Unknown Unrealized Unbroken
It’s been about 17 months since I published, Lin-Manuel Miranda and His Unknown Neighbor (Read that first if you haven’t). I didn’t expect for it to be so well received, let-alone read. I was further humbled when Lin-Manuel followed me on Twitter, and online publications requested permission to share my story on their platforms. Ever since, something incredibly profound happened to my career. Nothing. And I’m going to reveal the extraordinary reason for this. It’s why most of us will never break through our glass ceiling and become anything more in life.
Everyone wants to be the exception, special. But this isn’t achieved, decided, nor willed by those seeking it. “The exception” is a statistical probability that only increases with endless dedication, sacrifice and good old fashion elbow grease. Otherwise, determined almost entirely by timing and flat-out luck. Besides, 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 does. They usually invite me to the campus study areas, aware the only thing I seek more than working on my novel is the quiet I desperately require to do so. Its been nothing short of wonderful, escaping my noisy neighborhood. Why shouldn’t I do so to crash a graduation celebration as well?
I help myself to some complimentary food and beverages, blending into crowds of proud families, friends and happy graduates. But I limit my interactions to the people my friend knew, and mostly listen. Amidst the exchanges of humor, 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 outside my window. I can’t sleep. The other occupants? A heroin addict attempting another recovery, and a cross dressing hobo. The kind you only see in a Hollywood film.
Just a few weeks earlier, I asked 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 rooms 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, old 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 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 would 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 could 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 water 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 spirits and wits up, sometimes I’d 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 soon 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 proud parents, envy fills me. I push it down with sushi and soda.
My first attempt at college failed (and 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.
The 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 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 their meals 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 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. Apparently it was against the rules to do so. But 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, explaining my reason for being there, attempting to clear up any 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. 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 comfortably 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 awaken 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. I spent the last of it purchasing a bus ticket to Texas, still refusing to return to New York. I had old friends that moved there previously who took care of me. I will always be indebted to them. After some months, I eventually returned to New York and stayed with my mom and her girlfriend. I slept on the rug 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 prestige 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 wrote, Lin-Manuel Miranda and His Unknown neighbor, I was jealous of Lin’s family and that he lived in a house — a rarity for Manhattan. I thought highly of his parents against mine. There was a unity in his family that became nothing short of an awesome network of support.
I doubt Lin hung out till 4 A.M. playing ball on Dyckman, or listened to rap music on Post avenue with drug dealers talking street politics. I doubt he had to sleep in the subway or on a park bench, or steal cans of tuna from friends kitchen cabinets to avoid starvation. I can’t imagine Lin ever had to fight for his life during High School or get kicked out. I’m sure he didn’t have to dodge bullets for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 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 attended 3 schools in Inwood that are now all closed, forgotten.
He lied there bleeding out to death just 10 feet away. I shielded my horrified neighbors from watching. I was attending a birthday party in the basement of my building. The kid lying in a pool of his own blood I just met moments before. I didn’t remember his name. His killer, lived across the street. My mom knew his dad for years. It wasn’t the first time I witnessed death.
Lin’s mom is a doctor, mine beat me when I was little because she was too ignorant to know I had Aspergers. My dad’s entire career was being a superintendent. All I learned was how to take out garbage, clean dog shit, toilets, fight roaches, mop, sweep and shovel the front of the building. Lin’s dad (Luis A. Miranda) remains a brilliant intelligent man with a prestigious career of 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 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 freezing — 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 film school.
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, single, no kids, 100% healthy with great credit. I have no history of drugs or alcohol, no criminal record. And now, writing my second 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.
I walk pass the United Palace Theater regularly, where an image of Lin-Manuel standing on stage is displayed among others. Underneath it, a homeless man routinely sleeps at night.
I was ordering food from Galicia when Lin and his dad were 3 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.
Do you recognize the dichotomy of lives between Lin and I?
I learned the value of a buck collecting bottles and cans out of neighborhood garbage so I could recycle them for change and save enough to buy firecrackers from the bodega for the fourth 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 5 individuals connected by DNA.
My version of “In The Heights” would’ve gone down as the most violent crime saga in Broadway history. Hamilton? A Puerto Rican friend of mine who lived out of a basement on 181 street. We trained martial arts there 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 it will and live like so. What other choice do I have? 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, you’re 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, 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 was provided with all the necessary components to achieve success, and that his family made sure of it. Nurturing your children and cultivating their interests, empowering their dreams and aspirations, sacrificing for them is the greatest investment a parent 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 weren’t involved, they certainly were. Remember what I stated in the beginning in regards to becoming the exception. It requires a perfect storm of events for everything to unfold 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.
A home for mentally disabled people sat between Lin’s house and my bedroom window. An alarm would go off nearly everyday from one of them trying to escape. I can sympathize. It’s allegorically funny.
What has become a beautiful haunting for me is actually 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. Writing is all I have. It’s what has sustained me through the long night. The song’s message is strong and clear. And even though Lin-Manuel eventually unfollowed me on Twitter, I understand why. People only love rooting for the successful or the underdog when they know they’re going to win.
Recently, a friend of mine sent me an article about Junot Diaz’s life, thinking I might find it interesting. I didn’t. I found it boring and think 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. It’s worth fighting for just a single chance to create something that could live on to help this world become better.