped to return the same as I’d originally left. That’s why those boots my mom bought me in Richmond during August of 2008 were symbolic.

Eventually, though, I lost those boots, too. I wore through their heels a year later stalking the streets of Richmond that same summer I was homeless. I wound up trading their holey soles in for a pair of cowboy boots at this second-hand clothing store. The owner of that shop let me pick through her newest clothes each and every day. Because like I told my brethren on the streets, “I don’t mind being homeless. I just don’t want to look homeless.”

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The Real Goal Was Enslavement

I made it ten days clean and sober on the streets of Richmond back in 2009. Then, the vampires took over the city again. I believed the whole metro area was a massive sex slave factory. The women I saw on the streets, their brains were infected by some zombifying concoction. They unwittingly waited only to be shipped off into the possession of the wealthy masters who’d come in town that very weekend to choose their respective prizes, who walked side by side with their future possessions at that precise moment, pretending to be interested in courtship, but it was all a twisted game. The real goal was enslavement.

Not knowing what I was supposed to do, I strolled down the street wanting to scream out against the horror I was witnessing. I beat my fists against my head. Only those of us who were homeless weren’t part of this sick charade. Some guy I didn’t know shuffled up to where I meandered along. He said, “Hey man, you wanna split this rock with me?” In his palm a plastic-wrapped crack flake lay revealed.

As the sunlight burned my sweaty neck, I knew it was the will of God for me to smoke that rock. Maybe, I needed the strength of crack cocaine to do what came next. Maybe, I needed to be fucked up to set this crazy world straight. I said, “Sure, man. I guess it’s about that time.” In two months, I would have had four years clean.

We wandered off the beaten path and settled down in a little clearing not too far from where an occasional car whirred up the toll road. There were dirty clothes, broken bottles and fiery remnants scattered around. It might have been his sleep spot. He broke that flake into a stem, sparked a cheap lighter and damn, man, did we smoke that rock.

“You good?” he asked me.

I came zooming out of the bushes back onto the sidewalk. My eyes popping out of my skull, my veins breaking through my neck, my teeth chewing through one another as if their enamel were cud, I found a street party going on down at the old 19th century slave block turned 21st century farmer’s market. Somehow, I scammed myself a wrist bracelet for the all-you-can-drink Budweiser.

The sky grew dark over Richmond’s bar district. The stars were revealed more so than in Manhattan. I swerved back up Main Street. The sidewalk newspaper dispensers were driving me insane. They sold nothing but lies. I turned to some city kids laughing and sharing cigarettes on the corner. “Watch this,” I told them.

From a running start, growling something unintelligible, I shoved every single one of those dispensers in front of me right into the street. A horn honked. Somebody wanted my attention. I walked into the middle of the traffic and started yelling at all the cars to “go the fuck around me.” Horns blared. People yelled. One driver eventually decided to call my bluff. We stared each other down as if in some sort of Hollywood showdown – my forehead to his bumper like the bull facing a matador. I hopped on top of his hood and ran the entire length of his car laughing and stomping as hard as I could.

“When I woke up the next morning in jail, the sheriff told me I sure as hell was a lot nicer when I wasn’t drunk.”

“I’d say so,” Luc laughs. We’re sitting out on a picnic table behind our office. They’ve banned smoking on the building’s balconies. Luc’s still vaping, but I’m back on cigarettes pretty much full time, except when I’m with Cora. She knows I smoke. It’s hard not to smell the sweetly scorched leaves staining my fingers and lips. But I don’t want to smoke around her. The only shot I’ve got at ever quitting for good is if I keep at least one part of my life completely tobacco-free.

It started about three weeks ago, when my manager told me the company might have to let me go at the end of the summer. My writing simply isn’t converting enough paying customers. They’re giving me one last chance¸ but it’s already July. I’ve had a hard time being at the office. Thoughts of the many trajectories my life could have taken consume me. I smoke to forget. It’s all I’ve got left.

“I can’t even believe you remember all that,” Luc adds. “You must have been pretty messed up.”

“I don’t really remember it. I have vague recollections of being surrounded by the police that night, but I was in a blackout by the time it all started. Those kids on the corner found me out on an island in the James River a couple weeks later and told these guys I was sharing a bottle of whiskey with that story. ‘Man, you’d never believe what we saw this crazy motherfucker do. He ain’t scared of nothing…’ they said.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get hurt,” Luc mentions.

“Not that night,” I say, “But I got the shit beaten out of me a bunch of times that summer. I didn’t mind though. I’d seen this lecture on Tantra during my first master’s degree, the one in Asian Classics. The professor who gave that lecture talked about these Tantric yogis who’d welcome being beaten. They believed they could steal somebody’s merit if they could make that person lash out at them. Then, whatever creative power the other person had harnessed throughout their lives would be released and transferred into the object of their aggression – the yogi himself. It turned the yogis into gods. That’s what I thought I was doing that summer, becoming a god. So I never fought back. Anytime anybody attacked me that summer, I just covered myself as best I could and took the beating. I remember thinking, though, back in Santa Fe, after I heard that lecture, that if the yogis were right, if getting mocked and beaten gave them more creative power, then what happened to Jesus when they crucified him? Maybe the suffering of his passion actually turned him into God.

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My Grandmother Always Told Me My Aura Was Indigo

Last week, a friend of Cora’s read our auras for us from the backseat of Cora’s car. She told Cora hers was deep red. Mine was emerald green. “I just see people as colors,” Cora’s friend told us. As a child, my grandmother always told me my aura was indigo. The last time a psychic tried to see it, she’d told me it was non-existent, black. At that point in time, I was practically on the streets in Brooklyn, high as the stratosphere most days and blacked out like a winter sky most nights. At Cora’s last week, after we dropped off her friend, we started researching.

“So what do you think? Are you emerald green or indigo?” Cora asked me, our phones still in our hands open to various psychic websites.

I shrugged. “Indigo sounds like me when I was younger. I can see how I’d be emerald now. I’ve heard auras can change color over time.”

“What are indigos supposed to be like?” Cora asked.

“They were a big deal in the seventies. Practically every kid was an ‘indigo’ child, fresh out of somewhere and brand new to this plane, the harbingers of some future world,” I said.

“That makes sense. You seem like a new soul.” Cora laughed. “I think I’m an old soul.”

“Oh, really?” I smiled. “I don’t even know what all that means.”

“Well, let’s look it up,” Cora said. She found this website that, as far as I could tell, equated the age of a human soul with some physical variant.

“That’s bull shit,” I scoffed.

“What’s bull shit?” Cora asked.

“The way they talk about souls. There’s no linear progression to the soul.”

“I don’t think that’s quite what they’re saying, Gabriel.”

“That’s not what I learned in my psychosis.”

“What?” Cora wondered with a shake of her head.

I tried laughing my statement off. “I mean, what I believed when I was in psychosis was that souls were eternal and that I’ve returned from somewhere else to teach this plane something. I’m not brand new here, but now I’m stuck. And the problem is no one’s listening. How am I supposed to teach people who think they already know everything?”

“What are you talking about, Gabriel?”

I grew serious again, “I know it sounds crazy, and I know that what happens to me in psychosis isn’t real, but for years, my spirituality, my whole life, was based on it. Even before I ever had a psychotic break. My first break… I’d been pushing myself so hard to it, trying to discover what exists on the other side. And then, after this last break in Richmond, I pretend like none of it’s real. Because that’s the only way I can live in this world – to believe that everything that formed my spiritual existence simply can’t be true, which means everything I ever believed is worthless. So what’s left? Atheism? Nihilism?”

“I don’t think I understand, Gabriel.”

I looked at her. She could tell I was angry for some crazy reason, and she could tell I was hurt by an even crazier reason. She wanted to understand what I was talking about so madly so badly. I slid closer to her on the couch and put my arm around her shoulder. I softened my tone. I could feel my eyes open up from angry slits. “That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t really want you to. I’m sorry I got all worked up. That was crazy. Truth is if I wanted to live in a psychosis, I never would have come off the streets. I never would have gotten clean again. I wouldn’t be working the job I have today, and I’d be incapable of trying to build a relationship with you. My psychosis is the world I lived in for 15 years, and I simply can’t live there anymore. Sometimes, that really hurts.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand, Gabriel.” Cora looked at me. “Is that okay with you?”

“Yeah, it is,” I said. “In fact, not understanding that piece of me is probably the best thing both of us could ever hope for.”

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As the City Lights Burned the Nighttime Sky Bright

I stabilized while smoking cigarettes on the porch of a halfway house in October, 2009. I knew I had a job. I was laying brick patios for $8.50 an hour, but I was supposed to be teaching an “Intro to Critical Thinking” course at a small college in Northern New Jersey. Somehow, the school year had already started, and I was still in Richmond, Virginia. I’d been through all this before, but this was the worst it had ever been.

My nights were spent sleepless on top of my bed sheets in my single room in that halfway house, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, deconstructing my entire life. I couldn’t figure out what had gone so wrong. There was one thing I was certain of this time, though – this was my fault. My current predicament had nothing to do with my early childhood development, my parents’ divorce, or my mom’s solitary raising of me. It had nothing to do with either of my step-dads or their personal demons. It had nothing to do with my grandfather. It had nothing to do with my culture other than how I had interpreted it. My father’s death wasn’t even the cause of this. I was in that halfway house only because of me.

As a prerequisite for staying in that place, I had to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night. I’d been going to those meetings off and on for nearly twenty years by then. I’d put together three years clean three times. In fact, a mere five months earlier I’d been steadily approaching my four-year anniversary for the third time since I’d turned 15 in 1991. Once again, I hadn’t made it to that milestone. But for the first time ever when I tried getting a hold on it, not even AA made any sense to me.

Everybody was talking about God, and I couldn’t understand. I tried rewording that program’s 12 steps with words I could comprehend. Because the simple words the founders had originally chosen were just too complex. They said – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That was gibberish. As far as I could tell, a Power greater than me had driven me insane. And the psychiatrists said, once again, that wasn’t even the case. There was absolutely nothing.

Five months earlier, as June was drawing to a close, I was in the middle of visiting my family for a short summer break from New York City in Richmond. I’d finished all my papers from my second semester of grad school, and I was starting to put together a syllabus for that “Intro to Critical Thinking” course I’d been hired to teach in the fall. I crossed my legs in lotus position to meditate one night, a regular habit I’d been practicing since before I’d even gotten clean that last time in DC back in August of 2005. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I broke… again.

You know Who I am, Gabriel,” the voice started in my stomach. It coursed through my limbs until becoming audible.

Staring blankly at the wall in front of me, my heavily lidded eyes half-closed, I nodded. I’d met this voice before in college, long before any sort of mood disorder or mental illness had ever colored my mind, making itself undeniably manifest to me. This voice was familiar. This voice was true, and I knew it wasn’t me.

You know what you have to do now, Gabriel,” the voice continued.

Without breaking my spine’s concentrated position, again I nodded. Unlike when I’d been in college, today I had a name for the voice. This was the Hindu conception of Brahman speaking audibly. I was to be The Angel Gabriel, to live the earthly life of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, by going out from the homeowner’s life into homelessness.

When I stood back up, pins and needles shooting through my legs’ discomfort, I took the anti-psychotic medication I’d been taking regularly since my last psychotic break in Charlottesville right before my dad passed away. With the medication coursing through my system, I knew this time the voice was real. And that meant – it was time. I knew exactly what I had to do.

Taking long walks through the woods, going for hours long drives around the Virginia countryside, I contemplated this proposition for about a week. But when CNN was busy broadcasting the news that Michael Jackson had just died, I knew the moment had finally arrived. The King of Pop was our true father – the first to come, the first to leave. I called my mom into the living room I’d been walking circles around while manically putting together playlists that could sing the world into existence through my week of sleepless nights. I told her, “Mom, I need to go into the psych ward.”

Slowly, she sat down on the couch. Concern spread through her happy face as she set her palms down on her thighs. “Why’s that, Gabriel?” she asked.

I told her, “I’m hearing voices again, Mom.” But I didn’t tell her my plan. I needed to get into that psych ward.

I couldn’t keep anything straight. I was on so much medication in the hospital. People flittered in front of my face and disappeared. In a land of phantoms, I battled the Hindu goddess Kali. Putting her to sleep with my embrace, I awoke as Shiva. I wound up in a padded room. That wasn’t the first time that had happened. A week later, the doctors decided I was stable. Nobody met me at the exit. The nurse who’d discharged me gave me cab fare. In my hands, I held my bag and a prescription to get filled on the ride home. I didn’t feel like taking the taxi waiting for me. I told the cabbie I wasn’t the patient he was looking for, and against his protestations, I headed out across the parking lot.

My mom’s home was down a winding path to the left. If I turned right, I’d head straight into the city of Richmond. Following the advice of a previous AA sponsor, I turned right, kept straight and threw that prescription away at the first trash can I came across.

Finally free, I strolled up the sidewalk. The city’s downtown skyline loomed in the distance at the end of the road. I nodded to every soul I passed. My ministry began that day, an eternity in preparation for just one moment. A man approached to ask for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he wondered, “What’s in that bag?”

“All I own,” I told him.

“You got a Bible in that bag?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t.

“Oh. I usually carry a Bible in my bag,” he said.

“Wish I had one, friend,” I told him.

“You don’t have one?” he asked me. “You look like a prophet. I thought you might have one.”

“Not today,” I said.

“Well, come with me,” he said. “I’ll give you one.”

I went back with him to where he lived at his mother’s house. Of my own free will, I gave him my wallet and my money, keeping only an ID card with a rubber band in case I collected anything else. He never asked me for anything, and he thanked me for my kindness. I traded him for a smaller bag with a shoulder strap making it easier to carry, but he couldn’t find that Bible.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said to me. “I’m gonna put a Bible right in this here bag you gave to me, and next time I see you, I’m gonna give that Bible to you. You’re on a journey. That’s right, a journey,” he said.

I nodded, but I never saw that man again. He told me he was a minister. Right then, I knew I’d chosen the correct path.

Taking up on a corner down in Richmond’s bar district that night, I spent the early evening asking people only to please give what they could spare. I scrounged up just enough change to get a couple hot dogs at this place across the street, and I knew the Lord was watching over me.

As the night drew on, I realized I needed to find a safe place to sleep. I hiked underneath a long bridge heading back to Southside where my mom lived, and I searched out a safe spot underneath there to make a bed. Beside a lonely, little outcrop of rocks overlooking the James River, I set my bag down and pulled out some clothes to make a pillow to sit on. I crossed my legs in the lotus position, and I meditated as the city lights burned the nighttime sky bright in the darkness across from me.

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The Values I Embrace Today

Yesterday was Easter, and since Cora’s still at that festival in the California desert, I went over alone to a friend’s place for brunch. Luc was there, too. It’s his old apartment, the last one he lived in before moving out to Anacostia. He didn’t bring Leah, his most recent love interest, though. He still thinks their burgeoning relationship is a bit too fresh to subject her to his friends. After we ate, Luc and I were sitting at a table Luc made by hand when he first moved into that place with his ex-girlfriend, the grad student in her mid-twenties. Our current host’s step-mom and this other woman Luc’s introduced me to before, Medha, were sitting at that heavy, wooden table along with us. Luc’s known Medha for years, but she recently moved back to DC from Brooklyn to help out her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I was drinking coffee while everybody else was sipping the remnants of their mimosas.

Our friend’s step-mom was saying, “I think it’s simple. If you put people on an X-Y axis so you have four quadrants, and if you consider the Y axis to be the spectrum of depression and the X axis to be family upbringing, you can start graphing how people are going to react later in life. See, in this quadrant, you have depression with a good upbringing, which makes the chemical problems manageable. In this quadrant, you have a bad upbringing but good chemicals, which explains how some people overcome their circumstances. In the third quadrant, you’re good with both, which is the easiest way for somebody to be brought up. While in the last quadrant, you have bad chemicals and a bad upbringing. These are the people who are really in danger.”

“Sure. That makes sense,” I said. “But it’s really a spectrum on both axes, right? Not to mention there are so many psychological problems that don’t fall into the category of ‘depression’ per se, and that really complicates matters. Besides, what constitutes a ‘normalized’ upbringing at any point in time? I’d say trauma is the most natural thing that ever happens to a human being in this world.”

“Despite my hopeless romanticism,” Luc interjected.

I went on, “It’s simply because our culture places so much emphasis on the sanctity of youth that the most important part of a ‘normalized’ upbringing in this culture is to avoid trauma at a young age. But what about a culture where entire generations are traumatized early in life? Like, for example, a culture that survives genocide. Then, the abnormal becomes the child who is not traumatized.”

“Right,” Medha said, “I even think about kids in this country who grow up with poverty or gang violence. But I guess that’s how we wind up with the different cultural narratives we were talking about earlier…”

“Sure,” I said. “Except there’s no real reason to believe any one narrative is inherently superior to any other. There’s only the one that wins.”

“History is written by the victors,” Luc reminded us.

“Maybe,” Medha said. “But do you think that’s why Communism lost, though? Do you really think capitalism is ‘better’?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I’d make the claim that Marxist communism is ideologically flawed, and the flaw lies in Kant’s idealism, which crept into Marx’s thinking via Hegel. I mean, the problem with Marx, in my opinion, is more or less a problem with the German philosophy of his time. It’s the inversion of the ideal and the real. For me, the antidote is Nietzsche, which he probably even saw himself to be. And Nietzsche is what’s actually at the heart of the American project even though we couldn’t have said that at the beginning.”

“Are you saying we’re the overman?” Luc asked with a smile.

“No. But we have the myth of the overman, the myth of the future. Not to mention the whole ‘that which does not kill you only makes you stronger’ mentality. But that’s why, I’d say, reality is even more than just the victors writing history. The only thing that makes something ‘good’ at all – and I pretty much stole this idea verbatim from Nietzsche – is whether or not it survives. And that’s why, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to believe there’s something to this American system I spent my twenties and early thirties railing against.”

“But the American system is actually two systems,” our friend’s step-mom told us. “One system is what people call capitalism and the other is more or less Christianity. And these two systems are constantly at war here. In fact, if you look at our elections, we’re split pretty much evenly at about 50/50. But it’s those two systems in conflict with each other that makes the United States what it is. We need the greed of the capitalists to move us forward while we need the morals of the religionists to keep us from completely destroying one another.”

“Sure,” I said. “But one thing I’ve really come to believe is that the America I know is necessarily anarchic. And the more I look at my life, the more I realize those are the cultural values I was raised with. So I have to admit, despite any of my past leanings, those are the values I embrace today.”

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Why I Didn’t Get a PhD…

Figuring out why I didn’t get a PhD, why I’m not a philosophy professor today instead of a copywriter, is an intricate problem. To tell the truth, I don’t even think I can give you a decent approximation of the reason. It’s much like when my dad was alive, if you’d asked him to tell you why he left my mom… But I know when I first started thinking my graduate school career may be coming to an end.

I’d been waiting nearly two weeks to hear back from my department. At this particular school, in this particular philosophy department, you had to reapply to be admitted to the PhD program at the end of your master’s degree. From the moment I’d been accepted, three years earlier, I’d always been under the impression this was merely a formality. The department didn’t even accept PhD applications from students who didn’t already hold an MA in philosophy specifically. In fact, I’d turned down an acceptance to Duquesne’s PhD program simply because I wanted this chance to return to New York City. There were memories I needed to explore further, and I hadn’t set foot in Brooklyn for six years then. As far as I could tell, everybody who demonstrated competence at the master’s level was admitted to continue on to the PhD. Truth be told, the school needed the money, and I had maintained an A average, passed all my exams and developed a thesis proposal the department was well equipped to handle. I assumed I’d be no exception.

At the time, I was dating this woman, Rachel. Her family had come from Pakistan via Delhi as a result of the Partition of India, and she’d been named by her grandmother while still a baby in India. At the time, her parents already knew they were coming to the United States, and they hadn’t given the two-year old girl a name yet because they wanted her to have an American one for their new home. The moniker of their favorite character from the American television show Friends was the perfect choice. Rachel was really good to me, but after everything I’d been through the year before, I was in no state to reciprocate.

My dissertation would be an examination of the evolution of conceptual subjectivity from Scholastic philosophy to Early Modernity. With my background in Chinese and Buddhist thought as a result of my first master’s, I was particularly interested in why and how European philosophy developed the notion of the individual subject inserted within our overtly subjective states. It didn’t seem inherently necessary to me, and I was of the opinion it had something to do with the development of medieval interpretations of the writings of Saint Augustine. After that dinner party at Luc’s last night, I was walking these two Belarusian friends who don’t know the neighborhood past my apartment and back down to the Columbia Heights Metro after a failed attempt to go dancing at this bar up on 11th Street.

We passed a building I always notice when I’m walking home late. It doesn’t have any bars on the first floor windows and the curtains are open revealing the occupant at her computer. “I don’t think I would be very comfortable letting people from the street see me in my apartment,” the Belarusian girl said. “Especially as an American. It seems Americans are very concerned with their privacy.”

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily what it is,” I told her. “I mean, it’s complex. Stereotypes are never quite what they seem, you know. Sure, there’s always a grain of truth. But there’s intricacies to the world’s cultures that can’t be painted in broad swaths. It seems to me what Americans are most concerned with, as a result of mapping our cultural narratives onto human desire, is individuality. As a result of that concern, we worry about our privacy.”

When I got the news about my PhD application, I was on my way to go work a campus event with a couple other people from my department. My initial application was rejected. The department chair invited me to reapply after being awarded the master’s that summer. I didn’t know what to do. The only thing that had kept me alive, sober and sane for the past year and a half had been my desire for that PhD. I’d even given up writing fiction and poetry at that point in time. My most recent novel had remained untouched for over two years.

“Shit, man, what are you gonna do?” a PhD candidate from my Hegel seminar was asking me outside the campus’ main lecture hall where we were handing out name tags for this conference on conflict resolution in contemporary Africa.

“I don’t know, man. But it’s always been my experience, if I can keep my shit straight, something really fucking cool will come up. It always has before.” I wasn’t even telling him the half of it.

“Probably true,” he said. “But did they offer you a chance to meet with anyone, to find out why you were rejected this go round?”

“Yeah, they did.”

“Do it, man. Meet with them. Find out why they want you to reapply, and do whatever they tell you to do. My guess is you’ll get in this summer.”

But I made up my mind pretty quick. Within a week, I was meeting Rachel outside a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. We’d heard good things about this place, but it didn’t look like much more than a delivery spot. The sky was polluted gray as she walked up to me in her red jacket with a smile. I didn’t even offer a kiss before saying, “I’ve figured it out, Rachel. I know what I’m doing instead of a PhD.”

“Wow. That’s cool,” she said. “What?”

“I’m gonna teach English in China.” Rachel cocked her head to the side. Her eyes grew wider. I told her, “No. It’s simple. The director for my last graduate program, he’s got a ton of connections there. When I was finishing up that degree, he even asked me if I wanted to go teach over there. I’d have a job in a second.” I added, “Do you want to come with me?”

Rachel shook her head. “Gabriel, I have no desire to go to China,” she said. Three days later, she broke it off with me.

The day after Rachel and I split up, discussing the break up at a neighborhood pizza joint with my AA sponsor, he said to me over his pepperoni slice, “Gabriel, you don’t tell a woman you’re dating that you’re moving to China. It makes you sound like you’re not so serious about the relationship.”

“I asked her to come with me, though,” I reminded him. With a simple shake of his head, he took another sip off his Pepsi.

When I got back to my apartment from that meeting with my sponsor, my roommate sat me down in the leather chair that, a mere couple weeks before, she and I discovered had grown into a hive for the roaches infesting that place. They were everywhere. You couldn’t put food on the counter because they’d swarm it. You couldn’t even keep food in the freezer. They were there, too. They crawled across me as I slept, waking me with wispy legs brushing over my flesh. And the two cats did nothing about it. One of them always shat in the shower. I knew exactly where the disinfectant was. I was scrubbing the tub with it every day. There wasn’t a knob on my bedroom door. The first night I moved in, I shut the door before realizing there was no way to open it. Because of the bars on the room’s solitary window, I wasn’t able to get out until the building’s super came up the following morning to help. The Virginia driver’s license I still have today is missing a chunk from where I tried breaking out of that room that night. I never should have taken the place. I’d found it on Craig’s List, and when I spoke with Lucretia, the woman who held the lease, over the phone from Richmond, I discovered she was sober, too. I didn’t believe in anything spiritual about this world at the time, but I did believe if there was something to this plane, that apartment was where I was meant to be.

In fact, I hadn’t even wanted to move back to Williamsburg, then. Lucretia had convinced me. I wanted to be on the other side of Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill or someplace like that, but there I was.

“Gabriel, we’ve gotta move out,” Lucretia said on that day my sponsor chastised me for my last conversation with Rachel. Lucretia was about ten years older than me, had come up in the East Village theater scene during the nineties and currently ran a one-woman, multi-media performance art piece dealing with domestic violence. Most of the time, she was on tour. I had the apartment to myself. But during her last performance in town, at a little space on the outskirts of Chelsea, Rachel and I had decided to go. It was a cathartic experience.

“Okay, when?” I asked, assuming I could worry about all this after returning from that same Christmas break where I would eventually wind up in a verbal disagreement with the television set that convinced me to apply to law school.

“December 1,” she said.

“But that’s in two weeks…”

“Yeah, well, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say, I lost the legal battle on my squatter’s rights here. The apartment’s being returned to its owner.”

I went out to an AA meeting that night because I had no earthly idea how else to handle the present. I was sharing, “And I just don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do. In the past week, my scholastic career ended, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now, I just found out I got two weeks to find a new apartment. It’s hard, but not as hard as it’s been. So I know if I just stay sober and do what I have to do to keep sane, everything will be all right… eventually.”

Smoking a cigarette beneath streetlights after the meeting, I was trying not to think too much about what was happening. But that’s when Carl, completely bald and towering over me at well above six feet, approached in his absolutely fabulous manner. Carl’s father, I later discovered, had played professional basketball. I wish my dad was still alive so I could know whether or not he’d ever heard of him. While Carl, I eventually found out, was an ex-rave kid turned painter of abstract figures who performed solo in an avant-garde drag show under the name Baroness Babylon. Today, he’s married to his then boyfriend. With a flourish, Carl introduced himself and said, “You know, if you need a place, I just discovered one of my roommates is moving out of my loft at the end of this month. I need somebody to fill the space quick. Do you want to come over this weekend and take a look at it?”

I had absolutely no faith, but still, I managed to say, “Yeah. I’d be happy to. How much is it?”

“$750 a month.”

“That’s an amazing deal,” I said. “Where are you?”

“Corner of Broadway and Union in Williamsburg. You do know where that is, right?”

“Yeah. It’s just a few blocks from where I’m at now.”

“Fabulous. Do you have a job?”

“No, but I’ve taken out student loans that’ll cover at least the next six months.”

“Okay. If you can commit to at least six months, that’ll work. Now, how much clean time do you have again?”

“Just over a year.”

“That’s fine,” he said.

“Wow, how fortuitous is that?” Luc says to me as I’m recounting this story to him on the balcony at work today since it’s in the forefront of my mind.

“I know. It’s crazy. Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen in real life.”

“Yeah. How was the place?”

“It was great. My room there was bigger than my entire apartment here in DC, and I paid $250 less a month. Only problem was it was a ‘railroad’ apartment. So I had to walk through somebody’s bedroom to get to mine…”

“At least nobody had to walk through your bedroom to get to theirs.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve lived in those kinds of places, too. Everybody who came through Carl’s loft was pretty cool, though. Except for this one kid, Kyle. I mean, there was nothing really wrong with him. I actually kind of liked the kid. He had this Billy Idol-style bleached hair, and he was, like, 23 at the oldest. When Carl first introduced me to him, Carl said Kyle was a DJ, but when he shook my hand, Kyle said he was, ‘Really more of a New York personality.’ Kyle lived in the room I had to walk through for maybe three months at the most, but he woke me up nearly every night, high on coke, singing Donna Summer. I found out later, he was on disability from the military. And he refused to put the screen up for his bed. So there was nothing to block my view of him and whatever boy he’d brought home with him the night before in bed together on my way to the shower each morning. Kyle ditched out on us midway through April without even paying the rent. Carl was furious, but the man knew how to hustle. He pulled some extra shifts at work, sold some paintings. We made do.”

“I’ve been in those kinds of situations. I had to do the exact same thing. What happened with your PhD application, though? Did you ever wind up meeting with anybody from your department about that?”

“I did. She told me, when my application came up for review, not a single professor in our entire department knew who I was. That pissed me off. So she said I needed to find somebody to support my dissertation proposal. There was really no reason I shouldn’t be able to get back in with that support, she told me. I found a professor to support the proposal. In fact, I’m still reading some of the books he recommended for my research. But I’d already made up my mind. I never reapplied.”

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Work or Riot?

“So what you’re telling me, Gabriel, is you’re an artist in your mid-thirties with two master’s degrees, and you don’t make enough money to live on. Now, how does that make you any different from anybody else up there in your neighborhood?”

I was on the phone with James back in Richmond, and from the depths of my loft at the corner of Broadway and Union in Brooklyn, I had to concede his point. James was going through a rough patch back then. He’d been setting some of my poetry to music recently, and the poems themselves appeared to be driving him insane. He was explaining to me how he had to wipe his hard drive before a cross-country flight because he didn’t want to get arrested by TSA for the things I was saying. But I knew there was more to it than that. As far as I could tell, it all had something to do with the “Occupy” movement. James had gotten heavily involved with it in Richmond. He was as excited about the possibilities as we all were. But somehow, he’d concocted this story about how it had all happened before exactly as it was happening now. He’d been with these people, in these places, doing these same things. Only, it was before. The whole scenario smelled of psychosis to me, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I just listened.

The poem I’d set James to work on, he’d already heard. But I didn’t remember that when I’d sent it to him. He reminded me I’d recited it to him and a friend of his while I was in a manic, drunken state at a diner in Richmond before we were really friends. James admitted he’d liked it even all the way back then. I was a little intense, but he’d thought I was a good poet. He could relate. The guy he’d been with, though… I’d scared the shit out of him. He was convinced I was insane. James had simply told his friend I was going through a rough patch.

“Really? That’s what he called it?” Cora asks me two and a half years after James pointed out my predicament in Brooklyn to me. I’m reading her this story again at her apartment in DC.

I set my pages to the side, and I slip my glasses off to rest them on the arm of Cora’s couch. Rubbing her bare leg, I smile and say, “Yeah. Why? What would you call it?”

“I don’t know. I’d say it was a little more serious than a rough patch, though…”

I didn’t think much about Occupy Wall Street the first week it started. I heard there were people setting up camp in Zuccotti Park, right in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district, but I wasn’t interested anymore. When nearly 100 people got arrested the following weekend and when I remembered how not too long before, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’d spent all day in a rage decorating my Facebook page with anarchist rock videos off of YouTube, I realized maybe I should check it out. That first night I went down there, I completely changed my mind.

I’d been putting together a massive punk rock playlist all that past summer. Grad school had ended for me in the spring, and my last class was on Michel Foucault and his concept of “governmentality.” I was saturated with political deconstruction. Preparing to apply to law school in the fall, I’d been working as assistant to an international human rights attorney throughout that last course and since. It was the apex of a worldview for me. My loans hadn’t come due yet. By the time late September rolled around, I was ready to give the playlist a thorough hearing. I figured the subway ride out to and the stroll around the protestors’ campground would provide me ample listening time. I was calling the playlist “Schizoanalysis” after a phrase the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had coined in the early 1970s. I didn’t realize how prescient all that actually was.

Work or Riot by The Business was blaring through my earbuds as I got off the train in Lower Manhattan wearing my usual fall attire – a pair of jeans and a black hoody. But I wasn’t prepared yet for what Zuccotti Park had already become.

It was the look in the protestors’ eyes first struck me… like a bright, morning sun had dawned inches from their faces. The atmosphere burgeoned with the crispness of over a thousand people rapt in a state of patient anticipation. I quickly cut off my music. I didn’t want to miss the cacophonous symphony of hundreds of people shouting their words in unison to spread the ideas the unheard speaker herself was trying to communicate. At that precise moment, their discussion concerned whether or not there was going to be an “Occupy” platform… what were their demands, were there any objectives? It was a crowd of anarchists, college kids, journalists, union members, lawyers and even Wall Streeters. I wound my way past the library and podcasters, beyond the free food and free tobacco tables and through all the tents – medical included. Thousands of flyers littered the ground. They raised concerns about everything from the prison system to environmental degradation. While staring at cardboard signs declaring protest against the United States’ and the world’s 1%, I settled down at the base of the park next to a gyrating drum circle. There was a brick sitting wall there from which I could view the construction site for the new Trade Tower.

Some college kids in their early twenties wound up sitting next to me, “It’s cool here, huh?” one of them said.

“Man, I’ve been waiting for something like this ever since I first saw those buildings over there go down ten years ago,” I said while pointing at the skeletal base for what would soon become the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower.

I left those kids as they returned to dance in the drum circle, and I strolled back up through the tents looking for someone to strike up a conversation with. I wound up listening to this guy in a bandana from the Bronx who looked to be probably in his late forties. “It’s the fucking government, man,” he said to me. “When Reagan was president, back in the eighties, there were jobs. I could make a living as an auto mechanic. As it stands, now, I’ve been out of work over two years. So I’ve been camping down here for a week now. This whole ‘Occupy’ thing, man, this is where I belong today,” he said while slopping more vegan gruel onto another hungry protestor’s plate.

I nodded and said, “Right, right…”  But I only agreed with part of what he had to say.

Eventually, I settled down on the concrete to eat my own meal with a group of two girls and a guy. One of the girls, a dreadlocked woman in flannels, was roughly my age. She’d hopped a train from rural Illinois. The other girl and the guy were a twenty-something couple who’d come up there from somewhere down south.

“It’s spiritual, man,” the woman in flannels was saying. “We’re raising the levels of consciousness on this plane.”

“I have a hard time believing there’s anything spiritual about this world,” I told her.

The twenty-something girl, her boyfriend staring off blankly at the floodlights and building tops surrounding us, asked me, “Have you ever dropped acid? Because if you don’t believe there’s anything spiritual to this world, you need to drop acid sometime.”

I told her, “I’ve dropped acid, but I never found anything.”

“Then, you must not have dropped acid in the woods,” the girl went on, winding a piece of trash through her long hair. “That’s when you know there’s something spiritual here.”

I nodded. “I’ve dropped acid in the woods,” I said.

“You should join us for meditation tomorrow,” the woman in flannels said as she gently touched my leg, which was crossed over the other Indian style. “Because this is how I’ve always believed society should be… thousands of people living together with no money, no rivalries, just a shared belief in our reason to exist. This is the future.”

“I might take you up on that,” I said with regard to her invitation. Even though, I didn’t meditate any longer, and I didn’t know if I wanted to live in a future world where we all slept in tents on concrete in the middle of an urban jungle. But as I said that I glanced around the periphery of the camp, and for the first time, I took note of the ring of stoic policemen surrounding Occupy Wall Street. They were all union members, and they each had more in common with every single protestor there than they would ever have with Mayor Bloomberg. At that moment, I no longer believed those policemen were there to keep the protestors in. Instead, I believed they were there to keep the rest of the city out.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cora interrupts me.

I set my story to the side again, and I say, “I don’t know. I mean, don’t get me wrong… I wound up donating copies of all my penname’s books to the OWS library. So, I guess, if my stories and poems aren’t traveling around on a freight train right now with some anarchist somewhere, they’re in a garbage dump outside New York from after the police raided the camp. I mean, I marched through New York City with everybody else, carrying signs and chanting things like, ‘Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.’  But it wasn’t until I was talking with this friend of mine, sometime around November of that year, right around when this whole thing was coming to an end… He and I had gone out for dinner in Brooklyn. He’d been getting really involved with OWS’ General Assembly. To tell the truth, we never really saw eye-to-eye on much. He owned a mail-order bookstore, but he hated philosophy and postmodernist writing… everything I was really into back then. He thought it was all pretentious bull shit no one could relate to. But we got along pretty well anyways. I guess because even though we didn’t always agree, we respected each other’s opinions since we’re both pretty well read. But that night we were out for dinner, though, he was telling me all about how the plan was to have Occupy camps sprout up all over the United States as an alternative means for community organization, which was already happening by then. ‘That’s cool,’ I told him, ‘But how do you build a larger society out of all this?’

“‘That’s not what’s at issue,’ he said. ‘All we’re trying to do is allow for the possibility of something different here.’

“‘But a simple possibility won’t change things,’ I told him.

“‘But don’t you see, it will. Once there’s an alternative, who knows what people will choose…’

“‘I don’t know, man. I think you need something a little more concrete than just everybody camping in public spaces.’

“‘That’s where you’re wrong. We don’t need anything more concrete. There’s no goal here, man. This is just about offering an alternative community.’

“‘That’s bull shit,’ I said. ‘We don’t need an alternative community. We need a whole new society.’

“‘This is a new society. Can’t you see that?’

“‘This is nothing,’ I said. ‘And unless you offer people a concrete answer, this whole thing’s simply gonna disappear.’ Which I’m pretty sure you’d agree is precisely what’s happened since then, Cora… regardless of whether or not OWS still has a presence on Twitter.”

My Chicago grandmother was telling me how Occupy needed a strong personality to rise up from out its midst, someone who could truly lead a revitalized political left. That was my mom’s mom. She’d taken my mother to her first ever Vietnam War protest before my mom had even started college in 1968. My step-mom was telling me how even though my dad had always voted Republican, he’d also been a bit of an anarchist at heart, and he probably would have thought the whole Occupy thing was pretty damn cool. The rest of my dad’s family, however, were sitting out by the pool in Southern California, sipping mimosas while discussing the many problems with Obama’s presidency as they meditated on whether or not I was spending any time myself in Zuccotti Park.

My mom was on the phone. I was strolling in front of the Hassidic warehouses around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn. The air was getting cooler by the day. I’d been thinking about my own time spent on the streets, and I was starting to wonder what would happen to the protestors’ camp once snow started falling. “I don’t know,” I said to my mom. “I thought it was pretty cool the first couple times I went down there, but now I just don’t know. I mean, I was down there again last night, right? I bump into this guy with long hair in a cowboy hat, probably about my age with a girl in her early twenties. He says they just drove out here from somewhere in the Midwest. I don’t know, like Ohio or something. And he’s wondering if I know anywhere they can score something. Of course, with where I’m at in my life right now I have absolutely no idea. But it isn’t just that. It’s that so many of these people, I don’t know if they really even understand what’s at issue here. I mean, maybe, it’s because I just finished this master’s degree. But I’ve spent so much time thinking about what’s gone wrong in this country, and all I hear coming out of Zuccotti Park are utopian fantasies.”

“Sounds like the same things I went through in college,” my mom said. “Why do you think I decided to go into education eventually rather than stay radicalized?”

Right now, I’m sitting out on my stoop in DC with this notebook open on my lap. I just finished going over everything you’ve just read once again, and I’m still thinking about it. It might be overcast today, but it’s a little warmer than it was yesterday. Cora’s out of town at a festival in the California desert with her younger sister this weekend. She’s been sending me pictures via Snapchat all morning, and every single one of them makes me smile. With Cora out of town, I’m heading over to Luc’s tonight for dinner, which is a welcome relief. I recently started contributing to my 401(k), and ever since then, I’ve been dead broke at the end of every pay period. I need to quit that contribution. One of the guys from my building steps out with a cigarette and a soda to join me. As the metal grate clangs closed behind him, he tells me he’s waiting on a phone interview for a new job. I can tell he’s nervous. Today is Good Friday, and I have the day off while he’s been out of work going on two months now.

I like this guy. Sergio’s his name. He just moved into one of the first floor apartments in our converted row house a few months back. He might not look it, but he’s only a couple years younger than me. He spent most of his adult life working at the various music venues I’ve been frequenting in the District since high school. More recently, though, he’s been working as a legal assistant. It’s Washington, DC. He grew up in the Baltimore suburbs, but he also spent some time in Brooklyn in between the two times I was there. Last time he and I talked, I left him with one of my penname’s self-published books to peruse. He studied English in college. So I thought he might appreciate it. He asks what I’m up to today.

“Working on this new writing project,” I tell him.

“That’s cool,” he says. “What is it?” I notice he and I are wearing the exact same outfit, which is the same thing I told you I was wearing that first time I showed up at Zuccotti Park – a pair of jeans and a black hoody. The only difference is our shoes. He’s wearing Puma’s while I’ve got on an old, beat-up pair of black and white, shell-toe Adidas… a remnant from my first stay in Washington, DC back in the mid-2000s.

“Oh, well, I’m really into it. It’s a memoir, basically, but I don’t really think of it like that. I’m telling it backwards. Starting from the other week and going back in time as far as I can remember.”

“Sounds interesting,” he says. “Where are you at right now?”

“Not too far yet. I just finished talking about Occupy Wall Street. So I’ve only gone back about two and a half years so far. But at this rate, I could conceivably finish a first draft in about six months.”

“Nice. I didn’t realize Occupy had happened that recently, though.”

“I know. It’s crazy when you think about it. No wonder I had such a hard time with this gig I’m doing now when I first started a couple years back. I mean, it had only been like six months since I’d been carrying around a sign and shouting about how we are the 99%. And before that, man…  Nowadays, I spend most of my energy writing marketing copy, trying to sell people on a financial newsletter.”

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