It was cold. Very cold. By morningtime, I couldn't feel my feet.
That's what I remember most about my night spent in a cardboard box with my best friend/cousin Krysta.
We arrived in the church parking lot a little after 6 p.m. A kind lady's gloved fingers pointed us toward a pile of cardboard boxes. What?
Yeah. We didn't expect to have to build our own cardboard house, either. Krysta and I picked out the biggest pieces of cardboard we could find and got to work with nothing but duct tape on our side. Within appoximately 20 minutes, we had built the biggest box in Cardboard City 2012. Here is a photo of our temporary kingdom:
We were pretty proud of our box:
You'll notice in both photos that we stuffed a lot of blankets and sleeping bags in our box. Krysta had three sleeping bags; I had two. Even though we weren't in the most inclement of weather, we were still cold. It was only around 6:30 p.m. when we decided to enter the soup kitchen for a warm meal that we hoped would fill our tummies.
We were served said meal by a host of volunteers who thanked us for participating in the program while pouring us some soup, handing us some bread, and offering us bottles of water. Here is a photo of our meal:
Bottle of water, chili soup, butter bread, an apple, and two cookies. Admittedly, I was kind of still hungry after we ate . . . and I'm glad I was, because it made me appreciate receiving a meal in the first place.
That's one thing about this experience. We were cheating in a lot of respects; we could bring as many blankets and warm clothes as we wanted; we could go inside to the heated church if the cold got to be too much; we were fed before we went to bed. It's no secret that these are all unheard of luxuries for the average homeless person. Even so, we played the part as well as we could and, well, despite all the blankets and sleeping bags, we weren't comfortable by any means. A single layer of cardboard is lightyears away from a nice mattress.
When Krysta and I returned to our box after our meal, we tried to stay awake by playing a game of cards, drawing stick figures on the walls, and talking about our love lives. We even managed to take a few goofy pictures:
Oh look! We even managed to take not one--but two!--semi-normal photos: (hooray!)
I think the funniest moment throughout the shivering cold experience was when I began to get really, really tired. Apparently I was dozing off but really didn't want to for fear that Krysta would be all awake and all alone the rest of the night. I dozed off anyway . . . and apparently tried to make conversation in the meantime.
"Krysta . . . do you . . . uhhh . . . do you know what Cash for Gold is?"
Krysta said she said yes, and then waited at least three minutes for me to respond.
"Oh . . . I, uh . . . I think I have a bracelet," I said.
Hahaha. Oh boy.
Needless to say, I fell asleep early and tried to stay as warm as possible in order to stay asleep. I remember waking up in the middle of the night wondering what time it was and if my feet were frostbitten. Silly me didn't pack appropriately and ended up wearing only one pair of socks and my clogs. Clogs, I quickly learned, don't really stay on your feet when you're sleeping. Sigh.
One of the best methods I used to keep warm involved inhaling/exhaling into my jacket. It was so much better than inhaling that cold air. I think I was also in the fetal position for the better part of the night. Did I mention that it was really cold?
I knew it was morning as soon as I heard some people talking and some car doors slamming. Krysta mistook the car doors for thunder and woke up with only one thing to say: "I'm ready to go home."
"I say we book it," I said. "I can't feel my feet."
We emerged from our cardboard cocoon (albeit it wasn't much of a cocoon) and soon found out that it was only 5:30 a.m. Technically, we were supposed to be there from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. but other people were leaving so we did, too. But not before tearing down our house and placing the pieces back in the stack from which they came and helping other participants do the same.
It was around 6 a.m. when we pulled out of the church parking lot. I felt good to have survived the night and participated in the program, but all I yearned for was heat. I turned it all the way up and drove all the way home without turning it down.
If ever you have the opportunity to sleep in a cardboard box in order to raise awareness for the sick, lonely, poor, and hungry, please do so. It will really make you feel grateful for absolutely everything you have: meals and a warm bed, especially.
My heart goes out to those people who sleep in cardboard boxes regularly. And, now, I can say that I can truly understand how that feels.
I'm writing this post on my sister's bed in her room, which is full of basketball trophies and picture frames (not to mention a winky-faced Wiz Khalifa poster). There is a roof over my head. Her TV is on mute in the background. I'm warm enough to be wearing a tank top and pajama shorts. I'm wealthy enough to own a nice computer, complete with WiFi. I am one of many fortunate individuals in America who does not have to worry about finding somewhere decently comfortable to sleep tonight.
How easy it is to take that for granted.
Two weeks ago, my boss approached my desk with a name and phone number scribbled on a piece of white copy paper.
"Do you want to sleep in a cardboard box for a good cause?" he asked.
"Sleep in a what?"
"A cardboard box."
"Oh. Ummm, when?"
"November 16. You want to? I think it'd be a meaningful experience."
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and checked my calendar. I didn't have any plans. Nope. Nothing.
"I'll make the phone call," I said, taking that white piece of paper out of his hands and into my own.
So here I am, one day away from getting my first "hands-on" experience when it comes to homelessness, which is a rather foreign subject to me. Tomorrow night at this time I'll be sitting in a cardboard box in a church parking lot amongst other volunteers trying to raise awareness about the pain and suffering that many poverty-stricken people endure night after night.
I convinced my cousin Krysta and my sister Chelsey to join me, so it will be nice to have cardboard box neighbors. But I'm not saying that to be funny; I'm saying that because I'm quite proud that I've convinced them to join me. I think it will be an eye-opening experience for all of us. Admittedly, one reason I'm participating is because I think it will give me good writing material and this valuable sense of enlightenment. It's not everyday that someone sleeps in a cardboard box for a good cause, right?
It's bound to be cold. But hopefully not rainy. Truthfully, it may be a little boring, as we're not allowed to bring iPhones, iPads, iPods . . . and we're certainly not allowed to order take-out. Hmmm.
So here's what I have packed so far:
From left to right: my navy blue sleeping bag, a very soft Angry Birds blanket, a pillow, a pair of gloves, a pair of socks, comfy pajama pants, a semi-colorful hat, and a black sleeping bag. I am missing a few items, including a sweatshirt and my netbook. Oh wait, no computers allowed.
I must mention that I am packing with my sister in mind, and that explains the double sleeping bags. But don't get me wrong--doubling up on sleeping bags (one sleeping bag inside of another sleeping bag sounds brilliant, doesn't it?) could be a great idea. Alas, I have no intentions of feeling as though I'm stuck in some kind of cotton cocoon all night.
I'm done packing for now. Perhaps I'll resume in the morning. Regardless, I'm determined not to get all bundled up like Randy from A Christmas Story.
I know my mom is worried that we're all going to get sick, but I feel prepared to complete this challenge tomorrow night. I'm just grateful that I don't have to complete this challenge every night.
I've encountered homeless people dozens of times, most notably in Newark, New Jersey, and Boston, Massachusetts. I remember seeing people sleeping on park benches and on church steps and wondering how awful it must be to not be able to look forward to bedtime.
I've slept in a twin-sized bed all my life, and I know no different. I've lived in a nice house all my life, and I know no different. I've always had an abundance of outfits and possessions and food, and I know no different.
Tomorrow, I want to know different.
As you turn off your bedroom light tonight and give your weary bones to your bed--twin-sized or otherwise--please keep in your thoughts and in your prayers the people who have no bedroom lights of their own. There are a lot of them out there, especially after Hurricane Sandy caused some major down and out situations last month.
Wish us luck tomorrow, and stay tuned for Homelessness: Part II. And possibly Part III and Part IV . . .
There was nothing wrong with crossing his arms while sitting at a stop light, Luke told himself. That was how he was feeling today: in an arms-crossed type of mood, his hands locked into place and unmoving. A nice change.
A Bob Dylan song played on the radio in his car. The windshield wipers seemed to keep time with the beat, and the sound of rain provided an unremitting backdrop that almost accompanied Dylan’s unmistakable vocals. Luke turned the heat up and glanced into his rearview mirror, taking sight of the city's bright lights. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to drive with his eyes closed. How would it feel to drive blindfolded, listening to Dylan the whole way home, as if he were on some semi-slow-motion roller coaster? He liked that idea.
Luke had his foot on the brake pedal and his eyes focused on the light, waiting for it to turn green. It was one of those “five minute stop lights,” the kind that made Luke think that he would be waiting there forever. But he had nowhere to go but home.
He never knew where the man with rotting teeth who walked the streets was going, though. He always seemed lost. Never carried a map. Forgot to pinpoint his destination years ago, it seemed. Luke spotted this tall and skinny man a few feet away, hurriedly making his way toward the railroad tracks.
He was wearing dark denim jeans, a black sweater, and white tennis shoes. He had a backpack slung over his left shoulder but no umbrella over his head that would keep him sheltered from the cold droplets of rain. Luke had seen the man around and always wondered if he was homeless. His belongings showed signs of wear and his spirits, just the same.
Luke turned around and looked at his backseat; for a moment, he imagined the man sitting back there, looking out the window in silence. Instead, Luke saw a brown suitcase, a baseball hat, and a red flashlight taking up space on the floor. An old water bottle looked rightfully in place because it could silently roll around when the car was in motion.
What Luke liked most about the city in which he lived was the constant movement. The pizza place on the corner took pizza out of the oven nearly every three minutes; the local bands were continuously strumming and drumming; the shoppers in the mall never quit going in and out of dressing rooms and twirling about in front of wide mirrors. There were escalators and elevators to ride, as well as plenty of stairs to climb. Hurrying from one place to another was the accepted way of life.
Luke enjoyed observing people. He liked to take note of actions and reactions, always keeping curious. This habit of people-watching appropriately lent itself to Luke obtaining a career as a greeting card writer. His application to the Cause I Said So Card Company was immediately accepted ten years ago on the basis that he would create positive reactions for recipients upon opening their cards and reading the sentiments inside.
This was an easy job for Luke. The difficult part was maintaining that he worked in the advertising department at a candy factory when his friends inquired about his career. Being a greeting card writer was a job that required no secrecy; Luke simply chose to establish that himself because he longed to witness genuine reactions from the people who received his cards, including his friends.
Writing greeting cards--whether they be thank you, get well soon, holiday, thinking of
you, special occasion or birthday cards--was not only a rewarding career, but also a lonely one.
Luke considered himself the most sentimental man in the history of lonely men. His family members lived 600 miles away. His friends were seasonal: he only saw Von in the winter, Chris in the summer, Pete in the fall, and Jim in the spring. His wife never existed because he never found one. He gave up his search five summers ago when he was turned down by a fashionable brunette who always wore her hair in a ponytail.
Luke’s favorite place in the city was a café that housed the smell of fresh-baked bread and vanilla bean coffee. A regular, he ordered the same thing every Wednesday: a turkey sandwich on French bread and an extra large ginger peach tea. The total always came to $8.25 and he would insist that the polite cashier keep the change from the $10 bill. Luke spent his time in the café completing crossword puzzles while eavesdropping on conversations that ranged from business to casual. Occasionally, he would read a magazine. He looked forward to watching other regulars enter the café; they would nod and he would reciprocate.
His routine went something like this: after his lunch at the café, he would stop by the greeting card shop less than a mile away. It was there that Luke would find some of his very own greeting cards lining the aisles. He would pick out a few cards, purchase them, and make a quick stop at the newsstand a block away before returning to his apartment. This routine would seem to negate the very purpose of his job--considering that he was being paid to make the cards, only to use his paycheck to buy them--but such a thought never occurred to him. He was determined to prove to strangers that other strangers care.
Browsing through the newspaper at the kitchen table in his apartment, he’d write down the names of the people who appeared in the obituaries, the newborns in the birth announcements, the couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries. There seemed to be no shortage of people that Luke could look up in the telephone book. Once he copied all of the addresses onto a blank sheet of white paper, he’d begin the task of filling out each card. He didn’t write much, mostly because what was printed was his writing in the first place, and it was just enough to get his point across. Luke simply signed his name—“A friend in the neighborhood.” He mailed a handful of cards every week, paying the increasingly high postage fees without any complaints.
His favorite card-giving memories came while he sat in the café, slowly sipping his hot tea. If there was ever a time he could get away with putting a few “Have a Great Day!” cards on empty tables, he would do so. Then he would secretly watch his recipients open the cards and express confused reactions, which were immediately followed by smiles. Oftentimes there came a sweet comment regarding the sender’s random act of kindness. These cards contained no money, no gift cards, no coupons—just the element of surprise.
There were times when Luke couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever be discovered, if his handwriting would give him away.
One day, it did.
The cashier at the café compared his handwriting from the crossword puzzle to the card she received from him on her birthday.
“So you’re the secret greeting card giver-awayer?” she asked with a smile.
Luke winked and walked away, carrying his food and drink back to his favorite table. He wasn’t sure how she figured him out, but he wasn’t upset. If anything, he sensed that she would keep his secret.
The rain refused to let up and Luke’s windshield wipers continued to swiftly dust off the raindrops. He thought to himself that today was the first day he had seen that homeless man in nearly a month. He wondered what he had been up to all this time.
Just as Luke was about to yawn one of those never-ending yawns, the stoplight turned green. He made his way up the hill leading to his apartment. It wasn’t until he was about to turn onto his street that he saw a man lying face-down on the side of the street. Luke automatically put on his four-ways and hopped out of the car in a panic.
Once he got closer to the limp body, he recognized the clothing and pushed the man’s
shoulder a little toward the sky so that he could see his face and confirm that it was him. It was.
It looked as if the man had fallen, but he appeared to have a black eye and a bloody lip. Luke assumed that he had gotten beat up, but there was no reason for anyone to commit such a crime. This man had never bothered anyone in the community. Luke tried to take his pulse as he stared at his back, hoping to see some kind of upward and downward motion that would signify that he was still breathing. Once he found a pulse, he called 911 and waited for the police to arrive.
The homeless man's demeanor intrigued Luke. It was obvious that he didn’t have any money to spend and had very little in the way of social skills, which may have contributed to his isolation. Perhaps this is what made Luke sympathize for him. Last month, Luke decided to go out of his way by purchasing him a “Thinking of You” card and placing in it a $20 bill, as well as a gift card to a nearby restaurant. It was a step away from Luke's typical card-giving routine, but it was a step that he wanted to take. While on his way to work that particular morning, Luke saw the homeless man walking along the street. Luke upped his pace, his suitcase in one hand and the card in the other. Once he caught up with the man, he tapped him on the shoulder.
“You dropped this,” Luke told him.
“Sure . . . uhhh, no,” the man said, avoiding eye contact.
Luke smiled and assured the man that the card belonged to him.
As Luke waited in desperation for an ambulance, his curiosity got the best of him. He unzipped the man’s backpack and looked through its contents. There, along with a pack of crackers and an empty water bottle, was the card Luke gave the man a month ago.
He hadn’t even opened it.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .