When one lives outdoors, and weather conditions are less than favorable, one sometimes wakes up freezing and soaking wet—not to mention flat broke. Under such circumstances, you can’t imagine the feeling of grati- tude that would overwhelm me as I succeeded in scraping up 63 cents for a senior cup of coffee at a Mac- Donald’s. At the store most frequented, they wouldn’t let us in if we didn’t have coffee change. Once admitted, our stays were limited to twenty minutes. But it was still huge that I could get out of the rain and get my bearings.
Picture the scenario, if you haven’t personally experienced it yourself. It’s raining cats and dogs. Your already soggy clothes are getting wet all over again. You’re shivering from cold. Your very blankets were full of moisture on awakening. You weren’t so bad when still enclosed beneath those coverings, but boy did it smart when you first got out from under ‘em! All of a sudden you were shaking to the bones. You ran, not walked, in the direction of the MacDonald’s where, at 5:20 in the morning, approximately twenty other homeless people were pacing about the sidewalks on University and Shattuck, awaiting the moment of opening.
You don’t have coffee change and you just know they’re not going to let you in as a non-paying “vagrant.” So you swallow your pride, and you start hitting up your homeless buddies for bits of change.
“Hey Dave, do you have a quarter? That’s all I need. Bob, got a nickel? I’m only five cents short . . .”
Just as the store is opening, some- body flips five pennies into your hand.
“Here use this. I’m good.”
You breathe an incredible sigh of relief. Those five pennies just made the difference between your continuing to freeze your buns off, and your sitting comfortably in a warm building— with a morning cup of coffee to boot. You get in line, you get your coffee, and before you know it, you’re sitting at your favorite Mickey D’s table with a Berkeley Daily Californian. You made it! If you’re lucky, and somebody didn’t get there first, you might even be able to use the bathroom. If you’re even luckier, you’ll get a refill. Luckier still, and they might let you stay longer than twenty minutes. Heck, they might even let you stay till the sun shines through! Nowhere to go, says Gratitude, but up.
Because I live indoors now, a lot of the little things that used to inspire intense gratitude no longer have the same effect. But living inside has not dulled my sense of appreciation. I often find myself overwhelmed by the same kinds of feelings I had when I was able to pay my way into that McDonald’s. But the sources of this gratitude are different.
For example, living inside doesn’t make me exempt from the effects of nasty weather. It’s been freaky in- clement in this part of the world lately, with temps in the low 10s (Fahrenheit) and fierce winds and lots of snow ren- dering the outdoor trek a bit daunting for most people—and this particular formerly homeless homebody is no exception. The upside is that, when
I walk into my apartment from such conditions, nobody is going to kick me out of my own home in twenty minutes and release me to the cold rain and snow. As I sleep, no night wanderer is going to wake me up to ask me for a cigarette, and no police officer is going to shine that bright light in my eyes and wake me up to an interrogation. When morning comes, and I hop into the shower, I won’t have to deal with a number of other men in the shower room, nor will I have had to wait for two hours to get there. Moreover, I get to make my own coffee in the morning. I don’t have to wait beneath a church stairway while a security guard barks orders at me in order to get my day started. If I took for granted the extraordinary conveniences of indoor living before I was homeless, I certainly don’t today.
Because I live indoors now, a lot of the little things that used to inspire intense gratitude no longer have the same effect.
I’m looking around the room as I write this. I look to my left and I see a 1921 vintage Howard upright piano that somebody gave me for free. How cool is that? I’ve never owned a piano before in my entire life. I look to my right, and I see a darn comfortable couch to crash on. A little further down is a five-drawer dresser. And believe you me, there are a heck of a lot of socks rolled up in that dresser. Gone are the days when I have to line up every Monday in hopes of getting a single pair of socks to last me all week.
For the first 51 years of my life, before I spent the better part of twelve years on the streets of Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, I took all these things for granted. Now, I am careful to make sure that I don’t lose my sense of gratitude as daily life becomes easier. Every morning when I wake up, I jot down ten things I am grateful for to off-set the sense of stress and sometimes drudgery that comes with maintaining all the details of a normal, mundane life.
Where before I would wonder what it was like if someone were homeless, I don’t have to wonder anymore. I know what it’s like to be homeless— and that knowledge is one of the greatest blessings I have ever received. While intense rushes of the feeling are much fewer and farther between now that I am trying to maintain stability, the gratitude, when it does come, is that much the richer.
I am grateful for all the years I lived outdoors, because my homeless experience is what taught me gratitude.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.