Saturday, March 27, 2010

The End of the Line

Driving up West Burnside Street from downtown Portland, there is a nondescript building on the corner of 22nd Place and Burnside. In the ground floor are the Pizza Oasis, best pizza in Portland; and the Thai Orchid, best Thai food in Portland. Between the two store fronts is a doorway that leads into the building proper: an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel.

That hotel was my home for five years.  

An SRO typically is where you end up right before you land on the streets, or sometimes, right after you come off them.  For so much money per week, you get a room.  I paid an extra $5 a week for a room with its own bathroom.  Most of the rooms in an SRO don't have bathrooms; you share the one at the end of the hall.  There's a shared kitchen, too, if you want to use it.  There are some kinds of sharing I can do without.  Involuntarily sharing my food with others is among them. 

For $105/week, I got a room with a bed, a dresser, a sink and a window.  And, of course, a bathroom.  I went into that room thinking that it would be a temporary stop, a detour after a "perfect storm" of financial and personal catastrophes merged, to leave me homeless, jobless and destitute.  I'd managed to scrape a job in one of the worst hell holes imaginable, a produce company on the east side of the river.  But it was a job.  Things would get better.

They didn't.  At work, I was alongside paroled armed robbers, rapers and drug addicts.  There were knife attacks in the back of the warehouse and fist fights on the loading dock.  At home, -- "home" -- there were regular visits from paramedics to revive overdosed drug users, and the sounds of hand-to-hand combat in the neighboring rooms. One winter, the building breaker box melted down and we were without heat or electricity for ten days.  We still had to pay rent, though. Pay, or get out.  You pay -- because when the streets are icy, huddling under a heap of blankets in your unlit room is better than huddling under a bridge.

After a while, you get used to it.  You go to work, you get your check.  You go to the check-cashing place, get your money.  You stop at the manager's office to pay your rent on the way up to your room.

I became a linux user in that room.  Learned shell, perl and C programming in that room.  Learned networking, hardware repair; became A+ and Network+ certified.  Friday night, on the way home from work I would buy two packs of cigarettes and a six-pack of Mountain Dew.  I'd sit down at my desk and smoke and drink soda and program, play chess at FICS, take things apart and put them back together.  Occasionally, I'd upend my keyboard to dump out the cigarette ash that caused it to stop working.

I might have gone on indefinitely in that zombie zone.  About four years into my stay, I got sick.  It was winter.  I went to the clinic at Good Sam.  The doc said it was bronchitis and I should quit smoking. I stayed sick.  I worked sick, shivering all day in the coolers; then going home to lie in bed shivering.  No "sick days":  don't punch the clock, don't get paid.  A couple more visits to the clinic, with the same verdict.

As I lay in my room, too sick even to smoke a cigarette, I realized that if I died there, nobody would notice.  If I didn't show up for work, nobody would call.  People disappearing from that place was a regular occurrence.  I went weeks without talking to my sisters; they wouldn't think it unusual.  You can't get more alone than that: to die and not be missed, until your body starts to stink and somebody calls the cops.

One day I took the bus to work, as usual.  After the two block walk to the loading dock, I had to sit down and rest.  I couldn't go on.  I told my boss I was too sick to work and went straight back to the clinic. This time I got a different doctor; she had my chest X-Rayed; then came back with a worried look on her face.  She showed me the X-Rays. "You have double pneumonia and your lungs are 40% underwater," she said.  "You need to be admitted to the hospital right now." 

Five days later, and $12,000 in debt, I emerged from the hospital. That doctor saved my life, of that I am sure.  And it was like a resurrection. Not consciously, I didn't have some kind of overt epiphany.  As I recovered my health, I began to see the world around me and to take stock of my possibilities.  Within a year, I was working as a telephone technical support "engineer" for Gateway computers.  Two years later, I went to work for WebTrends providing support for the software.  Professional services; then independent consulting. In five years, I went from living in an SRO without even a bank account, to flying around the country on an expense account.

I often look back, and see where I came from.  I didn't get here because I'm "special," or some kind of ubermensch.  I'm nothing special at all; just another guy, with bad habits and an occasional good day.  God put me on a path that led me to a home, a family, a job that pays well.  He let me see my daughter again; he let me keep my friends of 40+ years; he let me live on both sides of the street.  And that's why, every day, I say "Here I am, Lord.  Send me."

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