At Providence's Gate
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Chapter Fifteen

          If you are homeless your body often aches.  Mine was hurting that early Thursday morning after being hit by a pickup truck about 24 hours before.   Turning on the one light in my seedy hotel room, I looked at the bruises on my leg, shoulder and hip and smiled when I saw slight signs of fading, of healing.

            Today I would go on my first job interview in over 22 years.  In fact, that interview with the Chairman of the Philosophy Department had been my only other job interview Id ever had in my life.  I didnt even own a resume.

            I bathed and dressed early, before the birds even began warning sleeping San Antonians that a new day was about to begin.  I like walking the streets in the pre-dawn darkness, after the street cleaners washed the litter away, but before the garbage trucks began disturbing the peace by noisily picking up the hundreds of dumpsters in the alleys of downtown.

            The drunken revelers in San Antonio for conventions and conferences and the rowdy tourists who were here for the game or just for a carefree weekend had retreated by this hour, giving the city back to its real owners, those who appreciate it the most, the street people.  No one knows a city better than the man who lives in it without a home.  The concrete of its sidewalks and steps of its churches and businesses become his bed.  The bus and park benches are the living rooms of the homeless, providing them rest and refuge until the hour of the day when they can seek out shelter provided by a charity or find their places under the stars.

            This particular Thursday morning, before the garbage trucks invaded the area, I saw a few dumpster divers moving through alleys from big green metal box to big green metal box.  They cursed the ones made inaccessible by hardened steel padlocks, a more and more common occurrence meant to protect the restaurants who lease the dumpsters from being sued if the street person ate garbage that made him sick.

            I knew the moment I saw a crazy, not-so-old lady wearing a pair of filthy jeans, two torn skirts, a dirty cotton white dress, three blouses, a sweat shirt that said Boobs in big suggestive letters on the front, a ratty fur stole and baseball cap all at the same time, that I must never go back to being homeless.

            The 35-year-old man literally retching his guts out onto the sidewalk, who looked to me to be twice his age told me in his involuntary actions instead of words that I must never go back to being homeless.

            An old black man of indeterminate age, walking furtively before me down a dark Commerce Street, his head turning from right to left and right again over and over, like a warship ever mindful of the possibility of attack. He stopped and turned, he looked back at me, pointed his finger in my direction until I stopped walking as well, turned and said, Bang.  Then he repeated the ritual around five times between Alamo and Soledad Streets.  He also said, Nick, you must never go back to being homeless.

            All these pathetic people and many more I saw hiding or sleeping in the shadows, denizens of the night, the true owners of the city, convinced me this Thursday morning that I didnt want to live like them any longer and even more important, I didnt want to die like them.

            I walked slowly back to the Yellow Rose Hotel.  The sky was becoming pink in the east and I was promising myself I would never sleep on concrete again.  Even the lumpy old bed in the cheapest hotel in town was preferable to the life these people were living and that I was living until a man named John Boucher made me see the light.

            Before going back to my room, I walked to the little Mexican restaurant on the corner.  It had opened about 15 minutes before, at 6 am, but already the seductive odors of the best breakfast tacos in town were wafting through the neighborhood.  The aroma was an effective and inexpensive form of advertisement, but when I learned I could buy three of these large meat and egg filled soft tortillas for two dollars, I purchased six dollars-worth and made my way over to Travis Park to pig out.

            Upon arrival, the homeless who had been hiding in the shadows until 5 am and the end of the city imposed park curfew, had began gathering.  The first available meal for them wasnt until 11 am at the Bexar County Fellowship soup kitchen a few blocks away.

            I spotted a young couple with three little girls in tow.  They each were carrying three suitcases and the children were kept in a single file line between mother and father through the use of a rope tied around their wrists and their parents waists.  I watched them walk over to an empty bench, wearily drop their luggage and plop down.  The children did the same on the luggage.

            I looked down at the bag of tacos I had in my hand and felt ashamed that I had bought so much food for my own personal consumption but hadnt considered the obvious dire needs of people like this family.  I finished eating the taco I had in my right hand and ambled over to where the father was trying to make his children comfortable.

            Here you go Dad, I said, My eyes were bigger than my stomach this morning, yall like breakfast tacos?

Wow man, said the young father, you are a lifesaver.  We havent eaten since yesterday morning at Ms. Beas.  Ms Bea is the name of the wonderful 80-year-old saint who is the honcho at the Bexar Fellowship soup kitchen.

            Shes there nearly every day of the year, this frail looking, but tough angel who knows hundreds of homeless and street people by name.  They may be coarse women and rowdy men on the streets, drug addicts and panhandlers, but in Ms. Beas presence they become regular ladies and gentlemen.  The transformation is amazing.  They dont cuss, always call her maam, and if they dont eat all the food on their plates, they will receive her wrath.

            I slowly walked back to the Yellow Rose and bought a cup of coffee from the night desk clerk, a pleasant Pakistani fellow who was doing the best with what he had.  His father owned the hotel and the staff consisted of aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters along with mom and dad.  He asked if I wanted to buy an egg sandwich.

            No, I said, I dont have any more money with me.  you are new, he replied, On the house.  It was the tastiest meal I had in a long time.

            I sat in the lobby watching the morning news.  Some residents started leaving for work and some of those who worked the graveyard shift started coming in.  Every one of them looked as if they had a story waiting to be told.  I supposed I had that same look on my face as well.  But we were all anonymous boarders in the cheapest seediest hotel in San Antonio and the only place strangers tell their deep dark secrets to other strangers is on a Greyhound bus. And I for one was grateful for this place, because it was better than Travis Park at 5 am and much better than spending the night on a mattress of concrete.

            I went up to my room at 9 am, tired of hearing about and seeing the tragedies that struck the world during Americas darkness.  I was certain those countries across the ocean where the sun was setting welcomed the relief from strife the night would bring.

            Between 9:30 and 11 am, I was a training aid at the beauty school next door for an attractive young female student.  For three dollars and fifty cents, she gave me a stylish haircut and removed my beard.

            When Chris arrived to pick me up, I told him of my epiphany and promise to pull myself up out of the gutter.  He didnt seem impressed.  In fact, he didnt even mention my haircut or the fact I no longer had a beard.  Arriving at Cosmo News, he introduced me to some of the other telemarketers who were standing in front of the building smoking cigarettes, telling jokes and waiting for their noon shift to start.  Except for four or five adult men and women, most of them were teenagers barely free of adolescents.

            I filled out the application paperwork and read through the 25 page or so book of policies and procedures.  Then a big Hispanic guy named Ben Rivera came over and profusely shook my hand. Hi Im Ben, the manager, Whats your name? he asked. Soto, Nick Soto, was my tentative reply to this most effusive young man. Can ya sell newspapers, Nick? he shouted at the top of his lungs.

            I realized the type of attitude Ben was looking for so I responded with, Hell yes, Ben, I can sell newspapers to blind people, I can sell newspapers to the functionally illiterate, Man I can sell some newspaper.  Surprised at my enthusiastic outburst, Ben then said, Okay, Nick, you just called me and I told you, hell, we cant read here, what would you tell me?

            Well sir, you dont need to read a paper for it to have value to you.  Why our Sunday paper is loaded with sometimes a couple of hundred dollars worth of coupons. You eat dontcha?  You drink soda pop? use toilet paper? soap?

Well, sir, for less than three dollars and fifty cents a week we give you hundreds of dollars of coupons on Sunday and plenty of papers to wrap fish or wash windows with the other six days.  Sir youll save that three fifty thirty times!

            Whoa, Nick, Ben finally said.  You know a secret of this business already.  Keep em talking, be funny.  Youre hired!  Then he called the trainer over, a young guy named Eddie.  Teach Nick here everything he needs to know to work the phones and then put him with someone for a couple of calls, this guys a natural, Ben told him, while slapping me on the back.

            Eddie took me to the break room, filled me in on the products showed me some scripts and did some role playing with me.  After half an hour he deemed me ready to hit the floor.  I watched Miriam, an older woman work the phone and listened to her pitch for another half hour.  Finally I told Eddie I was ready.

            I couldnt do anything wrong for the next two-and-a-half hours.  I was selling the Nome Alaskan and making a sale at least every other call.  Once I made four sales in a row without a non-sale.  With each sale we rang a bell on our table so a verifier could come over and confirm the sale with the customer.  I was doing so well, the verifier stayed next to my table.

            By lunch break at 4:30, I had sold 22 daily and Sundays, 14 weekends and 8 weekdays for a total of 118 points.  Two more points and Id be in bonus!  For the evening shift, Ben put me selling the Dukeville Daily Planet, reputed to be one of the most difficult to sell.  I made three points my first phone call and the rest of the shift was all bonus cash, a total of 65 points.

            While turning in my paperwork at the end of the shift, Ben walked over to me and gave me a big hug in front of everyone.  He said I was the quickest started he ever had and I was walking on air. 

            The next day, before we started calling, Ben had me stand up in front of the entire group. Yesterday was Nicks first shift.  He made 186 points in less than eight hours.  No one, in the history of Cosmo News has ever done that.  He went on to say history was made yesterday and told everyone to stop by my table and listen to me work the phone.

            I finally had found my niche.  I loved talking to people around the country.  I loved giving them reasons to buy their local newspaper and reveled in successfully  refuting their excuses why they shouldnt.

             Finally I was not shy and I could comfortably interact with people.  I suppose you could say if I had not gone crazy at 45, I never would have reached my full potential.  The trials and tribulations I had faced for the past nearly four years had paid off, reaffirming my belief that good could come from any experience, no matter how bad it may seem at the time.