A returning veteran deals with homelessness in Vacationland, U.S.A.
I wonder what happens when you don’t eat for 48 hours, Matt pondered as he used his cell phone to dial the Bank of Central Florida. He was not expecting his direct deposit yet, however, better to check than assume otherwise and miss out. "Please enter the last four digits of your debit card number" prompted the recording. Matt did as instructed. “Now please enter your four-digit access code.” While he waited for his balance, Matt surveyed the pedestrian traffic on Orlando’s Orange Blossom Trail, near the intersection of Sand Lake Road. “Your current balance is….minus one dollar and thirty-five cents."
Matt was an Army veteran who had returned from his Iraq deployment two years ago. Unfortunately, he had spent much of what he had saved on his deployment on a new vehicle which he needed and had spent more on rent and food between jobs. His new job at the retail store in Orlando was working out, however, the bad news was the company withheld your first paycheck and he had been there a month, waiting for his first pay to hit this Friday. All good except here it was at 2 am on Wednesday, and he was stuck for 48 hours. He did not want to trouble his parents for a loan unless he was completely up against it; they had their own bills to worry about. The challenge was to stay safe and eat something and have the energy for work the next two days.
It did not help matters that his Jeep was almost out of gas and he was resigned to sleeping in his vehicle in quote safe unquote parts of the city in the dead of night. Not a palatable endeavor when there was a high crime rate just miles from Disney World and other tourist attractions.
OK, he thought to himself. You have to stay positive and be resourceful. If he could just manage hunger pangs until 6 am, when he reported to work, he could ask one of his buddies or the store manager for some meal money.
Just four hours to kill now. He drove his Jeep over to Denny's restaurant and parked around towards the back. His Jeep had fabric doors and plastic windows, so in order to save gas, he had to leave the windows open and not run the air conditioning. As a result, he could doze a little but not really sleep. The weather was not too bad for September at night; he guessed it was about 70 degrees. He reclined back and turned on his radio; thank God for ESPN radio as it was a welcome distraction under the circumstances.
Just over 24 hours, he told himself. The strain of his Army deployments was somehow different from this. He recalled how at one large coalition base in Iraq, there were air-conditioned dining facilities (Chow halls!) where the soldiers could watch TV and get all they could eat. True, the excursions outside the wire had their dangers, but at least he had the camaraderie of his buddies.
Matt managed to doze for an hour, and when he woke up there was a vehicle parked right next to him with an elderly couple just staring at him. Like they never were down on their luck before, Matt thought. Resisting the urge to give them the finger, he started up his Jeep and drove over to a large mall parking lot close to where he worked. He found a spot not far from the streetlights and pulled over. On ESPN radio the host was talking about obsessive coaches in college sports and it was very interesting. Matt was a big sports fan, and these late night sports shows, which often featured fan call-ins.
Matt dozed off again as he reflected on how letting his mind wander kind of took the hassle out of his situation. He visualized what he would like to buy and eat the minute he had some money; a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s came in to view in his mind’s eye.
Matt was awakened an hour later by a blazing white light shining into his eyes. Startled he jumped upright and yelled, and heard the voice of authority yell something back at him. It was the Orange County Sheriff's Department, stopping to check him out.
The deputy asked for his license and registration, and Matt was careful to ask for permission to reach into his glove box. He presented both to the deputy, who told him to stay where he was and walked back to his cruiser. Matt adjusted the sun visor so the harsh white light was not directly in his eyes, and waited.
OK, Matt thought. This really sucks; on my deployments I supervised soldiers, was trusted with thousands of dollars’ worth of weapons and equipment, and I was the voice of authority. Now somehow everything is reversed. The irony of it all was that in Iraq, Matt felt the security and support of all of the soldiers in his unit, while the threat from insurgents was external. Back in the states now, he was technically home, yet felt threatened on several levels.
The deputy returned and asked what he was doing hanging out in the parking lot at 4 am. Matt explained his financial situation and pointed out where he worked, just visible at the other end of the parking area. The deputy was cordial and suggested that he park closer to his workplace. Taking back his license and registration, Matt thanked the deputy and was surprised when he was told, "And thanks for your service.”
The deputy must have noticed Matt’s veteran status when he made the check of his license and vehicle. Or perhaps he recognized qualities in Matt, perhaps not visible to ordinary bystanders, identifying him as a member of the military.
He parked on the back row of his store's parking lot and checked the time; it was 430am. It would be an hour and a half before the store manager would arrive to open up the store. He decided that now would be a good time to freshen up, so he went behind his vehicle and changed clothes and cleaned up the best he could.
Back in his vehicle now, he listened to more sports radio and was annoyed when a pickup truck with two scruffy looking dudes pulled up directly in front of his Jeep and got out. Oh boy, Matt thought, what the hell is this going to be. The one guy was unshaven and wore jeans and construction boots, and an old Orlando Magic basketball jersey. He started to approach Matt in his Jeep as the other man guy got out of the pickup. "Are you all set?" the first guy asked as he approached. Matt didn't bother to answer, just started up his Jeep and started to pull away like he had someplace to go. Determined not to act like a coward for these guys he took his time driving away.
Matt went around the block twice and parked in the same spot near his store. The guys were gone, and it was now 5 am. There was a welcome line of light along the horizon and just an hour before work. Matt drank from the gallon of distilled water he had from yesterday and dialed his bank again just in case. “Your balance is… negative one dollar and thirty-five cents.” Matt was comforted that within 24 hours things would be better.
The store manager was named Robert, and he was not very helpful when Matt asked to borrow a few bucks until payday. Robert said he had no cash on him. Matt would have to check with Rick and Dave, who would arrive at work in a couple of hours to help Matt unload the weekly truck.
At the daily store meeting right before the store opened, Robert went over the game plan for that day. Matt wondered if his fellow employees could hear the hunger pangs in his stomach. It did not help matters that Robert was in rare form today, pushing the crew to get more done. “Our sales were down last week,” he orated from his pedestal. "If any of you don’t want to be here than let me know.”
Matt bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood; such was the price of anger management. If he could only relate to this clown how hard things for him were at the moment. Of course he wanted to be here, he was jumping through hoops to show up on time.
Matt kept his mind on tomorrow’s paycheck and went to work straightening shelves and helping customers. When Rick and Dave arrived, they were able to spot him a couple of bucks, good enough for two Snickers bars which would carry him into the afternoon. Also, he enjoyed talking about sports with these two, they all were excited that hockey was getting underway. Rick, Dave and Matt all came from the northeast and loved the sport.
When 4 pm rolled around he clocked out for the day, Matt realized he probably only had to slide by for a few more hours, and then it would be both a payday ( finally!) and a day off to get his situation organized.
He walked over to his Jeep and started it up. The gas gauge needle read "Empty," however, he knew there was an emergency reserve feature that gave him a little more. He drove a block over to the big shopping mall and parked. He was feeling a little lightheaded and knew he had to be careful, driving and interacting with others until he ate and rested and felt like himself again.
With the windows down on his vehicle, it was not at all unpleasant. He grinned as he remembered a remark made by Colin Cowherd on his sarcastic and enjoyable sports radio show. Colin spoke of how he was always leery of buying a home for his family which was located near a large parking area or a public park. He would be concerned when, during the middle of a weekday, random guys would park their cars, roll down the windows, and sit for hours. Colin joked that anyone passing their time like that during business hours was either running from the law or their own personal demons.
Matt smiled good-naturedly as he remembered this, and decided to take a walk around. The big indoor mall. He walked to the big Food Court and had a bright idea; he had no money for food, however, there were employees of the different mall food counters who walked around with trays of free samples. Matt approached one of these, and had a couple of small meat and cheese snacks from a fast food place; he made polite chatter with the girl and moved on. He went to a nearby water fountain which worked just fine and it was very refreshing. Matt was careful not to loiter as the mall security were zipping around on their motorized scooters, and they had given them critical looks the day before. These guys did not intimidate him, but he did not need a confrontation to add to his other hassles.
Matt circled the mall and browsed the bookstore. The sports section had a great new college basketball book by John Feinstein, one of his favorite writers. Matt flipped through it and made a mental note to come back for it when he had money.
He noticed his legs cramping up now; this he credited to not eating enough the last two days, and he headed back to the Food Court. It was after 5 pm, and he stepped out of the pedestrian flow to call the Bank of Central Florida again. There was a chance that his direct deposit would have hit at the end of the business day.
"Your current balance is…negative one dollar and thirty-five cents.”
Leg cramps indicated a need for potassium, and to Matt's surprise, he found a restaurant employee holding a sample tray of chocolate and banana treats. Matt indulged and got a drink of water afterward. Resourceful.
OK, maybe my pay will hit at 2 am, seeing how the store was pay rolled from a bank in the Midwest. That meant that Matt had about 8 hours to kill.
He went back to his Jeep and moved it to a less populated part of the large parking area. Surprisingly he was able to sleep in the cool evening as the sun faded, and he was out for about three hours. He listened to ESPN radio in the background.
He woke up with a start as he noticed a van parked right next to him. There was a logo for a carpet cleaning company on the side of it; the uniformed technician was in the driver's seat and staring at him. Matt started up the Jeep and drove off. He was getting annoyed with people.
Realizing he was almost out of gas soon, he remembered that Acme Cinemas had one dollar movies on Thursday nights. They were second run movies but were sometimes very good. The theaters were a short distance across town, but he decided to take the chance.
He parked in the theater parking and rummaged around in the seat cushions; to his relief, he found enough change for the discount movie. He went in and caught the replay of the latest James Bond movie, and enjoyed himself entirely.
Leaving the theater, it was 11 pm. He decided to drive back to the vicinity of his workplace; his reasoning being that if he were stranded or if there was some other emergency, his store opened at 5 pm. A source of help.
He parked his Jeep in the mall parking area in view of his store. It was 1130pm, and he felt well enough to just sit and stay awake for a couple of hours.
At midnight an Orange County Sherriff’s deputy, different than last night, stopped to check him out again. Matt explained his situation, and the cop moved on.
Now it was 1 am. Matt was feeling restless and decided to walk around some. He made sure to lock his vehicle and went over to the intersection of Sand Lake Rd. and Orange Blossom Trail. He was still feeling the effects of the leg cramps and walked awkwardly.
He turned left on to Orange Blossom and faced a scruffy looking middle-aged man approaching him from the other direction. “How you doin?” the guy asked. “OK”, Matt said and kept walking. The strain of the last few days must have been showing on his face, because the man reached out and grabbed his arm and demanded, “Hey man, you don’t have to be unfriendly, man.”
By now Matt had had enough. Covering the man’s hand with his own, he twisted the guy’s thumb counterclockwise until he removed the hand from his forearm. The man stood frozen in consternation, and Matt grabbed him by the shoulders-the better to block any punches-and roughly shoved the guy backwards into a grassy area near the road. The guy almost toppled over.
“Keep your freaking hands off of me!" Matt said, waiting to see what the guy would do. He was too exhausted to run and too angry to apologize to the stranger.
The man stood up and raised his hands, and said: "My bad, I didn't mean to offend you, man." Matt turned and walked off. There was a small crowd of apparently homeless people and hookers watching in surprise. Matt thought he heard someone say, "Fuck you!” behind his back but he kept walking.
He glanced at his watch. It was 130am. He spotted a nearby Kinkos Copies store, open 24 hours. He knew they had internet access and he decided to kill off some time checking his email and looking at sports scores. He had a Kinkos card with money left on it to use.
At 1:50am, he exited Kinkos and was astonished to see a huge CSI type scene in the parking area. There was a fire truck, an ambulance, two Orange County Sherriff's cars, and a couple of other official-looking vehicles. And the whole half of the parking area had crime scene tape. In the middle of the taped off asphalt was the infamous chalk outline of a recently removed corpse.
Matt stood looking, when one deputy said harshly, "Move along sir, there's nothing to see here." Matt started to turn away when the deputy from last night came over. “I know this young man,” he told the other deputy. “I’d like to talk to him.
The deputy handed Matt a cold bottled water, which he gratefully accepted. “What happened here?” Matt asked.
“There was a line of migrant workers here waiting to be picked up for the day’s work,” the deputy explained. “Apparently one got robbed at gunpoint by some dirtbag; he either fought back or could not produce money so he was shot and killed. We’re looking for the perpetrator now.”
“I’m not kidding, but parts of my Army deployments were more peaceful than tonight, and last night. I was inside here only 15 minutes and all of this happened.”
The deputy gave Matt a lift back to his Jeep. It was now 2 am. Matt called the Bank of Central Florida again and waited, fingers crossed.
“Your current balance is……two thousand and forty-five dollars and 59 cents.”
"Holy shit!" Matt exclaimed out loud. He forgot that he was not only getting pay from work but a refund of a 401k plan for his old civilian job.
Hands shaking, he started his Jeep. The fuel needle read below zero, but he had to at least make it to a gas station.
As he pulled in to the first Shell station he came to, his vehicle literally ran out of gas at the pump. He smiled as he filled the tank, and decided his first priority was food. He drove over to the Denny’s from the night before, parked and went inside. The pretty waitress was named Amber, and she got him seated in a booth and said she would be right back.
His stomach was empty but that would all change in a few minutes. He glanced across the aisle and noticed the same older couple from last night staring at him. Too exhausted to be annoyed, he read the menu.
Amber took his order for the Grand Slam breakfast, and he got change for a paper.
After he ate a little he could feel himself start to unwind. He remembered it would not be healthy to eat too fast and took his time. He checked the sports scores.
“Are you in the military?” It was Amber, and she had sidled up to him and surprised him.
“I was; now I am in the Inactive Reserve.”
“Well, I saw your dog tags- thanks for serving!” She said.
"You're welcome, and thanks for mentioning it. I got back from Iraq about a year and a half ago; it could have been a lot worse but it is sure good to be back. Do you know anyone in the military?”
“He’s not really my boyfriend, but he’s a friend from high school. He’s in Afghanistan with the Marines now.”
“When is he due back?”
“In about 2 months. I can’t wait.”
“Well, let’s both pray for his safety,” Matt said. “And make sure to stay in touch with him in the meantime.”
When Matt asked about paying, Amber told him that the old couple who had just left had taken care of it. Matt looked out the window and saw the old man wave before getting into his car with his wife. Matt left a nice tip for Amber and was surprised and pleased when she gave him a big hug.
Out at his vehicle, Matt realized he was too tired to drive to the other part of town, even though he now had the money for his new apartment. He decided to get a hotel room for his day off.
Driving through Orlando at four in the morning, he reflected on the last 48 hours. He had encountered a microcosm of the life experience, both good and bad. Matt was fascinated that he met annoying street people, good and bad deputies, a store manager without a heart (or was that a brain too), a murder scene, old people who frowned on him, old people who reached out to him, and he got a hug from a sweet young woman. He had gone without eating for a longer time than ever in his life, and at times felt he would pass out. Like on deployments, here he was also outside the wire.
Checking into a Holiday Inn Express, he took a long grateful shower and put his clothes back on. Lying down on the bed, he called the front desk and asked for a late checkout. Before he dozed off he turned on the TV; there was a replay of NHL hockey from last night, with the Tampa Bay Lightning playing the New York Rangers. As sleep swarmed in on him, he realized that he would not have traded the experiences of the last 48 hours for anything.
With the TV on as he slept, he dreamed he was playing hockey for the New York Rangers, and Amber the waitress was cheering him on from the stands.