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.