By Lanny Morgnanesi
During one of our recent snowstorms, I chauffeured someone from Bucks County to Conshohocken, about 25 miles. He needed a ride back, and rather than risk the hazard of extra trips on slippery roads, I decided to wait - for five hours.
Having time to waste sounds like a luxury, but killing time can be difficult for me, especially when conditions are not ideal. On the snowy streets of Conshohocken, I found it challenging. To at least a small degree, it gave me a sense of what it's like to be homeless.
I had many advantages over the homeless. I had money and a car and a book in my pocket. I had a warm coat, an iPhone, and an appearance that was mildly pleasant. Still, it was going to be difficult taking myself from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. with the cold and wind at my back and nothing really to do and nowhere really to go.
The idea of being homeless stayed with me as I roamed on foot. I began to wonder just how they do it.
Then I did something few homeless people could do. I went looking for a nice restaurant.
The Great American Pub was cold and mostly empty. I took a small booth and ordered a large salad. From my pocket I pulled the book I had quickly grabbed before leaving home. It was about Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors. Hardly a page-turner, but it would have to do.
Reading in a restaurant is uncomfortable. The light is low and you feel strange because no one else is doing it. It was hard to concentrate. And yet, what a luxury. If I were homeless, a restaurant wouldn't have been an option.
The salad came. Normally I'm a fast eater, but I ate slowly, trying to draw things out. When I finished, I continued reading. At a point where I knew the waitress thought I should be leaving, I ordered coffee and sat some more.
I guess I could have sat there for five hours, but after two I left. My behind was sore from the flat wooden bench. My instincts for the street were slowly developing and I remembered to use the bathroom before I left.
Outside the snow was heavy and no one had shoveled the sidewalks. I walked slowly to be safe but also to kill time. My plan was to look for a coffee shop and do another two hours there. Conshohocken is a nice little town on the Schuylkill. It's filled with offices, shops, restaurants, and apartments. A bit hipster. Still, there wasn't much going on during this snow.
The coffee shop I passed was closing in 15 minutes, so I kept walking. My shoes were just starting to get wet. I noticed St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church and considered going in. Feeling that would be wrong, or that the door might be locked, I pushed on to a CVS.
Inside I enjoyed the warmth. I walked the aisles - all of them. There was the brush I needed to buy, but not today. The magazine selections included Rolling Stone with breakout singer Lorde on the cover. Esquire's lead story was about "weird" people, including Bob Dylan, Danny DeVito, and Woody Harrelson.
Feeling the effects of the coffee from the Great American Pub, I asked a store associate if I could use the restroom. She brought me back to an employee area and punched a combination lock to let me into the john.
On the street again, I passed a funeral home. Would I have gone in if there had been a service? Maybe. A beauty salon was open, but I cut my hair just last week. A library! I crossed the white street and mounted the porch, but the library had closed at 2 p.m.
What time was it now? Only 3:30.
With options running out, I decided to eat again. In an empty pizza place, I was told they didn't sell slices. Moving on, I found a small sandwich shop called Jimmy John's. A sign said there was Wi-fi.
"Are you open?" I asked.
"Until 3 a.m.," a guy behind the counter said.
I ordered a small Italian hoagie that came with a bag of Jimmy Chips.
I tried reading again and learned that Cortez had discovered the precursor to Mexico City and that he told his king it was equal to or greater than anything in Spain. Yet he felt comfortable destroying it. That was interesting, although depressing, but I was too on edge to read. I was worrying about the rest of my time as well as the drive home.
Putting down the book, I stared out the window of the shop, looking at the snow and hoping it would subside. Remembering the free Wi-Fi, I tried logging on to watch senseless YouTube videos. A password was required and the people working in the restaurant didn't know it.
"The manager just changed it," someone explained.
I continued staring, and then read the bag of chips.
More staring. My anxiety was increasing. I used the bathroom and left.
The cold, once a brisk challenge, was getting bothersome. I realized I had been playing a game with myself and now chose to end it. I walked back to my car. I cleaned it, started the engine, ran the heater, caught a bit of a nap, and finished my time there. At the very end of the five hours, as the snow began to taper off, I cleaned the cars next to me just for something to do.
As I was driving back to Bucks County, I thought about the homeless people whose ordeal doesn't end at sunset, how their seeking and searching is endless. If I didn't have a home, where would I go? Could I survive? How do they?