“You Can Live in Hell For A Year, If You Know You’re Getting Out”
I daydream often. More than I would like to admit. This written confession may not seem like much of a statement, but for me it leaves me feeling vulnerable and exposed. In my eyes, dreams of any kind are potential promises we secretly make to ourselves. They are in essence what we feel to be true or could happen — — a way in which we prepare our minds to interpret the physical actions necessary for this fateful day of prophetic clarity. Daydreaming has a special approach to this mental practice because, at least in my case, the emotions behind this mysterious state of consciousness are genuinely warm and optimistic. My daydreams are filled with conquests and laughter, pilgrimages and love entrapments, helpful challenges and revelations, but most importantly there is a sense that no matter what the odds, wellbeing and fruitful testimony will be the undoubtable outcome. Yet, that very notion, that all will indeed be well, is what at times makes me uneasy and pensive. For as we grow older, the time we spend daydreaming appears to come with a price. A price that may become too steep, for dreams that may be too high and unstable. I become stricken with the grief of unproven truths and most importantly a sense that I am nothing more than a liar. What conquest have these daily nightmares given, what love and journeys have they produced? Am I a fool for believing these illusions, or a child who refuses to accept the realities of my apparent limitations? I conjured these thoughts as many times as I attempted to dream them away. However, this strange dance of combative daydreaming to chase away thoughts of doubt is not a coping mechanism, but rather is the newly learned solution for my earlier admittance of guilt. If there is one lesson that last year has taught me, it is that the wisdom of dreaming can be the key to freeing yourself before the chains are finally broken.
A New Year With Old Problems
The common theme that has repeatedly been reiterated by most people when discussing the year 2020, is that it by far was one of the worst years in recent human history. I will not argue the proclamation and might even add unbiasedly that such a title is well awarded. I say unbiasedly, for as an individual, I found the year prior was far more detrimental in what really made the apocalyptic mayhem and impending doom of the novel COVID years more digestible. You see, I began 2020 the same way I ended it: stressed, fatigued, and relatively broke. Unjustifiably fired from one of my main employers, I was fighting for unemployment benefits and legal advice. I found myself more dependent on my roommate as the then- forced head of the household due to bills and rent and was bombarded by the unsettling feeling that I was another pathetic statistic.
As vain and irrelevant as these thoughts may have seemed, from a societal standpoint they felt unapologetic and validated. Towards the final weeks of 2019, I was fired the week before Christmas; it was the “gift” that kept viciously giving. My birthday is two days after Christmas, meaning that both holidays were on ice. Rent was due so I had to sacrifice all my saved holiday money, and whatever plans that I had to invest in projects and new ventures starting in the new year were replaced with survival tactics and penny pinching. What really struck a chord with me was the significance of what that birthday represented. It was my last year in my 20s; I was turning 29. At that moment I heard the clock. Tick, tick, tick…
When One Door Closes, Another Door Is Opened
January was uneventful compared to the previous month; the new year was rocky but stable. Collecting the broken pieces of what was to build a prospering financial foundation for over a year is something, believe it or not, that I have done many times before. I had become accustomed to working a minimum of two full time jobs, normally leaving just enough room in the middle of the week for a side hustle or a small contract gig. My career choices at the time were in the restaurant and gig economy where I would begin my day serving coffee and omelets at 7:45 in the morning, finishing my shift normally around 3 p.m. just to start another serving shift at an entirely different restaurant an hour later, hoping that I wasn’t too exhausted for the evening of share ride Lyft services that awaited me. This was my life on repeat, or at least it was until I was relieved of one of my evening indentured servitude positions. Yet, despite the hustle and bustle of this draining carousel of 9–5s, a pessimistic mindset was never an option. It was something about this year (2020) that made me feel hopeful, I once thought to myself. My proclaimed god-brother and best friend, who had suffered from a few terrible road accidents, and I had already been through hell and back since we decided to share an apartment together. Both of us had spent the last seven years of our lives acquiring similar losses and painful outcomes. We both married our childhood sweethearts which unions ended in separation and divorce, studied science fields at respected colleges just to drop out due to monetary issues, and never seemed to get the financial opportunities for which we sacrificed years of our lives, attempting to move up the ladder at jobs we thought could at the very least settle our chronic affiliation with poverty. Each of us had felt the sting of homelessness at one point in our early adult journeys, and despite many grand revelations and successes from time to time, never fully recovered from the traumas of losing everything over and over again. Because of these unwavering trials, we vowed to grind harder to witness the fruits of our labor so that the sacrifices of our youth would not be in vain. With this declaration, the two of us decided to work as a team, sharing resources and splitting incomes in hopes that we could build solid foundations towards self-sufficiency. The first two years of our joint efforts were terribly difficult, and there were many times that doubts arose due to many external factors and physical obstacles. My god-brother, nicknamed D, is technically disabled and forced to work despite being in severe pain. I was more crippled in debt by comparison, and my housing record was tarnished due to a dispute with a former landlord. Yet, in the midst of our shortcomings, we continued to strive. The year 2020 marked the third year of our journey, and no matter how it began for us, we longed to embody the vibe: third times the charm. However, as the elders of the old Baptist Christian churches would quote from time to time, “Man makes plans, but God prevails.”
The Day the A’ Stood Still
On the exact day the world learned and began to mourn the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and the other memorialized passengers of the fated helicopter ride in L.A., we found out about the passing of one of D’s aunties who was close to both our families. The loss seemed to trigger a strange shift of consciousness in which the air around us felt disjointed and stale. Living in Atlanta at the time, we headed back to Savannah for the home-going service, returning afterwards feeling somewhat rejuvenated seeing familiar faces and reconnecting with old family and friends. While battling the bogus attempts by my former heartless overseer to stagnate my unemployment claim, I was able to generate a few fresh leads to replace the financial void that plagued my day-to-day responsibilities. D’ was working like crazy and despite keeping a cool head on the surface, was secretly stressing over thoughts of not being able to maintain the extra financial duties that were once shared or solely handled by my former contributions. But we pushed forward, and in typical fashion I was getting calls for interviews, doing paid job trainings, and shuffling through which new employer had the best offers. In my mind, this was my last stance. “This year,” I proclaimed to D, “no matter how it may have started, this will be our year to finally get what we’ve been moving towards…Sustainability.” Little did I know at the time, I was right for all the wrong reasons.
I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my car in a small parking garage near the Virginia-HighLands area of NorthEast Atlanta shortly after completing yet another paid training day from new job number 4. While on the phone with my mother, I was ecstatic and overwhelmed as she solidified the following events of what both of us- despite my current religious beliefs- deemed a miracle. My baby brother, who I am nearly eight years older than, came back home from a long and perilous journey that affected the whole family. Due to the quiet and what seemed like subtle rise of COVID at the time, my mother and I were celebrating blissfully through the airways the strangeness of his timing, and the relief we both felt in his return. Little did any of us know at the time how much of a photo finish his arrival encompassed. What would take place in the next 48 hours after that conversation literally changed the course of my life. On Wednesday March 18, 2020, I had lost all four of my jobs, new, old, or up-and-coming, as the city of Atlanta began to shut down in attempts to curve the spread of one of the most draining, horrifying, and expensive pandemics the world had experienced since the Spanish Flu of the 20th century. At that moment, I became the one who needed a personal miracle.
The shutdown of the city affected the whole household. Unbeknownst to D’, his last day was the last Monday of that same week, due to him being scheduled off until Wednesday. With that being stated, neither he nor I were prepared in any way for a jobless (i.e. moneyless) rest of the week, let alone month. We had just paid some bills prior to the city shutting down and had maybe a collective $400 and some change to our names. It was pure panic, and not solely because of the pandemic. The entire apartment complex, which catered to lower income working class families and individuals, became stressed, fearful, and suspicious. We picked up on these feelings of concern and despair overtime from casual conversations with some of our neighbors, and constant back and forth with the leasing office administrators. I had so many friends just as fearful for the health of their children, as they were for their lack of food and supplies in their households. Looking back, it was rather amusing watching people nearly fight for prized and frivolous first world items such as toilet paper, but food shortages and needs of necessary everyday cleaning supplies was a real threat to average people. Despite all of this chaos and fear-mongering from the news, random people, and internet doctors, I was rather calm. Everyone appeared frantic and vulnerable to the rapid turn of events that unfolded, but my household was different. We believed we had already been through it all. Hell, the last year ended in losses and disappointments! I believed that our personal understanding of survival could overcome any obstacle, and I was right in feeling this way. The issue was that the war training we had endured and gathered wisdom and strategy from, was futile to the collective struggle of the world’s current problems. This became more evident as we headed towards the summer.
Yet, when it comes to versatility, I am a self-proclaimed master. It might as well be infused in my DNA. Shortly after my sudden lay-offs I was contacted by one of my former employers, who I started job training with in early February, and began working under the table for much needed cash. This new yet unstable income stream, followed by a much celebrated and unexpected settlement from my diabolically wonderful boss of 2019, redirected what at first was a series of unfortunate events. Since D’ and I were mainly grounded in the restaurant industry at the time, we were very much aware that the first places Georgia was going to open back up were food and amenity based “essential” services. I drove for Lyft before the start of the pandemic. That hustle soon became more of a liability than an asset, because the car I was currently driving was through one of their leasing programs. I had to eventually return the vehicle because I could no longer afford the fees due to the low number of share ride patrons available after the shutdown. The restaurant that called me back a week after the shutdown to help with To-go orders was a 30–45 minute drive away from our apartments, and ironically I could not continue paying for Uber rides back and forth. Yet, with the new spike in funds, I was able to purchase a used car for commutes, keep the groceries in check, and gather cleaning supplies whenever I was able to find any. I was able to do this all before unemployment hit my account from my lost full- time positions, all of which were restaurant related. This could have technically been a happy ending to a few weeks of anxiety and panic, if it were not for one immensely important factor; D’ did not and would not receive a penny of his unemployment until 2021. Because of this, we were once again at the mercy of a one -sided household income, but this time it was all on me. However, in my mind all was well and favored. “Yeah this sucks!” I exclaimed to D’, “but we’ve been through worse, fam. I can hold it down, as long as neither of us gets sick…” Then as predicted, the need for so-called “essential workers” shifted the narrative as if a jinx were placed on my head.
Shortly before D’s birthday in June, the great and prolific governor of Georgia (he who shall not be named), while arguing with the [as I made this post, still] mayor of Atlanta opened the floodgates of hell, ordering the premature reopening of certain essential businesses. This of course enraged a lot of people for reasons that appear to have been lost to time and circumstances. As much as we all wanted to leave our homes more freely and physically socialize with loved ones, most of the people in my neighborhood and who I knew locally on social media were somewhat fine with the temporary regulations. The overall theme was to officially quarantine now, so that maybe we could enjoy the end of the summer. It may not have been to any of our liking, but the need outweighed the wants- at least for the time being. Yet, the trick was to pay workers to stay home, as well as eliminating factors that would encourage utility outages and homelessness from occurring. But as with my god-brother D’, many people did not get the help they so desperately needed and having them suffer for nearly two months without financial assistance just to throw them into a confusing and dangerous work environment was totally appalling. What made this even worse was that D’s specific employer would remain closed until August because the facility was unable to quickly administer the current CDC guidelines at the time. This unfortunately meant that he could not go back to work to help me out even if he wanted to. I of course was a different story and was thrust back into the storm feeling unprotected and unappreciated by the system. Within the first two weeks of us opening for “light” dine-in services I became ill.
I was in fear of getting D’ sick more than anything. As someone who once had a mild form of chronic bronchitis, once participated in years of chain smoking, and for other health reasons was currently underweight at the time, D’ was a walking testament to resilience, but we both believed it would be a ticking time bomb if he was infected. Because of the risk of getting him sick, despite my being outside of the high-risked COVID groups, I strived to make it my mission to follow whatever quarantine and social distancing guidelines that were implemented. Yet, due to state and government greed, my household was thrown into an upheaval. The biggest monster was no longer waiting outside our doorstep; it was staring at me for two agonizing weeks in the mirror. For me, COVID was like having the flu randomly show up every other night manifesting itself in a slew of hot flashes, headaches, and fatigue. I remember closing my eyes and waking up, what felt like a day later, in puddles of my own sweat. I could smell and taste just fine; however, I had a mild tingling on the right side of my upper chest. I would have thought that it was the flu if I had not been able to compare the two. From my perspective, having the flu was like being caged in a tortuous cell for two days; if you survived you could leave. The COVID was slightly milder, and the symptoms were more greatly expressed at night; yet, the nights that they were present were awful, and my longing for the quicker route of torment rather than the slow and painful method of this demon seed was a mere wish at best. I survived nonetheless, feeling quite fatigued and losing over 10 pounds in a manner that might make the late- night weight loss infomercials jealous. It was hell, but I made it through- just to go back to the very situation that caused this illness in the first place. This was my mental turning point.
The Celebration of Life
After my recovery, D’s birthday felt like a celebration for both of us. He did not get sick (or if he did he was definitely A-symptomatic), and I was still in the land of the living. Turning 30 was a huge step for us both. A step that I would soon find myself following before the year was up. Other than our childhood friend from Savannah who lived near us, it was a small and fun, safe occasion. I did not mind splurging on his milestone, for at this moment we were uncertain of what the future would hold for us. Even though I was working two restaurant jobs, catering with UberEats in the new ride, and was receiving unemployment, we were still behind on our major utilities and never recovered from the nearly two months of us both not being able to offer much of anything at all to the landlord. I figured the law was in our hands to negotiate our debts, and we had documentation confirming the loss of employment between March and May. However, deep down inside there was a brewing despair, and it would manifest itself shortly whether my thoughts were positive or not. When it was time for D’ to finally be able to go back to his former gig, in the midst of waiting for his longed-for financial assistance, a week into his return he was involved in a hit and run on his motorbike. His job responded unfavorably. Just asking for a few days to recover from severe road rash- thankfully nothing life threatening- left him and his job at odds, which resulted in his not being able to go back to work. The toll on his being in the house prior to the accident, mixed with the waning feeling of hope due to not being able to give financially to the household, began to take root in something spiritually sinister. The increase of mental health issues became more of a global issue due to the pandemic quarantines (and still is). I had to watch someone who I had known for over 20 years become overwhelmed with depression. And there was not a cure in the world I could offer. Tick, tick, tick…
In August, I asked for time off to see my parents and baby brother. This response was followed by only one job taking me back once I returned from the trip, while the other -after I agreed to train someone to cover my position — told me I would be back on the schedule — but did not deliver. Either way I had to see my family. I had not seen them in well over a year, and after all that I had been through, that timeframe was long enough. But, in usual 2020 fashion, as I state the saying one more time: “Man makes plans, but God prevails.” Before I left for South Carolina where my immediate family was currently staying, the major house moratorium that ended in July caused much confusion for my household in Atlanta, and to my surrounding neighbors. Nearly everybody was behind on their rent, and although a paper- thin agreement was “allegedly” made to replace it, such an ordinance can become rather fickle in Georgia if not fully set in stone. While I was away, the landlord, with whom we stayed for two years of fun and maintenance problems, filed for eviction, making me lose a week of my out of state visit to expeditiously move our entire apartment into storage. Because of this, once I did return, one job shorter than when I left, D’ and I had to spend almost five weeks in an extended stay hotel.
We were somewhat prepared for this outcome, especially with my having a decade of experience with Atlanta landlords, and thus had money saved for an emergency exodus if needed. Unfortunately, this budget did not cater to nearly $500 a week on hotel fees for slightly over a month’s time period. At this point we had to act fast, or homelessness was inevitable. But, because of our combined rental history, credit, and current monthly income, we looked too risky for anyone to work with us. I would like to mention that even though we were financially and physically desperate in a way regarding finding another place to call home, we had to plan for the future that we believed existed after the pandemic. We did not want to make short term decisions with long term consequences; hence, what we probably could have gotten was not sufficient for the items we had, and the space we would need in the years to come. However, the dreams we had of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship were not misplaced. Through the last few years, we embodied them. Despite the harshness of 2019, earlier that same year I was a veteran co-owner of a small magazine in Atlanta, threw a variety of events, and was working with D’ on other projects all while we both worked our regular 9–5s, 40 plus hours a week. Our goals and aspirations were not pipedreams, but something we both promised to see through until the end. Even though the pandemic was still raging and the world seemed much bleaker, our mission did not and could not change. It was us against the world. With such a stubborn and optimistic mindset, it seemed unfathomable to us that the end was near and the clock was steadily speeding up. Tick, tick, tick…
A good friend of mine who I knew since I first moved to Atlanta almost twelve years ago, gave me what sounded like a perfect deal through his younger brother who claimed to be in real estate. Plagued with the distasteful stench of hotel living, something I have endured too many times in the past, we took the offer, turning a noticeable blind eye to the inconsistencies that we would normally raise an eyebrow to. The offer allotted us an opportunity to temporarily regain a comfortable living situation with a larger space, better location, and comfortable amenities. The catch was that the renting agreement was a sublease, something that I have always avoided, but desperate times cause for pathetic measures. We took the deal.
Within the same month after creating a cordial relationship with our subleased landlord and feeling as if everything we went through housing-wise was just for testimony’s sake, reality once again showed its ugly head. The car that I had purchased earlier that year gave its last hoorah after I had completed another out- of- town trip and stopped driving. I believe it was the alternator, but I never really got a chance to find out. The next day after it happened, I asked one of my good friends from college to help us move our stuff out of storage. The roaches from the next storage unit over from ours had infested our space, so the next two weeks were spent bombing and carefully spraying the area in preparation for us finally moving into our new home. However, on the day we moved everything out of storage, U hauling our precious cargo to its final destination, we discovered after unloading half the truck that the worst- case scenario was no longer a misplaced and hidden concern in the backs of our minds. We found out by the actual landlord that our subleasing agreement might have been the nail on our coffin. It is hard to forget being swarmed and threatened about an unpaid debt not being settled and how quickly our stuff would soon be in the street if it stayed on property. I have heard of this happening to unsuspecting tenants before, where the true lessee of the property did not pay the owner his financial responsibility, while the sub-leaser who paid the middle- man will be the one on the street. Once we knew of the possibility that our agreement might be null and void, even though allegations were denied of old debts not being paid, our spirits became desolate. The snares and snarls of the true landlord took form two weeks later when the final eviction notice was posted on the door showing several months of non-payments. We had already exhausted the last of our savings in mid- October in order to quickly move out of the hotel, into what we believe was a blessing. The notice was taped to the front door before the week of Thanksgiving. We had less than two weeks to respond.
Through Death New Life Grows
God speaks in mysterious ways, or so I have been told. Despite the leasing of another car for deliveries, D’ being interviewed for several dead end job leads , and me still working full time at the only job that seemed to care enough to try to give me decent shifts, we were officially out of options. The writing was on the wall, and the clock had signaled the end. Whatever hope I had for overcoming this continuous nightmare was put to rest, and any illusion that there existed another great plan of attack to win another battle became nothing more than an empty gong. On Thanksgiving Day 2020, I had received a call that my auntie, who I called my birthday twin since we shared the same day, had passed. I remember the pain and hopelessness I felt once hearing the news, as well as the uncomfortable thought of tragic irony. Both D’ and I had lost two very distinctive family members that, in their own way, helped define our origin stories. My auntie shared a birthday with me, his auntie helped name him after he was born. Then it hit me as if the heavens had opened its gates to me. This was not the end; this was the beginning.
My grandma used to quote to my mother when she was young, “You can live in Hell for a year, if you know you’re getting out.” The older I have become, the more in tune I am to this saying. Between the death of two precious souls, D’ and I became immortal in a sense. What was supposed to kill us, in turn made us stronger, more aware, and even more appreciative. Yet, the true lesson was something more personal for our journey. We both decided that the best solution was to put our pride aside and head back out of state with family. I scrapped the car for a pittance, gave and sold what I could, and left Atlanta with literally nothing but two bags and the clothes on my back. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but my spirit was unbound. For even though we both had lost everything, and were now unemployed with nothing but memories of success to our names, we were not broken.
Last year, I ended 2020 celebrating my 30th birthday. To me it did not just symbolize the trials and tribulations of my roaring 20s, it embellished three decades of growth and wisdom. I went through hell and saw all its demons, but little did I know it was freedom that waited on the other side. The freedom of new beginnings. A freedom to dream once again and restart the clock. Tick, Tick, Tick…