Stories Being Homeless in New York City

Concrete Dreams: My Journey Moving to New York City

I flew into Newark. I don’t remember the flight or the Newark airport at all. I was leaving Salt Lake City, and a life that I never imagined would be ending in the way that it was. I only lived in Salt Lake for a couple of years, I moved there with my wife for her schooling. She wasn’t with me on the flight to Newark. I struggled with that for a while, I couldn’t really even explain why; separating and then divorcing would be the best thing for the both of us and yet I felt guilty and angry, I suppose because no one starts a life with someone believing that it’s going to end. It’s remarkable how much we can change and how difficult it can be to recognize that.

          I had only two rolling suitcases stuffed with clothes and a small heirloom or two hidden somewhere in the bags. The train from the Newark airport took me to Penn Station and I walked to my hostel near 42nd street pulling my bags behind me. Before I left Salt Lake, I booked the hostel for a few days to have a place to come back to as I wrapped up the arrangements I made for my apartment and for work. I was nervous walking from Penn Station to Times Square. I was alone in New York City, in my mid-twenties, and I had no idea what to expect. I’ve been to New York twice before this. The first time the summer after “graduating” middle school, it was a class trip, and we spent a couple of nights in the city and a few more in Washington, D.C.; the second, I was there for a day, my parents kept an apartment in D.C. many years after my class trip, and my family took the train to the city during one of my many visits to the capital.

In those situations, wandering around a place like New York City, I make sure that I appear to know exactly what I’m doing, and that regardless of what I might be thinking or feeling, and how terrified I might be, I just head in a general direction. I glanced at the street signs indistinctly for a few blocks to make sure I was headed in the right direction. It took me nearly a month to step out of the subway and recognize where I was in relation to where I wanted to be. I’d step out onto the street having climbed a series of twisting stairs that threw my orientation way off balance, I’d wander for blocks in the wrong direction before I realized. After a while, I was wired to simply know; I could just feel, as if I had swallowed a compass and it was influencing my better judgement. I could get off in a station I’d never been to and step out onto the street and see nothing but towering glass buildings on every block, no sun or distinguishing markers of any kind, and still know exactly where I needed to be and how to get there. It was a good feeling, I started to believe as if I belonged. Perhaps New York could be home and not some kingdom of gears keeping the world moving.

           While still in Salt Lake I found an apartment on Bronx Park E., I had exchanged a few emails with my landlords and, without having made a payment, agreed to a lease and a time to meet. Once I was settled at the hostel my first call was to the landlords, I called while I was headed for the nearest subway station that would take me to Bronx Park E., and when there was no answer, my next call was to my new boss and then I headed toward my new apartment anyway.

          I was really excited to have found this apartment, for a number of reasons, not least of which was that it was directly across the street from the Bronx Botanical Gardens and just a short walk to the Bronx Zoo! It would be a twenty-minute subway ride from my apartment to where I’d be working. I stood on the stoop of the building looking up at what I was pretty sure was my window. I called the apartment owners again; nothing. I emailed them while sitting on the steps, buzzed the apartment, knocked, and called again. No one responded so I took the subway to work and introduced myself to my new boss and a handful of others in the office all of which were preparing for the store to open over the next few weeks. I grabbed dinner somewhere and made my way back to the hostel. The following morning, I checked my email first thing with no response from my landlords—the apartment owners. I wandered around New York City. My first stops were Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Washington Square Park, and then Central Park. I’ve always held a certain affinity for New York City parks. Washington Square Park, a favorite, was fenced in they were renovating it, and at first, I was disappointed that I would never actually see the famous park in its original glory, but once it was reopened and I saw that new fountain, the park flooded with people, and the buskers on every corner the thought never crossed my mind again. I went to sleep in the hostel that night, never hearing from my landlords.

I stayed in four different hostels over the next month looking for the cheapest available and paying for the night the day of. I had given up on my landlords. Fortunately, I hadn’t paid anything. We opened the store, and I more or less went on with my life living in hostels. The nicest hostel was in Brooklyn. It had a beautiful porch which, I imagine, isn’t easy to come by in the city, a great common area, and the kitchen seemed transported directly from some Grecian island home. Nope, I couldn’t tell you the name, I stayed in enough places that names escaped me. The worst of the hostels was also in Brooklyn. The building was used in the filming of Disney’s Enchanted, the prince stayed there, in one of the private rooms on a different floor—assuming the filming of the room was even done in the same building. My floor was little more than a large warehouse setting, plywood nailed together at the corners leaving a large open square at the center of the floor. Several smaller squares were nailed together inside giving the appearance, if looking down at it from above, of one of those “how many squares can you count,” games on social media that help offer insight into one’s personality type. A padlock came with each room, and you would have to transfer the lock either in or outside to lock it. There was no ceiling, simply a giant net or several nets that were chained to random corners to keep someone from climbing over the wall and into your space. It wasn’t classy but it was cheap, and I lived there for a week or so.

          Afterward I decided to start leaving my suitcases in the breakroom at work and slept in subway stations. I remember mentioning to a friend that I was considering sleeping in parks before the idea of the subways crossed my mind and she told me that at nights in Central Park there were people wandering around assaulting people with a cinderblock and robbing them. I didn’t have anything to steal, still I couldn’t shake the thought of being attacked with a cinderblock by some guy hiding in bushes in the dark in Central Park. I still can’t. Can you imagine the sound of being hit with a cinderblock would make?

I slept only when I couldn’t stay awake any longer and otherwise at night, if I wasn’t at a bar with friends, I was wandering around Manhattan. I must have walked every street exploring Manhattan while the city that never sleeps was fast asleep. I think I slept every thirty-six hours or so, sometimes more and sometimes less. I slept at Grand Central Station, I slept in a big plastic hand in the center of Times Square, I slept at the 78th, 75th, and 86th street subway stations—86th was a favorite, and I remember waking up on a wooden bench underneath a sewer grate and looking up through the lights in the street and beyond the buildings and I saw a star. A star in the sky above New York City. My first apartment after this experience was in Brooklyn, off of the Eastern Parkway across from the Brooklyn Museum. The view from the roof of that building was incredible but what I don’t remember seeing sitting up there were stars.

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