Ever failed at life? That's where Josh Kruger found himself last winter: broke, hungry and bunking with a violent stranger.
Getting punched in the face is an experience I recommend for every dedicated smartass. Aside from the obvious storytelling value a solid right offers, it necessarily humbles you. Personally, I’d wondered my entire life what the sensation truly felt like; I’d wince whenever I saw footage of physical fights between men, and my hands would shake whenever I came close to blows during an argument—which is a rather frequent situation for a smartass who can’t keep his mouth shut. Up until last December, though, the idea of getting socked was just that: a hypothetical scenario. That’s why I taunted the fellow bunking next to me in the homeless shelter after he hurled an unforgivable “faggot” my way. I expected to incite a back-and-forth in which I could show off my wit, my mastery of the cruel insult, my Ivy League pedigree and years in amateur rhetoric and debate.
Instead, I saw something out of the corner of my right eye and then saw, literally, stars, as brilliant explosions of blue filled my vision.
I started to feel hot wetness on my face. I was relieved to see blood, not just tears, pouring down, because that meant I could assure myself, as I chased after him down the hallway toward security, that the tears were only from the affected eye. After all, if both eyes were tearing up instead of just the one that received the blow, I would’ve been, in my mind, even worse than what he called me; instead of being a gay guy on the receiving end of slackjawed bigotry, I would’ve been a crying faggot.
There in the shelter I’d matriculated into, the punch felt like a punctuation mark—a definite period, making sure I’d stopped to take note that I had what polite society would consider a miserable failure of a life. With every opportunity I’d been presented up to that point, it seemed, I’d chosen to spit in favor’s eye.
First, I became the first person in my entire family ever accepted into a university; it was a fancy one, too. Shortly thereafter, I became the first to get kicked out of college, for convincing myself that sitting on a bar stool was more instructive than going to anthropology class. (It was, actually.)
Later, the years I spent proving my college failure didn’t matter to mediocre middle managers, clawing my way from a minimum-wage job enrolling kids in T-ball up to an office overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, ended in the most humiliating way possible: an emotional meltdown following my HIV positive diagnosis, leaving my boss with the memory of me in jean cut-offs and a Captain America T-shirt furiously typing out a profanity-laden resignation email. A few months, and lots of drugs, sex, and electrohouse music later, I found myself shivering outside the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia with the other bums.
At that point, I called Project HOME and walked two miles up Broad Street for “emergency intake.” I’d had enough of the cold—but I had mostly had enough of all the time.
One of the least understood facts about being homeless is the nature of the “free time” you have. You have to spend all your time in today, instead of thinking about tomorrow. You have to figure out how to not smell like urine, how to pay for cigarettes (I can assure you the urgency ramps up noticeably), how to not get an infection in your foot from the blister that just broke because you’ve been walking around Center City all day aimlessly.
Sharing intelligence with other homeless guys who were generally sane, I learned about where to get the best free hot lunch (St. John’s Hospice, 12th and Race) or which hotels had easily accessible public restrooms. My favorite was Le Meridien: If I cleaned up enough and put pomade in my hair, my Northface backpack looked like luggage instead of my house, and I could spend a good half hour in the hotel’s basement bathroom reading the last copy of Vanity Fair mailed to my post office box. One of my new peers had a hustle where he would put on a collared shirt and carry a messenger bag, telling commuters in Suburban Station he was a dollar short of his train fare and brothercouldyouspareadime? Because he was young and white, he always made enough off empathetic suburban folks to buy cigarettes and feed himself; the young, homeless black guys, on the other hand, wouldn’t even try such a thing because of the pointlessness of it. Post-racial America, indeed.
Before I started making friends with my new “coworkers,” I tried being the strong, silent type; I would eschew conversations with others I knew to be homeless I would spend days in the library reading alone or trying to problem-solve my situation. Now and then, I’d make collect phone calls begging relatives and friends for loans and second chances. Most of all, I would ignore the problem altogether by pretending I still wasn’t a bum.
This approach led to hunger.
True hunger is a feeling most Americans cannot grasp; it is a pit in your stomach that echoes dully and begins to shriek whenever you see someone eating a sandwich. Without food for a long enough time, your gut whines and starts to play more tricks with your head than drugs ever could. In fact, the few times I found myself imagining robbing another person were when I, sober, was the hungriest—after all, a quick mugging would probably get me at least enough to get a meal. Even at my most mindlessly ravenous, though, I couldn’t stifle my conscience that much; I worried that ruining some poor grad student’s day would leave a permanent scar on the guy and a sour taste about Philadelphia in his mouth. Eventually, that meant I had to engage my homeless peers to learn how to survive. Quiet dignity sounds nice, but nobody wants to be the idiot who starves to death with a copy of Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in his expensive backpack. So, asking around, I eventually came to the conclusion that I’d had enough time on the street. I had to go into the shelter system.
After my emergency intake at the Salvation Army’s Station House with a compassionate woman who did not once humiliate me with the question, “Why are you here?” I found myself temporarily placed in a place called Somerset near the Divine Lorraine. The institution-style building stood right across an alleyway from a hotel whose sign bragged, callously, about having cable television. Completing another round of paperwork in duplicate, I asked the man behind the caged registration desk, an apparent alumnus of the shelter, when I could get a meal.
“You just missed dinner,” he said. “Breakfast at 7. Here’s a towel for a shower.”
Just a few hours earlier, I had convinced a friend to let me shower in his apartment—a rare treat for me in those days. “Oh, I already showered today. Thank you, though,” I replied, like I was checking into Le Meridien.
“Kid,” he said, “they ain’t gonna let you in unless you wash yourself first.”
After that, I half expected a sadistic guard to hit me with cakes of white delousing powder. Instead, I got a tiny bar of soap and overly-perfumed moisturizer donated, apparently, from the Marriott.
Early the next morning, I found myself at 802 N. Broad Street for long-term shelter placement intake. I sat there for about an hour before I got to give the receptionist my name. Then I sat another six hours while half a dozen social workers steadily worked through the other men who’d arrived before I had. By sheer luck, they got to me just before closing time, and another kind woman directed me to a shelter called Fernwood, in Northeast Philadelphia. She handed me two SEPTA tokens—a common refrain during interactions with social workers—and wished me well.
I walked out past eight or nine other guys who weren’t as lucky; they were put into a cargo van and sent to spend another night in temporary emergency shelters.
Letters to the Editor