I don’t remember the outside of the building, or how much space each family or each body was allotted. I vaguely recall beds in rows; cheap bed frames with scratchy wool covers in blue, stiff white sheets. It was a large room, where I leaned my nine-year-old’s backpack—probably pastel—against a rough white wall with a window. As the largest family, we shared the only family room.
I don’t remember how long we stayed there—was this willful forgetting? I do remember speaking with the staff about enrolling in school, sitting in a parent’s lap in someone’s office and listening in on a conversation too large for me. School would be starting soon, and we still didn’t have a home. But rest assured; the school bus could pick us up first and drop us off last. Nobody would need to know we were homeless. This upset my older sister, who was enrolling in a public high school. For homeschooled hijab-wearing cloud-headed me, it only made me wonder what it was like to ride a school bus. It’s 1997, a while before covering my head made me so stark of a target.
The most vivid thing I remember of my stay at Welcome Arnold was my Halloween costume. I had cut a cat mask out of blue paper, pierced out two eyes and drawn on whiskers and a smile. I’d never been trick-or-treating with a costume before. I’d always wanted to. My parents thought the holiday was a celebration of the devil, but they’d let us participate most years. After some debate, we would go again this year. We needed to get out. We needed some joy. I folded the tiny blue mask in half and slipped it into my backpack to leave behind. I was ashamed at how homemade it was, too ashamed to show anyone after my mother failed to praise it.
They drove us to the mall with plastic bags but no costumes. We walked with tiny superheroes and witches, calling “Trick-or-treat!” to clerks at Cinnabon and Macy’s, who smiled and rewarded us with candy. Every now and then, we would receive an apple or a cookie or a popcorn ball, something we could only receive in the mall. Every now and then, someone would ask who we were and I would freeze up, shy and wordless. Maybe not all of them smiled.
My colleague is talking to me, but I’ve frozen up. She has just returned from a trip to Cuba with her mother, and she seems to want me to comment. My brain swirls with social anxiety: I can’t relate to your situation, I’m sorry, my mother has schizophrenia, I’ve never left the continent, my parents rarely pay for my travel to visit them for the holidays, I am poor, fucking poor, and what do you want me to say? How do you want me to respond?
I say something mild and disengaged, like “wow, that sounds nice,” but she doesn’t seem satisfied. She rarely ever does, with my responses.
As I ride the bus home from work, I beat myself up because I might have looked jealous or resentful, and it’s going to be bad for my career if I can’t force myself to celebrate whatever my middle-class colleagues are excited about. I can be authentically happy when people I know have struggled to achieve anything at all, but I’ve got to get better at faking happiness towards everyone else. I tell myself that I will. I have to.
Still, I’m beginning to realize that I can’t be friends with anyone who expects me to guard their feelings. Anyone who gets offended when I must bow out of a conversation is less of a friend than an obstacle to navigate. This is a boundary I have set for myself in adulthood.
I leave the bus, a huffing Metro Transit 22 that crouches for me to disembark and cross the one-way street to the affordable housing complex where I live. In the two years since my move until the writing of this essay, the apartment has seen one death by overdose, two weeks or more of police with dogs making daily rounds, three or more changes in management, one rash of bicycle thefts (during which my bike’s wheels were also stolen), at least one bedbug infestation, numerous package thefts (including one of my birthday presents), at least three fire department-ordered evacuations that were false alarms, multiple shots from one gun threateningly fired at the ceiling, countless cases of vandalism of the washing machines and glass doors, and endless whispers of drug deals and prostitution.
All the same, the building was a lifesaver for me. I can still recall the utter relief and elation I felt when they admitted me. They helped still my bouncing from rented room to rented room every few months as leases ended, roommates left town, and landlords changed their minds. I call my little efficiency apartment “my tiny house,” and while I am too ashamed of its modesty to invite friends over often, most of my closest friends have seen its interior.
Because I am alone, the Ghost of Welcome Arnold enters with me as I scan the key fob to open the glass doors. He walks with me up the stairs, tells me: This where you belong. Not with the colleagues who make you feel guilty for what you haven’t had, lost for words, and lonely in your struggles. Not among the pantsuited women at your networking events who need only mantras and immaterial support to succeed. These are and will forever be your people.
Welcome Arnold says I belong to the men twice my age who eye me on the bus, the younger men who shout comments about my legs from passing cars, or the older men who try to lure me into their rooms inside my building. These men look straight at me, while the boys bussing to or from the university pull out their cell phones to avoid my gaze.
The Ghost of Welcome Arnold is a bodiless whisper that rises up whenever I see a homeless person. I could be walking through the Santa Ana Civic Center and stumble upon a camp large enough to rival a street fair. I might take the wrong backstreet in Madison, Wisconsin, and discover that there are more black people in this alley than I spied in the front streets. Most often, I am returning or receiving books from the library and I spot numerous bulky bodies in the chairs and at the desks. I don’t know who is homeless, but I do know that most shelters ask their clients to leave during the day and that the library is where my family would go. Welcome Arnold invariably tells me: Welcome home.
Whenever I ride a light rail train car after midnight, the Ghost of Welcome Arnold says, Look, it’s you, and turns my head to the bundled-up men and women sleeping on their bags on the seats. They are more or less like me depending on what part of my life you consider. If it’s the year when I worked two part-time jobs and one internship, then I am riding home with them as I leave my main job after bar close. The only difference between them and me is a layer of stability as thin as paper: that my worn-down body holds up so I may work harder, that my middle-class colleagues at least tolerate me, but hopefully hire me, endorse me, promote me or even like me.
I moved away from my family to force myself to practice independence beyond what college taught me. I quickly learned that I never learned how to be poor in community and rely on others, which is the way most poor folks manage. I only ever knew how to rely on my family or go it alone, and going it alone rarely works.
I also learned the limits of my ability to code-switch, a necessary skill for black people in white spaces. I never changed how I spoke, but knew to change what I spoke about. I had to learn how to code-switch around hardship, however; how to ask for help and who to ask and when. A nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness doesn’t give a shit where you live if you’re interviewing to work there. But, equally, that same resume may make you overqualified when you apply to live there.
Sometimes I call it bilocation, being on both sides of social services at the same time. I give and I take. I astral project and one of me is a ghost. I can be Poor Maya or Professional Maya. Poor Maya is the true Maya, the Ghost of Welcome Arnold whispers.
Professional Maya studied at a liberal arts college, went to Coachella before it was two weekends, loves Ravel and Debussy, and will go to happy hour with you, sure! Poor Maya has asthma just like her mother and allergies like her father and has landed in the emergency room at least once a year since moving to Minnesota.
Once, I left the emergency room in time to catch a noon meeting with a colleague to discuss a speech I was to give later that month. I board the bus as Poor Maya and become Professional Maya en route. I display the medical bracelet on my wrist and joke about it to the colleague, who doesn’t laugh. She tells me that I could have canceled our appointment, tells me to reach out when I need help. I freeze up, my mind whirring. I couldn’t tell if it was an honest offer to support me or the kind of middle-class hyperbole where words like famished are never literal and a lifesaver is someone who sells you a last-minute concert ticket. I say something polite but dismissive, like “thanks, but I can take it,” because pity won’t help me succeed. I want to get to the Professional side and stay there. Maybe then, I will no longer be haunted.
We spent Thanksgiving at Welcome Arnold that year. A reporter from the Providence Journal came to the shelter to take photos I certainly hid from. “The homeless miss out on a lot of things, but a group of high school students made sure that last night’s visitors to the Welcome Arnold Shelter weren’t going to miss out on a Thanksgiving dinner this holiday season,” the article began. Accompanying the article was a photo of my father with my youngest brother on his hip, and they are described as “waiting for their dinner.”
Rereading the article today, I realize that our story is diminished in order to center the visiting students. I remember being overwhelmed at the time, not knowing why there were suddenly even more people in the shelter. And of course, the article doesn’t mention that the menu failed to accommodate vegetarians, let alone Muslims. Many days, we would eat everything but the main course at dinner, meaning we likely went without turkey that day.
They say that beggars can’t be choosers, but I hate that aphorism. My family has sought to keep our dignity, preferences, and personality no matter what. We’ve never begged. Even when the institutions that served us were offended, we were still stubbornly human. Sometimes, however, I give into the training that has been beaten into me and my body unthinkingly flinches or bows when meeting someone with power. I aim my eyes downward to avoid the wrong sort of judgment from their gaze, and the Ghost of Welcome Arnold grins, Haven’t changed a bit.
Nineteen years later is the notorious Dumpster Fire year. In spring, Prince died and Minneapolis mourned. I lugged my futon into the apartment’s trash once I started finding itchy red bites all over my body. Afraid to buy a bed until I was sure they are gone, I lined up the four padded seats of the kitchen chairs I bought on Craigslist. I lay across them and swaddled myself in my only blanket, Welcome Arnold watching me unsurprised.
In summer, Philando Castile was murdered, and Minneapolis mourned still. I dressed in all black for several days straight, one day leaving my internship early to bus to the protest in front of Minnesota Governor’s Residence. I marched with the group from there onto the highway, but I left the protest just after the tear gas but just before the arrests occurred. I had to get to my main job and was carrying my laptop in my backpack. By the end of the year, my main job would go bankrupt, and the Ghost of Welcome Arnold would watch as I scrambled to make rent, crying each time an interviewer called back with a rejection.
The whole year was like this for everyone I know: stress, sadness, and outrage both global and personal. With so many high-profile black deaths in the news, I found myself thinking about death often. I have always been a you’ll miss me when I’m dead! sort of child, but being on the sidelines of a community when some of its pillars have passed away made me realize I have done too little to be deeply missed.
Homelessness within a community is crashing or couchsurfing, but homelessness in isolation is what lands you in a public shelter. And you, who nobody loves, belong in the shelter. The Ghost of Welcome Arnold tells me, What do you know of being valuable or wanted? Although you might make a nice symbolic death or martyr, if only because that’s easier to tend to than a living person.
Before I head down to Chicago to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, I make sure to check in at Standing Rock in solidarity. My father is staying with his sister in a basement with a pool table. He has become even better at pool and teaches my little sister and me how to play. Soon, the house will fill up with the overwhelming noise of distant relatives. I chat with my dad about my triumph over bedbugs, but also about Black Lives Matter Chicago’s planned march on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday. I show him a newspaper headline and photo that speaks about a judgment made by the “black community.” He says that the black community doesn’t exist. It’s just a convenient political construct.
My father, I believe, is haunted by the Ghost of Frances Cabrini. He has a certain alertness in all settings, a certain skepticism towards humanity, and a deep toughness I will never fully understand. Unlike me, he is not afraid of hitting rock bottom, having been born there. He is a first-generation college graduate while I am the second. I wonder if he also has my anxieties, my fear of reaching out to others. Staying with family, as he was back then, is unusual for him.
Welcome Arnold and Frances Cabrini were both real humans. Well-meaning white people. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and is the patron saint of immigrants due to her support for fellow Italian-Americans who were struggling. Welcome Arnold was a merchant, and likely one of the Sons of Liberty alongside his distant relative Benedict. Born in 1745 in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, he died in 1798 in the United States. He’s buried in the historic North Burial Ground in Providence alongside many other patriots and colleagues of George Washington.
Welcome Arnold, the homeless shelter in Cranston Rhode Island, opened in 1992 but has been closed since 2007, ten years after our stay and two hundred plus years after its namesake’s death. My Ghost of Welcome Arnold is doubly a ghost. He is homeless.
A 2007 headline for Brown University’s paper declares, “Students, homeless occupy Welcome Arnold to prevent closure.” I think both are me. Maya the Student would protest and Maya the Homeless would protest, but Maya of 2007 was attending a community college in California, still unused to people and prone to freezing up.
Sometimes, the other places I’ve lived and people I’ve been reappear to define me. The Ghost of Yucca Drive, the house we owned before the crash, reappears as the warmth of a summer pool that is cool compared to the desert heat. I float atop it, a black girl on the water and facing the sun. The Ghost of my Graduation wears a dark gown and two major’s tassels on its cap but is one with the Ghost of my Parent’s Foreclosure. The Ghost of our RV remembers me climbing on top as it sits parked by our house, singing to the moon or crying to myself in melancholy. I want to feel the ghosts of my unknown wandering ancestors, I want to let them haunt me and hear that they are proud of me when no one else is looking.
I am amazed at the continuity of this body; these are all the same person! Maya who does a synchronized jump in a group photo at a lauded writing workshop in Portland is also Maya the bulkily-dressed child who was mistaken for a beggar and given three dollars by a stranger while grocery shopping for her family. This adult Maya is the same as that nine-year-old girl who spilt her red drink most nights at the homeless shelter.
I remember that the cups were cheap and top-heavy. The drinks were bright and artificial, maybe not even Kool-Aid but Flavor-Aid. We sat at long tables, my family bunched around me but strangers united by their un-belonging on distant sides of it. The tablecloth was stiff and white and refused to offer my cup any stability. On the final day of our stay, I remember preemptively celebrating my dexterity—I boasted that I wouldn’t spill this time. I swore not to. I think I even finished my plate without a mishap, but ultimately knocked down someone else’s cup through an excited sweep of my arm.
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