The day I got punched in the face

Ever failed at life? That's where Josh Kruger found himself last winter: broke, hungry and bunking with a violent stranger.

By Josh Kruger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Oct. 16, 2013

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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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2013 at 02:41PM

“Please get rid of Josh Kruger. He has a certain punchability that has NOTHING to do with homelessness. He's simply a tool. A drug addicted tool. His character is questionable, his writing is forgettable. His experience with HIV is so self serving, it insults everyone who has gone before him. He likes to believe he's interesting. He isn't. He's a narcissistic whore.

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2. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2013 at 04:13PM

“As someone who is recently diagnosed as HIV and at several years younger, I'm insulted by Josh Kruger. I didn't have a breakdown or quit my job. I immediately asked the doctor how I can stay healthy. I anonymously informed all recent partners. I've had a few counseling sessions. I'm starting meds any day now. I keep asking the doctor, my counselors what else I can do, and they say "You're doing everything you can." And THIS is a person you choose to highlight? His actions are the last things anyone with an HIV diagnosis should do.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2013 at 04:27PM

“Here here! Giving this loser a platform to "share his story" is ludicrous. He's in love with the sound of his own voice. People can't stomach him. The only bright spot is this self-admitted "smartass" will eventually "blow a snide kiss" at the wrong person, and get MUCH MORE than a punch in his permanently bemused puss. That is, if he doesn't overdose first...you know, from the meth he slams!”

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4. April M said... on Oct 16, 2013 at 05:50PM

“It's so easy to verbally beat someone up when it's done anonymously , anonymity is the cowards way & holds no merit whatsoever, if you have something intelligent to add, do so & have the guts to use your real name, otherwise STFU”

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5. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2013 at 07:05PM

“That's simply stupid "April M."...What would be the point of that? Would it make Josh less of a jackass? You idiotic slit.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Oct 17, 2013 at 12:53AM

“A great number of those who enter shelter system have mental health problems, drug and alcohol issues. Poor decision making is always a key factor. Now, that mr. Kruger has "hit bottom", perhaps he will seek the help he so evidently needs. Fern wood is not located on any detention grounds,but near it .”

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7. Anonymous said... on Oct 17, 2013 at 10:10AM

“The negative attacks above are personal in nature and not about what Josh has written. So you do not like him personally, so do not read his articles. (BTW – Today is anti-bulling day assholes)

This is an insightful piece that can only be conveyed by someone with intellect truly living the harsh reality and circumstances of homelessness and addiction. Undercover journalists could not compare in the psychological impact of homelessness – they know they have a way out and this is short term. For many homeless this will be their permanent way of life. Many face mental health issues, or have a low IQ. This does not indicate that they are lazy. Some have recently fell on hard times under the current economic environment. Less than 5% of Americans have financial reserves to take care of themselves and their families for more than 6 months after losing income. Quite frankly, we are all just one massive heart attack, stroke, or major car accident from being there.

The attacks on the authors HIV status in the comments above have little bearing on what he is describing. In not being linked to medical care and HIV medications, he is at more of a risk of spreading HIV – and not just sexually. We can assume that the bash he took too the face had blood splatters down the hall. HIV is a sexual disease. It does not make someone who has HIV less human than non HIV individuals.

Internalized stigma for substance use, depression, illness, mental illness, and homelessness takes a hard toll. I ask all of us to consider that the next time you pass someone who needs a helping hand. My only argument is that Josh uses the term “bum.” This would indicate that people are there by choice, yet few are. It’s as negative and disingenuous as “welfare queen.”

Well done – I look forward to reading the next installment.

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8. cn2004 said... on Oct 17, 2013 at 01:21PM

“Lets see, he has unprotected sex and gets HIV, gets kicked out of college because he'd rather drink, and can't hold a job because of his attitude. Typical loser who wants to do whatever he wants but doesn't like the consequences. Fuck him.”

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9. TRUTH TELLER said... on Oct 17, 2013 at 02:08PM

“cn2004 should be given the Pulitzer Prize!! Josh Kruger is and always will be a monolithic pantload. Word on the street is Josh has now become a sexual muse, and perverted plaything for two elderly, decrepit queens. I guess you could say it's the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch...but in this case, just add Meth and stir! Josh thrives on any form of attention or drama, so this whole thread is like Manna from heaven to him...YOU'VE ARRIVED MARY!! Now please do something about your eyebrow singeing halitosis. Your mouth smells like an open sewer.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Oct 22, 2013 at 05:57PM

“You can always tell you're reading from someone who's dying to arrive but can't seem to when they sling nasty comments and put others down for absolutely no reason other than to make themselves feel superior. Also, it's funny reading someone talk to themselves, pretending to be talking to someone else.
Anyway, I enjoyed this. I think we typically have this idea of what a homeless person is,and this article reminds us that frequently our preconceptions are incorrect. Also, the idea that someone deserves HIV because they had unprotected sex is horrendous. Shitty things happen, and sure, sometimes we do things that make us more susceptible to those shitty things, but to blow someone off who is admitting to addiction issues as though they're a 'typical loser' is just...it turns my stomach. I read this as someone who is accepting the consequences of his actions and trying to move past them.”

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11. Michael J Devine II said... on Oct 29, 2013 at 05:13PM

“Truth be told, ALL of your problems have stemmed from the one decision in your life you've chosen to not be truthful about and here it is you piece of s**t:

YOU quit your job, your really good job I might add, to be a damn drug dealer!

All your issues, all your bitching, all that has happened to you, has happened because you wanted to be fierce! Lol, don't forget, just like Alan T says, "Fierceness is always welcome!" So, I'm sorry your life isn't where you wanted it to be, but honey you signed up for it so get into it!!!”

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12. Emma said... on Oct 31, 2013 at 11:55AM

“Congrats Josh, you've drawn out the trolls. Enjoyed the piece. Keep em coming.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Oct 31, 2013 at 08:31PM

“Philadelphia Weekly's employment of Mr. Kruger speaks more to the lack of integrity of the publication than anything. Besides his lack of legitimate talent, Mr. Kruger's positioning and reputation within the community is so laughable and absurd that by giving him a venue to publish his rhetoric, it makes one seriously question the professional nature of the editorial staff of Philadelphia Weekly.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Nov 5, 2013 at 01:36AM

“I liked you”

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15. Scott said... on Dec 24, 2013 at 04:36PM

“I think his writing is riveting. He is far from a "tool." He is simply sharing his story as it affected him. What happen to our community? When did we become so harsh and judgmental. This man's story may save someone's life.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 25, 2014 at 09:59AM

“Simply put, Josh Kruger scares the hell out of me. He lies about himself, he spreads life-damaging rumors about others, and he needs help desperately for his untreated methamphetamine addiction, which I believe is the source of his inability to think truthfully before he writes and speaks. All of that adds up to a plausible inability to believe fully in any of his tales of woe. Journalistically, he's inaccurate and egotistical. He should not be writing for any publication until he gets honest. Good luck Mr. Kruger. I hope that you make it. Everyone deserves happiness.”

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