Looking back on your life, has it taken the linear path you intended? Did you end up with the career, husband/wife, children and dream home you expected? Was the path easy? Did you finish high school, work straight through college and professional school, notching everything you expected along the way?
Most people I know, self included, would not answer this in the affirmative. We’d say that life isn’t exactly what we expected at this point, that the path to getting here took a few more turns, a couple of them of the hair-pin variety, than we could ever have imagined. Hell, I’m divorced, live in New Orleans, and walk through abandoned buildings for a living—none of that was in the plan when I was seven years old. No, those things just seemed to happen… or maybe I did some things that caused them to happen… well, either way, they did happen.
Fortunately, though, I’m pretty happy. I like my life. The unexpected events and their consequent changes on my intended trajectory have not prevented me from getting to a place where I can say that if this is as good as it gets… well, then I’m pretty happy to have lived.
I’m half-assed waxing philosophic for far too long at this point. This whole existential, self-absorbed exercise in introspection started last night at work outside an abandoned gas station at 11pm.
I was conducting an intake packet on a 42-year old man who grew up in the St. Bernard Projects (torn down since the storm) who has been on the streets of his childhood neighborhood for the last 8 months, and on the streets generally since 2007. He showed no signs of severe mental illness, substance or alcohol abuse problems, nor any other sorts of medical or disabling conditions that often help trigger a life on the streets.
I was stumped. Remember, most of my clients are old, sick, and disabled. Most are not going to work anytime soon. This man gets paid about $20 to $30 cash three to five days a week when people he knows from the neighborhood need an extra hand on a job cutting lawns or hanging drywall. By everything I could see, he really was the guy who was just down and out on his luck, just needed a decent regular job and a bit of rent assistance to get him into a place.
So I asked the question: Well, how’d you get here? For the first time in our conversation, his face went blank. He said he didn’t really know. He’d had a job and was living with family at the time of Katrina. For a few years after Katrina he was living with his girlfriend in Houston. Then money troubles happened, and she put him out. Since then, he’s been under overpasses, in abandoned buildings, and now at this gas station. Every now and then he finds someone who lets him double-up on their couch for a few weeks or a month, but that situation always grows old and stale and sooner or later he’s back on the street. There could well be something I’m missing, but after 10 years of this I’ve gotten pretty good at teasing out the missing details. For this guy, I just couldn’t find it. He was sober, bright, and completely coherent at 11pm. He denied any aches or pains, complaining only about those two classes he hadn’t completed that prevented him from attaining his Associates Degree in psychology at SUNO all those years ago.
So, Dear Reader, how’d you get here? Are you a self-made man or woman? Are you a victim of circumstance, or maybe one whom luck smiles upon? If you’re honest with yourself, the reality is that your current situation is probably a mix of intangibles and initiative (or intangibles and failed initiative). Whatever your answer, I hope you find yourself relatively content like me. I hope you’re trying to figure out why your life is “pretty good” and not like this man’s, where he finds himself using a concrete step for a pillow, wondering just earlier in the same day how much more of this hardship to endure before continuing this existence becomes an act of futility.