My Old Jacket
The mirror was my cold dose of reality during that harsh winter. My bloodshot eyes hardly reminded me I was just 23 years old at the time. My unwashed hair was grimy and disgusting. My clothes smelled from having been worn for three straight weeks. My jacket was charred from who-knows-what and torn in the front.
But my jacket was everything to me. It was my comforter at night. My pillow for brief rests as I buried my unshaven face into it during the long rides on the E train. It was holiday time too, December of 1983, just a little over a half a year after I graduated from college.
I was exhausted from walking so much, searching for a job, any job. I’d clean toilets if I could make any kind of money. Anything.
The worst part of the experience was being uncomfortable. I was embarrassed of how I looked. I wondered whether I should even wear the jacket. I even thought about stealing one. I was desperate. Desperate people think of taking abnormal actions to stay warm.
But my black jacket would have to keep me warm, if that was possible. It wasn’t my only problem. I was not only cold but also humiliated.
How does one find himself homeless, sitting in a subway seat between two well dressed people with beautiful bags of gifts? There were times I just put that jacket into my green bag of belongings and wore three or four t-shirts I had.
How odd I must have looked on those winter nights.
During those bleak, frigid winter evenings and mornings, I realized that the many who shared those subway rides probably thought the same of themselves. I wasn’t the worst-dressed person on those nights. I saw many brothers and some sisters, heads lowered, looking away, avoiding eye contact.
Humbled, I usually sat by a pole near the end of the car, cringing in shame.
The worst part was trying to look presentable when going for a job interview. I applied for any part-time or temporary job, even washing my hair in a toilet at a nearby university, using the soap in the dispenser so I would look presentable for an interview. One night, exhausted from a day of walking from one end of Manhattan Island to the other, I rested in a place of warmth, letting my body finally relax. It had been a few days since I had actually slept. I leaned on that jacket for my pillow. Within minutes I fell into a slumber, only to be woken up by a whack on the side of my chair by an angry lady and her umbrella. What a look she gave me.
No longer able to bear the freezing temperatures, I hid beneath a pew in a Queens church on New Year’s Eve and intentionally got locked in for the night. My jacket was my pillow again. While others were toasting the arrival of 1984, I celebrated out of the cold with God.
My homeless experience sleeping on the train wasn’t a long one, yet it was long enough to open my heart up to being grateful for the simple pleasures of life – such as having a jacket.
I finally retired that old, torn jacket on Christmas Day in 1984. My Long Island cousins greeted me at the door that holy day with the most incredible gesture — a beautiful denim jacket. I remember them telling me, “It’s about time you have one that will keep you warm.”
I still have that jacket my cousins gave me on that Christmas Day. It’s pictured above. I will have it now for 30 years. I still wear it once in a while to remind myself to appreciate having a warm roof over my head, food on the table, and the warmth of a jacket.
This is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
May you and your loved ones be warm this winter.