Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What I Learned On The Cracked Streets of New York

This past June, I was invited to attend a trip to the Big Apple (That's New York for you non-city slickers) for a Writer's Guild sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project. I haven't had a chance to blog about that just yet because I am still trying to figure out how I want to write that up. Yesterday was a bad day for me. Not sure why.....wasn't anything horrible, nothing particularly devastating, anything possibly catastrophic, life changing or alien invasion...but just a rotten day followed with tears which I hate. Some days just get to be so much that I get frustrated and angry, which in turn leads this Mistress to turn on the water works to get it all out.

So last night after another evening of silent conversation on my husband's part, and only TV for company...I decided to go soak in a hot tub and turn some music on. I am pretty eclectic in my music choices so last night just seemed like an evening for sappy, slide guitar, down and out, classic country music. While sitting in the tub thinking about my day and how things just weren't getting easier, the song Hello Vietnam by Johnny Wright came on. For those that have never heard this song, I put it here for you.

While soaking in my scented, and only private get away... the sound of the music and lyrics made my thoughts linger back to New York City. Now this small, moo-cow town, semi-misplaced, semi-country girl indeed experienced one hell of a culture shock heading into the city that never sleeps. Between the airport, driving into downtown Manhattan in a cab (which by the way could give you PTSD just from the traffic and the way folks drive out there) and just the jittery nerves of meeting other women like me, had me wound tighter than Dick's hat band! It was go go go from the start, and with the constant traffic and sounds of the city....I found myself missing those early hours with quiet, my moo cows and roosters crowing in the distance. My hotel was very nice, sitting right across from Madison Square Gardens which is something I had only seen on TV and movies.

Since I take my coffee intravenously in the mornings, the one tiny, tea bag coffee filter in a one cup maker just wasn't going to do it for me. I rose way too early on Saturday morning and went in search for the elusive large suicide cup of coffee. As if God was on my side, it led me around the corner where angels started singing and bright lights illuminated in the form of a Dunkin Doughnuts sign. So in the early hours of the morning, I sat outside and watched the food vendors set up for the day, businesses washing off the sidewalks in front, the trash being set out and just listened to the bit of silence that New York City could offer me.

I must have one of those faces that always attract people to come and talk with me. My husband says it is clearly stamped on my forehead and as of late, I am starting to believe that. I met several interesting characters from dancers that hurried by for early practice on Broadway, several prostitutes who discussed their evenings with me and how much they made, and the transvestite who spent much of the morning with me talking about style, the night life and how I was missing out on many things by being in the center of moo-cow town. Man, did he love New York. No one interested me more though than an older man in a wheelchair sitting in front of the NY Fire Department, which was across from a soup kitchen where many, early in the mornings, lined up.

It started out as him staring at me, me staring back and me thinking to myself  "Great, he is going to ask me for a dollar and I don't have a bit of cash on me". I don't know why I do it...I guess its in my nature, but some people just give off a different vibe to me and if a homeless person asks for money, I give them a dollar or two if that vibe is good, sometimes more. Some people have a wrong vibe and I don't. It's very hard these days not to turn a blind eye for those that don't help themselves and in today's society, we have become hard, selfish and cynical. This homeless man sitting in a wheelchair was indeed dirty, scruffy, and probably someone my friends, family and most definitely husband would have jumped on me for even thinking of giving money to, all while yelling at me about how my heart is too good or how I am I tried to keep my line of vision on "Monique", my new found transvestite, coffee drinking, buddy. At one point in our conversation, "Monique" looked at me, noticing that I was looking in this guy's direction and said "That's Mike. Nice fellow he is. Lost his legs in service. He isn't scary or going to rob you, sometimes we have coffee in the mornings or I will get off work and bring him by a bagel with lox and cheese which is his favorite." So then he whistles to get Mike's attention and slowly but surely, Mike rolls down those bumpy sidewalks to where we were standing.

"Monique" introduced us and Mike wasn't scary at all. After hearing many horror stories about holding on to my purse, keeping my eyes straight ahead walking through the city, I was a bit nervous hanging out with such characters on a street corner. Rough around the edges, needing a shave, I guessed his age to be about 60 or a little older. His face was etched with lines that I think only the horrors of war could cause, life on the streets could only add to, and the greenest eyes that held many untold stories. I excused myself to get another cup of coffee and decided we all needed a round at 5:15 in the morning. So with our Dunkin Doughnuts coffee, we all talked about the weather, the city's trash, the fact that not ALL people with Southern accents are from Texas, we somehow got into the discussion of war. You see, that scruffy man was a Vietnam Veteran who served between 1968 around the time of the Tet Offensive and extended his tour of duty to take advantage of the 30 day leave time the Army offered in between tours. Mike told me during that 30 days, he married his high school sweetheart, buried his mother and watched his father drink himself into an oblivion before he went back to Vietnam. During the war, Mike said he lost a brother, two cousins, and somewhere between South Vietnam and the green green jungles...he lost himself.

So in between sips of our fresh hot coffee, we talked about war and the after effects. The hour I spent with him, he seemed very open and wanting to talk as I was willing to listen. The time flew by and I explained I had to hurry up and shower before I had to report in for our bus picking us up. He said "You better run doll and I will be here same time same place if you would like to have coffee with me again". I said "It's a date!". The whole day went by in a blur but my mind kept lingering back to what Mike said. Perhaps it wasn't the words so much as the emotions behind them, the loss and the far away look I so recognized in my husband's eyes. I often comment that we as spouses truly lose our husbands overseas but have we ever stopped to think about how much they lost in themselves? I guess it was a good wake up call for me, reminding me that I wasn't the only person who lost in my marriage.

So the next morning with three much needed alarms and a wake up call to meet my coffee date, I threw on my clothes, grabbed my room key and went to have coffee at 4:30 in the morning with Mike and "Monique" on the corner of 7th Avenue. When I came out the side door, there they both stood, which I have to tell you is a very very odd site to see that early! Here was this man in a hot pink, tube topped, sequined dress and stiletto heels along with a Vietnam Vet in an old Army jacket and pins, armed with smiles to see me. So after our "good mornings", and the same chit chat on weather; the discussion led back to the Iraq war and problems once more. So after my story, Mike told me his.

After he returned home wounded from an ambush and surviving an explosion causing him to lose both legs, he lost his father shortly after. He went on to tell me "but in the loss of life there was another brought into the world with the birth of my daughter Alison; with only one L mind you". He spoke about his wife who was the love of his life and how having a daughter changed it all. However, he was still young, just came back from war and was wounded on top of everything else. He felt he wasn't good enough anymore having lost both legs. His wife was working two jobs trying to pay the bills and keep them above water, and the VA just kept pushing him out on pain meds to the point he was addicted. Months went by he said, and he felt he had disappointed her, let her down and failed her and their child. He pushed her away by staying out and drinking himself to sleep. After a year rocked by with many nightmares and problems being home, his wife left one day with their daughter and he never saw or heard from them again. After several years fighting with the VA, he just gave up trying to get his full disability and trying to fight the system.

He eyed me closely and asked me "So you are probably thinking, this poor man. You probably want to know why I am homeless waiting on the soup kitchen aren't you? Thinking I ain't got nobody to blame but myself don't ya." I said "No sir...I understand, I really do". He looked at me up and down and said "I gave up because I didn't have the courage to fight anymore. The fight was over and I spent every day fighting over there. I didn't try hard enough when I came home and I didn't try with my wife. Don't blame her, she had every right to go. God, did I love that woman. After that though, there wasn't anything left for me to fight for at all. I lost my home and I chose to stay out here on the streets. Aft'all, a home isn't a home without love, a family and a woman who will stand beside you through the hard times. I don't want no one to feel sorry for me, because I made my choices. I got myself cleaned up from the meds, I got some treatment and then I found God somewhere between Broadway and Lincoln Square." He chuckled over that as did I. "I am happy out here and I am a reminder for those who forgot us. I don't want anyone to thank me, but I want everyone to remember that there are many who lost, for them to have it all. Some losses are our own damn fault, but some Uncle Sam just handed to us and said here you go. You younger folks have much more than we ever did, don't squander it away. Learn a lesson or two from this old man and make it worth while. Fight like you ain't ever fought before and when you get done, put the boxing gloves down and love like hell."

I chewed on that for a minute or two, and in silence we sipped our coffees and watched the city start to gear up. I asked him "Do you have any advice for me about my husband?" He sat a minute and said "yeah 'a do. Have patience. It's hard, but he's in there somewhere. It's murky, its dark and there are demons riding his back all day...but he is still there. Love him no matter how much he pushes you away because he is only trying to punish himself. He depends on you cause you are all he has left. You got the only light on to show him the way and a part of him knows that. Fight for him, because he doesn't have the strength to keep going some days. When he gets stubborn or won't help himself? Stick a boot up his ass and let him know you aren't going to give up on him but you're not gonna tolerate his giving up either. If he is going to the VA and taking his meds? It means he is trying and probably just for you and your kids. Remember that. Lot you don't know, doll, about what goes on in war.... but a lot he doesn't know what you go through either. Both of you are just two lost people trying to hang on tight and not lose your way. One day, he will find his way as you will too. Have faith in God, cause he may take you for a ride but there's a reason. It's not your plan, it's his and he will let you know as you go along. Sometimes you just miss the message".

So after some tears from me, and a little "something in his eye" he said...he shooed me off for my day with the girls in the big city. I told him I wasn't leaving til the next morning but he said he had elsewhere to be. He would be around today but it was time for him to move on as he was tired of the same city blocks and the sites to see. Late Sunday evening I stepped out to get some shirts and saw him across the street. I had purchased a couple of the typical cliche t-shirts at a nearby store with I <3 NY on them for my kids, and rather than spend the rest of my money on stupid souvenirs, bought him a 25.00 gift card to use at Dunkin Doughnuts and a bagel with lox and cheese.

I ran across the street to give it to him and to say thank you for the advice. I wanted to let him know that I haven't forgotten.  He looked inside the bag and said "My favorite!" and got all teary eyed. I told him to have coffee on me wherever he was in the city and don't give up. I appreciated everything he lost and did for us, so it wasn't for nothing. He said "You don't owe me a thing. I should be thanking you for putting up with my grouchy old ass. It was nice meeting someone from Texas (said with a wink). Now get on out of here and go do something fun woman! Remember to keep your chin up, spine straight and can do it." He smiled with a crooked grin and said "Go on now and leave this old man alone!"

I walked away then and joined the rest of the girl's in the adjoining restaurant next to the hotel that night. I learned a lot from my experience in NYC from the writer's guild, especially since I discovered I can write more than just about PTSD and TBI which is something I wanted to do way before this adventure and life ever started. However, I learned a lot more from a homeless man living on the streets than I ever did from a book, or an online forum, or from the VA. It reminded me of what I was fighting for and for what purpose. It reaffirmed my small hope I hang on to that my husband is still in there somewhere and finally, gave me a newer strength.

When I got back home, I told my family of my coffee drinking buddies on the corner of 7th avenue, but didn't go into details. The buildings, traffic and sites through my adventure along with my teaching a Nigerian Cab driver how to properly say "Ya'll " was enough to be told. The next morning bright and early, I had my coffee with my moo-cows and it seemed strange. I missed my New York buddies. As I sat last night in the tub thinking about the day, the water works finally starting to ease off, and fighting off that nagging feeling of "maybe I should just leave and never come back" that song came on and it just reminded me of Mike somewhere in NY. I had to smile because it played right at the moment I was thinking that one little nagging option. Probably just by chance it came on, but I like to think that maybe it was for a reason it came on just at the right time and at the right place.

I am going back in November to NYC to rejoin the girls at the Writer's Guild one more time, and I sincerely hope that I can find my coffee drinking buddy. I wanted to share, as what Mike said, weighed heavily on my mind since last night and carried through this morning's coffee ritual with my cows. I am not sure if you will see the point in my story or not, but maybe someone will. I guess I am trying to say that sometimes it's easy for all of us to lose sight on what we really have, good or bad, and get caught up in the world of our wounded military, the VA and the government. Sometimes, we all just need to stop....and simply smell the coffee. I didn't find God on the corner of 7th Avenue, but I did find a message.............

Chin's Up, Spine is Straight, and Boxing Gloves are on Mike, 


  1. This was brilliant USM, he does remind me of me. I started crying about half way through, the part where he is telling you that your husband is still in there and why and how he is struggling. I am going to put that part on my website, hope ya'll don't mind.

  2. Brought t4ears to my ex-husband is a Vietnam vet, his oldest brother was killed in Nam. My exboyfriend is a 1st Gulf War veteran. Today must be a sad day for me. Maybe its all this 9/11 stuff.

  3. Very inspiring. I definantely needed something like this today.. Today was rough :( Rouger than usual!

  4. God bless the Mike's of this world, his advise to you is absolutely sound. That kind of wisdom only comes from those who have been on that long ride.
    I also believe that the two of you will find your way (hopefully sooner than I found mine).

    Not many will understand how two people can endure so much or why they would stay together. After all these years I still don't understand how my wife managed to stay. But we did find our way, God is in charge and we are both thankful that He is.

  5. HOLY CRAP the water works just won't stop. - USM - I believe you did find God that morning on 7th Ave. Right inside Mike.... And, I believe God was right there with you last night in that tub to give you that song to remind you of Mike and give you a renewed strength to continue on in this "battle". He is there, He knows your needs, He knows your weaknesses & He will continue to give you strength.

  6. This is a fantastic story. It gave me the cold chills and made me want to reread it. I appreciate all your work and writing-you make me feel like I am there with you and have a friend who knows what I am going through. Thank you for bringing awareness to us USM. Your Afghanistan friend, Chap

  7. Still crying...maybe sobbing describes it better. That was one of the most heartfelt & touching stories I've read and I completely get your point! As the wife of a Wounded Warrior and the daughter of a Vietnam Vet, I really get it. I would also like to thank you for caring enough to spend the time you did speaking with Mike, I bet it meant the world to him :) Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story with all of us.


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