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IT IS WHAT IT IS

THE BOWERY MISSION

Book Excerpts Posted on Wed, September 21, 2016 14:11:59

From the book TRUTH ACCORDING TO MICHAEL by Stevan V. Nikolic, Chapter Three / Part II

Michael and Victor climbed up a narrow wooden staircase to the chapel
balcony. There were about eighty other men there already. They were all
different ages and of different origins. From twenty to over sixty years of
age, most of them were black or Latino, with a dozen white and a couple of
Asian men. “The real New York in small.” Michael was thinking.

The Pentecostal preacher who spoke that morning was a novelty for
Michael as well. Before in his life, he attended many different Christian
Churches, but they were all mainstream traditional denominations: Orthodox
Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran. But he was never in
a Baptist or Pentecostal Church, and never met any of newborn Christians. He couldn’t hear everything the preacher was
saying because of the bad sound system, but he heard a Bible verse that the
preacher repeated several times: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward
you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and
a hope.” It was Jeremiah 29:11.

After the service, the students went to the dining hall. It was a large
room with fifteen round tables each seating ten, and with the serving line and
kitchen in the back. Breakfast that morning was simple, oatmeal and fresh
bananas. Michael took his plate with oatmeal and looked around the hall to find
Victor and sit next to him.

Victor appeared with a cup of milk from somewhere.

“Do you want some milk in your oatmeal? It will cool it down. It’s too
hot.”

“Sure,” Michael replied.

“So, you guys are new here?” A chubby young man with thick glasses
sitting across from Michael asked. Michael looked at him. He couldn’t figure
out if this kid was Latino or white, but he couldn’t be more than twenty years
old, Michael thought. His thick greasy hair was dark brown, almost black, but
his eyes were blue and he had red chicks and pale white face.

“Yes, we came last night,” Michael said.

“Do you have beds yet?” The kid asked.

“No, we slept in the chapel last night. They say maybe something will be
available today.” Michael answered.

“Oh, by the way, my name is Jeremiah.”

“Michael,” Michael responded and nodded his head.

“I’m Victor,” Victor mumbled trying to swallow a mouthful of oatmeal.

“There are two guys going from the second floor to the fourth or fifth
floor today, I think,” Jeremiah continued, “All new guys are given a room on
the second floor the first month. After that, they move to either the fourth or
fifth floor. Those rooms are bigger and they have seating areas. I am still on
the second floor. I came two weeks ago.”

“Good morning.” Rick, the old man from the clothing room came and sat at
their table. “How’s your first night at Bowery?” he asked Victor and Michael.

“We were with Francis in the Chapel. He was walking up and down the
aisle all night,” Victor answered.

“That lunatic, I don’t know why they allow him to spend nights here. I
think the Mission director has a soft spot for him. He is allowed to do many
things that nobody else can do,” Rick said. “The other day I gave him pants
before a shower, and he threw them back into my face while yelling ‘bad man,
bad man.’ I don’t know why he called me a bad man, I didn’t do anything, just
gave him pants.”

“Oh, he lives in his own world. Who knows what is in his head,” Jeremiah
said.

“Hello, gentlemen,” A tall and well-built Hispanic man in a dark gray
suit and blue shirt without tie, cup of coffee in hand, came and sat at the
table. “We have newcomers here, I see.”

“Welcome, guys,” he continued while looking curiously into Michael and
Victor. “I know you,” he said to Victor.
“Were you here before?”

“Yes. Twice, but I haven’t completed the program. The first time, I was
kicked out for leaving without permission and getting high; the second time, I
just left before the end of the program.”

“The third time’s a charm. How about you, young man?” he said with a bit
of irony in his voice while looking at Michael.

“It is my first time here, or in any place like this, for that matter,”
Michael answered.

“I hope it will work out for you. It did for many. I am Pastor Lee
Quinones. I have been a counselor here for the past twenty years. Twenty-four
years ago, I came here the same way you did, as a homeless man.”

“And they kicked you out three times,” Rick said with a smile.

“Yes, I am not ashamed to admit it. I was a wild kid, hooked on
everything that was available on the streets. It took me four times to complete
the program. But I did. Anyway, you two probably don’t know who will be your
counselor yet, but if you need anything ever, my office is on the third floor.
Also, I am the only counselor who lives in the Mission, so pretty much, I am
available twenty-four-seven.”

“Thank you,” Michael said.

Michael finished his oatmeal. He
didn’t know what to do next. As students were finishing their breakfast, they
were leaving the dining room and going to get ready for morning Bible classes.
But since Michael wasn’t assigned to any room yet, he didn’t receive his
schedule either. All he knew was that he could not leave the Mission anymore without
permission. And he didn’t have the desire to leave anyway. Still tired from
sleepless nights on the subway, all he was thinking of were rest, food, and
peace.

He stood up and took his tray with the empty plate to the station for
dirty dishes at the corner of the dining room. He looked around. Homeless
people were already taking the chairs of the students who were leaving. There
was a big contrast between them. All of those in the program were in clean and
often brand new clothing, shaven and clean, while most of the homeless from the
outside were in ripped and smelly clothing, unshaven, and they all looked very
stressed.

There were quite a few women with small children among the homeless. It
was a sad picture to look at. It was the world Michael didn’t know anything
about. But for the last ten days, he was a part of it. He knew that for some of
these people being homeless was the only way of life they knew. He couldn’t
understand how they could cope with it.

The last ten days had been like being in hell. And it seemed to him that
he had escaped by a thread yet again. The more he looked at the students around
him, the more he was convinced that he got lucky by joining this program. They
all looked well nourished, well dressed, and content. The program would give him time to
recuperate, recharge his batteries in peace and in a safe place. That is
exactly what he needed.

That afternoon Michael got his bed in a room on the second floor. The
admission counselor gave him a slip for clothing and he went to Rick in the
clothing room to pick everything he needed. He got four pairs of jeans, four
t-shirts, four dress shirts, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, two
new sweaters, a leather jacket, sneakers, brown dress shoes, and slippers for
the bathroom. He also got four towels, shampoo, and more toiletries. Most of
the things he got were brand new. Nothing one would expect to get in a homeless
shelter.

“This is crazy. Like in a candy store where everything is free,” Michael
said.

“We call it “Blessing-dales” department store, you know, like
Bloomingdales,” Rick answered. “Most of the students come here without any
clothing and by the end of the program, they have so much clothing that they
don’t have to buy anything for at least the next two years. The Bowery is one
of the oldest and best-known Missions in the city and has many big donors. Some
of the best fashion houses, like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, donate
clothing directly to the Bowery. So you have a homeless guy just coming from
the streets into the program suddenly wearing a three-hundred-dollar shirt and
a suit worth over a thousand.”

“This would be a good place to work,” Michael said.

“It is good, but it is not easy at the same time. Twice a week we have a
crowd of about two hundred homeless men from outside taking showers down here
and we are providing them with a change of the clothing. It is like a mad
house. Half of them are crazy, the other half wants only brand new clothing, so
they can sell it after they walk out of here, and then after two days they are
back in their old rags; and again demanding brand new stuff. Some of them are
really nasty; like it is their right, not a privilege.”

“But if you want, you can ask your counselor to send you here to work,”
Rick continued “Just so you know – I am the boss here, and there is a lot of
work every day. We receive bags and bags of donated clothing and all of that
needs to be sorted out, folded, and placed where it belongs. The good part of
working here is that you get to pick the best pieces for yourself; of course,
carefully, nothing in excess. Otherwise, other students will complain.”

It took Michael only a few days to adapt to the new situation. He was
assigned to a counselor, Pastor Charles Jourdan. He was a Haitian man in his
fifties, always with a smile on his face, and always starting every
conversation with a quote from the Scriptures. Every Monday morning, at
9:00a.m., Michael had to go for a session with the counselor to discuss the
progress of his recovery, his plans for the future, and anything else that may
help him get on the right path after the completion of the program.

Most of the working days in the Mission were the same. All students had
to work one of many jobs within the Mission. Some were working in the kitchen,
some as ushers in the Chapel, others in the clothing room or any other duties
needed in running and maintaining of the Mission.

The lights would go out at ten in the evening and by that time everybody
had to be in bed.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays from ten in the morning until noon, students
had the right to go out to the nearby park, to walk around or play sports.
Michael used that time to walk to Barnes and Noble on Union Square, look
through the new magazines, and check out new book titles. After a while, he
started feeling normal again. He started thinking about the future. He still
didn’t know what he would do after the Bowery Mission, but he was gaining his
confidence back.

He managed to be assigned to work in the clothing room. It was a good
place for him. He was good at organizing things, and he also liked good
clothing. After just one month of working there, he had quite a nice wardrobe
that would have cost a lot of money, if he had bought it in the store.

The only thing that bothered him was that he was completely cut off from
the outside world. Yes, he could walk around the city twice a week, but there
was no way for him to get in touch with anybody if he wanted. He didn’t even
have a quarter for the phone. And the use of internet in the computer room was
limited and supervised.



THE BOWERY MISSION

Book Excerpts Posted on Wed, September 21, 2016 14:08:43

From the book TRUTH ACCORDING TO MICHAEL by Stevan V. Nikolic – Chapter Three/ Part I

He was relieved that after so many days, he was going to take a shower,
have something to eat and have a safe place to sleep. But six months looked
very long for him to be cut off from the outside world. He promised Eliza that
he will bring her to New York by the end of the month.

“What will I say to her? he was thinking. He didn’t have the means now
to contact her anyway. And for six months he wouldn’t be able to look for a job
or a way out of his situation. It seemed like such a long time. But he knew
that he had to go one day at a time.

“For now, I am safe. Mid-March and the weather in New York is like
winter in full swing. It is so cold. It is good to be here for now,” he
thought. “Gives me time to think about what to do next.”

The stocky man in the t- shirt came back.

“Hi guys, my name is Mike. You are Victor and Michael, right?”

“I am Victor.” The man with the big afro said.

“And you are Michael, like me?”

Michael just nodded his head.

“You are now the fourth Michael in the program. There are two more here.
I will take you guys down to the clothing room to find something clean to wear,
and then to the showers. I understand that you will be staying in the chapel
for a couple of nights. It is not that bad of a deal. It is better than
outside. I heard that two students are leaving today from my floor. Maybe,
you’ll get lucky and sleep in a bed tomorrow.”

They went down the narrow staircase from the second floor back to the
reception hall, and from there through the Chapel, they continued to the
basement of the Mission.

On the left side of the long basement hall, with walls and ceiling
painted in gray, was the clothing room door. Further down the hall were shower
rooms. All three of them, led by Mike, entered the clothing room.

The clothing room was a large basement space lit with neon lights and
painted white. Alongside one longer wall were metal shelves filled with folded
clothing up to the high ceiling. On another side, were clothing racks with
coats, suits, and shirts. Lined in the middle were long folding tables covered
with piles of unfolded clothing.

“Rick, these are new students. They are going to take showers, so they
need a change of clothing. Can you help them?”

“Do they have clothing requisition slips?” the skinny old man, hardly
five feet tall, with gray hair, and a strong West Indian accent, asked.

“No, Rick. They are not assigned beds yet, so they will come with slips
later. They just need one change of clothing for now.”

“Okay. Here are underwear and socks.” Rick started pointing with his
hand around the room. “Here are pants and t- shirts. On other side are dress
shirts and jackets. Over there are sweaters. Over here are towels and
toiletries. Take one of each for now and when you get a clothing requisition
slip, come back and I’ll give you more. If you need shoes or sneakers, they are
here, on the shelves. Try to find your size. Toiletry sets are on that table.
Each contains razor, toothpaste and toothbrush, and a soap.”

Once they got clean clothing, Mike showed them where the showers were.
Michael threw his worn underwear, socks, and shoes in the garbage.

“Hey man, this really stinks. How long you went without a shower?” Mike
asked.

“Almost two weeks. I spent the last ten days sleeping on the subway.”
Michael answered.

“No wonder it stinks.”

Michael couldn’t remember the last time he enjoyed a shower that much.
He kept rubbing himself with soap, trying to remove the stench that got into
his skin and his nostrils.

After the shower, Mike took them to the Manager’s Office to introduce
them to the Manager on duty, showed them the dining hall, and returned them to
the chapel.

“Dinner will be in an hour and a half after the evening service here in
the chapel. When service is finished, you just go to the dining hall and get in
line with the other students. For now, you can stay here.”

“Mike, can I go out and have a smoke?” Victor asked.

“Well, maybe, this is your last chance. You are not assigned a bed, so
you are not technically in the program yet. If you have a cigarette, smoke it
now because later you won’t be able to. And go around the corner, not in front
of the building. Students are not allowed to smoke.”

Victor turned and looked at Michael. “Do you want to go out too?”

“I don’t have a cigarette. Can you spare one?”

“I have two last ones. May as well smoke them. Come.”

They walked out of the Chapel through the main red door. In front of the
Chapel, along the building wall, all the way to the corner, a line of homeless
people waiting to enter the Chapel had already formed. Victor and Michael went
around the corner to the end of the line, stood on the side under the street
light pole, and lit up cigarettes.

“This feels good,” Michael was thinking. “I am clean, in clean clothing,
have a place to sleep tonight, and soon I will eat.”

“Can you spare a cigarette?” Michael heard behind his back.

A chubby girl, not more than twenty years old, with curly blond hair, a
pale face with red cheeks from the cold, and smudged bright red lipstick
approached Michael from the back of the soup kitchen line. “So, can you give me
a smoke?” she repeated.

“This is my last cigarette,” Michael answered.

“Listen, bro, don’t be stingy. I’ll suck your dick for a smoke.”

“Sorry, I really don’t have another cigarette,” Michael said and turned
towards Victor and away from the girl.

“Oh, what a faggot,” the girl said and went back in the line.

Victor started laughing. “You see, man, if I didn’t give you my last
cigarette, she’d be sucking my dick now.”

Michael couldn’t believe what he
just heard from this homeless girl. How desperate she was, that she would
perform oral sex to a complete stranger for one single cigarette. “How tragic
is the world I just entered,” Michael thought.

That night Michael was sleeping on the mat on the tiled floor of the
Bowery Chapel. Besides him and Victor, the only other person there was a
homeless guy named Francis. He wasn’t in the program, but he was almost a
regular guest at the Bowery Mission. Everybody there knew his story and felt
bad for him, so sometimes they allowed him to sleep in the Chapel even if it
wasn’t very cold outside.

Until five years ago, Francis was a young and ambitious adjunct
professor of American History at Baruch College. His colleagues were predicting
a bright future in higher education for this upbeat and very talented black man.
He managed to rise up and out from his poor childhood in the Bronx projects to
become a respected educator. Francis was married and had a two-year-old son.
Then one day, in a freak hit and run accident, on Queens Boulevard, his wife
and son were struck down and killed. Francis had a nervous breakdown, got
hooked on drugs and alcohol and soon after ended up on the streets of
Manhattan, wandering around all year around, year after year, sometimes almost
naked, covered in his own feces, and refusing any help. The only place he would
come for an occasional meal or shower was the Bowery Mission.

Michael was lying down, covered with a blanket, and looking at Francis
walking up and down the aisles of the Chapel, mumbling to himself in some
strange tongue that Michael could not understand. The light in the Chapel was
dimmed and Francis, with his tall and very skinny body, looked almost surreal
to Michael. He was barefoot, with ripped Docker pants and no shirt at all. His
short black hair looked like strong thick brush coming out of his skull. His feet were sliding over the red Chapel
tiles silently, and it appeared to Michael like he was not walking but floating.

“Don’t worry about him, he is crazy, but he will not harm you,” Victor,
who was lying on the mat a few feet away, said to Michael. “I’ve seen him before. He is a lost case.
Only God knows how he is still alive.”

Soon after, Michael fell asleep. He was really tired after so many
nights on the subway trains. Finally, he felt safe. He knew that he needed a
break, a place to renew his strength and time to figure out what to do next.
The Bowery Mission was his only choice, and it looked to him like the right one
as well.

Michael didn’t know what time it was when he was awakened by something
very light falling on his face. He opened his eyes and saw Francis standing
over him with a rose stem in one hand. With the other hand, he was picking petals
from the half dry red rose bud and tossing them at Michael. While wiggling back
and forth with his upper body, he was chanting with a screechy voice,

“Wake up, wake up, the end of times is coming,

Wake up, wake up, Santa Maria is waiting,

Wake up, wake up, soldier of Christ Almighty,

Wake up, wake up, Mother of God is crying.”

Michael looked around. All over his blanket and around the mat were dry
rose petals. He jumped into a sitting position and said, “What the fuck is
wrong with you, man?”

Francis turned around fast and ran to the back of the Chapel while
screeching: “He is awake! He is awake! He is awake!” He ran out of the Chapel
through the side doors leading to the entrance of the Mission.

A few minutes later, a man
dressed in a neatly ironed white shirt with tie and black dress pants entered
the Chapel.

“Let’s go, guys,” He said. “It is time to get up. The Chapel will be
open soon for morning service. You can go downstairs to the bathroom to shave
and wash and then come back here for the service. After that is breakfast. And
take your mats and blankets downstairs with you. Leave them behind the stairs.
You may need them tonight again if you don’t get beds assigned to you today.”

Michael looked at this man. It was the same
manager that he was introduced to by Mike last night. The light-skinned black
man, with a completely shaved head, glasses with golden metal frame. With a
large shiny watch on his wrist, and his medium build, a bit overweight, and a
limp, he looked more like a Bronx car salesman than a manager of the homeless
shelter.

Victor and Michael went back to the same bathroom they took their
showers in the night before. Michael took a shower again. He still felt the
stench on his skin from his days on the subway.

Victor was running a pick through his hair.

“So Michael, what brought you here? You don’t look to me like an addict,
he asked.

“I left my wife, made a few bad business decisions and lost money,
fooled around with women, drank more than I should, pretty much messed up my
life and one day found myself on the N train without money, friends, or a place
to go.”

“Yeah, that would do it…,” Victor said. “Sometimes I think that guys like
you have it worse than guys like me. God gave you something and then he took it
away. So it hurts badly. I grew up in the projects, never knew my father. My
mother was constantly high and disappeared when I was twelve. I grew up with my
aunt. Never finished high school. Been using drugs since I was fourteen. In and
out of jails and shelters forever. This is my third time here. Never had a wife
to leave; never had a business to lose. And I always say to God – better don’t
give me anything if you gonna take it away from me.”

Then he stopped fixing his hair, turned towards Michael and said with a
broken voice: “But he always finds a way. Always… Two days ago, my only baby
sister overdosed in front of my eyes, with the needle I gave her. I still see
her lying there, her eyes wide open. That is why I came here. I need to break
this circle. There must be a better life out there. I need to clean out. I am
tired of this.”

Michael didn’t say anything. He just looked at Victor. He never met
anybody like him. Never knew anybody from the projects. The closest, he came to
stories like this one was on the local evening news. And now he will spend the
next six months with people with similar stories.

They went back to the chapel. It was already full of homeless people who
came to have breakfast at the Bowery. The way it worked was that everybody
would enter the Chapel, listen for an hour to a sermon by the Pastor or a guest
preacher, testimonials by the students who completed the recovery program, and
then they would, in an orderly fashion, go to the large dining room where the
meal was served. It was the same routine for all meals: breakfast at six in the
morning, lunch at noon, and dinner at six in the evening. Students in the
program were sitting on the chapel balcony during the service, and had their
meals before the homeless people from outside.