May 25, 2016 by poverty2professional
Forewarning: Scatological humor because this week nothing else will do.
It was a bright, cheery Sunday morning in May 2008. Birds singing, innocent blue skies — the kind of start to spring that Disney animators brew into their coffee for inspiration. And somehow, in its quest to clog every drain imaginable, my butt chose this morning to give a go at this particular toilet. The toilet itself wasn’t remarkable. If it had been it would’ve had a power flush and I wouldn’t have found teenage me in that situation. Nope, it was the toilet’s location that was truly outstanding. See, it wasn’t my toilet. It was the john in my friend’s guest house. Specifically the one friend whose father I had just found out the night before was a distinguished political official. How the hell had I wound up spending my weekend morning attempting to surreptitiously unclog an international diplomat’s porcelain throne?
Like ending up homeless, this scene was owed to many, many convoluted factors.
Let’s start at the top. I wouldn’t be in this situation if:
- I weren’t homeless. This is the root of all misfortunes, so let’s move along.
- My high school hadn’t had its annual community festival and offered volunteer hours. Like many soon-to-be high school seniors, I couldn’t get enough volunteer hours. There’s a pool of enumerated rubber ducks that need watching? Sign me up!
- If Ol’ Betsy weren’t such an ancient tin can of a car. Ah, there’s the rub.
In all these events coalescing, we had the perfect storm for a clogged pipe. Allow me to elaborate.
“How late do you think you’ll be?” my dad asked for the umpteenth time as we drove up to my high school on a Saturday, the late morning sun already baking the road ahead.
“About until five?” I guessed. “I signed up for the afternoon shift.”
My dad groaned and chewed the cigarette between his teeth. “Okay. Hop out.” He ditched me in front of my school and sped away (which in Betsy equates to going about 20 mph).
Of course, I also knew he’d turn up again before my shift was over. My dad was drawn to community functions. He loved to talk, mingle, and – especially at carnivals and fairs – see if he could walk away with a prized stuffed animal. By 3:30 that afternoon I spotted him strolling by with a string full of purple tickets.
“So, which ones are the matching ducks?”
I glanced at the pool before looking at my father from over the booth. “Dad, even I don’t know which ducks are which numbers.”
“Haven’t you seen other people win by now?”
“I don’t remember which ones were matching pairs.”
“Well damn, if you can’t remember a single winning pair of rubber ducks in a pool how’re you ever going to pass AP Calculus? I’m telling you, man, don’t sign up for that class.”
My father was a troll before YouTube made it popular.
About an hour later, I wrapped up my shift. “Okay, I’m ready to go back to the Pound now.”
“Don’t you want to play a couple of games? Your future Government and Civics teacher is in the dunking chair.” My dad handed me most of his tickets. He never forgot, even when we were homeless, that I was still kid.
Another hour later, my dad reminded me about curfew. “I put in a late pass, but we’d better head back.” So, we headed out of the school, up the block and around the corner to where Betsy was parked. We hopped in. Dad turned the key. And the engine didn’t kick over.
“Shit.” I think we said it in unison.
“Can we tow it?”
“I don’t want to spend money towing Betsy to the Pound if we have to take her to our mechanic out here.” Remember, my high school was in our hometown. At least our mechanic would understand our situation.
“Do we have money for a cab?”
“What do you think, bonehead?”
But it was getting late. The sun had set, leaving only a milky twilight that reminds you everyone else is going home and you’re still outside.
“Are we gonna sleep in the car?” I had started my period a day ago. It wasn’t an option I wanted to entertain, but what other choice did we have? My dad frowned.
Then one of my friends walked by. We had AP Art History together. She was a senior and, although I never said it, I looked up to her like a big sister. She noticed my dad and me staring forlornly at our failed car. Well, me unproductively staring and my father on the phone with the shelter trying to explain that we might not make it back tonight. Which would be reported to our caseworker. Which could mean a write-up. Which could lead to us getting kicked out of the Pound. Many more nights of sleeping in the car for sure.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
I glanced at my dad, still on the phone, then explained.
“Why don’t you stay at my house?” She assured me it wouldn’t be a big deal with her parents. She called and confirmed, then approached my dad. He was still dragging skeptically on his tenth cigarette in the past hour. “It’s near here. And my family has a guest house that you both could use. You can figure out your car in the morning.”
A warm bed in a real house? Privacy? Cool, older classmate friend hanging out with me? Oh my God, it was like winning the lottery.
A few minutes later my friend’s dad picked us up. Admittedly, I was a little surprised to see that my classmate lived in a very nice area of our town, the kind with bigger houses and neatly trimmed lawns. “What do your parents do?” I asked.
“International work,” she said.
Once we were inside and warmly greeted, I learned her father was a foreign diplomat. My friend’s dad spoke mostly Spanish as his preferred language (Dutch and Italian were in there, too). My friend translated the gaps as her dad provided us a mini tour of their (temporary) home and my pops nodded approvingly at the snapshots of our host’s career framed on the walls. Mr. Diplomat was polite, friendly, and cheerful. It was a world of difference from the usual grimaces you get at the Pound. We were shown to the guest house and, for the first time in a while, I got a solid night’s rest. Everything felt like it was going to be all right.
Until the next morning. When my digestive tract decided it wanted to purge everything at once.
Wherein we arrive at this scene: Me staring with mounting mortification at the toilet that couldn’t flush my giant poo of doom.
Briskly, I walked into the house. Dad had joined the family for breakfast and coffee and by then must have been wondering why I wasn’t there yet. Blurring past, I made a beeline for the main bathroom, raided the space for a plunger, then tiptoed outside as best I could with my rubber-headed trophy. I was almost in the clear when I saw Dad sitting with my friend’s father at the kitchen table. I didn’t know my friend’s house well enough to take an alternative route, so I did the only thing I could think of: I forged ahead as quietly and unobtrusively as I could, the plunger in my arms. Mercifully, my friend and her father were facing away from me. My dad, however, was sitting opposite of them and had a full view of my shenanigans. As he watched me creep by his eyes widened, his cigarette wilted, and his hand slapped over his face.
Dishonor. Dishonor on my whole family.
Mr. Diplomat leaned forward and said something in Spanish that I heard my friend translate to, “We understand this is a very stressful time for you and your daughter.”
I’m pretty sure my dad must’ve grumbled something to the effect of, “You have no idea,” because when he looked up again I could feel his glare burning into my back right between the shoulders. I had better get that toilet unclogged quick.
Two minutes later I had barely started to plunge when I heard the door clatter open and my father whirled into the bathroom.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Trying to unclog the toilet.”
“No shit! …literally!” He lit up a fresh cigarette and barked, “Move aside! I can’t believe this is how your ass repays people. You know he’s a diplomat, right? Did you read his creds? And now you’re clogging his pipes.”
“I know, Dad! Look, it was my unsettled intestines! I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s attached to you, so yes, it’s your fault, stupid.”
My purpose in disclosing this odd and humorous (albeit humbling) moment is to highlight something else I learned while my family and I were going through homelessness: There are no certainties in life. My junior year was coming to an end. And the future was rife with uncertainty. I would still retake the SAT one more time, I had loaded up on more Advanced Placement classes than were Surgeon General-approved (among them AP Calculus), and I was on the verge of writing my personal statement for the University of California.
And there was absolutely no guarantee that even IF I got accepted to college (UC, a Cal State, a community college) that I would have the resources – not just money, but transportation, technology, and wherewithal – to attend. There was no guarantee I would go to college. Wasn’t that all what I was working for? If I didn’t have a shot, what was the point of staying in school? I might as well drop out, look for a job – any job – and try to bring in some kind of money.
But there was still a chance, I might make it.
The toilet gurgled its relief.
“Man, I wonder what you ate. Poor baby,” my dad muttered.
“I feel okay.”
“Not you, dumbass, the toilet!”
When you’re homeless, you’re on the cusp of so many uncertainties. Decisions can hinge on a caseworker’s mood, a functioning vehicle, and the caprices of fate. But on the flipside, you don’t know what else could happen next, what might tip the scales in your favor, or – at least – get you a nice little vacation in a friend’s cozy home just for one night. I didn’t know if I would be admitted to college, but trying to find out is half the fun.