This is pretty stream-of-consciousness and loosely structured. All apologies.
Sunrise and fog (which you can’t really see)
The title of this blog post is a lyric of one of the songs I was going to sing in a chorus I joined two months ago. It’s from “Thank You for Being a Friend.” Yes, that’s the Golden Girls theme, but it’s also a song from 1978 by Andrew Gold. When we sang this for the first time, the alto section leader laughed and nodded her head at me because I had recently asked for a ride to practice. Yes, that was embarrassing.
I was going to sing that, plus other songs for a show in June to celebrate the chorus’ 25th year of existence. Instead, one full moon ago, on February 3rd, I had to give up my car. My ride to the chorus decided to drop out yesterday. After that, I also decided that with this city’s abysmal public transportation, I couldn’t continue with the chorus.
In a long list of things I’ve had to give up to be here in Florida, for survival, the chorus doesn’t hurt as bad. I am disappointed, but I was only in it for two months. The car, though–it took a whole lunar cycle to talk about it publicly. That’s more to do with my growing reluctance to share my chronically crappy life on Twitter, and that’s a good thing.
I don’t necessarily regret what happened. If I have to be cliche, I’ll say that I learned so much from this ordeal. So let’s start from the beginning.
I bought Bluebelle with I know now as an underwater loan, but I didn’t really want her. I set out to buy the cheapest car on the lot, some white Paseo that cost like $6000. But my cousin was like, “No, no, no…” and lead me over to some more current Corollas. Of course, he’s not the one paying for the car. Buying a car can be a traumatizing, draining experience, and this was my first. It took a few hours and I felt like I was being bamboozled by everyone and my resolve crumbled. It was hard to be on own my side when I had to go to the first day of class the next day and my cousin worked–time pressure. I had been a proud pedestrian in Chicago. Down here, though–I am living in the sprawl. I had to have a car. If I ever had a regret, it would have been to push back. I’d’ve paid off my car by then.
Bluebelle, my car, got me around quite well, but it was a struggle to pay for it while being a grad student and a fellow who could not work more than 20 hours a week on a shitty stipend and not working until the beginning of my second year. I downsized my living situation (read: faced eviction) in December 2013. I felt like was a money pit, but really, I was just seriously poor.
Then the following September, almost two months after graduation, I had to leave a rather abusive, tough housing situation. I had lost my job in July and my part-time grant writing position had just started the week before. Rent for that month hadn’t been paid yet and I had been trying to hustle up something. That started my month-long journey in homelessness which I may write about one day. I still had my car, which held a lot of my stuff.
Around the same time, I started going to church–a more woo woo spiritually inclusive church (read: yoga and Reiki and past lives, oh my!) It was actually good timing since my life was imploding. One afternoon, after attending Tuesday noon prayer, I walked out to my car. I was parked by the music director. She had walked out with another church staff person. I forgot the conversation we were having, but the staff person offhandedly said with mouth agape and eyes widened, “Whoa, are you living in your car?”
“Sort of.” I explained how I was bumming around the city and drove off to a coffee shop to work. I don’t really remember too much embarrassment from her or the music director, but I could tell that she wasn’t expecting my answer. That conversation ran through over and over my head for weeks.
After I found where I live now (which started off nightmarishly, and again, maybe I will write about my housing woes one day), I felt like I was facing a dam with many leaks and I didn’t have enough fingers Car. Insurance. Gas. Rent. I always paid rent first, so all the car leaks–well, they kept leaking and leaking and leaking. After the part-time grant writing gig ended (most notably and possibly coincidentally) because I decided to give my client a contract to sign) I started teaching in January of this year and another part-time writing job at the end of January. Neither of these jobs pay well enough to keep the car. Like when I got my part-time grant writing job, it seemed too little too late for my finances.
My tags expired in December, so I was scared of being pulled over with a Pandora’s box of car and driving issues. So driving became an exercise in anxiety and evasion of the law. One January afternoon, while driving to a job interview, I was driving and a sheriff was behind me. I kept trying to drive away from him–I was only a few miles away from my destination. I’m surprised I didn’t break out into a sweat. I had already rehearsed what I would have said if I got pulled over. I was prepared to turn on the water works, which would have come pretty easily at that point.
I was desperate. In many ways, I still am.
After having the absolute worst experience on the phone with a hostile customer service rep (the only service she gave was to her multinational corporation who probably paid her shit), I arranged to drop off Bluebelle at a dealership. Actually the first one didn’t work out, so I had to drive to another one. I was trying to avoid the drama of the repo man to come to this house. That was a weird day, to drive one last time, from the west side to the north central side to the south side.
It was a beautiful day, though–sunny, blue skies, warm. I had the sunroof open. I had been dreading this for months and months. I had been so afraid of this day, of turning into a pedestrian again in a town that runs them over so easily and then provides them with horrible public transit. In terms of my spirituality being forged in these desolate financial times, I wasn’t really feeling God or the Universe. I was just feeling the drive to survive–no pun intended. I wasn’t teary. I was, and still am, tired. Empty. Defeated. Alone.
I took my first Uber ride from the dealership, with a chatty woman in one of those weird HHR cars. I actually had music practice for Sunday’s service and I had already arranged a ride home. Beforehand, there was some Native American ceremony going on. There’s one that happened tonight–full moon. After being dropped off, I was saged from head to toe. The timing of being saged after such a gut-wrenching experience of shame was for sure the Universe looking out for me. I’m still not even sure how I feel about these ceremonies, even though the pastor and her partner are partly Native American (not phenotypically, but genotypically), but I believe in the power of sage.
Then I sang and was taken home by a fellow singer. I briefly related my car woes as he told me of a similar situation. I had wanted to actually trade my car in, as he had, but that didn’t really occur to me until it was too late. I had beaten the specter of homelessness, but not of carlessness. That day, and night, I felt carried along by Something…
Between that full moon and this one, I’ve taken Uber and Lyft to work/school. I’ve also taken public transportation. I’ve walked to and from–more like urban hiked. I had to walk in the wind and rain to the Wal-Mart two miles away to get money from my mom–the primary lifeline I’ve had throughout grad school. I felt really beaten down, like I was walking in cement. My pants were soaked and one of the leg’s hem tore. I took an Uber to school that cost twice as much because I’m pretty sure my driver didn’t know how to get on the toll road when the main road near my house had a major accident that blocked both directions. All I could see was red flashing lights. I heard later a car had flipped on its back.
That night, I took my first public transit ride home. It’s two dollars to ride and you can get a transfer that lasts 90 minutes for another ride, which kinda sucks. Public transit is cheaper in Chicago. A transfer card gave you two rides and lasted for two hours. I had to wait about an hour after class for the next bus. This bus drove west to downtown and some chatty guy we picked up was talking about the rainstorm before and some random not-of-age teenage Brazilian tourists who were lost and taking public transit. He talked about how this particular bus route was bad and always stuck in traffic.
As a writer, I was really trying to absorb this jolly guy–middle-aged, with a jean jacket, with an easy smile. This was my first bus ride and it smelled like a Chicago bus when it’s snowed and the el platforms are covered in sand because of ice–like sweat and piss and a long day rolling around the city.
The terminal downtown is open air, and I found the bus that would get me within a 40 minute walk (two miles?) from my house. I checked my phone to see if I could Uber from there, but surge pricing at over three times the normal rate. Lyft, per usual, was busy. Like the suburbanite that I had become again, I nervously got on, bone tired from teaching English composition, hoping that my students hadn’t seen me at the previous bus stop and also hoping that no one would take to me on this ride. I just had to make sure that I got off before the bus turned around. It was after 11pm at this point.
It felt strange because I had taken public transit most of my adult life before this. I had taken buses and trains home late all the time. Somehow, this felt scarier. Taking public transit here didn’t make me feel like I was normal, like it did in Chicago. It didn’t matter too much what your income level was there. It was a true melting pot, even if you could tell what part of town you were on by who got on and got off. Having a car in Chicago seemed like a hassle–parking (permit parking), higher car insurance, “dibs” when you shoveled your spot out from the snow, the incessant traffic. Having a car here, next to the happiest place on earth, was a necessity. For example, the bus near my house only runs hourly, as if it was a commuter train line. And we have one of those, too–which runs along I-4 and does jack shit for me as a westsider.
Here, there’s no bus tracker app to see when the next bus is coming. You just have to know the schedule. It really felt like taking the bus here really meant you couldn’t afford a car and that’s it. It was a thick, bright line that I had been hurtling towards for the past couple of years and now finally had crossed.
This is a pretty bourgie lament, I know, evein if my tax returns show that I live way below the poverty line. After all the judging I did on people driving beater cars, after my car started to look like a beater because I didn’t have money to take care of a couple of fender benders, tree sap on the hood, and a lost right wheel hubcap…here I was, riding back to my still kinda new neighborhood and too proud to ask when that stop was so I could hop off and trudge home.
I had been tracking where we were going on Google Maps and when I finally had the courage to jump off the bus, I was now over an hour away from home and still hadn’t recovered from the two mile death march o Wal-Mart. I stood under a street lamp and got an Uber home, a $5 ride. Later, I decided I would never take a bus back from school at night. Not too far from where I was standing, a kid had been shot in his car–in the afternoon. There I stood after midnight, by myself, surrounded by trees–walking in a new part of town in the night seemed like something I shouldn’t risk again.
The grossest ride I’ve taken so far reminded me of New Year’s Eve in Chicago. It was on a Wednesday evening, rush hour. My ride to the chorus wasn’t going to go, and I had stayed at work all day and took the buses to chorus practice. The first bus I took was full of students, with one in particular who had his head bowed over his water bottle. He tried to be covert but he puked into said water bottle. It reminded me of when I saw a guy puke into his bookbag on the blue line when I was heading back home in Chicago. Puke, outside of drinking at a bar, or being in an elementary school, seemed out of place. I really tried not to take this as an omen for my public transit life. Nothing has been as filthy since, and I hope that was just some frat boy who decided to drink too much during the day.
Waiting for the second bus, I was dressed for being in a car, not for sunset outside. I had a velvet blazer, a scarf, and a merino sweater and jeans. The wind was blowing pretty stiffly, and it’s February. The sun goes down and takes all the warmth with it. My hands could not get warm. The cold was spreading up my arms. There was a bus shelter, but it seemed to funnel in the cold air, not shield us from it. I’m from Chicago–how can Floridian humidity and the cold (it was only in the 60s) made me feel like such a weak ass punk? I made my way to chorus and never really got warm for the three hours I was there. I only felt warm when I got home. I was prepared to Uber, but a friend took me home. That was two weeks ago.
Yesterday, I took the bus to my part-time job’s once a week, one hour meeting. I was lucky at an almost three hour trip took two and a half hours instead. The scariest part of that was walking a mile to the bus stop. Well, it was scariest in my mind. Looking at the map, 1.1 miles wasn’t what I wanted to do at 7am in the morning. I live in the hills so it’s no easy feat to walk around here. But this was mainly all downhill, through another subdivision. I took a picture of the sun with the fog in the trees. About 100 feet away from the bus stop, I smelled something that smelled like death. And it was death: the mushy, off-white guts of an armadillo on the side of the road. This bus took me to a superstop (like a mini terminal) not far from my house–maybe a ten minute drive. The next bus–and I almost got on the wrong one–took me downtown to the main terminal. The last bus took me to work where I have to walk another fifteen minutes. It was another beautiful day, in the 80s by the afternoon, with cool sea breezes. No Floridian humidity yet.
The day before, I tried to take the bus to work but it was so late that my connecting bus would have left already. I sat roasting in the sun for about 20 minutes. My t-shirt had two big sweat marks right under my bust that didn’t dry off until class time.
But yesterday, I took some pictures of spring springing forth: an azalea flower, a flowering tree, palm trees at the downtown bus terminal. I was trying to embrace the long ride back home as I froze on the bus. It was warm out, but I had to remind myself that Florida always has the a/c on, no matter what. I took the second bus to a town north of my home and then did what I was scared of always doing–I got on the wrong bus. This bus went north and west for an hour. I was already woozy from being up since 5am from nervousness and leaving the house at 7am for a 10am meeting. I had done this before, in Chicago. One night, on my way to a Bible study or some church group, I had ridden the purple line instead of the brown line, which meant I had to take the red line back to where I was and then take the brown line.
Anyway, it was still a lovely day, even though I was freezing on this bus, too. I lean against the large window and decided to look at the scenery. It looked less like The Truman Show and cookie cutter subdivisions, and more like Florida. I don’t even know what that means–I should have taken pictures like a tourist. Wild palm trees? Orange trees in yards? Houses with personality? The live oaks? The only house I remember was blue and white, Spanish inspired, and had tall cacti in the front.
It made me miss California and want to leave Florida, like I have been wanting to do since I moved down here almost three years ago.
I stayed on the bus, watching people get on and off, and I felt overdressed. I had dress pants, a t-shirt (Threadless), and a cardigan on. There were people who were leaving the first shift of jobs and heading to the second shift of other jobs. Because I had been on this loop, I saw one guy from Winn-Dixie get off and his girlfriend, who also worked at Winn-Dixie, that he pecked on the lips get on the bus. She had a lot of black hair clips holding down her hair. On the loop back to my neighborhood, we picked up a lot of kids from school. I had been listening to Kaskade the whole time, so I jammed my earbuds into my ears and turned up the volume since these boys didn’t know how to use their inside voices.
Finally, I got off the bus, wondering if the bus driver thought I was some weirdo who liked riding buses. I realized after he had jerked to a stop that I have started to get carsick while being on buses. I was used to controlling my own horizons, my own speed. Buses felt like rude awakenings with first-time drivers who weren’t used to the brakes yet.
This bus stop was on the other side of a very busy four lane road that I hated driving across because it has steep hills that cause blind spots. All over town, with white crosses and colorful silk flowers, there are so many memorials of pedestrians who have been killed here. I did not want to become a white cross. It took a couple of minutes as cars hurled themselves down the hill. The closest crosswalk was downhill and then I would have to go uphill, again, to my subdivision. And I wasn’t going to do that. I had left work at 11:15am and returned home at around 3:30pm.
It’s been about one month and counting without a car. When I first gave it up, it seemed like something I wouldn’t be able to live without. I’m surprised now at how quickly I’ve gotten used to not driving. This isn’t to say that I haven’t battled those inner demons of shame. It doesn’t mean that I like this at all. The 0.2. mile walk to the bus stop that comes every hour doesn’t feel great. I hate the walk to Winn-Dixie–especially the long climb back with food. Not having a car is more of a symptom of being poor, of not being as independent as I want. I’ve been trying to reframe this as a huge inconvenience, even though I haven’t spent nearly as much money as I would have with a car. But then again, I haven’t been going to church as much. School has been busy, but also, I don’t want to ask anyone for a ride.
I keep thinking of this Bible verse, which is really out of context, because this has nothing to do with age. The Gospel of John, chapter 21, verse 18, and Jesus says the following:
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
It’s the last part that gets to me: that I’m being taken where I do not wish to go. I do not wish to go on two to three hour bus trips when it used to only take me thirty minutes in a car. I do not wish to wait for an on-demand driver. I do not wish to have to move again next month to God knows where. I do not wish to try to figure out how to get the boxes that I moved with Bluebelle into storage and move them back here to pack up and move again.
Maybe, for me, that verse should read, and when you become poor, you will stretch out your hands, and someone will take your belt from around you, and you will go wherever you can find some place to lay your head.
I know that even in Chicago, people would take public transit all over the city, a much bigger city, with the same sorts of stories, two to three hour commutes because public transit was lacking in their neighborhoods. Looking back, I would balk at taking two trains and a bus from the northside to the southside and it took a whole hour. How luxurious that sounds now. Just an hour?
So. It’s not about the car, per se. It’s about knowing that my safety net still has gaping holes, that I’m not sure who I could sing the whole Golden Girls theme song to, or who would sing it to me (that’s the local loneliness); that I feel very vulnerable on the bus and walking down the street now; that I have an expensive large piece of paper and a thesis that needs to be revised and published so that I can prove to myself didn’t come down here just so I could lose my home and car and a lot of my dignity and a bit of my soul’s softness.
There’s something about having your hierarchy of needs fucked with on a daily basis. There’s a sort of despair that clings to your spirit like stale cigarette smoke, that you feel like only death can cure. Before I moved down here, I’ve had some lean months, but not lean years, and I never had lost my housing. But I had been through some pretty ridiculous, insane things, things I felt were worth writing about. So that’s why I came down here, in a town with one of the lowest per capitas, to tell that story to kids who didn’t care and didn’t get it.
I’m 99% sure my situation is temporary, even though it’s been a journey through the circles of hell for the past two years. That makes me feel like a weak ass punk even writing about this. There are people here who have hustled their whole lives. Maybe losing the car was a last straw for me. I had been too hopeful for my time here–tacitly hopeful about how the American Dream would be realized in my life. I was used to making goals and, well, eventually, things working out. I would have never made it through college if I didn’t hold onto hope. The utter almost-disaster that my life has become is unrecognizable to the woman who looked down from Chicago with unsullied hope in her heart. I’d find my people. I could take care of myself. Someone would be looking out for me.
Instead, I got sent on a magical mystery spiritual quest. The worse my circumstances are, the more spiritual I become. I would not be in a church community if I had found my writing community or the love of my life, if things had gone. There would be no reason to search for more. I can’t say that I’m very happy about this, though. Just trying to do that whole “silver lining” thing that people tell you to do when you’ve had bad things happened to you. I’m sure it’ll pay off some day.
Not to say that being poor is the way to spiritual salvation. I am no nun and I took no vow. Poverty fucks with your head and your soul in a way that no one should have to experience. I knew that as a social worker over a decade ago. I knew that even more when I had my own social worker at in grad school, right before I lost housing the first time. Just because I grew up middle class doesn’t make poverty any more poignant or compelling. It just makes it more commonplace.
Funny enough, when I first moved down here, I had wanted to take the buses here and write about my experiences, but I could never find the time to do it. Just looking at the bus routes on Google Maps freaked me out. Three hours to get to school from my house? It was an exercise in gratitude, that I only had to drive 30 minutes and try to find parking in time, but still be late for class. Well, I got my wish. Yay?
As I write this, I’m watching the fifth season of The Wonder Years and Kevin Arnold is talking about how having a car means freedom. Soon, as I should have done in the first place, but didn’t have the wherewithal or the courage to do so, I’ll get some beater car that can get me to St. Pete. I’ll check out the Dali museum and see another sun set over the Gulf. I’ll go to work and back in one piece. I’ll have a full-time job or some other part-time job. I’ll drive to visit my friends in Atlanta, or drive to Tampa to see the Bears beat the Bucs. I’ll just be so grateful to drive.
To go wherever I wish to go.
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