From Skid Row to K Street

By Michael M. 11/17/16

I was able to "step in, step up and step out" from a life of poverty and into the life of my dreams.

From Skid Row to K Street

In less than three years, I went from living in a homeless shelter to handling editorials written by members of the U.S. Congress.

I went from counting quarters to see if I could do laundry this week, jealously eyeing people who came to AA meetings with Starbucks cups, to casually walking across the street from my fancy office spitting distance from the White House to get Intelligentsia coffee, Starbucks, Peet’s or what have you.

Eating expired baloney in the back of a damp truck that smelled like wet garbage and men who’d been getting rained on and sweating, it seldom dawned on me I would be in a suit and tie taking selfies with celebrities at a party for my work held at an embassy a few years later.

In the back of the street-cleaning van, on my three-months-old Tasty Cakes lunch break, I read Jay McInerney and dreamed of being Russell Calloway.

My attempt at moving toward the editorial arts while still a resident in “transitional housing” ended in a near-blackout panic attack, followed by a two-hour-long call to my faraway mother, when, at the urging of my AA sponsor, I attended an orientation for volunteers at a local literacy program. 

The trap was set when the leader said we were to go around the room introducing ourselves. As soon as she said this, I wished I could have quietly slipped away, never to return again. Only I was sitting in such a place in the room, surrounded in such a way, that I could not get out without bringing attention to myself. I was stuck.

The whole time, as it went around the room, I felt like maybe I should make a run for it, just get up in the middle of the introductions and walk the heck out. For what could I say in all honesty, “Hi my name is Michael, I live in the homeless shelter, I am here because my AA sponsor said it would be good for me to stop isolating and try to meet other people”? 

Instead I came out with something that sounded way more intense and serious than what other people, who could softly, effortlessly, casually toss out “normal” things, e.g., “I am a student at Penn, from Maryland,” were saying. I said something about the importance of literacy in social democracy, something in retrospect, as a five-years-sober somewhat better-adjusted person, I can see as the weird, out of touch with the mainstream kind of thing to say that it was.

On the sidewalks of West Philadelphia, when the cleaning crew supervisor wasn’t looking, I would step away from my street-sweeper’s route to read a few pages of I And Thou by Martin Buber. 

In my blue uniform with a giant logo on my back that looked like Mr. Clean for sidewalks in neighborhoods with a high murder rate, my ear buds introduced me to Concerning the Bodyguard by Donald Bartheleme, read by Salman Rushdie on a podcast hosted by the soft-speaking Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker.

A year and a half sober, I went back to college and all everyone wanted to know was, what are you going to do next year after you graduate? I’m just taking it one step at a time, was all I could say. I focused on that first semester back, and got straight A's. 

The second semester I started building toward the long-term, taking an unpaid internship at a local magazine and volunteering as a copy editor at the school paper on top of my part-time gig waiting tables. Still, I got straight A's and graduated with honors. 

It was ironic that when I had been drinking I didn’t get as good grades even though I spent all my time doing school work (while getting drunk every day) and now that I was sober, even though I had so much less time to spend on class work, I got better grades. I felt that with a clear, sober mind, the work came easier, even two science classes, a requirement that I had put off to the very end, being more inclined to the humanities.

The courage I perhaps earned following directions, i.e., that panic-inducing volunteer experience, gave me the guts to go to the local paper and present myself as a willing and able candidate for a summer internship. To my amazement, and the amazement of my soon-to-be-fiancée, they offered me a gig. But it was a small-town paper, fallen on hard times. The building was looking for a new owner, and from the smell of the urinals they hadn’t been able to afford a cleaning lady in eons. 

Just when I wanted to give up, because they weren’t paying me enough (the bathrooms weren’t up to the standard befitting the human dignity I felt was my due) my sponsor said well, what’s stopping you from cleaning the bathroom, if it bothers you so? 

My outrage gave way to defiance, as in, I will follow this suggestion just to prove that AA doesn’t work, just to prove that this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Now I just had to wait for nothing good to come of this job, and I would be right! I had dismissed the old saw that it’s better to be sober and happy than to be right.

Well I was out of luck, because the newspaper increased my pay, even though my position remained tenuous and I needed a part-time restaurant job to help pay the bills. But I believe that I stayed at that job just long enough to have the experience on my resume, and to keep the determination to make it in an incredibly narrow career, that I was able to get my first “real” journalism job at a bigger paper in the area, paying a full-time salary with health care, retirement, the whole nine! That job was followed by the next one, which brought me to K Street, handling the writings of big shots. 

Now I give money to the program that helped me “step in, step up and step out,” and my employer matches two bucks to my every dollar, but when I pass the “men in blue” on my way from my house, which I own, with my beautiful wife, as I walk my leafy neighborhood boulevard to my “creative class” job with progressive benefits and work-life balance, I can’t help but wonder in awe at how I got here from there.

Michael M. is a copy editor and fact checker. He is also a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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