I stood opposite my locker at the New York Health & Racquet Club and finished dressing. It was after 10 p.m. and the club was closing at 11.
It was unusual for me to be there so late but a spurt of emails kept me from leaving my apartment earlier. I felt obliged to be free of them so they would not badger me in the morning.
I was alone in my row of lockers until I glanced over and saw Benjamin walk in. It was months since we’d seen each other and I was ready for a catch up. He was an engaging conversationalist who knew how to argue his point and offer evidence for it. His vocation was well chosen; he was in his last year at law school. He seemed to be in his own world, scarcely noticing I was there.
“Ben,” I said, fracturing the silence, “it’s good to see you.”
I then noticed what focused his attention: accompanying him were two backpacks and a piece of luggage on wheels, all bursting at the seams. He appeared to have everything he owned with him, and was filling four lockers with his gear. I watched him maneuver shoes and clothes into the empty spaces.
“What are you up to? From here it looks like you’re moving in.”
“You can’t be serious.”
I walked over. He had accurately described what he was doing.
“Does this happen every day?”
“I’ll have to organize things better. It’s hard remembering where everything is.”
He finished unpacking and secured the lockers. Meanwhile, an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us the club was closing.
“Are you ready to go?”
He nodded yes. We walked together to the front desk and exited on to 13th Street.
“Are you up for a coffee?”
I wasn’t at 11 p.m., but Ben wanted to talk. I heard the note of urgency in his voice. Perhaps he felt the need to explain his decision to move in to a health club. As a writer, I’m always eager to hear an original story, and Ben’s grabbed my interest.
We sat at a corner table at Starbucks nursing our coffees. Since the place was half filled, the voices low, and the music at a reasonable level, we spoke without straining to hear. Ben grinned as he awaited my question:
“So what’s this about?”
“It’s easily explained. I left the brownstone I shared with four other guys. At the club I rented four lockers and moved in.”
“But you can’t move in. The club is closed and you have no key to go back and stay.”
“I mean I moved in my belongings. I don’t sleep there.”
“So you found a place with not enough room to store your things, is that it?”
My mind concocted a story before getting the facts. Ben quickly disabused me.
“I sleep on a park bench. If I find a nook out of the rain I stay there overnight.”
“Surely you jest,” I said, using a stilted expression to ease my shock.
“I’m serious. I’ve been doing it for a week now. I was tired of lugging my gear around like a bag lady. The club’s lockers are a lot cheaper than renting a room in that brownstone.”
“Aren’t you afraid someone will hurt you while you sleep? How can you close your eyes knowing you’re exposed? You need your rest. You’re a law student, remember?”
“I sense when someone’s around me. I wake up alert and easily fall back to sleep.”
“But, Ben, what’s the point?”
My exasperation got the better of me. I was looking for a reason that impelled him to this action — in other words, a motive. His decision to be homeless seemed eccentric; in fact, a little crazy. I said so, but he was quick to retort.
“I have commitments uptown, midtown and downtown. Now I can sleep nearby. I have the freedom to go where I want.”
“You mean being homeless?”
“Yes, but it’s only for six hours a night. During the day I go to classes. I use the health club to shower, shave or change my clothes. The clubs are everywhere in Manhattan. Someday when I have my own apartment I’ll appreciate it. I’ll know what it means to do without.”
It was now almost midnight and I began to yawn.
“I’m fading too,” he said.
“What happens next?” I asked.
Without answering he rose from his chair.
“Where are you going?”
“To answer both your questions, to Union Square Park.”
We left Starbucks, crossed the street, and entered a park lane. He continued talking as we walked.
“You know, Joseph, by being free — I prefer that word to homeless — I have wide contact with people. It will help me later when I have to pick jurors, work with clients, or deal with opposing lawyers. It also helps toward my goal in becoming a judge.”
He stopped and looked ahead. His sharpened awareness saw something that escaped my vision. He walked to an empty bench, having found his bed for the night.
“I think I know what you’re doing,” I said like a writer who’s suddenly grasped his story’s intent.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“You’re preparing for the bench.”
Joseph Roccasalvo is a professional writer. His website is www.josephroccasalvo.com.