I sent off resumes and scored occasional interviews. But the interviewers mainly wanted to hear Hollywood stories and then said, “Thanks we’ll be in touch.” I don’t blame them. I’d hire the person currently working in the magazine business instead of the guy who had a lot of amusing stories about comedy writing but hadn’t worked in a publishing environment for more than a decade.
By 2008, with the older children off at college or working and my job prospects bleak, Marina and I decided to separate. She moved to San Francisco with our two youngest daughters and settled in temporarily with two of our oldest daughters who worked there. I could no longer even afford to house myself. I found friends to take in my two remaining high schoolers.
And then I became homeless.
Yes, I, David Raether, the smart and funny guy who graduated with honors from college and read thousands of books and played the piano and went to church and won television awards, was homeless.
What happens when you hit bottom? I can tell you one thing: you don’t bounce back. You crawl back, fighting every step of the way. It isn’t a straight arc back up either; there are dozens of setbacks every step of the way. And the place you land isn’t anywhere near where you were when you slipped off the cliff.
In the first days and weeks after I became homeless, I was in a daze, utterly and completely disoriented. I felt like a boxer staggering around the ring after a rapid series of blows I didn’t see coming. It took me several months to figure it all out.
When you become homeless, you face a number of practical issues. In fact, when you are homeless, all you face are practical issues.
Where am I going to sleep tonight?
What supermarket has the best samples today with the most protein in them?
How am I going to deal with rainstorms dumping water into my usual sleeping spot?
I have a job interview; I have clean clothes, but how can I make sure I don’t smell?
These are the issues you deal with on a daily basis. Dreary, boring, painful issues that relate directly to your body. And that’s because homelessness is a dreary, boring, and often painful condition.
Your days are very long. The rhythm of work followed by home is gone. It’s replaced by long stretches of empty time. No company, no conversation, no deadlines, nothing.
Several years earlier, one of my sons played on a mainly Hispanic soccer team in Bell Gardens, a working class Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles. I got to know one of the fathers quite well. He was from Guatemala City.
“What’s Guatemala City like?” I asked him one day.
“The days are very long in Guatemala City,” he said.
That was all he said about his life there. And that would probably be the best description of life as a homeless person. The days are very long.
In my past life, I spent a typical autumn Saturday reading the paper and drinking several pots of coffee while working two or three crossword puzzles. Around 11 a.m., Marina and I would drive one or two or six of the kids to the farmers’ market in the parking lot at Pasadena High School. Then we would return home and I would come up with an interesting set of reasons for not working in the yard while settling down on the couch to watch college football. Several hours later, I’d pour a glass or two of wine as the day turned into night, watch a movie, and settle into bed. Not much of a day, really. But when I think of those days now, they seem like some kind of lost paradise.
A Saturday during my homelessness went like this.
I would wake up around 4 a.m., brush myself off, and wander around the streets for awhile until Starbucks opened. I’d spend what little money I had on coffee and hope someone left a copy of the Los Angeles Times so I could work the crossword puzzle. I’d wait. And wait. At 10 a.m., the Pasadena Central Library opens. I would walk up there and surf job websites and send off some resumes and read articles online during my allotted time until noon, or, if I was lucky, early afternoon.
That was the hard part of the day. I’d be hungry. Really hungry. A week since I had a real meal hungry. I’d walk over to Whole Foods on the Arroyo Parkway, which has good food samples on Saturdays, grab a cart, and pretend to shop. (It always helps to put some items in the cart to look the part.) The fruits are by the door – I’d grab a bunch of orange slices and watermelon chunks. Next I go upstairs to where the muffin bits and cheese chunks are and gorge as subtly as possible. I’d return the unpurchased items to their places in the store and exit.
By then it would be mid-afternoon. I’d dream of lying on a couch in a warm living room, watching college football. Instead I would walk to another public library to access the Internet. As the sun sets, I’d head to a coffeehouse in South Pasadena called Kaldi where I could find someone to talk with. It wasn’t the company of loved ones, but they were decent people who didn’t ask too many questions about my circumstances.
Night. At 8 p.m. I’d return to the Starbucks. I would find discarded copies of the New York Times and start working the crossword puzzle. And that was Saturday.
Sundays were the same, and so were Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. On public holidays, the libraries closed and I needed to find someplace else to spend my days. Only the rare job interview broke the monotony.
Gradually, however, I adjusted. I accepted that I was not going to have a career anytime soon, but I did need a job. I was not going to own a house, but I did need to find a place to live. I couldn’t cook or afford restaurants, but I did need to eat.
After the first few disorienting weeks of homelessness, I got myself up off the canvas and begin to bob and weave and shake my head. I sniffed the ammonia capsule of reality and realized that I was in the biggest battle of my life.
During the nearly 18 months I spent homeless off and on, and during the ensuing years, I learned that I am more resourceful than I ever imagined, less respectable than I ever figured, and, ultimately, braver and more resilient than I ever dreamed. An important tool in my return to life has been Craigslist. It was through Craigslist that I found odd jobs — gigs, they often are called — doing everything from ghost-writing a memoir for a retired Caltech professor who had aphasia to web content writing jobs to actual real jobs with actual real startups.