Aged not-quite 19, I moved out of my parents’ home to a basement apartment in a slum. Years later, that same slum area would undergo urban renovation, and the once-gracious mansion, restored to dignity, would become a psychiatric clinic, located on a street of other restored mansions not far from the President Benjamin Harrison home. But at the time I and a roommate lived there, it was decidedly a slum.
And that was okay. We were young, and, like all the very young, totally believed ourselves to be invincible. We ignored or laughed off the very real dangers of the area in which we lived.
Unlike my roommate, however, I did not see my newfound freedom and my escape from the rigors of my family’s problems as license to live riotously. Disturbed by her use of drugs and alcohol and her sexual promiscuity, only three months later I moved once more, this time to a tiny studio apartment just a few blocks away, carved out of what had been a hotel in the 1930s. It had lovely parquet floors, a gigantic, time-worn old bathtub, and a miniature kitchen fashioned from what had once been a closet. Most of the population of the building were elderly pensioners, living in this low-rent district to eke out their Social Security, and the local hooligans, aware of the dates when then-paper checks were delivered, lay in wait and regularly mugged residents in the front hall. My youth helped me to avoid such a fate, but more than once I was unfortunate enough to walk in just after such a frightening assault had taken place.
Despite the ever-present threat of robbery and muggings, though, I often found myself walking to my job. For the same reason that I lived in the low-rent district, I had to forego taking the bus; I could not always afford the 35-cent bus fare. I earned only minimum wage at my job as a file clerk, and most of my salary went to pay my rent while saving for the required deposit and installation fees to the phone company, a monopoly which had a stranglehold on communications and could charge whatever it pleased. It took me months to save enough cash to have a landline phone installed. My groceries each week, purchased after a long walk to the only grocer in the area were, again, all I could afford, and numbingly the same: a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a box of cereal, seven cans of soup, two packages of cold cuts, a carton of eggs, and some salad goods. When my brother and sister-in-law brought me a kitten, I added a few cans of the cheapest pet food and cat litter to my purchases. Each week I carefully hoarded quarters so that I could do my laundry using the machines in the scary basement (also the site of many an assault—I learned to do my laundry at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, when the muggers were sleeping off the previous night’s excesses). The uniforms that I wore to my job, which were supposed to be dry-cleaned, I carefully hand-laundered in the bathtub, hanging them over it to dry. Dry cleaning would have been an expensive luxury, even had there been a cleaners within walking distance.
Oddly enough, although the rigors of my existence at that time were trying, frightening and heartbreakingly lonely, I don’t regret a moment of it. What I learned from those two years of poverty and isolation was resilience. I learned that I could take complete care of and responsibility for myself, and even for another helpless little creature. I found that I could be so terrifyingly lonely that suicide seemed a viable option—yet that I was strong enough to resist that lure, to fight despair, and to carry on. I learned that I was competent. I discovered that I was a survivor.
The experience gained in those two years of living on the raw edge of life, aged only 18 to 19, was incredibly powerful and contributed to my later hardiness in a life that has often been filled, as are most lives, with anguish, tragedy, fear, and difficulty.
I will never claim that I enjoyed that period of my existence, but I will always recognize that it gave me many undeniable and precious gifts. Because of those two rigorous years, and the lessons I learned from them, I can agree, wholly and completely, with what Fra Giovanni wrote centuries ago in 1513, counseling about the vicissitudes of life: “Welcome it; grasp it and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a duty, or a sorrow, believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there….”
The gift was, truly, there, and I touched the angel’s hand.