I slept in a parking garage. Just typing those words causes my stomach to rumble. My skin starts to tingle. My eyes take on that thousand yard stare usually associated with soldiers that have seen too many horrors on the battlefield. Memories that I desperately block-out in the name of self-preservation seep into my mind like a dark shadow. They not-so-gently tap me on the shoulder to remind me that I was once a bum, a vagrant, a man without hope. I was invisible. While the rest of the world was spending time with family, watching television, soaking in the warm heat from the fireplace, taking a hot bath or maybe sharing a kiss with their wife, my memories make sure I never forget that I once slept in a parking garage.
December in Ohio can be frigid. Being homeless in Ohio in December is a different kind of cold. It settles in your bones and stays there. I would go to the library during the day to try and warm up but I was rarely successful. Pea coat buttoned up to my throat, collar flipped up? Still cold. Rubbing my arms like a madman? Still cold. For about two months straight, I never felt warm. Never.
Concrete is cold. A parking garage has a lot of concrete. I slept on concrete at night. I was often cold. When I got ready for “bed” at night, I would take what little clothes I owned that I carried around in a grimy blue backpack, and lay them on ground to use as a sheet. A too-thin layer of protection from that cold concrete. Next, I’d set my empty backpack down to use as a pillow. Homeless or not, my head has to be elevated while I sleep, or attempt to sleep. Finally, I would lay down and pull my knees into my chest as tightly as I could muster. Backpack, sheets made of clothes, my dirty black coat and the fetal position. The concrete was his usual disdainful self; cold, hard and unforgiving. I slept in a fucking parking garage.
Christmas day for a homeless person is a litmus test for how mentally strong you are. Parking garages don’t have Christmas trees. There’s no mistletoe to steal a kiss from a crush. There’s no kitchen filled with smells of cookies and fresh pies. There’s no chimney for old Saint Nick to slide down and deliver his bounty. There’s no children running around excited and full of anticipation. There are no happy people. It’s just you and all that grey concrete.
Christmas day in 2011 I spent in a parking garage. Everything was obviously closed. I couldn’t get lost in a book at the library or sit at McDonald’s and sip on unlimited refills of coffee. That day all I had was that monolithic parking garage and my thoughts. I knew I was in trouble.
I sat on the stairwell on the fifth floor of the garage. I nibbled on a stale donut I got from a food pantry a couple of days prior. I had a few cigarette butts that I had collected from people who had discarded them half-smoked and tossed them on the ground throughout the parking garage. Their garbage was my lifeblood. As I sat on those steel steps, smoking a half-cigarette, I was enveloped by despair, hopelessness and excruciating loneliness.
I knew at that point, I had hit bottom. All those years of gambling like a fiend, all those years of hurting my children, all those years of burning bridges had led to this exact place in time; a parking garage on Christmas.
I climbed to the top of the garage and stepped outside and onto the roof. From this vantage point I could see Hamilton in all its glory and gloom. Lights of activity in the windows of apartments and houses. I was well aware that families were gathering around the dinner table, so happy and content. I stood in that crisp air and started to spiral downward. While the city was aflame with the spirit of life and togetherness, I stood there crying, knowing I was in a dangerous state of mind.
From that rooftop all I wanted was to scream out to the night HELP ME. HELP ME. Somebody, anybody just help me. I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in. I begged the night for salvation. I knew I was a piece of shit, a selfish bastard that mistreated people and gambled my son’s happiness away. But I’m still a human being. I’m somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. I’m somebody’s friend. I still have some good in me. HELP ME.
I walked to the edge of the roof. I glanced down and all I saw was black asphalt. Fitting. I was five floors up so maybe 100 feet from the ground below. 41 years old standing on top of a parking garage on Christmas day. I was bone-tired. I had no fight left in me. Once I had dreamt of my redemption, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I would be reborn. I would overcome my struggles and remake myself, a kinder version, a non-gambling version. That dream had sailed though. In reality, I was cold, filthy, hungry and empty and I didn’t care anymore.
I wish I had a pen and a piece of paper. I wanted to write a note to my children. I needed them to know that I’m sorry, so very sorry. I needed them to know how much I truly loved them. I wanted to tell them that I didn’t know how to be a Dad anymore. Most importantly, I wanted to implore upon them to never be like me. Don’t quit. Don’t chase the dime. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be selfish. Don’t ever spend a Christmas in a parking garage.
I didn’t jump. There was no magical moment, no divine intervention. I felt like a coward and a failure, I couldn’t even kill myself. But I knew that somewhere in my crushed soul, I wanted to live. I wanted to see my kids laugh again. I wanted to be there when they needed a Dad to talk to. I didn’t want them to try and understand why their father committed suicide. They deserve better than that. They deserve a father that triumphs over adversity. They deserve a Phoenix.