I Was Homeless

[I tried to write this just after SXSW, but one thing led to another, and I’m just now wrapping it up. Sorry for the delay!]

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”

It was SXSW (South by Southwest, a music/film/interactive/education conference), or “South By” as it is known in Austin. Day 5. The last/final day of SXSW’s Interactive portion of the conference and my last day of photography assignments as part of the Photo Crew. Day 6 would be the SXSW golf tournament and my last responsibility.

I’d volunteered for SXSW for two years through a non-profit, but I’d never had the experience of a real badge. Cue the sounds of angles from heaven.

In addition, I was selected to be one of the photographers for O’Rielly, Google, @oatmeal, the director of Twilight, and others. Furthermore, my photographer-badge-coupled-with-camera-tag was special in ways I can not blog. Giggity. Oh, and @AsYouWish will post images in a few months.

However, after several amazing ~15-hour days in a row, I was beat.

In fact, I was so tired that I forgot my phone in my friend’s booth at the Trade Show. I left it in a corner to charge, and then left the show without it.

After the Trade Show, we were chatting about who was going where. I was the odd duck without specific plans and would have had to wander 6th Street alone looking for friends and parties for a couple of hours.

I had grand plans to attend Tech Karaoke, where the geeks and nerds sing live with a full band; it’s epic, to say the least. I was very sad to admit to myself that I just didn’t have it in me. My feet and back ached. I felt like I could fall asleep walking down the sidewalk. I was spent…and had a whole other day to prepare for. I thought I had to be at the golf tournament by 6am.

So I did the responsible thing and left downtown. I was all the way to my car (BB), when I realized I didn’t have my phone. Oh well, nothing I could do until the next day, so I headed for home. During rush hour. ** le sigh **

Ironically, I was in line to leave downtown behind the same Trade Show friend. She was headed home to change and then return for Tech Karaoke.

Anyway, the drive to northwest Austin was pretty quick and painless given the time/day/week.

Until…

Just before the top of the 2nd biggest highway ramp along my route, Sputter. Lag. Hitch. Choke.

“What the ….??!?!?!”, and then,

“Oh NO!”

Yep, I was out of gas.

You could easily ask how I could be so stupid/dumbass as to run out of gas. There are several reasons:

  1. BB is was a tiny car…and so is was the gas tank,
  2. BB’s gas gauge is was exponential (like all gas gauges), but far worse than most, and
  3. (the BIG reason), I had stacked all my parking/food/bar receipts in the cubbyhole of her dash in front of the gas gauge. Out of sight, out of mind!

The Tears

So, here I was exhausted, stranded, and without the ability to call for help. I just buried my head in my hands and sobbed for a minute…or several.

I got out of the car. Because it was March-worthy windy, I put my volunteer tshirt on over my plain one (but inside out, so I wasn’t wearing “SXSW Staff” while walking along the highway), loaded my backpack with my computer/camera/gear, and looked around for the closest gas station. I couldn’t see any…even from way up there, so I started walking.

Ouch! After sitting for a few minutes, my feet were not happy about this walking development. About 500 feet along the way, something possessed me to turn around. I had left my lights on. So, I trudged back to the car.

Take two. I walked down one ramp, switched to another, walked down that ramp, switched to the ground level, and then made my way to a bus stop.

Some Austin buses and stops have WiFi. I was hoping to send E a direct message on Twitter or an email to his phone of what happened and to come get me. No such luck with this stop or these buses. But “my” bus was there.

I feared, “it’s now or never, ” found bus fare in my backpack, and hopped on board.

The Bus

Since I’d never taken an Austin bus, it was a total fluke that I knew it was mine (Thanks, Beth & Falana!).

I told the driver that I ran out of gas and lost my phone and asked if he knew the next gas station along his route. He was a little helpful.

For the whopping two stops of my ride, I could tell I was freaking out the long-board/bus commuters in the back. I wasn’t doing anything except trying not to cry (more) in exhaustion and frustration, but they were clearly nervous near me.

The Phone

At the convenience store, I asked the clerk if they had a pay phone. He directed me to the side of the shop.

Did you know that pay phones are now $0.50 instead of a quarter? Yeah, I knew it, too, but had forgotten.

I went back in for change and then attempted to call E. Luckily, I remembered his number. Besides his mobile and my business numbers, the only others I know by heart are my grandparents and E’s mom’s. My mom’s number has changed several times; I don’t know it by memory. Besides, the only one to do any good was E or someone else in Austin.

  • I dialed.
  • I got an “error” message.
  • I looked at the phone’s instructions and dialed again with different prefixes.
  • No dice.
  • Repeat. Ad nauseam.
  • I tried every single method I could read or think of or find and none of them worked.

You see, our phones are Georgetown numbers. Back in the day, this was long-distance. These days, it’s not really long-distance, but the technology for land lines hasn’t caught up to that of mobile phones. If we’d been able to get truly-local 512 numbers or if Austin was “with it” like ever other city [1], none of this would matter.

I grabbed my returned quarters and headed for the laundromat next door.

I saw a regular phone on the only shelf in the entire place. I asked the employee about it. He insisted it was not for public use. I explained: emergency, out of gas, stranded, lost phone. He suggested the pay phones I had already abandoned. I explained that they wouldn’t let me call my husband because our numbers were 512-but-Georgetown numbers. His response was like, “well then, this one won’t call that number, either.”

I just buried my head in my hands again and sobbed some more. This time, the one customer pulled her children away from me in fear.

Yep, I was the craziest person in that little laundromat. At the time, I wanted her to know I’m a safe person. In hindsight, it’s just funny.

I dragged myself back to the pay phones and tried the other one this time. While I was attempting to dial, a car approached.

She drove a barely-running car, wore worse shoes, and walked with a limp, but she made the effort to waddle over to me and asked, “Are you ok? Do you need food?”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here was this person, by most observations far worse off than I, asking if I needed food. I’m of a generous size and shape; I bet I could last a few days without food. Yet, she was asking me if I was hungry.

Ahhhh, the good nature of people when they see someone in need.

I gave her the, “I’m fine. Just ‘broken down’ and ‘lost my phone'” speech I’d already given to a few.

She waddled on back to her car and drove off.

I wondered, “Did she see me from the road and pull in just to offer help?” yowza.

Somewhere around that time, it occurs to me to call 311. The kind and gentle 311 operator transferred me to police dispatch.

After answering basic questions and giving my location, she asked, “Are you ok there by yourself? Are there plenty of people around?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, there are a bunch of people and they are all really nice.” (Except for that laundry attendant, of course. Luckily the waddling one’s kindness trumped his troll-like guarding of the one landline in sight.)

I explained to the dispatch officer that I was scared E would think I was hurt…or worse. “He thinks I’m still at South By Southwest. I left early because I’m so tired. If he gets a call from the police, I’m scared he’ll think….” and my voice trailed off into tears and sobs.

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “Let me put you on hold for just a moment.”

She came back to the phone and said he was on his way.

Big Sigh Of Relief.

After the do-you-need-food incident, I moved to the front of the store to wait for E. At least in the front, I thought, I could seem like I’m waiting for someone to pick me up.

Yeah. Right.

The next customer I remember drove a worse-than-before barely-running car. Upon leaving, she backed half-way out of the spot, heaved a sigh, and pulled back in. She stood up from the door and asked, “Do you need help?”

“No. I’m ok. I’m just stranded, but my husband is on his way.”

Meanwhile, I thought, “May your G-d bless you for doing what you think is right even when you hesitated because of safety concerns.”

I have to interject on behalf of Beth at this point. I told her the story live-and-in-person only a few days after it happened. It was around this time in the story when she added a gem of humor that went something like, “…because you looked like you’d been begging on the street all day: red faced, shirt inside out, wearing a backpack…” OMG! Yep, she was right. I did, in fact, resemble the homeless members of our community who were just across the street from where I waited for E. All I was missing was an egg crate and a cardboard sign.

Next, a quadriplegic (or similar) man–with the most amazing wheel chair I’ve ever seen–came from out of nowhere. He wiggled his chair up the tiny ramp and gave me a sincere, “Are you ok?” look as he paused on the porch of the store. I smiled/nodded as best I could to answer him and watched to make sure he had a way into the store. [2] He was in and out in a flash and on his way to his next adventure…with a speed greater than that of either of the two cars I had encountered earlier. I’m not kidding, I think that chair had jets!

I then witnessed two horrifying carloads of convenience store customers:

  • one guy with ~5 very-young unbelted kids (!!) took the kids inside with him.
  • a couple with ~3 unbelted kids goes in, leaving them in the car!

I wanted to call 9-1-1 on them both, but:

  • I didn’t have the energy to care enough to stick around & be a witness …
  • I didn’t think this was emergency/911-worthy
  • I wanted to show them the same compassion that came my way from those who thought I was worse off than they were; I can’t imagine the circumstances of these parents-of-unbelted-kids. [3]

Finally, E arrived, let me hug on him in exhaustion and frustration, and made me feel better. We stepped inside for a gas can, filled it up, and headed to rescue BB.

…and after ~30minutes of diving around the same highway intersection, we finally found the exact combination of on-ramps to get us to the spot where BB was stranded.

By this time, it was pretty dark, so getting to the gas cap on the driver’s side–which is convenient for getting gas on a regular basis–was dangerous. E stood behind BB and could stretch just far enough to give her a gallon or so of gas.

After I crawled through the passenger side and got BB started, E followed me down to the same gas station…and held me some more while we filled BB’s tank.
…and then he took me to the Riata Bar & Grill for a veggie burger, some fries, and two beers. Ramsey was working, and her smile helped make everything better.

When we got home, I still had some winding down to do before I could sleep. It was a hard day being both on-top of my game and also “homeless”.

It (really) was the best of times, it (really) was the worst of times…

My sincere thanks to every person who expressed compassion to me while I seemed homeless.

My only hope is that each of you would have the same compassion toward a stranger.

[1] For crying out loud, even Paris-effin’-Texas has 10-digit dialing!
[2] In ~2000, I learned not to do much for anyone with a disability unless they ask for help. It’s offensive to assume they can’t do it. If they are clearly struggling, I’ll offer, “would you like any help?”, but I never assume that they need it. This has been reinforced with my volunteer work in Austin.
[3] While I think it’s wrong to have kids you can’t afford to legally/properly support, who am *I* to make this decision for them (any more than they have the right to force me to raise a child)? I guess my emotional state made me sympathetic.

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