Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Aisha Dixon
“So, life is hard on the streets? Tell me something I don” know. The wizened old veteran shuffles along the sidewalk, cane in one hand, oxygen tank in the other. “Life is hard, but being homeless is a differen’ story altogether. Don’ matter if you’ve got a house, everyone needs a home. That’s what you young folk don’ know.”
He was right. Now I know the difference between house and home.
My family was an interesting one, to say the least. We spent most of my life moving from one city to another, or even from one block to the next. We were always in search of the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood close to the perfect job or whatever my parents felt was lacking at the time. Home life was never what a kid hoped for. Stress between my parents escalated daily so that we were often locked away from my dad and forbidden to leave the upstairs flat.
Growing up, we lived in many houses. My mom had a fierce belief in the better life. She felt there was always something better for herself and her kids. As a result, we spent years moving around the state, trying on houses like new shoes at a department store.
There are a few that stick in my mind.
An eight by twelve cabin, one room and a loft. My mom moved us there after she left my dad for the final time. Deep in the hemlock forests of the Adirondacks, it sat tucked up against the woods, hidden from the world. Life was hard there, but it was home. I belonged there like the proverbial fish does in water.
In time we moved to another cabin, slightly larger than the first. This one had three rooms and sat out in the open country. This one was different. It was a house, never a home. Things weren’t the same as before. As a kid, I never knew exactly what. Maybe it was the way my mom changed toward us kids. Without my dad around, she started to see us kid kids as the main source of her problems. I was eleven years old at the time, but I felt if not understood, the difference in her.
It wasn’t the first time I had felt more a prisoner than a part of my own household. While living in Buffalo, we kids were locked away from my dad. Intending to keep us safe, my mom made the home we had into a prison. Not that she wasn’t justified – my dad is a crazy son of a bitch – but any home turns into a hellhole when you are forced to stay there. Ask any inmate. No matter how nice the cell, a prison is a prison. I learned this at an early age.
Over the years, we continued to move from house to house. Some were homes, some were just houses. For a while, the last farm we moved to was home. But, eventually that faded, too.
Gradually, the reasons I felt out of place changed. I wasn’t the daughter my mom wanted me to be, and she let me know it; I refused to change. Raising six kids by herself on a shoestring budget was no easy task. Life was hard on her. I understand.
Tension between me and my mom grew each passing year, like a blister you know about but can’t stop from forming. One July evening it burst.
We had stayed up late that night watching a movie. Everyone was tired from a long day’s work. Suddenly, my mom decided I’d had a bad attitude that day.
“What’s your problem, Aisha?”
I let it go, saying I was going to bed. She followed me into my bedroom. “Don’t you walk away from me.”
So I didn’t.
“I don’t have a problem. I’m tired.”
“You’ve been disrespectful all day. I won’t let you do that to me in front of the other children.”
“Ok,” I said, turning away.
She raised her voice, “Don’t you walk away from me! I’m your mother.”
“I know,” I snapped. “You’ve told me so before. What do you want? An apology?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m not sorry,” I replied “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Things got worse from there.
Then I heard the words I’d been half expecting to hear for years. “Get out of my house, or I’ll call the cops.”
There it was. My house. Not your house or our house. I knew clearly that building wasn’t home any longer. So I left. Four in the morning, fifty bucks and a half empty backpack, I walked out on what had once been home.
Things worked out for me. My sister let me stay with her and her husband for over a year. I never had to sleep on the streets, like so many homeless kids; there’s often a friend or someone I can stay with over breaks and holidays. And my car has become my home, which isn’t a bad thing. The freedom that brings is incredible. The open road is always available and calling.
With the new sense of homelessness comes the freedom to make whatever place you decide your home. For me, that place is wherever I park my car at night. My home is where I make it – for the time that I’m there. Then it’s on down the road, and I like it like that.
I consider myself homeless. There are times when I have no idea where I’ll spend the next night. It’s both frightening and exhilarating. People say until you sleep on the streets, you don’t know what homelessness is. I disagree. There’s something between having a home and rock bottom. I know. ’ve never been absolutely homeless, but I’ve been close enough.
I look back at the old man, hobbling along the sidewalk. “I understand.” I say.
He shakes his head. “No, you don’, but someday you will. Bein’ homeless is differen’ than bein’ houseless. Thank god my sister’s got space for me. Matter of fact, I gotta be getting’ on back home. You think about what I said now.”
The old vet continues on down the sidewalk and is gone. I can hear him still.