Unknown Unrealized Unbroken
I’m selfishly laid out on my parent’s couch fighting post-meal drowsiness when a documentary about Broadway’s hit show, Hamilton, begins to air on the television. I rarely, if ever, watch PBS, but remain too lazy to reach for the remote and change it to ESPN. Hamilton’s America is the feature. It’s about the development and production of the Broadway show through its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The name didn’t resonate, but the documentary is intriguing; I haven’t a clue how Broadway shows are produced. My mom walks in, glances at the screen, then asks, “Oh, you remember Lin?” as if I had intentionally tuned in to watch because of him. Confused, my thoughts sprint, attempting to figure out who the hell this guy was, also, why my mom knew him. I only muster a baffle. My mom blurts, “He was your neighbor, that kid next door.”
I grew up on a quiet street in Northern Manhattan where my dad was the superintendent in the building our family lived. As the years passed, we connected with the Inwood community like most families would in small town America. Childhood ingredients included pick-up basketball at the park, street football after school, little league baseball with the neighborhood guys and hanging out at the ice cream parlor playing arcades. Most of us attended the same narrow collection of churches, middle schools and high schools. Adolescence was magical. However, what I couldn’t figure out for the life of me, was why I couldn’t recall my own neighbor!
I lived next door to Lin-Manuel Miranda… literally. He was that quiet kid who regularly sported common attire, a dark beanie hat, headphones, and an oblivious aura. Lin walked to the beat of whatever he was listening to in a way that kept us from paying him much mind. My mom occasionally nudged me to be friends but I felt uncomfortable approaching a person who seemed so disinterested with the world about. Lin strolled right past my bedroom window the same way everyday like clockwork. I never saw him elsewhere, aside from entering or leaving the library. He never played ball or hung out with the rest of “us” neighborhood fellas. It’s no wonder why I had difficulty remembering Lin.
However, I did sparsely interact with Lin’s dad, Luis, a kind man who either waved or said “Hi” whenever he saw me cleaning the front of the building. It puzzled me why he mostly parked on the street instead of his driveway. The Mirandas lived in a house, a Manhattan rarity. I recall being envious of that. Lin’s mom carried a prestige calm. The babysitter I saw often, and Lin’s grandmother and aunt visited regularly. Then there was his sister, Luz, who I noticed the least. Funny enough, the Miranda’s backyard and mine connected (separated by a couple scalable fences) and I’d often jump into their yard to retrieve balls my friends and I accidentally hit or kicked into it while playing around. During snowstorms, I’d shovel out a path from the front of my building down to the front of Lin’s house to minimize the risk of slips and falls for our building tenants heading to and from work.
My mom knew of the Miranda family because she occasionally spoke with Luis in passing. They were both Puerto Rican, and even had a mutual friend, Euclid Mejia, who was the principle of the high school I attended (George Washington), but me? I never uttered a word to Lin. And I doubt Lin even knew of my existence. Now I’m sitting up on the couch watching Hamilton’s America in disbelief. That lone strange boy I’d always see went on to become an extraordinary creative and lyricists. Curiously, I reached out to my sister and asked if she remembered Lin or ever spoke to him. She responded with, “That weird kid who never said anything?” I laughed, but needed to see if either of my siblings (my brother doesn’t remember Lin at all) might have possibly crossed paths with the Miranda family at some point. But nope, never.
It’s beautiful and exciting, yet sad, because for someone I would see daily, we were worlds apart, though similar (we’re both creatives and storytellers, from working in the entertainment industry to writing substantially). I can’t chastise my teenage self for never connecting with Lin, but I reckon life stays interesting that way. To boot, six degrees of separation continue to tease till this day. A personal friend of mine was the set nurse on the film, The Return of Mary Poppins where she and Lin shared some laughs. Another friend was in charge of the launch party for Hamilton where the two hung out, and I still see Lin and his dad occasionally since we all live in the same area. Nonetheless, the New York in me keeps things moving without a word.
Sure, all of this may be coincidence but considering the circumstances, I think it’s welcoming. In fact, I ended up sharing this story how I grew up next to Lin on Twitter, encouraging those who are pushing to elevate their careers, perhaps campaigning to get financed for a start-up, or are searching for that right person who could give them their “big break” — in all likelihood — may be looking in the wrong places. I explained how we typically pursue the iconic people (like celebrities and the wealthy) while overlooking those we see regularly. The reality could be that the success we eagerly seek may lie in exploring those around us and connecting with them. And perhaps we need to do less fantasizing and more engagement with “neighbors.” To embark on the adventure of discovering them because who knows what amazing opportunities await by this often overlooked—yet pleasant commodity.
I didn’t expect for the message to be so well received, let-alone read. I was further humbled when Lin-Manuel followed me on Twitter after he tweeted, “Nice to re-meet you! Maybe see you at the library!” Luis, likewise, responded, “Say hello to your mother for me.” Online publications requested permission to share my story on their platforms. It felt wonderful that people found value in what I had written. At the time, I remember thinking that the attention it drew could translate into something (anything) for my anemic career. It didn’t. But another incredible thing happened to my life since sharing that tweet. Absolutely nothing. And I’m going to disclose to you the profound reason why. It’s the reason why most of us will never break through our glass ceiling or become anything greater in life.
Evidently, everyone wants to be the exception, special. Unfortunately, this isn’t achieved, decided, nor willed by those seeking it. “The exception” has turned out to be a statistical probability that only increases with endless dedication, sacrifice and good old-fashion elbow grease. Otherwise, determined entirely by timing and flat-out luck (Also, if everyone is special, then no one is special).
I’m hanging out at one of Columbia University’s graduation celebrations with a friend of mine uptown. I don’t attend Columbia, my friend, Likun, does. She usually invites me to campus study areas, aware that the only thing I seek more than working on my novel is the quiet I desperately require to do so. Admittedly, it’s been nothing short of wonderful, escaping my noisy neighborhood whenever possible, so, why shouldn’t I crash a graduation celebration as well? I help myself to some offered food and beverages laid out on a table before blending into crowds of proud families, their friends and happy graduates. I limit my interactions to only the people Likun knew, and mostly listen. Among the exchanges of humor, exciting future plans, and stories of struggle from past semesters, I time travel. Let’s journey together.
I’m in North Florida, living in a halfway house, the middle of nowhere. It’s 3 A.M. and a freight train infinitely snails just beyond my window. I can’t sleep. The other occupants? A heroin addict attempting another recovery and a cross-dressing hobo. The kinds you only see in a bad Hollywood film. Just a few weeks earlier, I was asking my dad if he would help pay for college. What I can recall from that numbing conversation was, “I’m not giving you a dime…” accompanied by some parsimonious tone. Bitterness swelled, aware he paid for both my brother and sister’s college tuition. It’s not my fault they were terrible students. I graduated valedictorian, they didn’t.
As it stood, I was sleeping in the middle of a basement floor on a thrown-out mattress my father collected. He didn’t want me living with him in his two-bedroom two-bathroom apartment we recently moved into in the Bronx, so he kicked me out. Either he couldn’t deal with my mom leaving him, or he hated me. Maybe both. I couldn’t tell. My mom left no hint to her whereabouts, my brother was in the military, and my married sister lived in the South. The only option for me was to stay in one of the storage spaces in the building. My dad, being the superintendent, knew it was illegal. He didn’t care. There was no kitchen, bathroom or any running water in the dingy humid space. Just a couple of barred-up windows covered with black garbage bags, and junk, everywhere. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night whenever there, but I did have a couple overhead florescent lights with those pull-string switches. The ceiling was mostly exposed gaps and cracks. The floor, weathered concrete.
Next to my mattress was a small tube television I had my Sega Dreamcast hooked up to. I loved that console. Whenever I needed to use the restroom, I was told to use the one in the laundry room but it was often locked. I’m guessing the building janitor considered it his own. Nevertheless, I quickly learned how to dismantle and re-attach the lock’s latch with tools I found lying around. Things became more challenging when my dad urged me to never use the restroom while tenants were around. He didn’t want anyone knowing. The good news was I accidentally found an open drain pipe lying underneath a rusted metal cover while figuring out where all the water bugs were coming from. I’d lift it and pee into the dark abyss routinely. Putrid smell aside, the “room” was quiet. I liked that. It was occasionally disrupted by mice scrounging about for food at night, but otherwise peaceful.
It was humiliating living under those conditions, to say the least. I increasingly felt escaping New York to attend college was not only the best maneuver for me, but possibly remedy my poverty and depression. It was evident my parents weren’t going to help. Hell, my dad would eat in front of me regularly never offering. Countless days I went hungry and drank straight out the bathroom faucet to fight it off. It was painful sleeping hungry, but I grew accustomed.
Every once in a while, I’d luck out with a meal at a friend’s place. I consciously kept myself from overeating to avoid looks of judgement. I just never knew when my next meal was going to be. To keep my spirit up, sometimes I’d illegally sit on the outside ledge of the last train car and serenade the moon on the way home. Thinking back, those moments rekindled my desire to do something great with my life… even if I secretly felt it was never going to happen.
I researched out-of-state schools, finding one in Florida I thought was perfect. Access to beautiful beaches, warm weather and palm trees were the ingredients my dreams were made of. Nothing was keeping me in New York, outside of an anemic modeling career. The devastating effects of September 11th still lingered, leaving the advertising industry decimated and nearly all models unemployed. Not that being an ethnic introvert was actually netting me jobs.
I promptly registered with the Florida college, begged around for money — enough to purchase a one-way ticket — and set off for an adventure of a lifetime. Looking back, I got my adventure. Just not the one I imagined. The college entrance exam determined that my reading comprehension and writing skills were graduate level, but my math and science, grade school. Damn, remedial courses. None of it mattered though. In the end, I never took a single class. The financial aid paperwork I thoroughly submitted wasn’t approved, or didn’t clear, due to some administrative issue. I had no money to fully cover the cost of classes, something the school demanded in order to begin the semester. Despite my sincerest efforts, no help was offered by the college. It also meant I had no place to stay.
I desperately contacted the only person I thought could help over a campus pay phone and shared my dire situation. A few quarters later, I was relieved to hear they found someone, who knew someone, that could arrange a place for me to stay while I sort out the college thing. That place? A halfway house. The “friend of a friend” turned out to be a pastor who recently began a ministry aimed towards helping drug addicts and prostitutes reclaim their lives. His latest investment, purchasing a broken-down motel where both addicts and prostitutes ran prevalent. He planned on converting it into some religious rehab center. I was its newest resident.
As I listen to Columbia University’s latest graduates share their rich plans of world travel and new business ventures alongside excited parents, envy fills me. I push it down with sushi and soda. My first attempt at college failed, along with all the others, subsequently. I felt darker, reluctant to return to a building I had to sneak through just to take a piss. But there was still fight in me. I’m a New Yorker, built tough, we figure shit out. After all, great stories are made from hard challenges, right? I should’ve stayed with the mice.
My immediate problem was no accessible transportation. The halfway house stood too far from where I needed to be. I had to find a place to live and work, close enough to the college. If I could survive a few months, I can attend the following semester. It’d grant plenty of time to sort out my financial aid and/or some payment plan for tuition. I spoke to the pastor about my idea over the phone. After muttering something about not being a chauffeur, he somewhat agreed to take me to the nearest town whenever time allowed. Till then, I had to stay put.
It was announced meals were served on the premises in what looked to be an abandoned shed. The ministry director confessed what they offered were mostly donated canned foods — likely expired, but regardless, something I should be grateful for. The first time around, I refused to eat it and walked a couple miles along a highway to the nearest rest area. To my sweaty joy I discovered a Popeyes, to my dread, racism. I quickly placed an order for chicken, fries and a biscuit, but a white police officer arrived with an attack dog threatening to jail me if I didn’t immediately leave just after receiving my food. Thereafter, I ate canned food at the motel. It tasted worse than it smelled. Additionally, I was reprimanded for leaving the motel premises. It was against the rules to do so. I had no idea. Still, I wasn’t there for rehab or religion. I was obviously there to attend college. Though, it seemed I was the only one who knew.
It’s after 3 A.M. and I eventually fall asleep to the rhythmic clacking of freight cars rolling by. 6 A.M. I’m jolted awake… to begin work. Confused, I asked why. The director stated that as long as I remained, I needed to earn my stay. What? Before long, I was standing breathless, garden hoe in hand, sporting blisters under a hot sun with no shade. Meal time came again. This time the flavor was salty cardboard. I battled it with cheap cola. The following morning, I respectfully declined to work, clarifying my reason for being there, attempting to rid the misunderstanding of my presence. The director phoned the pastor — who later showed up in disgust, telling me to pack all my belongings. He was going to take me elsewhere.
I was thrilled to relocate to an actual town. The college was nearby, there was accessible public transportation and places for possible employment. It came with a caveat though. I had to live in a shelter designed for homeless ex-convicts. This is where the pastor dumped me. He was friends with the owner and made sure I was to be treated no different than anyone else there. I never saw the pastor again. That first night is branded into my memory forever. I was assigned to a short bunk over man who slept with a knife underneath his pillow. No position of comfort could be found on my decrepit 4-inch thick mattress. I laid a few feet from the only bathroom… one shared by the forty or so men surrounding me.
I fought back tears of anger, humiliation. A constant red light sat above the bathroom door throughout the night. It penetrated my eyelids. Whenever I opened my eyes, the haunting red glowed everywhere, reminding me I was in hell. It also buzzed endlessly, but didn’t nearly bother me as much as the stench emerging from behind the creaky door. It hit me in waves, like an ocean. I resisted the urge to vomit repeatedly. Thoughts of my brother touring in Iraq, and my sister surviving her abusive marriage in South Carolina filled my head. I missed my niece. She’d fall asleep on my stomach as I watched sports on the couch. This was when my sister lived in New York and let me babysit time to time. Somehow, I gave into exhaustion, fantasizing about the peace I shared with the mice on the basement floor.
Without missing a beat, I was awoken 5:30 A.M. Not to work this time, but for group Bible study and some more canned food. Afterwards, I wasn’t allowed to go back to sleep. Shelter rules explicitly expressed everyone had to go to their job or actively find work. I mostly sat in what looked like a prison yard out back behind the shelter with a score of other unemployed convicts. There was one banged up basketball rim, no ball. Outside of that, we were surrounded by a tall fence with a side entrance chained locked. I don’t even want to mention my public showering experience.
I didn’t have much money left. So, I spent the last of it purchasing a bus ticket to Texas, still refusing to return to New York. I had old friends living there and they took care of me. I will always be indebted to them. After some months, I finally returned to New York, staying with my mom and her girlfriend. I would go on to sleep on the rug lying next to their bed for the next year. I was home.
Everyone assumes I’m a medical student, something I rather enjoy. I only admit to working on a novel once or twice, if the conversation goes there. Otherwise, I play along as a graduate. I feel a sensation of esteem unlike anything I’ve experienced. I’m validated, respected… accomplished. Imagination flashes what life would’ve been like if I had been raised in a privileged home, if I had parents with notable careers, parents who supported me… believed in me. This is when something profound strikes me. When I shared how I grew up next Lin-Manuel Miranda, I wasn’t aware of what made me jealous of his family. Yes, I thought highly of his parents against mine but there was a unity in his family that became nothing short of sophisticated love and support.
I doubt Lin hung out till 4 A.M. playing ball on Dyckman, or listened to rap on Post avenue with drug dealers talking street politics. I doubt he ever had to sleep in a subway station or on a park bench, or even steal cans of tuna from friends’ kitchen cabinets to avoid starvation. I don’t think Lin fought for his life during High School or ever got kicked out of one. I’m sure he never dodged bullets for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had to outrun security for eating supermarket food with no intention of paying. But I did.
I got haircuts in project hallways, drank out of open fire hydrants when thirsty and hopped subway turnstiles because I couldn’t afford the fare and was too tired to walk miles back home. I can recall disturbing times like when I had to shield my horrified neighbors from watching a kid bleed out to death who was just repeatedly stabbed during a birthday party in the basement of my building. Ignoring the fact that I just met him minutes before, that his killer lived across the street, that my mom knew his father.
Lin’s mom is an accomplished doctor, mine beat me when I was little because she was too ignorant to know I had Asperger and struggled with forced religion. My dad’s career was being a superintendent. I learned how to take out garbage, clean dog shit, toilets, fight roaches, mop, sweep and shovel the front of the building. Lin’s dad, Luis, remains a brilliant man with a prestigious career furnished with political service and entrepreneurship. My parents didn’t plan on having me. My mom was a desperate teenager looking for a way out of a broken abusive home, my dad — a local bouncer fresh out the Navy. They weren’t married or educated. Childhood memories consisted of things like walking endlessly with my mom to stand on welfare lines for food, and during summer months, going to public schools for the free city meals.
My dad mocked me for trying to model, believing that a real man worked 12-hour days hard labor. I wanted to please him, so I tried it. But there was a moment when standing on the roof of a Brooklyn brownstone in freezing rain — earning less than minimum wage and working alongside illegal immigrants — that I knew this wasn’t the future for me. My mom admitted she felt a failure as a parent because I wanted to go to study film and acting. Till this day all I’ve ever known was survival. I’ve mastered the art of scraping the bottom of the socioeconomic pool like gold miner at a creek — only — finding reasons to live and be appreciative. I didn’t think I was going to live past the age of 25.
But here I am, pretending to be a graduate from Columbia University. I might actually fit the bill too. Broke, well-spoken, uniquely educated, no children, 100% healthy with great credit. I have no history with drugs or alcohol, no criminal record, and now, about to publish my first book. On the surface, one may think I’m on the fast track to success. But therein lies a raw truth, one that Peter Dinklage revealed in his 2012 commencement speech at Bennington College. But I’ll get to that in a moment. I begin reflecting in more detail, how I walk pass the United Palace Theater regularly, where an image of Lin-Manuel standing on stage is displayed among others. And how underneath it, a homeless man routinely sleeps at night. Also, the time I was ordering food from Galicia when Lin and his dad were just three blocks away celebrating their successful efforts of keeping Coogans — a popular local Irish restaurant — open. Galicia, a Hispanic favorite in Washington Heights for decades, will be closing for the last time June 30th due to the identical problem Coogans had. I’m going to miss it. Affordable Spanish food is becoming increasingly difficult to find. I then recall how a home for mentally disabled people sat between Lin’s house and my bedroom window. An alarm would go off nearly every day from someone trying to escape. I can sympathize. It’s allegorically funny.
Do you recognize the idiosyncratic dichotomy between Lin and I? I learned the value of a buck collecting bottles and cans out of neighborhood trash bins so I could recycle them for enough change to buy firecrackers from the bodega for the 4th of July. I shined shoes and sold my own toys for ice cream. I had to hobble miles home on crutches from the hospital at 2 A.M. with a sprained leg because my dad refused to pick me up. This was my life. My family are just five individuals connected by DNA.
My version of In the Heights would’ve gone down as the most violent crime saga in Broadway history. Hamilton? He was a Puerto Rican friend of mine who lived out of a basement on 181 street. We trained martial arts with the lights off because he couldn’t afford electricity.
I have no illusions of becoming successful, it’s simply not going to happen. Not for me. Still, I have to believe I will and live like it. What other choice do I have? Strangely, I’ve grown content with both the fantasy and reality of it. The point I’m making is, without a loving family, healthy support system, and a strong network, your chances of being successful are implausible, nil. Perhaps, you’ll learn to survive and adapt to the terrain like I did, but you’ll never become anything more. Peter Dinklage profoundly expressed that the friendships you have now, the network of people surrounding you when you graduate, the loved ones who support and champion you, are likely the catalyst to any success you might find in life. Relationships are everything. Talent will always be overshadowed by this.
It seems Lin’s family provided him with all the necessary components to achieve well in life. As a parent, nurturing your children and cultivating their interests, empowering their dreams and aspirations, sacrificing for them is the greatest investment you could ever make. I wasn’t fortunate with this. The math merely worked itself out. In no way am I suggesting hard work, sacrifice and dedication aren’t involved, they certainly are. Remember what I stated in the beginning regarding being the “exception.” It nearly requires a perfect storm of events for untold success.
Nevertheless, I’m fucking tired of people telling me I haven’t worked hard enough or sacrificed adequately for what I want. I’ve given everything just to breathe. There’s no light at the end of my tunnel, and it’s not getting any easier being another spic in Trump’s America. No amount of self-help books or positive thinking is going to change that. Is my story unique? Am I different? No. This country is loaded with life stories more interesting and way worse than mine. America is built on it.
As I finish the Macadamia nut cookie I grabbed earlier for dessert, I chuckle at myself. If only my childhood friends could see me now. Too bad many of them are dead or in prison. Columbia University is an incredible school. Alas, what might’ve been will never be for me. I sincerely wish everyone here who graduated the very best. They have no idea how good they have it. As celebrations quiet and the event concludes, I leave with renewed vigor. I’ve come a long way. And the thirst for more hasn’t diminished. It still burns within me. Just like you.
What has become a beautiful haunting is a song Lin-Manuel Miranda created with Nas, Dave East and Aloe Blacc called, Wrote My Way Out. It speaks to my soul more than I care to admit. I feel writing is all I have. It’s what has sustained me through the long night. The song’s message is strong and clear. Though Lin-Manuel eventually unfollowed me on Twitter, I understand why. People love rooting for the feel-good success story, or the underdog when they know they’re going to win. I admittedly move with a New York edge. Not exactly pop-friendly.
Recently, a friend of mine sent me an article about Junot Diaz’s (An award-winning Dominican author) life, thinking I might find it interesting. I didn’t. I found it boring and his work overrated. I was surrounded by assholes like him growing up. He isn’t original, he’s a dime a dozen around these parts. What I find inspirational are people who fight, love and sacrifice for the edification of good against all odds. But if someone like Junot can “write his way out” so can I. There’s no excuse or curse that I haven’t endured, and there will be no breaks. You shouldn’t expect any either. Especially if you lack the critical essentials needed just to even have a standing chance like myself.
I’m going to write my way out, Lin… I’ll die trying. You’ve shown me that it’s worth fighting for just a single chance to create something that could live-on to help this world become better. We may not use the Inwood library like we used to as kids, but maybe we’ll see each other while you film In the Heights since I could never afford to see your shows. Hell, I signed up to be an extra just to help out.