Many years ago, I had a brush with homelessness. I knew I had a home to return to, but sofa-diving for three weeks was pretty uncomfortable.
My first graduate degree was finished, and my roommate had departed. Without Jane in the apartment, I couldn’t afford the rent. My parents took most of my stuff, but left me behind in Iowa City so I could finish out my student job.
It didn’t pay much, but it was in my field, and would look good on my resume. So I cobbled together three places to stay, and began my adventure in being a 20-something hobo.
First I stayed with Ellen. She was a colleague I met through my job at the State Historical Society of Iowa. I knew her well enough, and had met her long-time partner, Dave, once or twice. Luckily for me, they had an entire extra bedroom could camp in for a week.
It was an interesting room. Every surface, even the closet shelving, was covered with plants. Plants that flourished in the sun streaming through the windows or, lacking that, under purple grow lights. What kind of plants? Plants with five leaves. You know the kind.
You could say they were ahead of their time. This was not, after all, twenty-first century Colorado.
It seemed strange that Ellen never mentioned her pot crop, and I certainly didn’t want to say anything. Other than that, I felt welcome there, and only a little ill at ease. I liked my privacy. I missed my things.
Next up was a week with my former undergrad roommate, Dinny. She was not to be confused with my original roommate, Denny, with whom I shared a dorm room for about a month before both of us moved into campus apartments. Dinny and I had shared the bottom half of a big house, she with her yellow Labrador, I with my black one. By this time, she was living with some other roommate in Coralville.
I slept on the sofa, and all I remember about my time there – truly – is her yelling at me for putting the mayonnaise into the freezer, where it separated. Live and learn. I had no car, so I must have used the free campus bus to get around.
Finally, I ended up apartment-sitting for a guy I had met when he was dating (to put it loosely) Jane. He was out of town for a week, and left me a key. The cool thing was that he was an artist, a very good one, and I got to browse through his paintings. The bad thing was the cricket in the shower, which kept me up all night because I could not bring myself to kill it. (To this day, I have trouble dispatching anything with a crunchy shell.)
When my job at the SHSI ended, I moved back home with my parents. I began looking for employment, and the rest is history, for another ten or so years. I got a crummy job, dated a creepy guy, married my high school sweetheart, moved to Colorado, started raising two lovely kids. Then the marriage got so bad even I had to admit it was time to go, and I did.
Again, I was sort of homeless. My best friend and her husband arranged for me and the kids to fly to their place near Philadelphia (which I know I’ve written about before, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to stop writing about). We could only stay for two weeks, because they were leaving for the rest of the summer and had promised their place to someone else.
So I ended up with Mom and Dad again. I wasn’t exactly a boomerang kid, except, now that I think of it, I was. The kids and I stayed the summer. I found a temporary job at the public library. I even saw a counselor, but she believed my husband, when he visited and said the violence was over and I could safely come home.
So I returned, and another horrible year went by. Once my daughter was done with first grade, I left her father for good, and found myself once again living with a friend at her house, with my kids and her kids and her husband and dog. Fun? Not really, but I was safe.
After a month or so, I found a cheap apartment and began my new life as a single mother. Eventually, we moved back to Iowa. The kids grew up, and I remarried. Now each of us lives with people and pets of our choosing, and we’re all doing okay.
I’ll admit, I was never homeless. Unlike Blanche DuBois, I never did have to depend upon the kindness of strangers, nor the keepers of homeless shelters.
All of those times when I was in transition taught me a thing or two. When I moved to Dubuque, we spent the first year renting a duplex on Mt. Pleasant, and then moved into a house of our own on University. In an exhausted letter to a friend, I wrote, “Home is where your stuff is.” It’s also where you can pound a picture nail where you choose, and stay up all night ripping up ugly living room carpet.
When I was young, I went to Girl Scout camp six summers in a row, despite debilitating bouts of homesickness. Learning to banish that discomfort, not only for your children, but for yourself, is a hard skill to master, but well worth the effort. Home is as much an emotion as it is a place. I hope you hold the key to a home of your own, wherever you’re staying tonight.