Why you should care
Because few people can make the strides this man has — but maybe more of us should try to.
I once wandered a very different set of roads than the ones I wander today. The road that would, ultimately, lead me toward emotional fulfillment was a difficult one to find. It was cold and scary out there. And joy was the street I needed to find, but not before I took a U-turn away from abandonment and made a sharp right turn toward ambition.
I began to find my way out of that blind darkness on a night in the middle of June 1982, after hearing my mother tell me for what had to have been the hundredth time: “Son, you better get up and go get yourself a job. I ain’t taking care of no grown-ass man.”
I had been playing football for the better part of 16 years, but my career had ended. I imagined myself sometimes as that person the teachers would call the bad example. The one they were talking about when they said: “OK, students, we’re going on a field trip down to the local Burger King, so that I can let you see personally what happens when you don’t receive an education.”
You know, that person who greets you before taking your order, with “Hi, welcome to Burger King. How may I help you?” I couldn’t be him.
Living became rougher than I could ever imagine death being. I began to think of death as if she were near.
Two things were for sure. One, I was too old to be living at home with my mother. I was 21 years old and I still could not read. But I would use my last competitive breath to fight, to become someone other than the cards I was dealt said I’d become. No, I couldn’t for the life of me dare ask for the cards to be reshuffled … but I was determined to be more. I couldn’t accept my mother’s ultimatum, and within a few days, I went from being my mother’s third child born … to being her first child homeless.
I could have gone down to a fast-food joint, but I was afraid I would be signing my illiteracy death certificate. Yes, I had gone off to college and had completed at least three years of schooling, but I had returned home mentally empty, emotionally robbed. I was in the greatest shape physically that a 21-year-old young man could ever be in — but psychologically, I was lost.
Three and a half weeks later …
I hadn’t shaved in six and a half days; hadn’t bathed in three and a half weeks. My body reeked from the lack of soap and water; my underarms were foul even to me. But though the world saw me as incompetent, I was something that they could never be: I was free.
I was a transient, with more time on my hands than a clock ticks in a week. Impoverished. My every movement gave credence to the phrase down and out. Living became rougher than I could ever imagine death being. I began to think of death as if she were near. Closer than I’ve ever seen her before. And yet I was forever moving forward, not because I wanted to, but because society says that loitering of any kind is a crime. So I walked, as the bottom of my feet burned from the sweltering Texas heat. This hot asphalt was my path.
I cringed at the thought of being seen by others as nothing, but I felt like … nothing.
I attempted to hold my head up high, to keep my shoulders straight as the onlookers gawked. I thought: Just like them, I am an unfinished product, still in search of my calling. Just like all of us are. But the world had all but written me off. Had I truly become a derelict, a nuisance and an intolerable human being?
Homelessness is a maze; each step is regretful, each mile easily forgotten because it seems never to end.
All the streets became nameless as I continued drifting forward, heading nowhere as fast as I could … so I moved. Twenty-one, penniless, grieving my existence. Through the eyes of the fortunate, the elements are a careless part of your day: a drizzle, a heat wave. But it is another thing altogether for that drizzle to caress your already fragile body and mind, for that heat to burn you as it burns the asphalt. And as I walked up and down the streets of Dallas, my feet bled up, I formed cracks between my toes, and, over time the blood soaked my socks and dried. When I finally removed my shoes and pulled off my socks, they had adhered to my toes. I smelled the pungent scent of old, dried blood.
Homelessness is a maze; each step is regretful, each mile easily forgotten because it seems never to end. I eventually made my way from the streets to friends’ floors. My days of displacement? Twenty-one, the same as my age. Three weeks. But I never again want to wonder where I have to lay my head.
I have since become the writer of the words you are so graciously reading. I am the author of six books. Never have I stopped believing in the young man who one day dared to believe that he was placed down here on earth to do more than say, “Good evening, welcome to Burger King. How may I help you?” Instead, I walked until I could run, I reached until I could feel. I maneuvered through life with the hunger that I might one day do more than just exist. And I do so much more than exist: I have five lovely children, I have two cars, I own my own business and I’m not even finished. And now? My hope is that my arms might be long enough to reach back over the walls of assurance, to grab, if not all of those still hoping for such a freedom, then at least one of those still in search of that street called Joy. I dream that sharing my story will help bridge the gaps from homelessness to happiness, that it will somehow light a fire bright enough to lead someone’s loved one back … to a place called home.