From the book TRUTH ACCORDING TO MICHAEL by Stevan V. Nikolic, Chapter Three
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.
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.