I used to say this story wasn’t for sale. My carefully constructed Stepford persona didn’t need any shadows. “Street cred is overrated.” Of course, I also used to say ka-ching! and that martinis were gross.
My fellow Chicago Now blogger, Exavier Pope, is a successful attorney here in Chicago with a nice family. He’s the type of guy to wear a polished suit and a stoic expression in his Facebook photo. I imagine he drives a German car and eats plenty of vegetables. Despite his buttoned-up exterior, he’s a rather sunny guy. He posts inspirational messages on social media like, “Expect the very best today!” and “Worry is no match for faith!”
Pope wrote a post on his blog yesterday revealing that he had been homeless as a teenager. Apparently his elite high school wasn’t made aware of this situation and he slipped by, unnoticed, going to class as normal. He graduated, but fell into some temptation as a young adult, pulled it together, put himself through higher education and now he gets to put “esquire” after his name. I’d say that is a pretty amazing story. Read it here.
What he didn’t expect, however, was the backlash. His credibility was called into question, which for someone who has worked hard to construct a public face that is airtight and respectable, this is one of the lowest blows. How do I know this? Because I have a similar story. And similar fears.
I know how Exavier did it. He did it like I did it. Working. Secrets. Luck.
I was a junior in high school when things reached a boiling point at my home. I wasn’t the type to get in trouble at school beyond “talking in class” and “not paying attention”. Well, there was an incident where I was busted by my gym teacher during laps for carrying funny cartoons in my sock*. (It was a big deal. The principal’s office and everything.) But I wasn’t a class-cutter or a pot smuggler or a spray-painter. Many years later my then-fiance, trying to ferret out any inclinations toward my future parenting asked, “and so what if you had been? Does that justify throwing your child out in the street?”
No. But that’s exactly what happened when I came home from work one Saturday. I had a rad job at an old lady salon where I washed blue hair for $4.75 an hour – plus tips! My mother, her bipolar disorder still years from being diagnosed, was in a rage. In retrospect I am wise enough to suspect her nerves were due to a family reunion happening that night (she hasn’t spoken to her 82-year-old parents in six years), but that day in June, 1997, it was me she had had it with.
She threw my belongings into our midwestern suburban yard – the type of place where lights go out at 8:00 and people decorate their porches for Easter – and that was it for me. Out. I didn’t see the inside of my childhood home for three years after that.
To make a long story very short, I showed up for school that fall, where I immediately disclosed my living situation to the Vice Principal who suggested I declare some sort of independent status with the superintendent’s office. I did. My friends gave me clothes, I fell into some luck and the generous hands of amazing people and I managed to not fall through the cracks. I graduated. I got a scholarship to college and took a semester in Europe. I aligned myself with people more cultured than myself, graduated college, moved to Chicago and created my new persona.
(I’m skipping the part about my $200 Dodge, a 1982 model with a column shifter that I bought from a woman wearing a muumuu who didn’t look up from her game show to sell it to me. I’m also skipping the waitressing jobs, the nursing home job where I wiped butts for minimum wage and the four-hour career at a taco joint at the mall where I was trained on the cash register by an eight-year-old. You’ll have to wait for the book.)
See the picture of the generic, marginally attractive 30-something, privileged-seeming lady in my profile picture? All a ruse. Somewhere inside, I’m still a 17-year-old who uses a t-shirt as a pillow case and might not have the 69 cents for a burrito at the Taco Bell drive-through.
I don’t harbor resentment against my parents. They were young when they had me and mental illness isn’t a walk in the park for anyone. Even though we don’t speak often and she still disappoints me, I wish my mom the best.
Am I telling you this so you feel sorry for me? No. If that’s what I wanted, I would have been shouting this from the tree-tops long before now. What I want you to think is that I’ve always been a fancy lady. I want you to know that you can be anyone you want.
A commenter flung an insult at me the other day that I’m nothing more than a sheltered princess. Do you know how hard it is to cultivate an image of a sheltered princess? Dude. Very. The day I figured out over-plucked eyebrows subtract about $100,000 from the perceived household income of a woman was like the heavens had opened.
Cheap, not cheap
A-HA! Looking like you’ve never been homeless is a very contrived ordeal. At first. Eventually you become what you want to be and now I have no trouble getting a sales clerk.
I suspect Exavier feels the same way. Going from a past you are embarrassed of to a present that is finally secure enough to admit to it is quite a feat. It may seem unbelievable, but we’re out there. Next time you roll your eyes at the asshole in the nice car or princess who “has it all” just picture them sweeping hair for minimum wage. You never know. They could have been homeless teenager.
And you? What do you want out of life? Who do you want to be? You don’t need permission. Do it. Be it. Exavier and I know, it can be done.
*I can draw a killer George Bush, a pig wearing glasses and my 9th grade math teacher.