I don’t look much like my mother. She is a fair skinned Puerto Rican with dark hair and dark eyes. She has a thick accent, although she’s lived in the states for 55 years. One trait that has passed down to me from my mother is her ability to downplay any obstacle or adversities she has faced. She has never mentioned struggling in an intercultural marriage in the 60’s, although I have heard her mention that people often wondered if she was our maid or babysitter. My mother grew up in a place of privilege in Puerto Rico. I also grew up in a place of privilege in white middle class America, although I always felt misplaced and misrepresented. Couldn’t people see I was different? I wanted to spend all my time on the island with our family, surrounded by Spanish speakers, hugging one another and constantly celebrating life. I also felt disdain for this middle class lifestyle. I was never attached to material things, but longed for community. It came as a surprise to my parents when I decided to pursue a career in the arts. To give up everything I once had and move to a city where I would be a nobody. They imagined I would go to medical school but that dream would not even come to fruition.
In my 20’s, I had a romantic notion of living a starving artist lifestyle. Around my 23rd birthday I decided to give up all my material possessions and move to San Francisco. I packed a few boxes of clothes and other personal necessities that I wanted to keep, then asked the mother of a close friend who was moving to California if she would store them for an indefinite amount of time. I then set out on the adventure of a lifetime. I travelled for 6 months with only a backpack that contained clothes, a sleeping bag, and a tent. First I hitched a ride with a friend of a friend in his U-Haul. He was moving to LA and needed help driving. I actually drove the U-Haul while towing a car while the guy rode with a friend in another car most of the way from Illinois to California. I took a bus from LA to San Francisco where I stayed at a youth hostel for a few weeks, working in exchange for free rent. My friends and I spent a few forgotten days in the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man Festival during that time. Then, I decided to travel to Europe by myself for 3 and a half months with no plans, just my backpack and a Eurorail Pass. I had a true adventure before returning to my parents house for Christmas.
After 6 months of staying at youth hostels, sleeping on strangers couches, and camping illegally, I finally ended up in San Francisco. For the next 6 months I would struggle to find permanent housing. Finding a job proved to be fairly simple. A friend of a friend worked as a waitress in a Middle Eastern restaurant and they were looking for bussers. They hired me right away. We bussers were the scrawny, ratty kids compared to the glamorous waitresses. I was the only female busser, and have never forgotten the boys I worked with. We would sit in the back of the restaurant and share uneaten portions of customers’ plates. Although I had a place to work and enough money to get by, I was not making enough to easily afford an apartment in San Francisco. Although technically I was homeless, I did have places to stay. There were only a few nights where I can remember not finding a place to sleep until the early hours of the morning.
I used to go to a bar, the Noc Noc, and call friends from a pay phone to see if anyone would meet me for a drink. Then I would ask if I could crash on their couch. On one of those nights no-one answered their phones. I finally walked to a friends apartment to see if maybe his roommates would let me in. No-one was home. I kicked the door in. I knew the lock had been broken recently and thought I might be able to break in. It worked, although I think I re-broke their lock.
I remember another night. I had previously been allowed to stay at a co-op but guests were not allowed to stay for more than a week. The guest bed was a bunk that lay hidden over the hallway. There was a code to get into the co-op and so one night when I couldn’t find a place to stay, I snuck in late and snuck out as soon as I heard voices in the morning. I can’t believe I wasn’t caught.
My most memorable night, though, was spent innocently with Tommy Dunn. Tommy would turn out to be one of the first responders during the 9/11 attacks when he became a fireman years later. He was a busser with me and also homeless. We were going to stay up all night at Navy Pier. I can’t remember why we never made it to the Pier but we ended up hanging out on Haight St. I remember vividly that some business man giving me a dollar. I didn’t see my situation for what it was and was shocked. It must have been around 3 AM when one of the waitresses from the restaurant where we worked walked by. She offered to let us stay on her apartment floor, as our vision of staying up all night disappeared.
In those 6 months I stayed at so many places. The most stable was a 4 bedroom apartment that was housing 11 people. We were evicted quickly. The stories I have about those 11 people could fill the pages of a novel. I also stayed in a flat with 3 older gentleman at one point. I remember a prostitute coming in with one of the men who had a nasty drug habit. I always locked my door and never came out of my room at night.
It is no surprise that when I finally found a flat that I could afford, nothing would drive me away. Not even the drive by shooting that occurred in our driveway, injuring 2 and killing one of our neighbors. Not even watching the crack heads roam up and down the street waiting for their dealers. I used a skateboard to get in and out of my neighborhood quickly and wear a mechanics suit to cover myself from head to toe and be sure not to look attractive or noticeable in any way. I lived by a set of projects and also assisted living. I was lucky to have a place to live, that was all I cared about.
Somehow, during this time I managed to start a dance company.
I never told my parents about my living situation and I never asked them for money. I never imagined it to be worth talking about. It was just my life. But, as I sit on my porch on a rainy day pondering why I left San Francisco, a city I loved with all my heart. Where I felt the most connected as a dancer and an artist. I realize that I have always downplayed that time in my life and how difficult it really was. I also think mine was a common story, though.