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Jim E.

As I sit in my truck and look in the rearview mirror, I catch a glimpse of someone new. Who is this person?

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I look the same, but something is different about me today and I can't quite put my finger on it. I shake it off for nerves and attempt to give myself one of my rousing pep talks. I wish I had slept better last night. Maybe if I had gone to bed earlier, I wouldn't be so jittery. I shouldn't have smoked that last cigarette. I smell as if I just stepped out of a bar.

You can do it! You've been on other interviews, Jim, come on, pull yourself together. Words almost seem futile as I take another look into my beaten blue eyes and hastily review the last year of my life. How did I end up here? Why wasn't I more prepared for my life? What must my family think? Why did I do that drug in the first place? The answer is hidden in my Jim E. eyes; I just can't see it yet. Surely I'm better than this place. I look at my watch. It's 9:20am and mom always clucked, "You should always show up 10 minutes early if you want to make a good first impression." I better get moving. It's funny how my mom's voice still echoes through my head. I wonder if she would be proud of me right now. As I roll out of my truck, I peek at my reflection in the window. I throw together a quick smirk in a feeble attempt to soothe my anxiety. I think I'm what they're looking for.

As I look ahead I struggle to take confident steps up to the brown and turquoise structure. She's a rundown 60s hotel that has not weathered well with time, the type of place most folks would avoid or might rent by the hour. The marquee, broken and lonely, stands with only the roaring traffic of Aurora Avenue to keep her company. As I survey the grounds I try to picture myself as a part of this mysterious community. I could park my truck at the end of the tree shaded parking lot just in case I need a quick getaway. I want to getaway now.

As I approach the front door, I begin rehearsing possible interview questions in my head. Tell me a little about yourself. What is your five-year plan? What do you want to be when you grow up? When will you finally grow up? Why should we pick you over the other candidates? Why are you here? What kind of questions will they ask me anyway? Fuck, I've never been on this kind of interview.

The sign cluttered door is before me. I read the handwritten signs: "No drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises." "Ring the bell" with a large green arrow pointing to a faded door bell. I ring the bell and the door doesn't open. Puzzled, I look into the window and a hot-tempered woman is waving her arms like a flagger on a highway construction crew. Where is her orange vest? She is motioning for me to pull the door open. It makes me wonder if several others forgot to pull the door after ringing the bell. Maybe they should put up a better sign. The air is musky and heavy like a Nebraskan summer. The lobby smells of bleach and cheap laundry detergent, the kind that comes in a small rectangular box with a name like Brite-o-riffic. The energy feels tense, just like at home when our dinner guests arrive early and mom is still cleaning the house. The walls are a fleshy pink with scuff marks and maroon trim. I think this place needs a new decorator. Maybe I can give them some tips on new colors. Maybe yellow. Yellow is a much happier color. I introduce myself to the front desk attendant who curtly tells me to write my name on the sign in sheet. I wait in the lobby and see several folks pass through. I don't want to look anyone in the eye; they might see the answer.

A few moments pass and a stout man in his twenties rushes up to me and barks, "If you are here for screening, follow me". I follow and try to study his lead. It is obvious small talk would be inappropriate. I wonder why he is so unfriendly? He reminds me of a childhood bully with his chest puffed out and gruff tone. Is this what I am like? Surely I'm better than this. I want to get away now. He leads us to an elevator and presses the 4th floor button 10 times as if the elevator needed a little extra coaxing. The inside of the elevator was wallpapered with notices, people's names and terms like punitive hours, don't be late for screening, and don't eat poppy seeds or you will fail your drug test. Am I in a foreign country? What does all of this mean, and how do I paint this into my picture? I don't understand anything around me.

The bully looks me over and gives me his best, yet somewhat canned, speech. "You'll like it here, the people are cool and they feed us a lot" as he slaps his belly. Suddenly I've lost my appetite. He leads me into a waiting room of sorts. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and body odor. I sit down on a soiled couch with broken springs and start filling out my application. Several faceless people are smoking and a hardy woman named Roseanne asks me if I need anything. Her mischievous half smile in some weird way comforts me. Her eyes are vacant and puffy as if she hasn't slept in days. As I peer into her abandoned eyes, I think I can see the answer. Has her spirit been broken? I wonder if I will soon be like her. Am I like her? I am better than this place and I don't belong here. I excuse myself and ask for the rest room. I gaze into the mirror and take a deep breath. What am I doing here? I am better than this place. I don't belong here. I'm still looking for an answer, I just don't know where to look.

It appears as if I am the first interview of the day and I start to get nervous again. While reviewing my exhausted game plan, my palms drip with anticipation. The moment has arrived as my name is called. I am led across the hall in to a board room. It looks like a board room, however, the players don't seem to fit. Without smiling, a young American Indian woman introduces herself as Liz. Everyone's eyes are on me. They each have the look of 'here we go again' and 'wish we were someplace else'. I sit at a chair in the middle of the room like a criminal about to under-go an interrogation.

Liz is all business and to the point. "This program is designed to help homeless people get back into permanent housing and back on their feet." After rustling some papers, Liz asks me if I am homeless. I pause and grapple with that word trying to digest its true meaning. I shudder at the thought of this admission. I am 34 years old. I used to be somebody. I had a real life and a good job. I've lost more than a place to live and my material possessions. I've lost my dignity and sense of self. Part of me wants to lie and say I'm not homeless while grasping for another less humbling option. I want to turn back time and change all my actions leading up to this stinking interview. Maybe I'm not ready for this type of honesty. It would be so easy to go back out, use crystal meth, and slip back into the fantasy life of false confidence.

My dealer would take me in.

Wait! I remember my reflection in the mirror and I shift, something is different today. Today is not about easy. Today is about change and starting over. Today I don't want to live a lie. Maybe I do belong here. I could be like everyone else here. I don't want to get away anymore.

I can see a reflection of me in Liz's eyes. She looks into my eyes and I know she can see my answer. With a sigh of relief and swallowed pride, I answer...

Yes, I am homeless.

Jim has been off crystal since January 2004 and is no longer homeless. Recovery from his meth addiction has given him the power to live his life to the fullest. Since entering recovery, Jim is carefully putting his life back together, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends and will be finished with nursing school sometime in the near future.

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