My debit card is expired. My credit card does not work in all but a few places in this country. I have only the cash remaining from what I borrowed from my former employer Bas. I am wearing borrowed jeans and jacket, riding a borrowed bicycle, and living in a borrowed camper. My water lines are frozen. I awake each morning to the sounds of animals at the local zoo next door. I ran out of toilet paper a week ago, borrowing from any rest room I can find, wrapping it around my hand and stuffing into my pockets to make it another day.
I question what skills I have that make me employable and as I walk through the old city corridors, my black hoodie pulled to the sides of my face and across my forehead, gloved fingers deep in borrowed pockets. Alone in an alley, I struggle to locate the train station which I believe is on the other side of an adjacent building.
This is how it happens. This is how people fall that one last step.
I walked along the tracks, the only place in this country even remotely dirty. The well dressed people stood on the other side of the steel lines, at the end of the station, staring. My head was bowed as I moved through industrial shadows, pulling on doors in attempt to find my way into the back of the station and out of the cold.
I remember a time when I was the CEO of a supercomputing company, VPs at IBM and lead engineers at Lockheed Martin called upon my team to solve their problems. If only they could see me now, my pockets stuffed with toilet paper, my hands numb from the cold, my stomach empty until I can again boil a packet of Chinese noodles in water I carry back to my camper each day.
Was that me? Did I run that company? Did I stand in front of engineers at NASA, confident we could help process images from Spirit and Opportunity?
I am not that person now. I have lost that edge, the confidence, that ego which says “I can” no matter the challenge. I walked further, my mind wandering to how I might borrow cash from a stranger for a train ticket to Germany or nab an apple from a grocer without being caught—anything to avoid borrowing more money from the man who fired me two days ago. He already sees me as so small, incapable, and weak.
I can do it. I can rise again. But where do I start?
I returned to my camper, feeling safe inside despite the bitter cold. In the comfort of tat tiny, temporary, mobile home I was reminded of the relative wealth I do have and the good fortune to have family and friends who would help me if I could not find my way home again.
Homelessness is a psychological state more than a physical one. I was, for that week, thinking much like the homeless people I have met in so many cities, across many countries. I wanted to shout at passing strangers and urinate on public property. As a nameless, faceless, jobless nobody it didn’t matter any more—I had nothing to prove and no one to prove it to. I was, even if but for a few days, no longer one of them.
I tried to picture myself standing in front of a VP for a job interview, and in that image I could not make eye contact. I could not see myself without this over-sized jacket, pockets stuffed with toilet paper, fingers numb from the cold. I was not able to see myself succeed. That is what it truly means to be homeless. It’s not about the physical ownership of a building, but the inability to see oneself as anything but alone, in the alley, angry at the world, while those who have everything stare from the other side of the tracks, wondering who or what I am.