The Cold Winter (01.29.2009)
I was a software engineer with an MBA in finance. I worked at a well-paying banking job near the southern coast of Ohio, a relatively low-cost state. My apartment, food, and rental car costs were covered by the bank I worked for. I worked hard and was paid well, but for the next few years, most of my money would go towards scratching my day trading itch, rather than a lot of savings. So, I lived relatively frugally, but quite comfortably, in my two-bedroom apartment, driving my 2001 Honda Civic, being with the family, and living life in general. There were no complaints.
And then it happened. A freak stroke of luck — the financial tsunami of 2008 along with an urgent need for money to pay off some medical costs. I had lost my job a month ago and did not have medical insurance during the period. All of a sudden, the bills continued to come in, the margin calls continued unabated, and the markets continued to nosedive. At the end of it all, I found myself staring at the carnage of my bank account. $2,140, it said in all. I did have some 80K salted away in my 401K’s.
I had no income for the foreseeable future and no dependable means to pay rent as my savings eventually wore out. I tapped an old friend Mike from my days before and he helped me secure a job back in his old company I used to work for — In Portsmouth, NH.
And so I went, eternally grateful to someone who took the time to put in a good word to get me the job. I carried with me three pairs of shirts, two pants, a tie, and formal leather shoes. A credit card on a tight leash and bag full of apprehension completed the luggage. The family stayed behind for a month. We had just renewed the lease anyway.
I called another very close friend of mine hoping he might let me stay with him in his room for a few days. He and I have been best buddies for years now in the US.
“I am sitting on a beach in Melbourne”, he laughs. My spirits soar. I can have the room then, I hope.
“You can stay in the hall. My room has a lot of sensitive documents for my green card filing all littered around”, he says without any comprehension.
Deflated, but helpless, I accept. I need one more favor.
“Can I use your car for a couple of days until I go back to Ohio and drive mine back?” I ask, this time a bit apprehensively.
“Umm… Nah. I usually don’t let anyone use my car”.
I wonder what definition I use to call people my friends. But this is life.
So, there I was. In the middle of January, sleeping on a futon in the hall room that was barely warm. I did not have space to take a thick blanket in my carry-on as I tried to skimp on the 40$ luggage check-in. Now I was ruing that mistake.
“Here, you can have a blanket. You will need it late in the night…”, my friend’s roommate Dennis kindly offers one. I take it gladly. I wanted to say thank you but he was gone already.
And so every morning, I walked out of that apartment in the freezing snow, looked at my friend’s gleaming silver Honda Accord parked outside, and walked the three miles down to the office, through the winding Ocean road, past the truck stop, on to route 33 that fed traffic to the I-95N and then down Corporate drive. The last mile felt the longest.
The cars that passed would see a brown-skinned Indian, dressed in formals, pointed leather shoes, inappropriately attired for the winter, drudging through the snow-covered roads looking behind him hopefully for a second as they drove by.
The route 33 road that fed the I-95 was the worst. The wind chill usually picked up and the cars that whizzed by, their tires spit out a slew of brown-black ice muck directly onto the side, straight onto my right. It was not their fault. There was no actual road to walk, just a thin white line drawn on black tar. My right ear, frozen, alternating my freezing hands — One to hold the leather bag, another inside the pocket, clenching furiously trying to keep it warm.
On days when Dennis went at the same time as me, he would drive me to the office. I could not imagine how better and shorter the distance felt when driving in a car with the heater turned on. I wanted to thank him, again and again, but instead, I just stared outside the passenger window — Each pavement, each tree, each marking now intimately familiar from the daily walking.
At the tail end of January, a freak storm hits the northern corridor. Sheets of snow overnight make everything around me white. It’s a dull gray and dark day as I trudge through the snow, one step at a time. The leather shoes were already filled to the brim with white powder, my feet numb. It’s just the 10th day on the job and I could not afford to stay home. There is no home anyway, just a futon by the cracked window with a black wheeler bag underneath it.
I hear the sound of a car approaching but dare not look behind. I want to be careful with the leather shoes. The grip is almost nonexistent.
“You need a ride”. He is not asking. He is telling me.
This man is in his 40’s, with long gray hair with a mullet, a big guy with a blunt nose, and a thick face. Rednecks, we intellectuals used to laugh at those types. Now I am sitting in his truck shivering, the heater blaring in the ’80s, and the snow in my shoes slowly melting forming a puddle inside and outside.
I apologize. He laughs.
And so, it becomes a norm. I walk every day and he stops by most days. Drives me to the gate of my office and then goes off on his way.
“I hope I am not having you go out of the way for me…” I ask hesitantly one day.
“Not at all buddy!!… I am just down the lane before yours. Relax…Here, have a bagel. I am taking some for the guys.”
From there on, every time I am in his car there is a bagel and a cup of warm coffee laid out in the middle aisle for my breakfast. Two cups of cream and sugar. He had asked how I liked it.
I spy an office badge in the cup holder one day. Ryan Montana, Security Officer. The address is in Hampton, 20 miles away — in the opposite direction.
I look outside the window and thank him silently.
On Fridays, I go back to my friend’s house and wait patiently for two hours at the bottom of the stairs to the porch to be let in. When Dennis finally came back home after a couple of drinks, I walked up behind him.
“Hey, Sorry I didn’t know you were waiting. You could have called.”
There was no phone. Could not own that yet. Needed to save enough, quickly.
“No worries. I just came in like 5 minutes ago myself”, I find myself saying. At least I had a place to come back to.
So here I was — A Business Analyst working in a public company, one month away from being homeless through all the fault of my own, utterly dependent on the mercy or lack thereof of friends and strangers.
And what if there had been no kindness? What if the universe had not struck the light of mercy in these people? What if a friend had not taken the time to push the managers to sign me up quickly? What if there were no friends of friends to lay out a futon or share a blanket? What if I’d had no stranger to drive me at times to work, to feed me a bagel & coffee from his breakfast, to put the heater on max to warm me up? Or no savings to pay, first for the apartment rent, and then for the medical expenses? What if….?
I am now a mid-level professional. My Linked In is packed with certifications, recommendations, and requests from people who want me to come work for them. I earn six figures and then some. I promised myself long ago I would never be in that condition again.
My family never knew. Some things are better kept to yourself.
But that experience taught me something — I am so much more.
I am the sign beneath the overpass.
I am the voice from the curb.
I am you…