Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Surviving on the street: ‘I fell so hard so fast’

By Tom Gasparoli

It was mild out but still misting after a light drizzle. 9:30 p.m., 11 days before Christmas.

I parked on a side street near the main library. I knew I’d find someone who resided there. On the streets, I mean.

Some folks there live in their cars. And vans. Packed with clothes, containers, snacks, stuff. Sometimes, plastic bags cover the windows to ward off prying eyes.

Six vehicles were lined up against the curb, darkened because three streetlights in succession were out. Their owners park here in part because they can usually get two meals a day from Urban Ministries a block away. Three on weekends, I’m told.

As I walked up to a brownish compact with N.C. plates, I heard the whistle from a fast-moving train. The wheels scraped the iron hard as they hurtled by a couple hundred yards away.

I saw a woman sitting behind the wheel. I said hello. Leaves blew by my feet. The window was cracked a couple of inches as she puffed on a Cheyenne.

“I get ’em for $2.50 a pack at a store around the corner,” she told me.

I saw there was virtually no empty space. Like a closet on four tires. I asked if she minded sitting against the low chain fence that surrounded a parking lot.

Then a man’s voice came from the back seat, from under a blanket that I realized formed a kind of tent.

“Where are you going, Latrice?”

“I’m just gonna talk to this man for a few minutes,” she said and got out.

A DATA bus went by on Main. When quiet returned, I asked how long she’d been living in the sedan.

“Almost four months,” Latrice said. “Since September. During the day I spend time in diners and in the park. The library. Love to sit and read.”

She went on. “The guy in the back seat gets odd jobs – he wakes up at 5 a.m. and works whenever he can. It’s his car. He’s been kind to let me stay in the front seat.”

Latrice did not look at me at first. When she finally did, I saw that she was attractive and appeared healthy, too. She said she washes up every few days in a restaurant restroom.

“Please don’t say which one. They’ll stop me.”

The woman’s voice was strong, her words well-spoken.

“I’ve never been homeless,” she said. “I’m embarrassed.”

Another bus blew by. Latrice pointed to the county social services building.

“They’ve been nice,” she said, “but I need a phone so they can reach me if a job interview comes up. I don’t have a phone.”

Latrice said social services could probably help her get a room somewhere if she had kids with her.

“Single females don’t easily qualify,” Latrice said.

I asked about the holidays.

“Christmas used to be my favorite time,” she said. “I’m just trying not to think about it. Makes me too sad.”

Her mom is back home in Kinston.

“She’s not well.”

Her kids are grown. “They have their own lives,” she said. “I don’t want to ask for anything.”

“Siblings?”

“I have a brother who does research at a university down the road.”

It was about 10:30 now and getting chilly. Latrice went to grab a wrap to put over her shoulders.

“Some church people dropped off some clothes for us,” she said.

The beep of a truck backing up was piercing. A patrol car rolled past on Liberty.

“Do you want to tell me how things got so bad?”

“I just fell so hard so fast,” she answered. “I had a job as a property manager at a complex in Silver Spring, Maryland. I liked the work. I was good at it.”

“What happened?”

“I left my husband,” she said. “He was possessive.”

From far off, a siren sounded.

“It didn’t go well on my own,” she said. “One thing led to another. I hope something good happens soon.”

I could tell: a proud woman had tired of talking about something so punishing.

We shook hands. She smiled for the first time, turned in her tennis shoes and walked back to the car. I walked back to mine.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042

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