“Your address?” asked the Indiana University Northwest admissions representative.
“I just moved and haven’t memorized my house number, “I said. I pretended to search for something, anything with an address on it, in my dirty canvas bag.
“Here it is. It’s 3522 Village Court in Gary.” I lied. It was the address on the business card I picked up when I applied for work yesterday at Gary’s Work One.
I lied because I live in an abandoned house a block from the college. I don’t live there by choice, of course. I was downsized. I lost my job at the windshield wiper factory almost a year ago. After twenty-two years of service, my boss handed me my severance package. He said it was cheaper to make and assemble wiper parts in the Philippines. He added that I was no longer needed.
Never much of a saver, I ran out of severance money in three months. A couple weeks later my unemployment checks stopped. I applied for sixty-six jobs before I gave up. I interviewed for twenty-one positions. The excuses for not hiring me were many. I had no experience and no college education was the most used reasons. At fifty-three, I figured my age was another explanation.
Evicted from my apartment, I packed my 1980 Chevy Malibu with canned goods, clothes, and my television. I left Indianapolis with no money. My charge cards were cancelled long ago. I drove until I ran out of gas at the exit off of I-65 and Ridge Road. I was home. I grew up just a few blocks from here on 35th and Washington in Gary.
Carrying as much as I could in my backpack and leaving my beloved television behind, I set out to find my childhood home. The three bedroom one-story white house that held so many memories was gone.
Weary, I dropped to my knees under the only thing left on the lot, a big oak tree. The tree my mother planted from a seedling. Leaning up against the tree, I put my head in my hands and cried myself to sleep.
I woke up before the sun came out, gathered up my meager belongings and walked to an abandoned house a short distance away. I creeped into the unlocked back door. The walls were painted with black symbols. Broken ceiling lights were hanging from wires. The cool May air blowing through the shattered windows didn’t subdue the pungent smell of decay.
It looked as if I wasn’t the first homeless occupant with all the garbage and broken furniture everywhere. In one of the small bedrooms, I found an empty closet big enough to sleep in. I cleaned out the cobwebs and rat poop with my hands. I emptied my back pack and lined up the canned goods on the dusty floor. Then I draped my two sweaters and a pair of jeans over the clothing rod. I stacked the dozen pairs of underpants on the shelf above my head with a travel sized bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap. It was home and I was happy to have it.
A block away from my house was Indiana University Northwest. I walked around the school every day for a week looking for food in the garbage cans and dumpsters. I’d sit eating and watching the students. Some carried their books in backpacks and some pulled bulging suitcases behind them. Always in a rush. Smiling. Socializing. That’s when I had a brilliant idea: Why not apply for college admission. I know I should get a job first, and lord knows I tried. But who wants to hire an old worker who only knows how to assemble windshield wipers?
“Phone?” the admissions officer asked.
“I have no phone,” I said, noticing the college representative looking over her reading glasses at my wet hair. She couldn’t know that I washed it with hand soap in the university’s restroom.
“E-mail address?” she continued.
“Nope. Don’t have one of those either,” I said. I started to sweat in her tiny, windowless office. I could smell myself and the fact I had not bathed in days.
Finally, she slid a neat pile of documents toward me.
“Sign here,” she said. “And I’ll need your high school transcript and an admissions fee check to get the ball rolling.”
Holding back the tears, all I could give her was a weak smile and a nod. I stood and thanked her for her time.
Outside I took a deep breath. I smelled a pleasant aroma coming from the college cafeteria. Sloppy Joes. Fighting the urge to sniff out the trash cans, I walked home. Backed up to the now dangling back door was a City of Gary truck.