The morgue is the quietest place in the hospital, especially at night. I work as a morgue attendant during the 10PM to 6AM shift. This takes little effort; disinfecting surfaces, loading and starting the autoclaves, and accepting the occasional body from upstairs. It’s not a well-paid job, but once the cleaning is done, no one cares what else you do to pass the time. It’s a good job for a student who needs time to study. That’s what I used to use the downtime for. I was studying to be a nurse and had only one more year to go before it all fell apart.
Now, I use the free time at work to sleep. There’s a couch in the corner. I can answer the door easily if someone rings the bell to alert me to a delivery. If it’s a quiet night, I can get an uninterrupted six hours of sleep. If there are a few deliveries, it’s not any worse than the sleep your average mother of small children gets.
I’m homeless. I have a full-time job and two part-time jobs and no place to live. If you saw me on the street, though, you’d never guess. I’m not dirty. I don’t push a shopping cart through the street. Sometimes, I look at other people on the street and wonder if they, too, are homeless. How many are sleeping in their cars? How many have found ways to live without an abode?
It’s hard to imagine how this could have happened to me, but it was quite simple, really. Just a year ago, I was going to school full time. I lived with my boyfriend in an airy little apartment. I had gotten the morgue job and was using it to make the tuition money and have the time and place to study. But working and going to school full-time was hell on my relationship with Jeff. We hardly saw each other. He couldn’t deal with that and so he broke up with me. Well, to be honest, first he cheated on me, then he broke up with me. It was his apartment, so I was out.
At first I slept at the morgue while I looked for a new apartment, but I soon realized that I couldn’t afford a place and stay in school, so I not only lost my boyfriend and my apartment but also my education. Even after quitting school, the money I made wasn’t enough to rent and furnish an apartment right away. You need three months rent up front for the deposit and you need furniture. I needed a temporary solution while I saved the money up.
I had expected that sleeping on the couch at the morgue would only last a week or two while I figured out what to do, but it turned out that the morgue office was perfect. The door locked, so no one could just walk in. They had to ring a bell. And most hospital personnel avoided the morgue unless they had reason to go there. It was a safe and comfortable solution.
I obviously can’t live there, so I rent a post office box and a tiny storage space. I also have a gym membership at a 24-hour gym. This affords me an address, a place for my stuff, and a place to clean up. Every morning I leave the morgue, attend an early morning yoga class at the gym and then take a shower. I have several dog-walking clients, so I spend the rest of the morning walking through the park with corgis and dalmatians. I spend the afternoons in the public library or volunteering at the hospital. If I got little sleep the night before in the morgue, I go back to the gym, sit in the sauna for 10 minutes and then grab a nap in the “Quiet Area” with a book open on my lap and a glass of cucumber water on a table beside me. But, I try not to do that too often. I don’t want to call attention to myself.
The weekends were difficult to figure out because I only work Monday to Friday at the morgue, but I started dog-sitting for people who are out of town, so I often get to live in actual homes on the weekends and cook proper meals. When I haven’t got a sitting job, I’ll stay in an Airbnb. All I need is a bed for the night.
The first weekend after the break-up, I was at a loss where to sleep, so I went down to the bus station on Friday and bought a bus ticket from Boston to Williamsburg, VA. The bus ride was 18 hours long. I left Boston at 4PM Friday, read books and chatted with people all evening and then slept all night. We arrived in Virginia the next morning. I went off with a tour group to Colonial Williamsburg, came back to the station, took a bus back home, sleeping on the bus and arriving in Boston Sunday morning. It had been so much fun that I’ve done it several times since. I’ve been to Niagara Falls, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and several cities in upstate New York. It costs about the same as an Airbnb, but I get to visit new places.
I use the rented storage unit for the belongings that I took when I left Jeff’s apartment. A few boxes of CDs and books and several boxes of clothes were all my worldly possessions. The storage space is downtown, near the hospital. I go there a few times a week to pick up fresh clothes and put the dirty ones in a duffel bag. Once a week I take the duffel bag to the laundromat and bring the clean clothes back to the storage space. I think the guy who rents the units knows something is up, but since I never sleep there, he doesn’t care that I visit the unit so often.
On the weekends, I shop for furniture and household goods. I hit the yard sales and open-air markets, looking for dishes, cookware, utensils, towels and all those things one needs to have in a home. I’ve bought furniture at auctions in the suburbs and brought them back in a rented truck.
After a year of saving and buying wisely, I’ve got all the furniture I need for a small apartment and almost all the money for the rent deposit and other moving costs.
I know what you’re thinking. Don’t I have any friends or family who could have taken me in? The simple answer is no.
My family was small to begin with and is gone now. Jeff was my only family. I had had work friends at the law firm where I worked before I started at nursing school, but with full-time school and full-time work at the morgue, I spent any free time I had with Jeff and the old work friends melted away after a while. The one friend I have is the one person I can’t get close to, even though I would like to. I don’t want her to find out that I’m homeless. She is the manager of the volunteer group at the hospital. Janet is about ten years older than I am and she acts like an older sister or a favorite aunt. She is interested in my weekend trips and is always happy to hear about them. She knows that I’m saving up for an apartment, but she thinks that I’m living with roommates and that I’m saving up to have a place of my own. I feel bad about keeping my secret. It feels like I’m lying, but I don’t really have a choice. Janet works at the hospital. She’d have to tell someone if she found out I was sleeping in the morgue. Technically, I suppose, I’m not doing anything wrong. I clean the morgue and accept the deliveries of bodies, and I am there when I’m needed. I think they’d fire me, though, if they found out I was using the job as a place to sleep.
Janet thinks I should go back to nursing school. She thinks it’s a shame that I had to quit. I think so, too. It’s been hard enough living like this for almost a year. I can’t imagine trying to figure out how to go to school as well. I tell her that maybe when I have my own place, I can manage it. Maybe I can do it part time. In the meantime, I just need a few more months to get the rest of the money together.
When I arrive at the hospital for an afternoon of pushing the book cart and doing crafts with the kids on the pediatric floor, Janet is waiting for me.
She says, “Sally, can you come into my office for a minute, please?”
She looks serious. I feel suddenly lightheaded and anxious.
I go into the office and sit down.
“Is there a problem?” I ask. Please, no. Please, don’t let there be a problem. Please.
Janet looks concerned.
“Oh, no,” she says, and smiles, “No problem at all. In fact, maybe a solution.”
“A solution to what?” I ask.
“To nursing school and to finding an apartment,” Janet says, “The nursing school has an opening for a resident assistant. You get room and board in the dorm and a small stipend. You’ll be there to monitor things and help solve any disputes or other minor problems the students may have. As an employee of the nursing school, you get discounted tuition. You could take the money you’ve saved up for your own place and use it toward the tuition. If you don’t have enough money for the entire year, I’ll help you find the rest in grant money.”
I can’t believe this. It’s perfect. Nursing school is an option again. I’ll have a legal residence. I’ll have to share a shower with strangers, but I already do that.
“That sounds wonderful,” I say. “I’ll have to quit my job at the morgue, though, and also the dog care. I assume I’d probably have to be available in the dorm all the time?”
“That’s true,” says Janet, “But, you won’t really need those jobs if you have room and board at the dorm. There’s an actual bed in the dorm, too, as opposed to that lumpy couch in the morgue and you could quit the gym if you wanted to, too. The hospital has one that is open to nursing students and you won’t need the gym shower because there’s one in the dorm.”
I stare open-mouthed at Janet as she smiles at me.
I don’t know what to say, so I just say, “Thank you.”
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser