August 10, 1983, a date I will never forget and a date that has shaped my life more than any other since my birth.
It was a Wednesday and it was hot. Hot and incredibly humid. Dog Day Afternoon hot.
I was 19 years old and about to experience something I would never forget.
I was also an in-patient on the psychiatric unit of the Maine Medical Center in Portland. Less than 24 hours earlier my mother visited me and explained that I could not come home once I was discharged. My behavior, she explained, was unacceptable. My illness was manifesting itself in fits of uncontrolled rage, belligerent behavior and sheer arrogance.
This was my second hospitalization in less than one year. I was floundering and out of control. I remember being angry during that meeting with my mother, my doctor and a social worker. But my anger was much more about fear than anything else.
Where would I go? How would I survive?
I did not have a job. I had only the clothes on my back and 55 cents in my pocket. I not only know it was exactly 55 cents, I also know that it was one quarter and three dimes. I awoke the next morning and stared out the window of my hospital room. From the sixth floor, it was looked as if the city of Portland was snarling at me, ready to swallow me whole.
You may find yourself in another part of the world. . .
I was discharged at about 11 a.m. and began my walk down Congress Street, past the fire department, the statue of Longfellow and the porno theaters that have since disappeared.
By the time I hit the intersection of Oak Street, I was drenched in sweat. I stopped at the McDonald’s restaurant and asked to speak with the manager.
I was told the manager was busy. They were gearing up for a lunch rush. I asked when I could come back just before a man tapped me on the shoulder. “What do you need?” he asked.
I will never forget that man. His name was George Lydick. He lived in Falmouth, and he owned three McDonald’s restaurants in the area. He invited me to sit down and grabbed an employment application.
I can’t remember if I filled out the application. I do remember that he gave me a Big Mac and a chocolate shake. He asked if I could start immediately because he needed a third-shift utility worker, a janitor who would clean the bathrooms, change the oil in the fryaltors, empty the garbage, break down and sanitize the shake machine and mop the floors.
He was willing to take a gamble on me, but only when the restaurant was closed and there were no customers around. I had told him that I was just discharged from P-6, after all.
I had a job. I would earn $4.25 an hour, and George agreed to comp me two meals a day until I got my first paycheck. I shook his hand. Thanked him profusely and left in search of place to live.
Roughly 30 minutes later, I found myself with dozens of other people in the basement level of Portland City Hall. My name was called, and I met with a caseworker. I showed her my discharge papers and told her I just got a job at McDonald’s but had no place to live. The shame of being there was crushing.
The city, she explained, had limited resources, but if I could find an apartment that would take city vouchers, they could pay my rent until I got my first paycheck. They could not, however, help with any security deposits. She also gave me $17 worth of emergency food stamps and sent me on my way, looking for an apartment with a list of potential places and an eligibility form that the landlord would have to complete.
I struck pay-dirt on my first try, the emphasis on dirt. The apartment was a one-room efficiency on the fourth floor of a building that smelled of cat urine and featured peeling paint, torn carpeting in the hallways and lots of loud music. The rent was $50 a week. It included all utilities.
The room was tiny and had two windows, both of which could not be opened because of the swelling wood and lack of maintenance. The view featured the brick wall of an adjacent building. There was a stained mattress, a two-burner cook top and a micro fridge.
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.
It was 2:30 p.m. I had been on my own for a little more than three hours. I had a job and a place to live.
I was terrified and would begin my new job in less than eight hours.
Despite my accomplishments, I did make a very big mistake that day. I decided to use the toilet in my new apartment. It did not occur to me until it was much too late that I did not have toilet paper, a shower curtain, soap or even a towel.
My theory is if that ever happens to you, it only happens once. In the 28 years since, I’ve never had less than 28 rolls of toilet paper in my home at any given time.
I remember being stunned that I had to actually pay for things like towels, salt, soap and toilet paper. Those things should be free, I reasoned.
Welcome to being an adult.
My mother and a friend of hers visited me three days later. They brought with them several bags of groceries: cans of tuna fish and soup, fresh vegetables, peanut butter, bread and cereal.
Flash forward some 30 years later. I am sitting at my desk this morning, thinking that I should clean my pool instead of updating my blog. I am overlooking my gardens, and I am impressed with my lawn and its lack of brown spots. All my windows can be opened, and we have five air conditioners and stainless-steel appliances.
You may find yourself with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house . . .
Next week, I will wake up in my camper perched on the shore of Moosehead Lake. My, God. . . how did I get here?
I say all this because the taxpayers (you) made an investment in me. Nearly three decades ago, you gave me $117 in rent and groceries. For the next two years, you subsidized my medications and loaned me money to go to college.
Was it a wise investment? I like to think so, especially when I look at how much I pay in taxes; the money I donate to charity and the lessons I try to pass on to my two stepsons.
Sure, it doesn’t always work out this way. And who knows, maybe I could crash and burn, but sometimes the investment works out nicely.
Regardless, I will never forget that day.
It was my worst day, and it was my best day.
Originally published August 10, 2013