The city that this is based off of is Downtown Minneapolis, my hometown. A lot of this I took off of my personal experience.
I was once homeless.
For four and a half months I lived in my car in the downtown area, with nothing to do but walk the streets in my downtime. I still worked, but I could not afford a place on my own. I was 18-19 at the time (my birthday passed in that time) and I'd been kicked out of my parents house. In between work I had nothing, and it really gives you a perspective on what you really need to live day to day. And being homeless in the winter months of Minnesota? Sucks. It's flipping cold out there. I had to quit school because I couldnt afford it, so I dropped out of my classes that I was taking to become a police officer.
Now I'm going back to become a paramedic.
I worked in the building that was mentioned in the later parts of the story as a security officer. The bit with the kid near the end-ish, I actually saw that happen. In my work in security I work with homeless people all day. I hear their stories, and a lot of them are good people that just have drawn a short straw in life. And being homeless myself, I had a unique perspective on these people. Let me tell you, the holidays do not always make people more generous. A lot of people get to be rather rude.
This story is about being socially invisible, even around the holidays.
There are a few wiki links to help answer any questions if you're not familiar with the city at the end of the story.
"When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-- indeed, everything and anything except me.”
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
It’s weird, the things we see and the things we only choose to see. It’s like, the human brain has a switch or something that prevents us from seeing, well, what we don’t want to see. Or maybe some things are just invisible to us. Maybe we aren’t just ignoring things but really are so focused in our own little worlds that we literally can’t see past our own bubbles into the other ones.
Either way, I’m pretty sure I’m invisible.
It’s the holiday season. As soon as the first snow hit the ground the traffic in the skyways doubled. People wanted to avoid the streets, naturally; especially downtown where the skyscrapers created wind tunnels that were like to blow you halfway down the block. And in this weather, that translated as, well, it’s ****ing cold out, that’s what it translated to. Shoppers were the main form of traffic, families with moms and dads and kids, tourists coming from the suburbs to see the city and all its fancy Christmas lights. At least, that’s what everyone else saw. They don’t see the people like me, even though we’re always here. We shuffle from building to building, never really staying in the same place for long.
I saw the light parade yesterday. There were hundreds of families lined up along Nicollet Mall and even in the skyway. They were all bundled up in heavy winter coats and blankets, their eyes wide as each float went by. Dads were taking pictures and mothers were fussing over their children’s jackets. But no one saw me, just behind them, in my torn military coat, faded jeans, and sodden boots. They couldn’t hear me over the blaring holiday tunes that the floats played as I opened the purse that was hidden below their folding chair. My frozen hands fumbled a bit with the zipper as I was opening the woman’s coin purse and taking the only cash I could quickly grab, a lone five dollar bill.
The guilt sank in about a block and a half later. I was looking over my shoulder every two minutes or so as I stumbled through the skyways, worried that I’d been caught. But what was the crime really? It was five dollars. To them it was pocket change, to me it was life. They probably wouldn’t notice anyways. All I had in the world was an old backpack filled with the few things I’d managed to keep with me all these years. That was it. The entirety of my reality fit in a backpack when they probably had a house, two cars and more than I’d ever had in my life.
In the distance I saw my destination, a small café sitting on a corner. This part of the skyway was slowly emptying as the parade goers left for their homes. I thrust my hands in my pockets, my fingers curling in an iron grip over the stolen fiver. The windows were plastered with holiday decorations, wreathes, garland and twinkling lights. The place was empty save for a young woman, maybe in her early twenties, mopping the floor. Her mouth moved silently along with the Christmas music that I could barely hear through the walls.
I shuffled to the door, taking note of the open sign still glowing beside it, only to find the door locked. I tapped on the glass. The girl looked up from her mopping, looking around for the source of the sound. Then she looked directly at me. I gave a small wave, but then she looked away. She put down the mop and made her way to the door. I smiled, happy for once that someone seemed to notice me.
And then she turned off the open sign and walked away.
Of course, why did I even think otherwise?
I turned, leaving the woman to her work. I left to roam the skyway, hoping to at least make it to a place where I could sit for a time before being forced to leave by security. Eventually I made it to the IDS Center. It was a haven for me. There was a waterfall in the middle of the Crystal Court, surrounded by white benches and in the corner stood a giant Christmas tree. It stood probably fifty feet tall and was decorated for bear. Families scrambled to get in line to take their holiday pictures in front of the tree, and security guards were scrambling to keep the visitors off the tree. The security here was known to be strict, but there were a few guards who were merciful to my kind. And they were so busy with the tourists that I knew they would have no time for a lost soul like me.
I sat heavily on the bench closest to the escalators. My feet were numb from walking all day and the relief of being able to sit was heavenly. For now I could entertain myself by watching the people that hurried by, trying to get wherever they were going before the stores all closed.
A little boy was being dragged along by his mother. His little face was skewed in anger and his mother’s stern. He was throwing a tantrum, squealing that he wanted a candy bar. They were alone, I realized, just the mom and child. Where was the father? Was she a single mother? I smiled, thinking of my own mother. She’d done it alone, working three jobs just to barely keep bread on the table. When she lay dying she told me that she was proud to have done what she could.
I felt the five dollar bill in my pocket. It was doing me no good, and the shelter would be open tomorrow. I stood as she reached into her purse and pulled out her cellphone, barking at whoever was on the other end. I walked up to the boy, still standing behind his mother. He looked at me wide-eyed as I reached into my coat pocket and handed him the only money I had in the world. “Go get your candy bar, kid,” I told him. He took the money with a nod, his eyes still wide.
As I started to return to my bench I overheard the guards telling the visitors that the Court was closing. I decided to leave, make my way back to the others. I nudged my way through the rotating doors and started down the street, humming my own little tune along with the brass music that was being played on the speakers below the skyways. Snow crunched under my boots as I made my way to the alley that had been my home for the last two months, and would be my home until we were told to leave.
Rodger and Bill were already there, huddled by a trash can fire, warming their hands. Rodger was an old mechanic that had lost his job in the recession, his wife divorced him and his family ditched him when he lost everything. Bill was a Vietnam vet who loved to tell his war stories and rant about how the government was screwing him over. Good guys, the both of them. And neither of them deserved this life, then again, did I? After my mom died when I was just out of high school I found myself homeless, alone and no family. Here I was, twenty two years old and still in the same place. These two guys were the only thing I had that was anywhere close to friends, hell, even family.
None of us chose this life, but still, it’s a life.
I grunted a quick hello as I passed them and made my way to the rotted mattress that I had found the month previous. They said nothing to me as I passed them, too engrossed in their fire. I laid on my back and looked up at the sky, the stars were blocked by clouds that were threatening to dump more snow on us. I listened to the fire crackling as the others started talking about their days.
Bill said a joke, making Rodger laugh lightly. There was a pause for a moment before I heard Rodger ask, “Been a month… you seen Nick? I’m getting a bit worried about the kid.”
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!
Nicollet Mall Holidazzle Parade (light parade mentioned) Skyways (Minneapolis has the most extensive skyway system in the world, you can get anywhere in the major downtown area via skyway, they scan for miles and miles.)