Chasing Home

Always for me there is the specter of homelessness. Once you’ve been homeless it is a possibility that lurks in the shadows of life.

Years ago I was homeless for on or about two years and the possibility of finding myself homeless again has  once more raised its head.

Some background. The majority of my homeless days were spent in New York City. I was in my teens. It all happened quickly. My father died on August 16, 1969. I was 15. Sixteen weeks later my mother put me in reform school on a PINS (person in need of supervision) petition. I was released 14 months later to a half way house called the Medgar Evers Boys Residence on East 18th Street. I got into a fight. My mother was called and told there were three options for me: I return home, return to the reform school, or I could, as they said in those days, hit the streets. She told the caller she didn’t want me and hung up. Rather than giving up my freedom I hit the streets. For anyone inclined to throw rocks at this decision, trying life without freedom, then talk to me.

If you’ve ever been homeless you can’t help but believe your ability to keep your home is always at risk. You  feel, to varying degrees, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, that your home, that place of sanctuary that all people deserve, is vulnerable.  And sometimes it is. When you’ve been poor, and I mean poor, you are well aware that any economic comfort you are experiencing could be temporary. Until 2008 when I lost my job because I would not remain silent when people with disabilities – brain injuries in this case – were being denied their rights, including their right to be treated with respect, I could go food shopping at the market and fill my cart without having to think about the cost. There was not a single time I went shopping when I did not consciously remind myself not to take the gift of my food purchasing power for granted because I knew it could come to an end. I never did and it did.

Not surprisingly more than one person said If you’d just kept quiet you wouldn’t have lost your job. True. But, as I explained to them, you can’t on the one hand say you are an advocate for equal rights and then, when the going gets tough, clam up. There are real reasons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my heroes and it was King who said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” There is no amount of money in the world, nor is there any threat to my home or my life that will make me fall silent when people are being denied their civil rights, the right to be who they are safely in the world which includes equality by the way. I don’t care if the bigotry comes in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism or if it aimed at people with disabilities, and so on. My remaining silent is not on the table.

Being homeless is something you never forget. I remember dumpster diving, although it wasn’t called dumpster diving back then. It was called looking for food to eat. You learned when restaurant’s threw out their food at the end of the day. And if you were a fast runner, and I was, very, you’d wait until the bread trucks dropped brown bags filled with fresh rolls just outside the door of a bakery or deli in the wee hours of the morning, swoop in, grab the bag, and haul ass, usually to deep within some abandoned building where you could chow down with your mates, if you had any. If you had enough loose change you could get a cup of coffee, pick up a couple of cigarette butts from the street, and, in no time at all, you were fully embraced by the comforting albeit inaccurate belief that still-warm rolls and coffee and a good smoke were heaven on earth.

And so now in soon to be 2012 I once again find myself in a precarious position on the keep-a-home-of-my-own front. I must move from where I am as early as April 1 and not later than May 1 of 2012. I am on disability and have a Section 8 Voucher that helps with the rent, though the system, depending on which New York county you’re living in, offers various forms of ruthlessness. Where I am the maximum allowable rent for a one-bedroom for one person is $556 if all utilities are included, which, as we know, is highly unlikely. If utilities are not included then they apply a utility calculation which means you must get a place with a lower rent you’ll need money for the utilities. This makes sense until you learn that your contribution to the rent, which is one-third of your income (I’m fine with that) remains the same. In other words, the rent subsidy gets lowered, and the person on the fixed income’s overhead increases. If you are brazen enough to rent a two-bedroom, the skew the utility figures so the maximum monthly rent you can choose is something like $365!

I’ve already begun looking, the hope being a small house, cottage, mobile home, cabin, with, if I am lucky a washer-drier hook-up and, if I am very lucky, a woodstove. Why these two things? Simple. I can’t afford paying for laundry and the woodstove keeps me going outside and exercising and, frankly, it means less money for oil companies.

However, as you might imagine, the cost of moving and the cost of security in a new place is another ball of wax entirely. If I stay in the county I’m in, there is a chance, though no guarantee, the Department of Social Services will help with security. There is no help with the cost of moving. If I move to another county or to another state, I’ve looked at New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts, it is not likely the welcoming state or county will help with security and moving costs because to take you in in the eyes of those who make the rules (how do you spell 1%?) is something believed to be burdensome. So, if I want to move I’ll need money for security and moving expenses and with many landlords understandably asking for things like first and last month’s rent in addition to security or two months security, that’s quite a vig, and not one I can make on my own. Moreover, neither Section 8 or New York State’s Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver, which I’m on, will help with security or moving costs. We’re talking several thousand dollars I’m sure.

A couple of friends have begun talking about fund raising to help me; the whole of these circumstances makes me want to crawl under the blankets and go to sleep in the hopes that someone will wake me when it’s over. Thank God for my books and my dogs and my friends and thank God for my sobriety.

 

Chasing Home

Published in 1961, the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary defines home as “One’s own dwelling place…the house in which one lives with his family” and “a place of refuge and rest.” It seems like I have been chasing home all my life.

Losing home at any age is soul-splitting. It wounds the heart. It slaughters hope. It can utterly exterminate one’s sense of worth. When a child loses home it can be emotionally lethal. Loss leaves gaping holes. When a child loses home and family any sense of safety in the world is pulverized and any sense of belonging in life may perish.

For a child, the loss of home and family leads you to feel and believe you are nothing, and if, by chance, you are left with any residue of self at all, it’s not much. This is exactly what happened to me. I now believe what I have been chasing no longer exists for me because family no longer exists – at least none that I grew up with – and home, I am learning, is best found in the rooms of one’s mind. I certainly think the notion that home is where you hang your hat is absolute rubbish. Quaint phrase, I grant you, but absolute rubbish nonetheless.

My relationship with home and family ended in 1969, 16 weeks after my father died unexpectedly at age 55. I was 15. Sixteen weeks later my mother placed me in reform school on a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) petition. When I was released 13 months later, I was not allowed back in the family and so, at age 17, I was homeless. My life with a family had come to an end.

I don’t know if I can stop chasing home, chasing that place of refuge and rest that is or feels like it is immune from assault from without and within. Even though I intellectually understand it does not exist, my heart remembers days when I was a boy and everyone was still alive. Days with my father and Poppop, my grandfather on my mother’s side, when I knew I was the safest most loved little boy in all the world. That were a bomb to drop from the sky their presence would assure my safety. And while some might say all this makes me a hopeless romantic, it is who I am. And I spend my life with who I am.

To be continued…

Saving My Sister

I love my sister. Nothing that has happened and nothing that will happen will ever change that. If she keeps drinking, she will die; from the sounds of it she may not have long.

Our father died on August 16, 1969. I was 15 and my sister (how I love the words, my sister) was 10 when, 16 weeks after he died, my mother placed me in reform school on a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) Petition and subsequently disowned me. In those days a PINS often meant a family saying to the court, I don’t want him, you take him. While I lost my father and  family in a 16-week span, my sister lost her father and brother, a brutal event for any 10-year-old.

We would run into each other from time to time over the years. When my mother and I began to reconcile in the late 1970s, it was because I’d begun to visit my sister who shared a split-level home her. We came together for a short time when our mother committed suicide in August 1992.

My sister has three children, one boy and two girls. The boy is the oldest and at age 35 is a remarkable young man. Recently he reached out to me to let me know my sister is in bad shape. She can’t (won’t) stop drinking. Her body is breaking down (she’s 52), she has a hard time opening her hands and refuses help of any kind, including medical help.

I am a recovering alcoholic and know damned well you can’t make another person get sober or make someone choose life. I also know I can’t make someone discover their value and worth even though it’s there.  At  the center of who my sister is, behind the horror and dysfunction and pain, is a gloriously wonderful person.

She used to enjoy telling the following story about us. I’d been out of the family for a couple of years. She was 12 or 13. I was staying not far from where she lived with my mother and grandparents. One day not far from her house she was  being harassed and threatened by three boys when, as she describes it, “My brother came flying out of car, challenged them all to a fight, and they ran.”

I’ll try to save you again my precious sister, but I can’t do it without you.

MY FATHER, MY EVEREST

A reporter asked me today to describe what it was that made my father so special. I didn’t know what to say. I knew there was no way I could put it into words. Much like a recent blog piece about the extraordinary look of a woman’s face being out of the reach of words, so it is when it comes to explaining what it was about my father that makes him the greatest gift life has ever given me.



Here is what I did say. Trying to describe my father would be like looking up at Mount Everest and trying to describe what I was seeing to someone over the phone. I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d certainly give it my best shot with words like majestic, magnificent, magical, breathtaking. I could keep adding words too, but never would the person on the other end of the phone understand what it was like to see Mount Everest in person.



My father was as accepting and loving as a human being can be. Never did I have to be anyone but me to be loved. I did not have to live up to something, or achieve some high standard somewhere in order to be fully loved and accepted. When I was 15 and he died at age 55, my ability to feel safe being me in the world died with him.



The difficulty feeling safe in the world was no doubt compounded by the fact my mother placed me in reform school 16 weeks later on a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) petition. In those days PINS petitions were often a matter of the family saying to the court, we don’t want the child, you take him. Children are heard a bit more today then they were in 1969.



I never fully regained the ability to feel safe being me in the world until I got sober more than six years ago. My father is my Everest. He is a constant reminder that real love between two people is possible in the world. And as you probably already know, it’s just as impossible to put real love into words as it is putting Everest into words or, for me, my father into words. But they are all real, and you will know it if you see it, or feel it.



Just keep your eyes and your hearts open. After all, everyone deserves an Everest or two.

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HOW DO YOU WRITE A MIRACLE?

This year I will try to write the impossible; an essay about my father. I say impossible because I know anything I write will fail to fully express how much I love him, how much he means to me, and how much I still miss him.

Writing about him begs the question, how do you write a miracle? My father was and is the greatest gift life has ever given me. I know writing a miracle takes a miracle. Unfortunately, this particular miracle is nowhere to be found in my repertoire of writing skills, a fact that has many times stopped my pen from attempting this essay – until now.

Why now? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because my health took a run at me last June or perhaps it is because I will turn 55 on my next birthday and my father was 55 when he died. Perhaps it is because I have this year been reintroduced again to the miracle that was my father, in part because I have had some who claim to love me drive knives of betrayal into my back, proving once again that it is easier to say you love than it is to love. In other words, talk is cheap.

The only wrong my father ever did me was a wrong he could not have foreseen. He loved me for me so completely that I adopted the mistaken impression that people who would love me throughout my life were like him: they would accept me for me without judgment or guile. For the longest time I believed when someone loved you, you were safe being yourself with them; when someone loved you, loyalty, kindness and the absence of cruelty were sure things.

It would be more than 35 years before I fully digested the reality that none of this was true. That in fact, my relationship with my father was a remarkable exception to the rule; it was a miracle.

Last year and this year I was betrayed by people who, if you asked them today, would stomp their feet and swear up and down they love me and care about me. Yet, there is a reason they say actions speak louder than words. Yeah, I know it’s a cliche. Once when I was a boy I groaned to my father about something being a cliche. He smiled and said, “Well, Peter, there’s a reason they become cliches.” Very true.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born on February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He loved to read and was, by all accounts, deeply creative. His brother, Harry, was born a year later. The two remained close throughout their lives. Both fought in World War II. My father was in the 20th Armored Division. I knew this about him because he told me and showed me his patch. I still have it. However, he never told me that the 20th Armored Division was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. He never said a word about that, and I can’t say as I blame him.

My father taught English in Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It was my father who gave me the world of reading. I was about eight or nine. One day I wandered into his room. He was sitting behind his desk marking papers. Behind him was a wall filled with books ceiling to floor. To this day I think a wall full of books is just about one of the most beautiful sights on earth.

I said, “Daddy, you got a minute.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “Sure, what’s on your mind?”

I looked at the books and then back at him. “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Every time I try to read a book I can’t finish it.”

And then he said what struck me as a curious thing. “What makes you think you have to finish it?’

“Aren’t you supposed to finish the book?”

“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. People are always confusing school assignments with reading.”

“Really?”

“Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

This made perfect sense to me. “Yeah!”

“Well then. Forget about finishing books. Pick 10 books here that perk your interest. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. Forget about page numbers, just read and enjoy them.” Suddenly all the books in the world belonged to me. I’ grabbed piles of books from the shelves and retreated to my room and looked through them all. I was free! I could read anything I wanted and if I didn’t feel like finishing the book, I’d put it down and move onto the next book. It is worth noting that during the dark days of homelessness, the says of solitude after the shooting and during other dark times, books have always been a safe refuge.

When I fell in love with the ballet at age five and began classes at age eight and at age 13 found myself dancing a principal role for the Joffrey Ballet, my father was very proud of me. He didn’t like missing my performances. But, unlike my mother, his happiness with me was not contingent on my being a dancer. Many years later my mother would tell me that my quitting dance hurt her more than the death of my father and her parents rolled into one. My father loved me because I was me.

My father and I not only loved each other, we liked each other, and enjoyed each others company. I can’t remember a single fight or argument between us that stemmed from a disagreement between us. When we did argue, which was rare, it nearly always revolved around one of my fights with my mother. My mother and those in the dance consistently made it clear to me that I was a dance prodigy and destined for greatness. It was a given, they said, that dance was my destiny; I was different from other children. My mother and many others expected me to be another Nijinsky. So I did what any other boy would do; I expected the same. Many a child’s life has crumbled into dust under the weight of expectations like these.

My father liked me and loved me because I was me. When we had dinner with his colleagues, no one pointed out that some might find it unusual for a 13-year-old boy to be an equal part of conversation with college professors. We were all friends. It was just life with Dad.

When he taught me how to tie my tie or when he taught me how to ride a bike, it was the two of us, internally illuminated by the love we had for each other, a love that was so strong and complete that on reflection, I am surprised we did not glow. And I was like most sons who learned to ride a bike with their father’s running along side with their adult hands stabilizing the bike, the moment I realized he was no longer running alongside me holding the bike steady, I did what any young boy worth his salt would do, I crashed.

My father taught me chess. He gave me a slender book on chess one Christmas. Inside he wrote a note saying he knew the day would come when my expertise in chess would surpass his. And it did. I suspect it did because the adult mind deals with far more than the child mind, thus allowing the less cluttered child mind to concentrate more fully on the game at hand. We studied chess books together. We played out the games of the great players: Capablanca, Lasker, Alekhine, Rubinstein, our mutual favorite, Sammy Reshevsky and, of course, later, Bobby Fisher.

We went to an American Chess Championship tournament held in a New York City Hotel. Six or seven games were taking place on a raised area in the front of the room. Hung on the wall behind each game was a chess board with pieces that would be moved when the players made their moves so all in attendance could see. Small chess sets were out throughout the room as we all studied the games and tried to determine what the next moves would be. We went the day Fisher played Reshevsky. To our great joy Reshevsky won the game. Fisher would go on to win the tournament. We went up to the table and congratulated Mr. Reshevsky and Mr. Fisher. Mr. Reshevsky dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief.

I said, “Good game,” to Mr. Fisher who shook my hand, looking none too pleased.

My mother and others in the world of dance brought me to the belief that anything short of greatness in the world of dance would mean I was a complete and utter failure. The pressure and strain was immense. But I had my father, he was my refuge. Our relationship was my safe haven. But that all came to and end on August 16, 1969 when he died unexpectedly. I was 15.

Freed of my father’s peacemaking presence, my mother put me in reform school on a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) petition 16 weeks after his death. That was the end end of my family life. It took all of 16 weeks. My father dies, family disappears, I am orphaned.

When I was released from reform school a year later I was not allowed back into the family. I was homeless for more time than I like to remember. It would be nearly 10 years before mother and I reconciled. And while we became friends the last 10 years of her life, I was never included in family events. In fact, when she committed suicide in 1992, she left word that I was not allowed to speak at her memorial service.

Over the years I have come to believe that loving heart-to-heart loyalty between two people is crushingly rare. But, I am blessed with my father, my miracle, who, while I can not write him and do him justice, lives inside me.

I would not be alive today without him. And today is the 39th anniversary of his death.

When my father died, my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. When I got sober more than six years ago now, my ability to feel safe in the world began to return. It is not back all the way, not yet. But it returns more and more every day.

I know he is glad that once again his son can again be happy and at peace simply by being who he is. I can be me, and that is enough. After all that’s all he ever wanted for me in the first place. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle.