The World That Lies in Shadows

The Characters of Colfax blog is about the people, places, and events that are part of the Colfax mosaic. The following post will be provocative, will tug at the heart-strings of some, while enraging others. We’ll call this character “Chris” (for privacy reasons), who is one of thousands of Characters of Colfax with a story to tell. 

The first thing you notice when your [sic] homeless is how long the nights are. It’s hard to realize that a night can be so long; but in time you get used to it. You don’t really sleep, especially in the beginning, because you wake up every fifteen minutes worried someone will come upon you. Your imagination runs wild with what terrible things would happen if you fell asleep and let that happen. 

The world at night when you’re without shelter feels like the Twilight Zone, another dimension, another planet, where the normal laws of time and space don’t apply. When the sun comes up you’re so happy knowing that soon people are going to be out and you’ll be back in the world again, on terra firma, although you are tired and worried about how fast night will come again. 

Before you know it you’re seeing the shops close down, lights diminishing down the streets, cars becoming fewer and fewer; on residential blocks you enviously watch working mothers and fathers pull into driveways, arriving home to their families; and you stand outside talking to them in your head, “Don’t go inside, not yet, stay out a little longer!” 

Your hearing changes as general noise of the workday world go silent and other sounds become more pronounced. A car engine sputtering. Tires squealing around turns. Even sounds that are far away, distant trains, speeding cars; gunshots, police and ambulance sirens.

Soon you get used to the night smells. You may notice broken glass has its own smell. The varous [sic] smells of wine bottles, Thunderbird, Night Train, Boone’s Farm — mixed with the other varieties of liquor and beer are distinct, too. These smells compete with the smell of rats, wet plaster, and rotting wood, the smell of a hollow place. And you can hardly avoid the recurring smell of human feces & urine.

Another thing about homelessness is that you lose track of what day it is. Without structure, Wednesdays feel like Saturdays, one week is no different from the next. Events of yesterday blur, often out of sequence, and no matter how you look at it, the day is never long enough because, when you’re by yourself, your main preoccupation is night coming.

Night holds a separate world that can be far more brutal than sleeping in abandoned storefronts and alleyways and on park benches. It is the criminal business world where hardened humans prey upon the weakness and misfortunes of others, a world populated by men and women, many of them young, who lost their way a long time ago. The night host to this soulless world where parents loan their children to deviants for drugs or whatever else satisfies their empty hearts. This is a world you may never want to know, but it’s a world that exists, it exists everywhere and probably has always existed.

When you’re homeless and you’re a kid, that world is waiting for you and is always on the lookout for new recruits. If you’re a girl, God have mercy on you. If you’re a boy, God have mercy on you, too. Depending on what kind of boy you are, you might survive; but if you’re a girl, probably not. You don’t need an invitation to come in, doesn’t matter what you look like: fat, small, black, white, tall, Chinese… if you can breathe, if you’re young and homeless, you’re drafted.

Usually, you cross the threshold unaware and you’re there, already a part of it. It’s ready for you with a well-worn training program that dictates what you’re going to do, where and when you’re going to do it, and what will happen if you don’t. So you do it – if you don’t want to be homeless and lonely, if you want to eat, and if you want to avoid the seemingly endless nights and the smells and sounds they bring. 

In my opinion, homelessness is preferable to being sucked into the machinery of the night. As a matter of fact, I think everyone should experience being homeless and going without. You get a different perspective on everything and a different appreciation for everything. You come to understand that you can be living in a house and still be homeless as I was in the […] home and various institutions.

You learn what it feels like to be invisible to all those carefree or self preoccupied people walking by you, maybe sidestepping the spot where you stand in order not to see you, or driving obliviously by you.

Depending on your state of mind, you might prefer being invisible — as I did. If you’ve never been on the street, perhaps you may not see its world and all its inhabitants. But once you’ve been there yourself, you develop an extraterrestrial vision, and you see everyone who lives there. 

You retain your otherworldly eyes, even after you leave, and no matter how your own circumstances improve, you will continue to see the world that lies in shadows just beyond the gates; and you understand how easy it is to [be] pushed back out.  

There is no epilogue to this story. What I can tell you is that this person stopped me as I was walking to work on Colfax one morning. Chris wanted to read me this story, and I reluctantly agreed to listen. The first sentence captured me and I listened intently for the five minutes or so that it took to read it. Chris cried twice while reading and handed me the crumpled and folded up paper upon which this story was written.

We will all have our own personal reactions to this post. I have no idea how it will be received by readers of this blog. But, it really doesn’t matter.

Those of us intimately familiar with Colfax know that it is the most honest street in Denver; the most inclusive street in Denver; and, the most democratic street in Denver. Chris is a complicated Character of Colfax, whose story should be told.

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