I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else. It’s a common human affliction really. This not taking stock of our world and our lives, not finding anything to feel thankful about. Comedians like George Carlin and Lewis Black are right about this, hilariously funny, but right. Thanksgivings are an opportunity to combine three uniquely American activities: shopping, gluttonous eating, and watching NFL players knock the stuffing out of each other all afternoon and evening.
I may not eat to the point of puking on Thanksgiving (I usually do all the cooking, so I’m usually not hungry by the time the table’s set anyway) or participate in the annual American pastime of getting ready for Xmas the day after at the nearest malls. I do watch some football, although I’m not a big fan of Dallas or Detroit (the two teams that normally play on Turkey Day). But I must admit that I don’t take time out as much as I used to to say thanks — to God, for my family, for those who’ve been there for me, for all the good that remains in me and in my life.
And on Thanksgiving week especially, there have been important moments in my past for me to remember. I sometimes need to remind myself that though life hasn’t always been great, these moments make life worth living. One of the most important ones occurred nineteen years ago, in the aftermath of my five days of homelessness on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in the fall of ’88. The revelation that I needed help — and lots of it — to make it through the semester and through college was obvious even after I found a place to live. Right after Labor Day, I sorted out all of my financial aid issues, completely paying off my room and board bill from last year. I found myself with only $450 left over for the semester, even with students loans, Challenge Scholarship, and Pell Grant in hand. Once I accounted for books, food, linens, a new Walkman and other basic needs, I only had a little more than $200 left over. That was by the third week in September.
Even working at CIS didn’t help. Because of my five days in search for a living space, I didn’t get on the computing lab work schedule for September. Pitt paid all of its employees, Work-Study and otherwise, once a month and in arrears. My first full paycheck wouldn’t be until the end of November. I felt screwed. I survived homelessness only to face a major financial crisis, one that left little margin for error. I could’ve saved the forty-five dollars I spent on the new Walkman for some food.
I paid my $140 in rent on time at the beginning of October, and stretched the remaining $70 as much as I could. I made my mother’s favorite cheap meal for one week, five-dollar spaghetti with broccoli. With seasoning and Kool-Aid at home, who needed anything else? With all my efforts, the spaghetti and not-so-meaty meat sauce lasted most of the week. Week two was pork neck bones and rice with spinach, the first time I’d eaten a significant amount of pig since the pre-Hebrew Israelite days. Week three was a vat of tuna fish “salad,” which was mixed with just a tiny bit of scraped-from-the-bottom Miracle Whip with salt and pepper. By the end of that week, I couldn’t eat tuna from a can anymore, and I still haven’t to this day.
The end of October rolled around with few prospects and another drop in my weight. I was sick of Kool-Aid made with bad Pittsburgh water and peanut butter sandwiches. My money was so short that I finally swallowed my pride and asked for help. I first asked Regis, after he noticed that we weren’t even hanging out at the Roy Rogers in the Cathedral of Learning. After I told him about my starvation diet, he said, “Man, I can at least bring you some bread and a potata. We don’t want you out here starvin’.” Later that week, Regis actually gave me some bread and a small sack of potatoes. I bummed a few dollars off of Marc, enough to add a hamburger and some chips to my diet of peanut butter crackers and peanut butter sandwiches. Others got into the act, including Lee, who shared some of his dinner with me a couple of times back at Welsford.
I also started donating plasma through Sera–Tec’s South Oakland “lab” twice a week to supplement my lack of income. It required me to lie next to winos, homeless men, and college students apparently doing this for similar reasons or because it was part of their hazing as frat pledges. I made $75 for six sessions of donating enough plasma to save many lives. The IVs the technicians used and reused they also stuck in the same place in my right arm. So much so that several doctors in the decade after my Sera–Tec days asked me if I ever used heroin. Sera–Tec was a temporary fix all right, one that only provided enough money for more bread, peanut butter and Kool-Aid.
Despite these acts of generosity and my acts of desperation, I knew that I’d probably starve before the semester was over. I had less than ten dollars to work with after the first week in November. I went to Thackeray Hall to register for classes for next semester. While there, it occurred to me to go upstairs to see one of the financial aid counselors, an older Black woman who’d been really nice to me while working through my bill issues earlier in the semester. I told her in detail what was going on. “You need to talk to Ron,” she said, referring to Ron Slater, the university ombudsman, the person who normally resided over tuition payment issues. So there I was the next day, explaining to the ombudsman my situation. “We’ll take care of this, we’ll find you some extra money. Just hang in there for a few days.” He actually offered me money right out of his wallet. “No thanks, I’ll be all right,” I said, my voice starting to crack because I was so grateful that anyone cared enough to help me through my dire straits. I somehow found a way not to cry right there on the spot.
The week before Thanksgiving, I went to check in with Beverly, the financial aid person I’d seen earlier. “I’ve got good news for you, but you’ll have to wait a few days.” Through the ombudsman, the university had recalculated my financial aid package, increasing my Pell to the maximum amount allowed, and adding the federal SEOG grant (Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants) to my aid menu. Both gave me an extra $800 to work with. After that weekend, one where Regis’ potatoes became a part of my diet, I bummed five dollars off of one of my classmates from General Writing. The next day I got my check from the ombudsman. “I’m so glad to have been of help. It’s part of my job. I just wish you’d come to me earlier,” Ron said. Hearing that did get me to tear up. I was in the spirit of the season already. It was two days before Thanksgiving. I spent that holiday at Melissa C.’s house with her and her father, an ailing contractor in his early-sixties. It was the most thankful holiday I’d ever experienced.
It was the first of five straight Thanksgivings either spent with friends and their families or by myself, but all in which I was thankful for what I had while striving for something better. It seems like it’s been a lifetime since those naive and cynical days, where I didn’t trust anyone in my life. The bout with homelessness and the financial straits that followed changed my life in ways that I notice even today. Even with the years of working long hours and fighting for my career as a writer, I realize that I wouldn’t be here or on this blog doing any of what I’m able to do today without the kindness of strangers and friends, the ability to divorce myself from my past or the sense that God had a purpose for me, a reason for living and being. Even after nearly two decades, I have this and so much else to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!