It was the end of a long day at work. I had just spent several hours repairing, moving, and replacing several old cast-iron radiators on a vacant floor in a building above Grand Central Station. My knees hurt from kneeling. My lower back hurt from lifting and my shoulders were sore from swinging pipe-wrenches.
The main struggle with this job is the old pipework. Many of the valves I had to change were original installs, which meant the valves were locked tightly in place back in 1927, and they have not been disturbed since.
Some were swapped out throughout the years, and some were easier to remove than others. Most, however, are what we called “Squeakers.”
We called them this because of the loud, whinny squeak that echoed in the demolished empty room as the valve-body unscrewed from the pipe. This is not always an easy task. A job like this takes two wrenches; one to unscrew the valve-body and another to hold the pipe back from spinning and gain leverage. Sometimes, the valves come out easy . . . other times, they cause me to curse out loud
The valve comes in two parts. One part is the easier of the two. After backing out the valve (that’s the easier part) the next step is removing the spud, which the valve feeds into. The spud is small piece that is screwed into the old radiator itself. This piece has a movable collar that tightens onto the face of the valve and joins the two pieces together—and worse than the squeaking valve-body—the spud has been locked tightly in the radiator since 1927 and it usually refuses to turn out.
In this case, I have to grab a hammer and chisel to remove the spud from the radiator. I line up the chisel at the face of the radiator and swing the hammer down onto the spud to separate it from the inside pipe thread. I understand this is not the most interesting of jobs, but I promise there will be a point to all of this . . .
In a perfect world, the inside of the spud breaks free. In a perfect world this would only take a few swings; however, this is not a perfect world. The diameter of the pipe is only three quarters of an inch. I have to chisel the spud from the radiator without banging or crushing the threads inside, and as I mentioned, in a perfect world, I would hit the chisel, score the inside of the pipe, and separate it. But again, my word is far from perfect.
In my world, the hammer I swing down on the chisel, misses its target, and it crashes down against the top of my hand. This hurts. I swing the hammer with my right hand, which means my left hand aches with a bloody indentation from a small, 5lbs lump hammer. The hammer needs to have weight behind it, otherwise, hitting the chisel does not score the pipe enough and the spud inside the radiator will not collapse.
I changed from my uniform to my close after a long day of removing squeaking valve bodies, and rehanging, relocating, and sometimes, re-piping the old . My left knuckle at the bottom of my pointer finger was bleeding after crushing it with a hammer countless times. My boss was angry that the job was not complete.
“What’s taking you so long,” he asked in a loud voice.
But in the end, his shirt was clean and mine was dirty. He earned his position though. It used to be him, kneeling at these old radiators and swinging wrenches. But now, he is the boss. I suppose he hated when the boss before him asked him this same question. He probably muttered the same curse words under his breath as I did. And while sipping from my last cup of coffee during work hours, I just answered him as best as I could.
“I’m almost done.”
I remember this day very well. I remember how sore I was and I remember the crowded subways I needed to take in order to reach home. It was wintertime. Winter means the trains are often filled with homeless. They ride the train to keep warm and stay out of the outside elements. They ride the subways to keep from the cold and dry from the rain and snow, and as well, they ask for change. Some even perform—they sing, or play an instrument. Some recite poetry and some are quite talented. Some just tell their story; they explain why they have fallen to street level and they do this with sorrow to attract the attention of passengers on the shuttle train from Grand Central to Times Square.
I see the same characters regularly. I know who they are—not personally—but they know my face because they see it often. I consider myself to be a generous person, but I rarely give money because most times, the money does not go where it should. Instead of donating, I just avert my eyes to someplace else.
After the shuttle pulls in, I head over to catch the 1 train to Penn Station. There are fewer performers on this train. Sometimes, I see a man dressed and painted in gold. He stands on the underground platform at 42nd Street before the steps that lead down to the 2 or 3 trains. He stands on an orange milk crate. He does not move. He does not flinch. He stands perfectly still—like a golden statue. This guy attracts tourists and he has become somewhat popular.
They surround him and watch as he stands without any movement. They toss money into a small black bag that the golden man leaves on the floor next to the orange milk crate. No one ever throws much—mostly singles and quarters. Sometimes they throw dimes, and pennies, but the golden man does not move, flinch, or break his pose, regardless to the size of the donation.
After pushing my way through the crowd, I find my spot on the platform and wait for the train to pull into the station. This is where common courtesy is no longer common. Everyone pushes to get into the subway car. No one has any concern for the passengers in front, or behind them. Most of the passengers crowd the doorway so they can get off first at their stop.
This makes it hard for more passengers to climb aboard. And I admit it . . . I have been frustrated on days like this and I have pushed my way in because someone felt as though their needs were more important than anybody else’s.
This particular day was no different from any Monday thru Friday. The only difference was me. I was on very little sleep. My body hurt from the day and my left hand was still bleeding from being hit by a heavy lump hammer. Instead of pushing in, I decided to submit, and I waited for the next train to arrive
The crowd had thinned, so it was easy to climb aboard. I noticed a woman standing in a raincoat—but it had not rained for days. She was standing near the doors of the subway. She had a yellow plastic shopping bag covering over her uncared for, matted afro. She looked old and tired. Her eyes had bags beneath them. She had dark, sun-freckles across her brown-skinned face. For some reason, the train was being held at the station. Most of the passengers grumbled and complain. But between the grumbling sound of complaints and silence came a voice like none I had ever heard before.
It was the old brown-skinned woman. She stood behind broken laundry cart on wheels, which was filled with plastic bags, and what appeared to be garbage. Like the voice of an angel—the old woman began to sing, “Amazing grace.”
Her voice was sad—but beautiful.
She sung the words:
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.”
I have heard this song more times than I could ever begin to count. Yet, I never listened to the words until that day. She sung the next verse. It was like a perfect lullaby for the heart. Slowly, I began to forget about the pain in my knees and my bleeding knuckle. I began to find a sense of calm as she continued.
She did not appear like an old bag woman while she sang. I suppose I saw her differently. And further, I saw her differently when I noticed she refused any donations. She just sung. She sung for no reason other than to sing and belt out in a perfect choir of one.
I thought about the words from Amazing Grace. I thought about the kid I was, the man I tried to be, and the person I had to become. I thought about the life I survived and troubles I dodged. Other than luck—I fully believe there has to be a purpose for me being who and where I am.
In the fall of my young life and in the aftermath of my adulthood troubles, I sat in my sadness and believed I was irredeemable. I believed was unsalvageable—there was no way to save me—and I believed this because I did not believe I deserved to be saved. I thought I sinned too much. I did too much, hurt too many, and stole too often. In a word, I saw myself as worthless.
I stole, in my opinion, to even the playing field. I stole, because like the song said, I was the wretch. And if I was to be the wretch—then I would play this to the fullest.
I stole what I could; however, it was more to gain something untouchable than to have more money. And money—that was easy to steal. However, stealing objects of value is not as hateful as the crime of stealing emotion and heart. I did this. I was a womanizer. I was a thief. I was hateful and verbally abusive. I was so incredibly lonely that I chose to steal emotion from anybody that would let me in, or listen to me for more than five minutes.
I found myself alone, without anyone around to care for, or console me.
In a poem, I wrote:
“If the eyes are windows to the soul, then beware of those with broken windows,
because broken souls can care for no one but their own.
They live and die, and climb inside your life to find shelter.
They steal and feed, they swipe warmth until the warmth is gone
and in the end, all that remains is the aftermath of cold and broken window
left behind by the lies of a broken soul.
Beware the eyes of a broken soul.”
That was a poem about me.
I believed there was no saving me. I believed there was also no saving me from myself. But still, there had to be a reason for my near death experiences and why I survived them. There had to be a reason why I survived two suicide attempts. There had to be a reason why I was not dead, or in jail. There had to be a reason why I was not on the street, or standing on a train with my hand out and asking for money.
There had to be something about me with value. Why else would I be spared? Those who had done less than me had been taken. But I lived.
And I say again; there had to be a reason.
It is true—I did evil things but the depth of my heart was never evil. Evil has no regret. But I did. I had plenty. Evil feels no guilt. But I did. I felt so much guilt that I continued to run because I thought if I ran fast enough, the guilt would never catch me. But I was wrong
“Who wouldn’t condemn me,” I thought.
“Who would care? Or believe in me? No one,” I thought to myself.
In regards to the saying, “What goes around comes around,” I fully believed my place was at the bottom of that cycle. I was supposed to be there and nowhere else because I was the wretched; I was the evil.
I was the bottom of that food chain, or the legs that spun the underbelly of the cycle.
“What goes around comes around.”
Since I saw myself as valueless—I believed this was where I belonged. I saw myself as a sunken instrument. It was my job to perpetuate sadness and infect because like the poem: A broken soul can care for no one but their own.
The truth is; I longed for forgiveness. I wanted so desperately to be forgiven and accepted. With all of my heart; I wanted to be healed. I remember falling to my knees in a time of destruction. I stretched my arms out and opened them to the sky. I wept with all I had. But then the inner-hatred slipped in.
The hatred said, “Quit acting.”
“Just stop it! You know nobody’s listening.”
I do not expect anyone to understand my faith. However, my faith has nothing to do with anybody else but me My faith is for me.
The first bible verse I read that reached me was John 8:7 “He among you who is without sin; let him be the one to cast the first stone.”
This proved that I am not so tragically different
I am not alone in my emotions. I only thought I was.
I am not by myself in my mistakes. I only thought I was.
But this is how evil works. Evil has a voice. It never screams because it doesn’t need to. Evil just whispers because in many cases, a whispered lie is often louder than the scream of any truth.
That whisper is the power of suggestion; it is the seed of doubt that grows like angry weeds. And further, it is these weeds that suffocate truth. They suffocate and steal the nourishment of love and better judgment. The weeds of doubt feed upon the fruit of hope, starving us from anything sweet or fulfilling.
My biggest problem is that I spent decades perfecting and harvesting the wrong crops. I watered the seeds of doubt. I fed them. I nourished them, and when the weeds grew—they grew too wild and I was unable to see my own value. I was unable to see my own beauty because the fears I nourished, the shame, the hatred, the lies I used to feed myself, and the excuses I created to solve my sins were suffocating me.
This is what keeps us sick. Since I did not believe I could recover—I chose to run deeper into the life. This is not limited to drugs or alcohol. Addiction has many different faces. So does the devil and he never seems ugly—at least, not at first.
The drugs are not the main issue. Neither is the womanizing, or the stealing, gambling, or over-eating. They are only symptoms, and some symptoms were more deliberate than others. These were only pieces of what I used to soften the sharp edges of daily existence. I was a broken soul—and if the eyes are truly a window to the soul, then yes, I climbed in as many windows as I could. I stole as much as I was able to survive my own sickness. And I did this because I saw no other way . . .
I thought about tis as it relates to the old woman’s song.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found.
Was blind but now I see.”
I was tired of being tired. I was tired of being alone, angry, frightened, and paranoid.
I was tired of being the wretch. I was tired of running and hiding; I was tired of the constant move. I was too afraid to sit still and be caught up by the motion of my lies and actions. I was tired of the depression and tired of feeling loveless.
Sometimes, people argue with me about my faith. But my faith has nothing to do with anybody else—and neither does my path towards redemption.
I believe because my belief helps me. I believe because my belief explains why I am still here and still standing on my own two feet..
I know it does. I can prove it. And in the end, if I am wrong, and there is no bright light to greet me as a friend; if there is nothing but the return to dust and I do nothing else but lay in a pine box; then at least my faith has saved me from a life of being a wretch.
I’ll take that. I’ll take who I am, living sober, swinging wrenches with my bloody knuckles, and jobs with squeaking valve bodies over who I was any day.
I’ll take it.
It’s because I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.