And The Trumpets Will Blow

I never believed in God ‘til 400 micrograms of a banned substance saturated my brain. Since that day I learned to put my faith in something beyond the five senses and limited rationale of all I knew. Little did I know at the time that God could be found beyond chemically induced rapture, but immature as I was in this new phase of life I spent my days learning all I could about psychedelics and their effects on the mind, the role they played in civilizations long past and their ancient sacred rituals. This shattering of my mind, this breaking free was not without consequence, and within a year I had quit my job, sold my car, ended friendships, yet held my God close. I prayed every day, and soon learned to cook my own psychedelic brew, creating in my kitchen a chemical already endogenous to us all, dimethyltryptamine.

Acasia and lye, lighter fluid, and three days grace was all it took for my first crystals to form. I saved them in a glass jar in my freezer, hopped on my bike, and rode to my nearest headshop off of 16th street, Indianapolis. The sky was gray and the air was cool, almost cold enough to bite, but my legs pushing work kept me warm. I walked inside and through the Grateful Dead draperies with their multi-colored dancing bears and was greeted by various glass pipes of different colors and designs along glass displays. Alas, what I was searching for was not to be found in that laidback shop. A quick google search recommended I try a seedy gas station and look for the rose, and so I hopped back on my bike and made it another mile or so west down 16th.

I walked in the gas station and looked around, and right by the cashier was a bouquet of cheap plastic roses, each individually wrapped in cheap plastic and held in a thin glass pipe. This wasn’t a pipe for weed, nope, this was designed specifically for crystal meth, what with its bulbed end and tiny hole through which the crystals are dropped. Now I’ve only done meth once and by accident, but a crystal’s a crystal, and for a buck I knew I had what I needed to blast off. I paid for the pipe and rose and rode the few miles back to home.

I’d never smoked DMT before, all I knew was what I read, and what I read told me that this, the most potent psychedelic in the world, would take me someplace new. With a pounding heart I tossed out the rose and scraped the crystals from the jar into the pipe and heated its side ‘til I it glowed. I turned the pipe over, the hot spot now on the bottom, where the crystals fell, burning and filling the bulb and stem with a thick smoke just a few shades darker than white. I put it to my lips and sucked. The smoke tasted like lighter fluid and copper. After the first drag I felt invisible waves thumping into me. It was like being at a concert with the bass turned way too up, but no sound. Outside my apartment I heard a neighbor walking by, talking to his friend about some movie.

“He was launched to another dimension.”

Immediately everything doubled as the unadorned white walls of my apartment melted unto themselves into a giant checkerboard of diamond's light. I closed my eyes and I saw a ball painted in squares purple and red. Shining like wet pearl in the sun, it bloomed into a symphony of geometric shapes, each more complex than the last. A living fractal, an impossible flower with no sun to lean towards, no bees to attract, existing for the sake of existing as a beautiful impossibility, had filled my room, my mind, reality itself. Again and again it flowed from inside out of itself. Each birth swallowed me whole; I was looking at the spectacle while being lost in it as well. The colors and their combinations were always new, and though the shapes were never the same they shared the same quality of impossible beauty brought to life. The world itself was stuck in a dream, had realized it and had come to life. Matter had a flow, a pattern of truth, a beauty that could never express itself in four dimensions. But in this space, reality realized it was alive and in its newfound consciousness realized that beauty is its ultimate expression, and so formed itself around that concept.

I craved these experiences, I was enthralled to their novelty. But one drug was never enough, LSD and mushrooms supplemented my psychedelic voyages. Different drugs do different things, and though these last two never launched me past the fifth dimension, they had another effect I couldn’t let go of. Now let me paint you a picture. Imagine a long voyage away from home, in a country or city you never chose to go to, but had to nonetheless. Imagine those closest to you, your family and the ones you love most, visited rarely, and most of the time you spent living in this new home you spent with unknown people that never smiled. One would come in at night, dressed in black and slamming doors, shouting at anything. The other would come to you at random, unpredictable hours to remind you of all the things you did wrong, spitting between sharp teeth your various shortcomings. And after surviving them both you’d retreat to your room, finding peace and solitude in a book perhaps, until you heard they’d found each other to battle with. You’d put on head phones to hide away a little more, to find solace in music, but every now and then you’d hear the smash of porcelain, or be called to take a side. Imagine this disfunction followed you like a shadow every day, smothering you every sober moment. Then one day you walk in your room and see a wooden box with a red button on top. You press the button and all of a sudden you’re back home. The shadows are gone, nowhere to be found. Your parents are there, and they’re like the way they were when you were young, patient, caring, and fun. Imagine you’re back at home and you’re free to walk around without the fear of knocking something over or whatever fight was sure to break out next, that you can walk smiling outside to a bright green endless field where the clouds are few and always white, and always look like something you recognize, that favorite animal, favorite toy, cartoon character. On the fields you can run and jump and never fall, held aloft by a breeze that felt like the warmest hug. What relief this place would be, what a gift the box would be. With just a press of a button you could alive again, before the blame, before the shouts, the arrests and the hiding and the fear. It’s no wonder the last time I got high, and the feeling set in, the first thought that came to my mind, with tears in my eyes, was “I’m back home.” I didn’t know then how lost I was.

            This last DMT trip, like all the ones prior, demanded a ritual. This was a sacred act that demanded sacrifice, after all. I had already burned my old hippie clothes as a way of letting go of an identity that wasn’t mine a couple weeks back. This time I ripped out the pages of my journal and placed them in the same metal pot I burned my old clothes in. I was going to burn my past away. I had lighter fluid left from my DMT cooking and burning of clothes, and it swished in the tin can as I unscrewed the lid, the smell like sharp gasoline as I poured it across my torn memories. I had already consumed the shrooms, and they were kickin’ in. Every object had an aura, every color breathed as I stepped onto the balcony of my second story apartment, headphones on, Pandora shuffle. I grabbed a shred of paper and lit it, tossed it to the rest. The flame crept along the yellow-white pages, scorching them black to ash I burned the glass pipe to an orange glow and said a prayer before sucking the smoke. Again the pounding thumps, the double vision. I closed my eyes and music engulfed my body—every snare, every beat, every rhythm of every word slid through my ears and sent waves through my body. No fractals this time, this was a different vision. In a pitch black room I saw three innocents hugging, and the shadow of corrupted love. I saw children with their hands outstretched, candy offers on their fingertips and watched them spit at my refusal, and the crocodile tails that followed them as they turned away. In their midst was one pure child, shy and with his hands behind his back, who stayed.  During this a song pounded in my ears, “No church for the wild.”

            In in instant the vision was gone. I opened my eyes to clouds of smoke billowing from the pot. Outside and below a dozen people stared up at me, beyond them the firetruck. Hard knocks at the door, I opened and let the firemen in. No fire, I assured the two, but one saw the pipe next to the smoking pot, nudged his friend and nodded towards it. Arrest number five was on its way, and this sinner’s instinct was to run grab and smash the glass before they could stop me. But despite the high, the tight tense chest and coiled legs I stood still and recalled the words God had led me to read just a few days prior: “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

I did not move as the firemen called the cops. Two came, and again I placed my faith in God and the words millennia old He sent to me, “Returning to the source is stillness. It is returning to one’s fate.”

“What were you smoking?”

Silence.

“You better speak up, boy. No? What’s this, your cellphone, huh. How do you think he’d like it if we called his mom, maybe then he’ll speak up.”

They couldn’t hold the stare, and with my phone in his hands Cop 1 looked away and quickly put it down. I learned something in that moment: remain silent in the face of power abused, remain non-reactive and they have nothing to push against. What was left in the silence was the man’s conscience, the knowledge that despite my wrongs, despite my breaking the law, he was doing wrong to threaten me, to tamper with evidence. He gave me a choice.

“You either speak to me and I’ll get you to the hospital, or we call up the wagon and you’re going to jail.”

“I’ll go wherever you take me, God” was the thought in my head as I stayed silent, confident wherever I went He’d be there with me. They put my hands behind my back and called the wagon.

            For the third time I can remember, and the fourth time in Indiana, I found myself in jail. DMT lasts minutes, but mushrooms last a couple hours; I had about another hour left to go. One effect of psychedelic drugs is they decrease activity in the thalamus, the brain’s gatekeeper, meaning all the little details that it’s supposed to filter out so we can concentrate on the task at hand suddenly become very apparent. Every crack of the cold concrete walls squirmed at me, the small faded and abraded white patches suddenly noticeable and appearing and disappearing. The smell here was like a high school gym, and the faint scent of beer crept up on me as I walked to the holding cell. Most apparent was the thick smell of smoke stuck in my gray hoodie. I remember thinking what if my mom wished in that moment for a sign of how I was doing, only to receive fabric soaked in smoke, what could she possibly believed had happened? How worried would she be? My stomach churned at the thought, slugs writhing through my gut as I realized I’d done this to her over and over throughout my life, and here I was doing it again. I made a promise to God that I’d do as she asked and go to rehab if He got me out of jail without making her worry.

            As I sat praying, trying to remember the rosary’s mysteries, the speakers called my name to take the fifth mugshot of my life. I passed a TV and heard the words spoken on the screen, “You’re a good man, but you keep letting us down. You need this kick in the ass to get your shit together. Now go, be the good soldier I know you are.” I know when God speaks to me, I know I was meant to hear those words. I held my head high, now sober and confident I would make things right. They took my mugshot and told me to walk to the main holding room. It was shorter than a truck and about ten feet wide. At its end was the toilet where I pissed in front of the rest of the criminals before sitting down.

Certainly this is no place for a good mood, or so it would seem. But God is great, God defies expectations, and even in the midst of our multiple fuckups he brings us joy and a way to do right by Him. I took my seat on the cheap plastic and metal bench, the kind that looks like a wire fence for your ass. A drunk passed out beneath one of the benches, and another stood and made a bombastic speech a la Kanye West, the center of attention until outside the room and across the hall the women were being led to their own holding room. Men can be animals, horny criminals and convicts more-so, and immediately cat-calls, wolf-whistles and smacking lips spilled out the crowded room. All I could think was those women are mothers daughters and sisters. How could I stay faithful to God in this room of drunk and arrested men if I allow this perversion and disrespect to take place? I had no clue what to do, because I really didn’t want to tell these horny goat-men to quit it and risk getting my ass hooved. It’s in situations like these, full of uncertainty and doubt, that I turn to God. He led me here for a reason, and I would not refuse my destiny. I bowed my head and in silence prayed.

“God, guide me, reveal to me your will.”

That very instant I felt a loud rumbling in my magic-mushroom-filled gut. Things were a brewing. It turns out God’s plan had been set in motion before I ever set foot in that room. I must be honest, I had my doubts. Could this really be God’s will? Was I to let one rip in the name of the Lord? His faithful servant, I took a deep breath and emptied my thoughts, readying myself for what was to come, and in this brief moment of meditation I swear over all I’ve ever loved and will ever cherish I heard the words “Now, my child.” With the Almighty’s blessing and at his request I let loose a booming fart that shook the very foundations of these men’s wretched souls and the rattling metal bench we sat upon. As though slain with a flaming sword their perverted words fell mute. God is found in silence, and silence filled the air until one among the sinful men, the most repentful and brave of them all spoke the truth in the silent wake of my trumpetous fart.

“That guy didn’t give a fuck!”

All heads turned towards me and my ass, as safe from the lecherous cheers and jeers of the once horny men the women left in peace. But this is not the end of this holy tale. God is greater still, for in His infinite mercy and grace He blessed the wicked men with a fart that barked but didn’t bite, a holy flatulence devoid of stank whose loud release bloomed sounds of angels and doves. We witnessed grace in this dark place filled with liars, sadness, and thieves, for not a sinner wept as our laughter shook our bellies and filled our ears.

Home Is Where?

        I remember
        When I lost my mind
        There was something so pleasant about that place.
        Even your emotions have an echo
        In so much space

        And when you're out there
        Without care,
        Yeah I was out of touch
        But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
        I just knew too much

            -    Lyrics from the album St. Elsewhere


     I was a quiet kid. I never caused any trouble or even minor disruptions. I remember once when I was at the dollar store with my paternal grandmother, Grammy, she bought me a plastic dagger with a holster that I tied around my arm. It was the coolest thing I’d ever owned at six years old, and as we walked out of the store the holster fell off my arm. Grammy kept walking ahead and I ran to catch up. I left the holster on the ground, too scared to ask her to wait for me. Another time at school I pissed my pants when I didn’t ask Miss Henderson if I could go to the restroom. Hell, this trend of not rocking the boat was present even when I got a haircut. My hair was medium-long and parted to the side with mousse, and as I sat down I made it my goal to be the perfect client. I tried to predict every “now turn to the left” and “look down” so that the barber wouldn’t have to tell me or guide even my head to the side or down with his hands.

     At school I was the same. Very obedient, and always straight As. The only thing I could remember going wrong at this age was a bully I had. I don’t remember too much about him, but I do remember Dad showing up to the cafeteria decked out in his brown police officer uniform sized at least XL. His golden badge was shining high above my head as he asked me to point out the kid who was bothering me. I pointed to a kid across and further down the long brown table, who promptly hid his face in the square plastic bowl of Frosted Flakes. I’m not sure what else Dad said, but that kid must have dove into that bowl or something because that’s my last memory of him. Did you know my dad could beat up your dad? I did, and I didn’t doubt it. He was my shield, and he’d drop me off at school in his cop car, and WHOOP the lights as he said “Bye Mario!” through the speaker.

     These were happy times. My parents and I spent a lot of time together. We made frequent trips to Hollywood, Florida, to eat at our favorite pizza place by the beach, where we’d always order the white pizza. They took me to Disney World and to all my soccer games and practices, and one time they even picked me up early from school to head to Metro Zoo. I couldn’t believe it; school was everything, yet there I was, between Mom and Dad and swinging from their arms as we went to go see the albino alligators. I loved the animals, and loved learning about dinosaurs, and insects, too, and they always bought me tons of books to keep my young mind piqued.

     We lived in a big house for just the three of us, a three-story pink home in a neighborhood called “Allegro.” My parents had the top floor and I had the second. When I wasn’t in my room playing with Legos or reading books and I’d go upstairs to play in theirs. One favorite game was hiding under the covers of their king-size bed and crawling around in circles until I had no clue which wall I was facing. I’d throw off the blankets and for a second I was lost. I wasn’t facing the TV or the wooden bedstead, but some wall I’d never noticed before. In that brief moment of disorientation I felt like the world was a new place, and even something so mundane as a wall, when seen in this new light, was enough to get me going in circles beneath a blanket. The novelty of the experience is what hooked me. It also explains why I watched Fantasia over and over and over again. Barney wasn’t enough for me, oh no, I wanted bright vivid colors thrown at me in new ways, sharp contrasts of dark and light. “I love you, you love me,” yeah, yeah, Barney, I loved you too, but you couldn’t compare to an actual tyrant lizard engaged in mortal combat with a spike-tailed foe. You taught me the magic words, but please don’t pretend you offered anything as riveting as the evolutionary trail of some of earth’s most magnificent creatures and the story of life and death set to Stravinsky’s hopeful melodies and dissonant chords. My young mind couldn’t speak these words, of course, but I worshipped nonetheless, repeating “again, again” in between bouts of wide-eyed wonder.

   I was still six when Michelle was born, and now I had someone to look after and even play with. By the time I was seven I was already changing her diapers, giving her the bottle, and burping her, and just a year later she looked just like the little girl from Monsters Inc and would follow me everywhere, walking that tottering walk that toddlers do. We played together all the time, especially the game where I laid on my back on the couch with my arms tight to my sides as she tried to kick me off.

     A few years later we all moved to a new house, a one story with a pool in a nicer neighborhood. I was about twelve by then.  Things started to change. We took fewer trips to eat out. Mom wasn’t a teacher any more, and her new job meant she was always away on business. Dad didn’t slack off with the added income, and after 9/11 he began working a lot of overtime at PortMiami. 90 plus degree weather in near perfect humidity while decked out in dark brown in a working a job he hated, and on his feet the entire time, it must have been hell. No wonder he started coming home tired and angry. I could tell how bad his mood was by the way he opened the door. It was thick, dark, heavy wood, and he’d bully it open and throw it shut behind him. By the time it hit the frame I’d be in or heading to my room. Every little thing set him off. Maybe there were dishes I didn’t put away, or maybe I fucked up and dropped a glass or spilled milk. If it wasn’t him yelling at me it was Mom. Grades were a big deal to her. I was always the smartest kid in every class, and she had high hopes for me to get into Harvard. By the time I was in sixth grade I went from bringing home straight As to Ds and Cs. It was like the only attention I got was when I did something wrong. I didn’t catch all of it, though. Michelle got it too for whatever fuckups a six-year-old is capable of doing. The worst fights were between Mom and Dad. That scene in The Godfather with the smashing scenes comes to mind. I don’t think Dad ever hit her, though. Sometimes after their fights I’d go in Michelle’s room just to be with her, to feel better let her know it was ok.

     Without the yelling it was a quiet house. There was rarely any talking, just the extremes of shouting or silence. Looking back it’s no surprise I started smoking weed, not even thirteen yet. It made me laugh, I actually smiled. There’s not a single photograph of me smiling at that age, not in any of the family reunions or events, but when I was high you can bet your ass I was cheesin’ big. I was happy, or at least it felt that way. My first drunk was just a couple years later, and in high school I had learned to properly half-ass school and appease my parents with a photo-shopped report card. Despite a few Cs and Ds somehow still get a full-ride thanks to all the AP courses I took and a decent score on the SATs. I tasted freedom in college, and by the time I was kicked out I was smoking blunts every day and dealing Xanax bars while snorting the ones I kept.

     My parents sent me to Indy to restart my life. I had given up Xanax by then, having learned through experience that it was bad for your brain, and even made it back to school.  I switched majors from psychology to biology, and divided my mind between devotion to my studies and the constant need to make myself feel different. I didn’t know I was bipolar then, but looking back there was a definite trend. I’d wreck a car one semester, and get As and A+s the next. I’d give up drinking for a year, find myself a nice girl and excel at work, only to relapse in Florida, punching a woman in the face and fighting cops. Whatever I was looking for I wasn’t finding in a bottle and I wasn’t finding in school. I turned to new chemicals as a last resort.
I did my research and found out about a chemical called dimethyltryptamine, DMT for short. It’s endogenous to our bodies, but if you want more than what’s already in there it can be cooked right in your very own home. Did you know I got in A in chem lab? I pulled out my old lab notebook, ripped out the pages that showed how to create green crystals and gasses that would burn in different colors (this was the teacher’s attempt to make chemistry cool) and put the recipe down for a different type of crystal. The lab and equipment were simple affairs, a small kitchen in a one-bedroom apartment, a pipette made from a turkey baster combined with a Visine bottle, and other supplies you can find online. Just Google “Acasia and Lye” and you’re good to go. After some careful measuring, pouring, and diligent note-taking, I poured the fluid into a Mason jar and put it in the freezer. Three days later I opened the freezer, and while I didn’t find Jesus, I did see small white crystals on the bottom of the short Mason jar. I scraped them out and into a glass pipe traditionally used to smoke methamphetamine. It looked like a bubble on the end of a thin glass stem, with a small entrance for the crystals. I heated the side until the glass glowed yellow-orange beneath the black stain from the lighter’s flame, and turned the pipe. The crystals fell into the hot spot, and soon the glass was filled with thick white smoke. I took the hit.

     The smoke tasted like lighter fluid and copper. After the first drag I felt invisible waves thumping into me. It was like being at a concert with the bass turned way too up, but no sound. Outside my apartment I heard a neighbor walking by, talking to his friend about some movie.

     “He was launched to another dimension.”

     Immediately everything was in double, and the unadorned white walls of my apartment melted unto themselves into a giant checkerboard of diamond's light. I closed my eyes and I saw a ball, painted in squares, purple and red. It shone like wet pearl in the sun, and bloomed into a symphony of geometric shapes, each more complex than the last. It was a living fractal, an impossible flower with no sun to lean towards, no bees to attract, existing for the sake of existing as a beautiful impossibility. Again and again it flowed from inside out of itself. Each birth swallowed me whole; I was looking at the spectacle while being lost in it as well. The colors and their combinations were always new, and though the shapes were never the same they shared the same quality, of impossible beauty brought to life. It was like the world itself was stuck in a dream, had realized it and had come to life. Matter had a flow, a pattern of truth, a beauty that could never express itself in four dimensions. But here reality realized it was alive and in its newfound consciousness realized that beauty is its ultimate expression, and so formed itself around that concept.
     This was a world I couldn’t imagine, and I was absolutely enthralled. It was Fantasia all over again. Again and again, because one drug was never enough, and LSD and mushrooms supplemented my psychedelic voyages. Different drugs do different things, and though these last two never launched me past the fifth dimension, they had another effect I couldn’t let go of. Now let me paint you a picture. Imagine a long voyage away from home, in a country or city you never chose to go to, but had to nonetheless. Imagine those closest to you visited rarely, and most of the time you spent living in this new home you spent with roommates that were never happy. One would come in late every day, dressed in black and slamming doors, shouting at anything. The other would come to you and remind you of all the things you did wrong, spitting between sharp teeth. And after surviving them both you’d retreat to your room, finding peace and solitude in a book, until you heard they’d found each other to yell at. You’d put on head phones to hide away a little more, but every now and then you’d hear the smash of porcelain, or be called to take a side. Imagine their shadows chased you all your life, even after you left their hell, and then one day you walked in your room and saw a wooden box with a red button on top. You press the button and all of a sudden you’re back home. The shadows are gone, nowhere to be found. Your parents are there, and they’re like the way they were when you were young, patient, caring, and fun. Imagine you’re back at home and you’re free to walk around without the fear of knocking something over or whatever fight was sure to break out next, that you can walk smiling outside to a bright green endless field where the clouds are few and always white, and always look like something you recognize, that favorite animal, favorite toy, cartoon character. On the fields you can run and jump and never fall, held aloft by a cool breeze. What a relief this place would be, what a gift the box would be. It would be like with just a press of a button you could alive again, before the blame, before the shouts, before the arrests and the hiding and the fear. It’s no wonder the last time I got high and the feeling set in that the first thought that came to my mind, with tears in my eyes, was “I’m back home.”
 

Just A Song Away

     Rehab in Naples, Florida was fun. It was always sunny and never rained, and I got to share my fears and insecurities with caring, loving, and compassionate folk. Yes, my biological father abandoned me, and though the subsequent and temporary loss of my mother sowed sad seeds of abandonment in my innocent baby mind, it was time to rise above circumstance and get my life in order. I did all the rehab readings and worksheets, made dozens of friends, and tried not to cry when my roommates didn’t eat the toast I made.

     Now, while in rehab I met a girl who we’ll call Sela. Sela was a cocaine addict trust-fund baby whose famous grandmother I guarantee you know. Rehab Mario, riding a confident and prolonged hypomanic high, had it going on, and made damn sure she knew it. But, alas, it was not meant to be. You see, having sex with beautiful women is frowned upon in rehab, and though we were willing and quite able, I got on my hands and knees every day and prayed to God to keep us from having sex. My glorious God did not let me down, much to my disappointment. He had a greater plan for me. You see, I had to make a choice between going home or staying in Naples in a sober living house, and if I stayed there was a chance I could defy the Lord and sleep with Sela. Well, Sela and I never did get together. Every single time it could have happened something beyond my control put the squash on it (I’m looking at you, God), but whatever, I was where I needed to be, surrounded by my peers and working a program of recovery. If it wasn’t for Sela I might not have stayed and my life would have turned out very differently. So I moved into a sober living home and devoted myself to my recovery. I went to AA meetings almost every day and had my first taste of what we in recovery call “The Pink Cloud.”

     Everywhere I went I went on my bike. Grass and trees and manicured bushes shined like jade all around me. The sky was a baby blue blanket, and of all the times it rained to wash away SoFla’s sins I never got wet but twice. I flew through the emerald city, and learned to let go of the handlebars and let my legs carry me wherever I leaned towards. I tasted freedom and danced on wheels, two buds of music blooming in my ears; the sound was like all the tears I’d ever shed had come back to pluck invisible strings to a rhythm above and beyond the blues I was leaving behind. I swayed as I surfed the soundwaves, my hands painting patterns on an invisible canvas in the sky as my body boomed through the ant-like monotony of the cars passing by. Every day I felt the wind on my face, felt it stretch and pull the sweat off my body like cool vapors. My skin turned bronze, and the smile I wore bright as white on caramel is I rode that pink cloud all the way through. For once in my life I was on the right path, flying on a natural high.

     As carefree as those first few months were, reality dawned when I realized I was out of money. I couldn’t stay at the home anymore. Hell, I couldn’t even buy gum, not with 16 cents. Payday was days away, and whatever minimum Old Navy and Hollister were paying for my labor couldn’t cover rent anywhere, not even with the dime nickel and penny I had tucked away. There were two places, however, that would welcome me without a deposit. It was a familiar choice. One of these was my parent’s house over in Plantation, Florida. The other was closer to sunset, St Matthew’s House, a homeless shelter in the less pristine side of lovely Naples. You can imagine how difficult this decision was. Both had free food. I was torn. Over and over I ran the choice through my head: home, or shelter? If I had a quarter I could have flipped for it, but I couldn’t afford to take such a chance. Instead I put my faith to the test and asked the heavens for a sign.

     The universe works in mysterious ways, and the first place I went looking for a sign was at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I always felt safe here in “the rooms,” and this meeting in particular was filled with old timers, grandpa’s and grandma’s with decades of sobriety under their belts. I could vibe with that, as I had far more respect for the old and venerable than I did for the juvenile drunks and addicts my age. There was no judgment here, even among the baby-boomers when I came in with my white baggy hippie pants, tie-dye shirt, and solar flare bandana. It was like rehab, a place where I could share my feelings and fears and actually being listened to. Sharing was new to me, and it felt like heaven. We said the serenity prayer and went over the twelve steps before the group started to share. Halfway into the meeting a young woman with black hair as long as mine spoke up. I don’t remember all her words, but the gist of it stuck with me even years later.

     “I showed up with a bag of clothes and my small suitcase of books. I was always a reader, ever since I was a kid my head was stuck in between pages. I was the only one at St. Matt’s with a locker full of books,” she laughed. Something inside of me perked up at the words. An alcoholic homeless bookworm? The resemblance caught my ears. Maybe St. Matthew’s House was the way to go, but I wasn’t yet convinced, so I set forth to the next most spiritual place I could think of besides the Brown Bag and the sacred realms I visited tripping balls on DMT: the church down the street from Office Depot. I walked through the wooden doors and what do you know, Father Iforgothisname happened to be preaching from Saint Matthew’s gospel. I was swayed but still unconvinced; it’s not like he had many gospels to choose from, after all. Still… I couldn’t help but wonder. I was torn, and with an undecided mind I hopped on my borrowed bicycle and said a prayer. I grabbed my phone and put Pandora on shuffle, welcoming chance. The first song was by Jay Z, Hova himself, and in his rhymes he spoke of a book I’ve come to know well. I’m sure you can guess the name. The Book of Matthew. Three strikes was what it took for me to get a hint from the cosmos, and days later I was with the saint.
My first night there I spent on the kitchen floor. Down to earth, and I didn’t mind. Before sleep I tied up my clothes in a white trash bag to keep it sealed from the roaches. I was given a plastic mattress six inches thick, a pillow, and a sheet. That mattress was a zero-sum game: unless I was laying down flat the air would rush to wherever I wasn’t. The next day I moved on up and got a bigger piece of the pie in bunk 33. It was the upper bunk with the same type of mattress, but with cherry on top: a clip-on book-light clipped onto the plastic rack by where my head would come to rest. At the foot of each bunk were two orange metal lockers, about six feet high. Mine was filled with books and gym clothes. The place was like a barracks; my wing had two rows of four bunks, and smelled like men. At the end of the hall was a bathroom with four sinks and three showers. No tile, all concrete. If there were windows I don’t remember them.
St. Matthew was strict: lights out at 10pm on the dot, and back on at 6am the next morning. You had to be out of there by 8am, enough time to shower and eat breakfast in the lanai. Every morning we ate donated pastries, rarely stale and always sweet, their glaze already melted in the sunless, humid air. Once we left we couldn’t come back until past the afternoon, they didn’t want us hanging out and laying around all day when we could be working. We had to be back by lights off to meet the breathalyzer, and if anyone was late they’d better have a time slip to prove their grind, which I always did. The saint was demanding but kind, and always had at least one plate of food saved to reward the six mile ride back home. I ate dinner in the same lanai I spent the mornings mopping, and kept my legs up to keep from getting bit by the bugs that preyed on shins. After I ate I’d change and shower. In the showers there was a mystery to be solved. One day I noticed what looked like small wet chocolate chips on the floor and on the off-white curtains. My monkey brain took over and in the spirit of inquisition I leaned over and took a whiff. These were undoubtedly not tiny Hershey Kisses. No, these were flecks of shit. The general consensus was that Fat Mike was to blame, by virtue of his mighty ass, but I wasn’t so sure. I was content enough to shower in the curtain-less stall, and the problem, at least for me, was solved.

     This daily routine of mine was ended by the nightly scouring of the bed sheets and mattress for bed bugs. Some of the guys would pinch them and toss them to the ground, where they’d stomp them to small splatters of blood. Fuck that. I’d seen too many men with eyes to the ground looking for the biting sons-of-bitches, never to find them. I jabbed them the second I saw them, the stains on my white sheets proof of death. They stank of spoiled fruit when split-- even their death was a miserable last fuck you. Each bite lasted at least two weeks, and they burned worse than any mosquito bite ever could. It was miserable, over and over I scratched and kept scratching, even when I broke skin. It was weeks before I’d find their hiding place. Until then l learned to sleep clutching my sleeves from the inside, long socks pulled up over my pant-legs sealing off any entrance. Better that than add more scars on my ankles and wrists.
While this may paint a literal shitty picture of what it was like to live in St. Matts, to tell only the downside wouldn’t do it justice. In a place like that no one walks around with a big head, no one looks over the fence and down on their neighbor for what they had or didn’t have. We all knew where we were. We all ate at the same hall and locked our bikes at the same rack. It was easy to talk to strangers since there was no mask to put on. And people were friendly, despite their pasts. Helpful too, like when one of the guys lost the key to his locker, and a fellow felon came to the rescue with a paper clip and deft fingers.
We were a helpful, giving bunch; take for example those long socks I wore nightly. They were a gift from Old Man Dukes, the illiterate ex-con with a heart of gold. He was over fifty, about 5’10,” big in the middle and walked with a limp. He always wore a baggy pair of blue sweatpants and a large, old gray t-shirt. He smiled and laughed a lot, and was very easy to talk to. I’d help Old Man Dukes on Sundays to use the ATM machine. I always made sure I was the one to help him; I didn’t trust other people not to take advantage of his illiteracy. He’d always offer me a coke for my troubles, and I sometimes accepted. One night he called me over to his bunk, two rows down from mine. He had a big square book of Greek mythology someone had given him, the kind with about half text and half color photos, with the good white paper with the sheen. He asked me if I wanted it, and of course I did. That night I clipped the book-light on and read about Hercules. There was a part I’d never read before, about when Hercules was at a fork in the road, a woman on each side. One was named Desire, she was beautiful and dressed in fine fabrics and jewels. Her path was of green grass, clear skies, and the shade of fruitful trees. The other was named Duty, plainly dressed but still attractive. Her path was rugged, the bushes adorned with thorns and the ground beat down a strewn with rock. He chose the rugged path and began his labors.

     The days were the same. Every morning before work I’d spend an hour or so reading, writing, and studying poetry in the food court at the mall. At night I’d scratch up my journal with the aid of the book-light, letting go of whatever errant thoughts stayed with in the dark. Weekends I had off and made friends with the other two young guys in my bunk, Jesse and Adrian. Adrian was a white kid that made you think of middle class and tennis. Jesse was dark like me, but with short curly brown hair. Both were skinny and a bit taller than me. Adrian I always felt was full of shit, the kind of kid who’d brag about a blowjob he may or may not have gotten, but Jesse and I had something in common. Aside from a sincere desire to stay sober, we both hated bed bugs. When the infestation got especially bad the terminators were summoned. The beds were stripped and sprayed from top to bottom, along with every corner in every room, and beneath all the lockers. I had to throw away most of my books, since pages were the perfect hiding spot for the bugs. I ended up throwing out my grandfather’s bible and my first book of AA, with all the signatures of my fellow rehabbers. Half my locker was cleared out that day. The only books I kept were Writing Poetry and Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, which I had left in my book bag.

     The terminators ultimately failed, but Jesse and I didn’t let that hold us back. We’d had enough of the little suck-fuckers. We rod our bikes to Home Depot and bought some caulk. Back at St. Matt’s we asked our bunkies to keep a lookout, lest any of the counselors disapprove of our mission. We cleared out the plastic bins from beneath our bunks and searched every inch and crevice for the foe. We both had top bunk, and never thought to search below, a clear mistake. We lay on our backs and shone a light up into the juncture where the bed-legs met with the crossbeams. What we found was pulsing, rolling masses of brown bodies, some fat and many flat and shaped like leafs. Beyond them tiny white eggs stood and twitched in big clusters. Jesse passed me the bug spray and his BIC lighter, but before we could kindle the pyre one of the guys warned us. Flame-throwing might be considered a war crime, and could even get us kicked out. We settled for flame and flame alone, and put the spray away. With a pounding heart I summoned fire with a click and spark, and held it under the crevice like a vengeful Prometheus. SNAP POP POP POP. We Rice Krispied their asses, the fetid aroma rising from their graves proof of our success. We were faithful to their massacre. Whatever bugs survived, shielded by the charred remains of their filthy brethren, were sealed with caulk, a white tomb we proudly slept upon like conquering Mongol Khans. Our cheers were effusive, back slapping and manly hugs mixed with boyish jumps of joy were met with smiles and nods from our peers. 

     Despite this success, living every day on a thin plastic mattress and falling asleep in humid air to the sounds of snoring men and the occasional rustling sheets from some uncouth masturbator was getting to me. This was no way to live, and bit by bit the frustration set in. I went to the Brown Bag and shared how I felt. Big Book Bob, a scholar of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, shared a bit of his experience, and what he said was that when he started to accept where he was in life, that’s when his circumstances started to change. I took that to heart, and gave thanks to God for being in a homeless shelter, trusting that it was for my own good.

     A week later I was mopping the lanai, and I stopped by my bunk to get some things before leaving for work. On my bed was a folded piece of paper. “Go to office.” I had no clue what I did wrong, but my gut still dropped like it knew what it was. I stopped by the office, but the door was locked. With a sick stomach I made it to my bike and hopped on. I reached in my pocket for my iPhone, and by some fluke of movement I clicked on the music app. “No Worries” played, by Lil Wayne. I took it as another sign from the heavens as I hopped on my bike and felt the breeze. I had a feeling I’d be ok. Halfway through work I got a phone call from the owner of the sober house I had stayed in three months back. He needed a house manager, and wanted me for the job. In exchange for giving the residents drug tests and holding regular house meetings I would live in the house for free. I got off work early that day, and back at St. Matt’s I grabbed all my clothes and threw it in a white trash bag. The guys congratulated me on making it out, and my new boss picked me up soon after.

     The first thing I did once I got to my room was throw myself onto the bed. Never in my life had I felt such comfort. I grabbed the furry blanket folded at the foot of the bed and wrapped it all around me. If you’ve ever taken Ecstacy and pet a cat you can begin to relate to how soft this blanket was, and trust me, it was better. It felt like it was whispering warm I Love You’s all over my body, tickling me as it caressed me with a million purring kitten kisses. I was in heaven and almost in tears. How could I not be, having gone from sleeping in a homeless shelter to living in a $700,000 in the blink of an eye. I had put my faith to the test and tasted the fruits, I was learning to put my life in the hands of God, that no matter the circumstance I would be ok. And that note at St. Matt’s from earlier that day? My dad had mailed my passport and some candy. No Worries.