Not a lot of people know that I was actually once homeless. For the space of two or three years I lived on the street. I slept in doorways, begged for change and took a tour of more shelters than I can remember. I’ve eaten out of garbage cans. I have hitchiked. I’ve been cold and hungry enough I thought I was going to just die. These were some of the best experiences of my life.
I don’t say “best” in the same way I might refer to a party or a holiday. While there were fun adventures mixed in there, a lot of it wasn’t fun at all. I say that this time was the best in my life because it taught me important things that still help me today. I know how important a few coins can be, I know that a bad day is relative to your point of view and I know that just about anything can be recovered from. As I see my country in the throes of financial crisis I can’t help but think back to those times and wish I could pass my lessons on.
I once hitchiked across the literal length and breadth of America, and then on up to Montreal in the middle of winter. It was below zero cold and I was dressed for a Florida winter. My exposed ankle skin swelled up and cracked due to exposure. There was no sleeping in the elements there so I holed up in a train station, moving around often to avoid getting kicked out by security.
My first morning I stumbled out into the bitter day starving, stiff and so frozen I don’t think I could remember what ‘warm’ was like. I hobbled down the street, my feet numb and crusted over with ice. I stopped in front of a cafe and looked through the large plate glass window at the breakfasters inside.
I have never been more envious in my life then at that moment. Everyone was relaxed, warm and carelessly sipping coffee heedless to the absolute luxury that they were being afforded. I wanted a cup of hot coffee so bad right then it became ingrained in my mind as a standard of success. Since then I have been down on my luck a few times, but as long as I have enough to sit in a cafe somewhere and have a hot drink, I know it will all be alright.
I wish I could bottle up that knowing and pass it on to all of America right now. Times look bleak, but they’ve been bleak before and as a nation we survived. We don’t need most of what we think we do, and we can do more than what most of us think we can. The most important lesson I learned sleeping on sidewalks is that attitude is of paramount importance. Attitude can be a matter of life or death.
Obviously I didn’t stay on the streets. I decided I was done with that adventure about a year later and found a job and went on. The lessons I learned from those times stay with me however. I know that failure and lack are matters of perception, hunger and want are fantastic inspirations and as long as you can afford a cup of coffee, you’re not as bad off as you think you are.