I began to sound SK out. He had been at this place for two years with significant gaps where he lived on the street. He was a wellspring of gossip about the functioning of the school and the infractions of the students. He provided a sort of oral history of the place in which heroes and villains emerged and waged battle. My favorites were the stories of a notorious boy who had been placed on the farm in the recent past.
Fire codes were flagrantly ignored by those who ran the school, but somehow, against all reason, the farm had a fire extinguisher. This boy had used it to beat the staff member supervising his misery within an inch of his life, leaving him with several facial fractures. On another occasion he had punched the glass out of a window and opened up his wrists on the glass that remained. He was always on the farm. There was no speaking to him but I wished him well. I thought he was braver than the rest of us, leaving aside SK. He had known this boy, described him as someone who was mostly silent but completely unpredictable.
It was through a recounting of the transgressions of others that we sussed each other out. It provided us with plausible deniability. Snitching was embedded in the fabric of life at Desisto school. It was always possible that you would be betrayed. You couldn’t even be angry with the person who sold you out. It was their only way to escape from a corner and have the dubious privileges of a shower and normal food reinstated.
As we warmed to each other he began to tell me about his escapes, of how on one occasion he hid under a couch for two days, pissing on the carpet until he felt safe leaving. I had always wondered why it smelled like urine in the common area.
He told me about his months on the road trading blowjobs for survival and booze. He drank to take the edge off and wash the taste of semen from his mouth. As we established trust we made the terrifying leap from telling war stories to making plans, and in the bitter cold of Massachusetts in January we devised a scheme to leave without being captured.
One night at 12:00 AM we quietly left our bunks. No one woke up, even when we broke the lock that separated us from our shoes and coats. Then we ran in pools of darkness towards the gym and auditorium where we had never played a game or watched a performance.
It was unlocked. We pilfered warm clothes from a closet then made our way to the basement where we hid beneath a tarp behind a boiler. We stayed there for 24 hours, pissing in the corner. We each had a baseball bat, and in the event that a member of the staff happened upon us we were going to beat them into unconsciousness. This almost occurred. One of the maintenance men came to the basement. I gripped my bat tight, readying myself to attack, but he left after a moment and there we stayed, going from hungry to starving.
To make the hours tolerable I engaged in a pleasure I had not enjoyed for 7 months, which was cursing. “Fuck”, “Shit”, “Piss”, “Dick”, and “Pussy” were edited out of our vocabulary through a number of punitive measures and they tasted wonderful in my mouth. Every sentence was a proper noun sandwiched between “Fuck” under that tarp. In the mildewed stink of the basement of this deteriorating building I discovered that I could speak once again.
When the next night fell we emerged from hiding. There were bicycles in the auditorium for reasons that escape me and we took two of them. We hurriedly walked them across the campus. Every time my shoe broke through the crust of ice coating the snow I thought it would be the giveaway that caused us to be apprehended. SK was brave. He knew the layout of the administrative offices and entered to steal the petty cash drawer. This would allow us to get bus tickets to anywhere that wasn’t here.
I watched him enter. The cold and my terror made the night hyperreal, realer than my days of sullen resentment and the delicate navigation of politics that takes place in any cultish bureaucracy. I had been dead for so long that the sudden return to life was too much. I did not know if I was up to the task of hauling myself through a life where I wasn’t commanded to do things, a life riddled with choice.
Choice was immediately removed when SK emerged from the mansion at a sprint. He slid as he stopped, saying quietly and clearly that we needed to run. There were paths for cars that had been plowed and were clear of ice and snow. We jumped on our bikes and rode as fast as we could. I did not ask for an explanation.
When we reached the road we turned downhill. This was faster. Between painful breaths I asked him what had happened. He told me that he had entered through the front door and walked towards the business office. When he swung the office door open he almost walked into a staff meeting. Every head turned in his direction.
I asked him if they followed. He didn’t know. A pair of lights crested the top of the hill behind us and we dove into the ditch on the side of the road, ducking into the dead ferns and stones. My pants got very wet and this worried me. The lights passed by, didn’t slow, didn’t stop and there was a moment of peace there in the margins. It was foundational to the power of Desisto school that a rumor circulated through the student body that the local sheriff’s department was paid a ‘gratuity’ for apprehending runaways. We ditched the bikes. They seemed useless if we were going to throw ourselves off the road whenever a vehicle appeared in the distance.
I don’t know anymore how long we walked but at some point we reached a railroad crossing and followed the tracks. I felt safer when we left the road and despite my own untenable position in the order of things I felt gratitude. It was a beautiful night. A generous moon made the snow glow and the houses near the tracks were radiating orange light from their windows. I imagined the families within, how they enjoyed a sense of normalcy. How the children were built right, not crazy or dangerous in the way I was.
We talked as though we were kids on an adventure rather than newly minted homeless runaways. It felt good to say fuck, to talk about how we would eat or where we would stay. The precariousness of our position just passed us by. We were free and that seemed to be enough. Eventually we reached a highway. We walked beside it, moving with the big trucks through the snow.
We were both tired when we walked into the parking lot of the truck stop. SK immediately set out to get a ride on one of the rigs. I joined him in the effort, screwing up my courage and then getting to it. Everything would be much easier if I could get closer to home. I needed help, a floor to sleep on or at least a way to get rides, someone to help me learn how to be unsheltered.
We were rebuffed over and over. Sometimes a driver would give us money or cigarettes, a turn of good fortune. We bought packaged pastries in the truck stop. The sugar and the nicotine and the delightful buzz of caffeine kept my fear at bay, all the questions about how I would live and where, what I would do to not die in the cold.
Finally a driver agreed to give us a ride. I don’t remember what story we told him about who we were but it was very likely unconvincing and cumbersome. Whatever we said he saw through it but didn’t confront us about it yet. After spending the five dollar bills he gave us on more garbage we began hurtling on the highway and I fought sleep as I sipped a coke. Eventually I lay down on the floor of the cab, SK already departed from consciousness in the bed above me.
I awoke to the knowledge that I was being studied. The trucker was squatting between the seats, staring at me. SK was already awake. He went on to call bullshit on us and our story. He was not without sympathy. He told us about himself. He was a veteran. He was also a gay man who lived with his partner on the outskirts of Albany. He knew we were runaways. He wanted our story. And so we unfolded, spilling out the minor atrocity that was Desisto. Then he brought us to his apartment.
His partner was laying in an armchair with a slice of pizza in his lap, watching Pulp Fiction at the exact moment when Uma Thurman’s character overdoses on heroin. He invited us to eat and we did. There was something heartbreaking about it. Living in New York there is a foundational aspect of pizza that gets into your bones. I felt I could go an entire day on a slice, that this could be the bedrock of my diet as a person with no place to live. It connected to so many memories of my earlier life that I felt overwhelmed, like I was about to burst.
I have thought quite a bit about this man in the years that followed. It’s likely that for many readers he would arouse suspicion. I have come to the conclusion that this is unjustified, an insult to a person who ever so briefly provided us with food, shelter and transportation. It is very possible that he had lived through a similar situation in his life and that his empathy was strong enough to pull him across the divide of conventional wisdom. Ultimately all that can be said is that he was kind. He never asked for anything, never touched me or SK. He seemed concerned at our alienation from our parents and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that we were unwilling participants in a cult that sought to dominate the emotional lives of our families.
It wasn’t long before I asked for the phone to call my parents. My father picked up promptly, told me he couldn’t talk to me, then asked where I was. I hung up. That had been foolish. Now they could figure out where we were. Very dangerous. There were stories at Desisto of parents hiring bounty hunters to retrieve their runaway children.
I panicked. As soon as I hung up the phone rang and I knew it was my father calling back. I had fucked up what could have been a comfortable couple of days and I knew it but my heart hurt so badly that I couldn’t help but try. I basically ran out the door, fumbling an excuse with SK in tow, something about buying cigarettes. We ran through the streets frantically hailing a ride from another kind soul who took us several miles and then gave us all the change in his car. It was enough to buy us each a ticket to Albany. We spent hours in a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from a station, each of us drinking endlessly from our sad cups of coffee, waiting for the bus to arrive.
We were deposited at the Greyhound station and into the frigid morning. The possibility that I could die of cold this winter. I carried a piece of paper on me. On it was my name and my family’s phone number. I felt that this would allow whatever agency discovered my corpse on a city street to identify me. I didn’t want to die anonymously, unmoored and unremembered. If there was someone left to mourn my passing than I was still someone.
The city was cold. The air was dry. Wherever we were in Albany was a desolation and the men’s shelter was the center of it. It was a soup kitchen that allowed dozens of us to sleep on mats on the floor. I slept with my boots as pillows. The air smelled of clothes that got wet and never dried and of feet. In the morning we were given stale donuts and pushed out the door. I’ve come to learn that this is standard practice in homeless shelters. If you’re lucky they will allow you to ride out the freezing night but when the sun rises you are dismissed from their presence to while away the hours of discomfort and boredom.
SK and I had serious logistical problems. We had no ID of any kind. Neither of us knew our social security numbers. The shelter was requiring us to furnish some proof of our identity and we were using fake names. We couldn’t trust our parents not to sell us out to the school. We were both aware that a return to Desisto would result in a period of psychological torture in which we were ‘cornered’, ‘sheeted’ and ‘farmed’.
In the absence of any actionable path to identification we sat at the library with the other homeless men while nights on the street barreled down upon us. We all scattered throughout the building and hid among the stacks in an effort to avoid attention. I read childhood favorites, even stole a paperback to bring back to the shelter and read in the dim light that never went out in that sad place.
In the morning the director of the mission said that we couldn’t stay there if they couldn’t identify us. But if we joined the biblical recovery program that they ran we could guarantee ourselves a place on the floor and food in the evening. Stupidly we said that we were atheists. We hadn’t yet learned that conviction wasn’t worth dying for. He became angry and cast us out, disdain on his face.
SK and I had a disagreement. He wanted to move on. I didn’t know where we’d be moving on to. I was holding out for a friend of a friend who was attending SUNY Albany, a guy in a band who was originally from Long Island. I thought there would be enough solidarity amongst punk rockers to guarantee us a place to stay, maybe even a weekend drive downstate. I called him time and again, wasting valuable change on a hopeless chance. I didn’t consider how he would be placing his own housing at risk or the spectrum of needs that I would present however much I might be unaware of them.
Eventually SK ditched me. I understand why. I was trying to get home. He was trying to get free. I took a bus to the SUNY Albany campus. I rummaged through the garbage cans in the food court. There was very little to be had and so I walked outside into a driving cold winter rain that soaked me through. I found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a bag on the ground, as unfortunate, lost and sodden as I was. I ate it without shame, with an almost religious reverence. Perhaps I wasn’t an atheist after all. I could feel the shaking of hypoglycemia ease and I looked for a place to sleep that was sheltered from the rain.
I slept under a loading dock that night. It was protected from the rain and hidden from casual glances. I hadn’t thought to gather newspapers to shove inside my clothes, which was a piece of street knowledge that I had been granted by one of the older men at the mission. I came to realize that it really helps to have a head start on having no place to live. Given a summer’s worth of planning, information and acquisition a person could better prepare for what is an inherently deadly situation. It occurred to me that I was fucked.
Over the course of my two weeks out of Desisto school I had waged a campaign of terror against my parents that was calculated and precise. There was an hour’s span of time between my sisters’ arrival home from school and my parents’ arrival home from work. I made sure to call during that time everyday. I would speak to both of my sisters and talk about how I was dying on the streets of a strange city, whipping them into a panicked frenzy that my parents’ would have to navigate. I thought I could wear down their resolve but they didn’t budge and for the most part wouldn’t speak to me at all. It was a return to Desisto school or nothing.
After several nights spent sleeping on the SUNY Albany campus I had found a heating vent that was especially comfortable to sleep in front of and when night fell I would curl up there, hugging myself tightly. One night a campus police cruiser pulled in front of me and a lone cop emerged from the car. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there and I answered with relative honesty. I was homeless and wasn’t allowed to stay at the shelter anymore. No, I didn’t have any identification.
That was all it took. He said he was detaining me on suspicion of solicitation. He thought I was a prostitute. I felt like I was probably due a shower if I was going to be selling my ass for money, but that did not change the state of affairs. He was going to transfer me to the custody of the city police.
I waited in the back of the car behind the metal grating and luxuriated in warmth in a strange mixture of terror and comfort. It wasn’t long before the city police arrived and transferred me into their car. It was a different vibe. A male and female pig, paired up to retrieve a sad teenage runaway. They plied me with questions about my identity and I was fucking up my answers. After a few fails the male cop turned to look at me and told me that he was going to shoot me in the head and leave my body in a ditch if I didn’t tell him who I was. He seemed very sincere. I wished that our positions were reversed but shooting him in the head sounded too easy.
I told them. Who I was, where I’d come from. They brought me to the station and told me they couldn’t hold me. I was ‘of age’ in New York and was as free to walk the street in search of pavement as anyone. And then they held me anyway, called my parents, and told me that I would stay handcuffed to a desk until a childhood friend of my father’s came from Woodstock to bring me back to Stockbridge, MA. I wanted to sleep but couldn’t. I knew what I was going back to.
He arrived in the early hours of the morning and I was released from my handcuffs. I walked out of the station exhausted and got into the front seat of the car, the first time I’d ridden shotgun in many months. I fought sleep as he drove North. We talked about nothing of importance. Not about the school, not about my time on the street or why I ran. Certainly not about what I was in for when I returned. Mostly we talked about Alcoholics Anonymous.
Contact with the founding document of AA was the only decent thing that had happened to me in my time at Desisto. In my first month, during endless questing for an avenue out of there, one of the sad and futile creatures on staff had told me that the best way to ‘graduate’ would be to address the problems that landed me there. Then they gave me the AA Big Book.
I dug into it, and though it had been written around 70 years earlier I experienced complete and utter identification with the experience described. I had never before known something true about myself. This knowing was hard, so hard that it filled me with regret, but this book explained in plain text an avenue out of the jails, institutions and death that had been the landscape of my future. I resolved to do as this seemingly ancient book said to the best of my ability.
In the wonderful heat of my father’s friend’s car I plied him for information about how to be in AA. I hadn’t had any opportunity to meet someone in the program outside of the confines of the school. I have no recollection of what he said. It was very likely the garden variety suggestions that any program neophyte is given: Don’t drink and go to meetings; one day at a time; keep it simple stupid.
I told him that I hadn’t eaten for days and that it was likely that I would be punished in a number of ways, one of those being extreme dietary restrictions- could we please get something to eat? And so we did, at some diner somewhere, a place that might not exist anymore, swallowed up by a bourgeoisie renaissance or a post-2008 slide into rural decay.
There isn’t a hint of recollection about what I ate besides french fries.I told him that I needed to use the bathroom. We were seated in the rear of the restaurant. I was facing the door, he was looking the other way. I walked outside and then ran through the parking lot and into the woods. I thought I heard him calling my name.
My father’s friend is dead now, killed on an interstate off-ramp when he exited his vehicle, his body thrown or dragged or run down by some young man who ruined a slew of lives, his own included. I went to the funeral in the darkest days of my own life and I wondered why it had happened to him. And there’s no reason. There’s no reason for anything.
I sat on a log in the woods. It was a warm day, steam rising off of melting snow. Then I walked in the woods along the road for a time until I came to a town. There was a library there, tiny, warm. The librarian said I could stay there even though I didn’t have a library card. I knew so little about how the world works. I read a book until I began to drift off to sleep, then stood and walked to the reference desk. I asked the librarian if she knew where there was a payphone and she directed me to a complex of medical offices nearby.
More walking, but things felt better here. It wasn’t Albany, full of towering concrete and hard living, a downtown denuded of residential life. There were families, children, people other than the desperate men for whom good luck was a thin mat on a hard floor.
I remember clearly the hallway where I made my final call to my parents. It was a reckoning of sorts. I spoke to my mother, explained that I truly wanted to come home and be a part of normal life again and that I could place a guarantee on abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Otherwise it would be a matter of years before they heard from me again. She relented. My father was coming to pick me up.
I sat in that hallway for hours, not entirely trusting the arrangement. I smiled at the people who passed me by. I asked several if it was an alright place to wait for a ride and the kindly women would assure me that yes, I was okay where I was. Several times I nodded off. It was the safest I’d felt in weeks. When my father arrived from a four hour drive I wasn’t sure what to do. Hug him? Or run the fuck away? The latter didn’t happen and it is quite possible that the former didn’t either. It didn’t feel like a reunion. I was scared that it was a ruse.
I don’t recall him asking me anything much about where I’d been and what I’d done. These things were mostly boring anyway. I froze. I starved. My life was threatened. As far as I am aware these are the commonplace indignities that homeless people encounter. I was worse at it than I wished that I was.
There was a moment of panic when he told me we were driving to Stockbridge to get my things. There was nothing in me that wanted to face the gaze of all those miserable people, and the nagging fear that I would be dropped off and left was raised and itchy. If I received any further indications that I would be an inmate of the Desisto School again I was prepared to jump from the car and run again.
We arrived and parked near the mansion. I said I could not, would not exit the car. It loomed large in the turning of day to night. It looked abandoned. It looked haunted. The lights within were those of an ambush predator- come too close and you’ll be swallowed up.
I sat in the car and the sleep that always pushed on me when I was warm returned. I snapped awake when my father returned. He wasn’t carrying anything. It was Desisto School policy that if a kid was on the run for more than 24 hours their things were donated to Goodwill. All my books, clothes and journals were either waiting to be sold at a thrift store or had been thrown out. I didn’t care. I wanted nothing of the taint of this place on me or in my life. My father seemed angry about it but he was angry much of the time anyway.
There were two stops on the drive south. We spent the night at the house of the man I’d run from. He wasn’t petty about it. Maybe he understood. I’d spent so much time chewing on the message that I was an irredeemable piece of shit that I expected everyone I met to have heard this message and relayed it down the line. We ate pizza that night. I had three slices and felt fat, and it occurred to me that this was a message from Desisto School as well. They wanted waifish boys and girls who measured their portions of salad and turned their noses up at sugar and flour.
The next morning we continued on our drive and my father unceremoniously announced that he was taking me to another boarding school. Just to look, to see if it was the right fit for me. I don’t know if he realized how damaged I was. Maybe he didn’t care. I don’t remember much of the place aside from it not looking like a prison and noting that students were allowed to walk alone and unsupervised on the grounds. I didn’t trust it and I didn’t trust him. I said I’d consider it but I’d already made a choice to avoid somewhere that seemed so well adjusted. I was tainted and spoiled and would stick out like a sore thumb in a place like this, a dark miasma crowning my head.
We arrived at my family home as the sun was setting. My sisters had made a banner welcoming me home. My grandfather was there. All these people were assembled, not giving orders and expecting to love me as though I was the person that I used to be. I was safe, I was warm, and lonely in a way I couldn’t express.