Through a Bus Window

IMG_9103

Note: The following is the true account of how I experienced graduate school starting back in 2011. I worked three jobs and battled homelessness. Many people will ask, “well why didn’t you move?” 

It’s not that simple. First, rents in Boston at the time were 5x what I was paying in Upstate New York. In Upstate New York, I lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with two cats. For 5x what I was paying in rural New York, in Boston I would have had: a single one-room the size of a closet in a house shared with 9 other people. I would not have been able to take my cats. I will not live without my cats. Not to mention, in order to afford the 5x rent, I would have had to take on a job that was paying me $2 less per hour. Even if you are not good at math, you should be able to figure out that living in Boston was not affordable. It is one of the top 3 most expensive cities to live in the United States. 

So, this is the story of my graduate school commute and what I did to receive an education.

Other people will ask, “well why go to school in Boston? Why not go to school in New York?” I had that idea too. The problem is that no schools in New York State accepted me for admission to graduate school. All of the schools that accepted me were in Boston.

It was my dream at the time to return to Boston. I left in 1997 and regretted that decision. Leaving Boston in the 90s was my only regret. I was trying to rectify it. So here is what one of my weeks looked like and how I came to live my life through a bus window.

Monday

It’s 8 pm on Monday night and I am driving home from work in the pouring rain. It will take roughly an hour to get home. I am exhausted, as I have been going all day. I will be so happy when I get home just before 9 pm to see the cats. They need to be fed and Kip needs his medication.

It’s 9 pm. The cats are fed and I have set up the automatic pet feeder to provide them with their next 2 meals. I take as much time as I can to play with them, love them, cuddle them. At 10 pm, it’s time to pick up my back pack and lunch box and head out the door.

At 10 pm, I start the hour long drive to the city of Binghamton, NY. In Binghamton, I arrive at a friend’s house. I park the car without going inside. The friend is someone who I went to undergrad school with at Binghamton University while finishing my bachelors degree. She has given me permission to park my car in her driveway so that I can avoid parking lot fees in Binghamton.

At 11 pm, I leave the car in my friend’s driveway. I put on my backpack, pick up my lunch box, and start walking 3 miles to the bus station. It’s late at night and I am walking through a not very nice part of the city. I am alert. I have to keep moving no matter what the weather is doing. I have to arrive at the bus station before midnight or I will miss my chariot.

At midnight Monday into Tuesday morning, I board a Greyhound bus. I had purchased my ticket more than 2 weeks in advance to get a discounted rate. It was only about $10. My graduate school financial aid was paying for my transportation. 

I decided to ride the bus instead of drive for two reasons. First, I did not want to kill my car with mileage. I was living paycheck to paycheck and did not have money to afford a new car. Second, I was exhausted. I had officially been awake for going on 24 hours. I needed a nap. The one hour drive to Binghamton was hard enough. I did not have it in me to safely drive any further.

At midnight, I board the very crowded Greyhound bus. I hoped for a window seat to rest my head. I tried to sleep as best I could sitting straight up on a crowded bus. I was so exhausted, I was out like a light. My lunch box was under my seat. My backpack was nesteled between my legs to deter theft. My backpack held my laptop and school materials.

Tuesday

It’s 5 am and the sun is rising. I’m awake. I was fortunate enough to get a window seat, so looking out I see the skyline of New York City. For the “city that never sleeps,” it sure looks groggy. Anyone who is out and about is up to no good. I’m being generous with my assessment.

Between 5 am and 6 am, the Greyhound rolls into Times Square. We arrive at the bus station. I have to fight through the crowds to try to go from one bus terminal to another. I have to be sure that no one is pick pocketing me or touching me inappropriately. 

I have my knife in my pocket. I had to use it once to stab a would-be rapist so that I could get away. It was the only time in my life I had ever caused bodily harm to another person, but I did not want to be raped. The unknown assailant had come up and pinned me against a wall in Times Square between terminals. No one in NYC cares what happens around them, so screams are meaningless. I used my knife and ran.

I digress. It is between 5 am and 6 am. I navigate NYC on foot to go between terminals. 

At 6 am, I am on another bus. At least, I hope I’m on another bus at 6 am. It is often late, and I have to take the “next” bus at 7 am. I am going on 5 hours of fitful sleep on a very full bus and almost asleep on my feet.

By 7 am, I am on a bus, even if it wasn’t the one I was supposed to be on. However, it’s going to the right place, so all is well. 

I attempt to sleep on this bus as well. It is full, and the sun is out full force. I am sitting up. I’m so exhausted, I sleep any way. I get about an hour of sleep.

Many people think that I should have been doing my school work on this bus. The problem is that any time I try to read in a moving vehicle, I get motion sickness and vomit. It only happens when I try to read in a vehicle. If I am simply riding, or engaging in almost any other activity that is not reading, I do not get motion sickness. I sleep on the bus as much as I can.

Sometime between 8:30 – 9 am, the bus arrives at South Station in Boston. The city is bustling with the morning commute. I leave the bus terminal and go on foot to the T station. This is the subway system in Boston. I plan to grab a train to campus so I have some time to study before my first class of the day.

I pull my Charlie Card out. The Charlie Card is what holds the fares for the T. I scan my Charlie Card and it says “denied.” I have 80 cents on my Charlie Card. It costs $1.10 to ride the T to campus. I am 30 cents short. I can’t put more money on my Charlie Card. My financial aid for graduate school has not arrived yet. My checking account only has 5 cents left in it. I have no cash.

It’s pouring rain and I walk outside to start the 3 mile walk to campus. I have an umbrella, but it does no good. This was the year it rained so hard in Boston that the baseball field at Fenway Park was flooded under 4 inches of water. I arrive to campus with my feet completely soaked, as well as both legs. The water traveled up my jeans and I was completely wet as if I had no umbrella at all. 

I arrive on campus just in time for my first class. I don’t have time to study. 

I sit in the very back of class hoping no one will notice my rain-soaked state. No one realizes what I just went through to get there. I remove my socks and shoes hoping no one will notice. I try putting them by the heater to dry them out. 

I go through my classes for the day. I eat the food in my lunchbox. My lunchbox has now provided me with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t have money for food. I didn’t even have money for the train. 

I have a reusable coffee mug in my bag, a spoon, and a packet of oatmeal. I go into a convenience store and use the hot water at the coffee station to make my oatmeal. I don’t buy anything. I don’t have any money. I leave as quickly as I can after having taken some hot water in my coffee mug for the oatmeal.

I am in classes all day long. All of my classes are scheduled into Tuesdays and Thursdays. I am a full time graduate student. I am taking 4 classes.

At 8 pm on Tuesday, my classes are done for the day. I head over to the library to work on my reading and class work.

I set an alarm for when I need to leave the library to head back to South Station. I’m lucky I do. I fall asleep in the library. The alarm awakens me. The librarian has a concerned look on her face over the obviously homeless person who looks rumpled after not having slept in a bed or had a real shower in over 24 hours. 

I quickly put all my school materials back in my bag and head towards the door. I have to make it to South Station before 10 pm. 

At 10 pm, South Station is locked for the night. You cannot enter South Station after 10 pm until it is unlocked in the morning. My bus did not leave until 1 am. However, the only way to catch that 1 am bus was to be inside South Station before 10 pm when it was locked.

I walk through the City of Boston from campus to South Station. It is late, but I feel safe. Walking alone at night in Boston is much safer than both NYC and Binghamton, NY. I still have my knife in my pocket. But I know I won’t have to use it here.

I arrive in South Station before 10 pm. Some nights I cut it close. I get in before they lock the doors and head to my terminal. I get in line. I sit in line for my bus for 3 hours. Sometimes I work on school, sometimes I sleep. I try not to sleep. There are pick pockets every where.

Wednesday

At 1 am Wednesday, I board a bus in South Station in Boston. The bus is heading for NYC. I blissfully fall sleep sitting up on a completely full bus.

I transfer busses in NYC to head back to Upstate New York. I am doing the entire trip in reverse. I arrive in Binghamton. I walk 3 miles to my car. I drive an hour home.

I walk in my house so happy to see the cats. I feed them, love them, play with them. I take a shower and repack bag. I have to go to work. But I will see my cats tonight.

I work from noon on Wednesday until 8pm on Wednesday.

At 8 pm on Wednesday, I go through the exact same process I went through on Monday night. I drive an hour home from work. I spend time with the cats. T repack my bag. I drive an hour to Binghamton. I park the car. I walk 3 miles to the bus station. 

At midnight on Wednesday, I am back on a bus again after having worked a full day. I am going back to Boston for my Thursday classes.

Thursday

It’s Thursday. Thursday looks just like my Tuesday. I arrive in Boston. I go to class. I travel back to work through the night.

It is now Thursday night and I have not slept in a bed all week. Every single night I have slept on a bus – Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night.

I arrive back home late Friday morning.

Friday 

I am so happy to see the cats. I feed them, spend time with them, love them. I take a shower to wash off the grime and dirt of the city. It is my first shower in two days.

I have to go to work. I repack my bag and set up the automatic pet feeder for the cats yet again.

It’s Friday, and I work at one job from noon to 8 pm.

At 8 pm on Friday, I leave work. I can’t go home this time. I have to go to my next job.

My next job is an overnight. It starts at 10 pm. I have roughly 2 hours between jobs. I sit in a cafe downtown and work on my school work.

I start my second job doing an overnight shift at 10 pm. The good news is that if it is not busy, I am allowed to sleep. It is an on-call overnight job. As long as I wake up when the bells go off, I can sleep when things are quiet.

I work from 10 pm Friday night until 8 am Saturday morning.

Saturday

It is 8 am Saturday morning. I just finished my shift at my overnight job. I may have gotten one hour of sleep. I may have gotten 6 hours of sleep. It all depends on how busy the work was that night.

The next shift comes in at 8 am. I take the opportunity to take a shower at work. I can’t go home yet. I have to work to make money to pay my bills. I have another job to go to.

I work at my third job on Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm. When 4 pm on Saturday comes, I am exhausted, but also excited.

Once I get home on Saturday night, I will be able to be home for 24 hours. It is also the ONLY night of the entire week that I get to sleep in a bed. I get to be with the cats and I get to sleep in my own bed.

Saturday night I get home and I am so happy to see the cats. I can’t just relax, though. I’m in graduate school. I have a lot of school work to do. My Saturday nights were always spent writing 20 page papers for class. This was the time when I got all my school work done for the week.

On Saturday night, I get to sleep in my own bed.

Sunday

On Sunday morning, I wake up in my own bed with the cats. This is bliss. I still can’t relax. I have to keep going. 

It’s Sunday morning and I have to do my long run. I am training for another marathon. I use the three mile “walks” during the week commuting as training runs. Sundays are for long, slow distance. Each week miy mileage increases until I top out at 22 miles a few weeks before my marathon. 

I get up Sunday morning. It’s time to run 18 miles. I have a race for which I am training.

I get home from my run and have lunch. I do everything I am supposed to do to recover from my long run including icing my legs. The cats are so happy to see me and have me home.

Sunday afternoon, I spend the entire afternoon cooking and preparing food. I have to prep all of my meals for the week so that I have food to throw in the lunchbox when I come home to repack my bags. 

At 8:30 pm on Sunday night, I leave the house. I have to go to work at my over night job.

At 10 pm on Sunday night, I start my overnight shift. This is the job where I can try to sleep if it’s not busy. I work until 8 am on Monday.

Monday

I finish my overnight shift at 8 am on Monday. I shower at work. I have to go to my next job. 

Today is Monday. I have another job I have to work from 9 am to 4 pm.

I work.

It’s Monday. My third job ends at 4 pm. I still can’t go home. I have to work my second job.

I go to my second job Monday night from 5 pm to 8 pm.

Once I get off work at 8 pm, I get to go home.

But now, I have to start the communte to Boston for school.

Conclusion

This is where we started when I began writing this piece. We started with 8 pm on Monday night. 

I’ve seen the world through a bus windshield. This is the sacrifice I made to receive an education. I did not get accepted at any schools in New York. I could not afford to move to Boston. Yet, I wanted to learn. It was important to me to get an education and get a degree.

When I bought my house a few years ago, I decided to be a “responsible adult” and do some funeral planning. One of the things I planned is that I want a celebration of life party with a playlist of songs that I have curated. One of the songs on my list of 26.2 is “Old Blue Chair” by Kenny Chesney. I have literally lived every word of that song. I have seen the world through a bus windshield.

This year marks 10 years since I started the Boston commute to pursue my graduate degree. To this day, I’m not sure how I ever survived the experience. However, I must say I do not regret it for one moment. I am very proud to have a graduate degree.

Be Like Meb

WP_20190403_16_16_05_Pro

In 2014, as a still grieving world watched in baited anticipation, Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years. This win came at a time when our nation, the city, and the worldwide running community needed it the most. #BostonStrong

When Meb tore that finish tape, we took back both the finish line and the starting line to the Boston Marathon. Meb brought hope back to the greatest race in the world that a year prior was literally bathed in blood. Race after race, year after year, millions of people toe the line to run the greatest distance in all of running. We run through joy, pain, happiness, and grief. Marathoners cannot be kept down. You just don’t mess with people who run 26.2 miles for fun.

Then, in 2018, five years after the bombing, Desiree Linden became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years. Not only do marathoners prevail over adversity, but we succeed.

Tomorrow is Marathon Monday, Patriots Day in Massachusetts. It marks the 6 year anniversary of the bombing that took lives and drastically altered thousands others. It is also the first anniversary in which the date is again, April 15. Among the many esteemed athletes in tomorrow’s race is running legend and one of my personal heroes, Joan Benoit-Samuelson.

Joanie’s original triumph in the Boston Marathon came 40 years ago, in 1979. This was the same year I was born. In 1979, Joan won the Boston Marathon setting both a women’s course record and an American women’s marathon record. Joan also became the first women’s Olympic marathon winner in 1984. Tomorrow she is toeing the line again in the greatest race in the world.

Joan, Desiree, and Meb, along with Kathrine Switzer, of course, are some of my running heroes. These are people I look up to in my sport. Although I know I will never achieve their levels of greatness, I hope to at least be able to match their longevity, tenacity, and never ending love for this great sport.

Meb recently came out with a new book titled “26 Marathons ..” I have yet to read it. I am on the waiting list to get it out of the library because all copies are already checked out. I’m looking forward to my turn.

Meb is one of those role models that is so inspiring, all I can think of is the 90s Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan. Except instead of “I want to be like Mike,” “I want to be like Meb.”

Not only did Meb run with heart, but he ran with brains. It takes a lot for an athlete to realize, admit and process that they are retiring from the sport they so love. I can’t imagine it.

I am starting to realize that given some physical disabilities I have, that my race days are probably numbered. I don’t want to admit it yet, but a part of me knows that.

I’m always setting running goals. For the most part, they have been attainable. Until recently. My body betrays me.

So my latest running goal, is that I want to be like Meb. I want 26 medals. A marathon is 26.2 miles long. 26 makes sense. I currently have 15 medals, and am hoping for medal # 16 this year.

I need 11 more medals in addition to what I have now. Will my body hold out for 11 more races or will it let me down? Only time will tell, but I’m going to try.

If I reach 26 medals, then I’ll back off. Maybe I’ll just stick to 5ks or some 10 mile races. Although, one of my other goals is 3 more full marathons. I’m not sure which is more realistic given my body – 3 more full marathons or 11 more half and full medals. I guess I’m going to find out.

You’ll be pulling my Mizunos off my cold dead feet. I’m hoping that’s not how I go out. When I “retire” from racing, I hope that it is my choice and not because my body no longer cooperates.

Then there are days when I just want to be like Joanie. I want to run until I’m “old” (not that she’s old because she’s not) and every day I am putting one foot in front of the other is a good day.

Last week, I was running outdoors (slowly – like 8:40 miles), and passed a person from my church on the running trail. I saw her this week and she exclaimed at how fast I run. Even though, I was running slow for me, her comment made me feel good. I’m still out there. I’m still going.

This year I am signed up for a half marathon over Labor Day weekend. If I can pull it off, it will be my second race since my stroke a few years ago. This will be my first race that I am completely changing my training plan and using the Canadian method. It is supposed to be a gentler method. I typically only train 10 weeks for a half marathon. This Canadian training plan is going to take me 17 weeks to prepare for a half marathon. I’m hoping that if I build slower, I’ll be less likely to get injured and will be able to run longer in life.

We will see what happens. A 17 week training plan means I start training at the beginning of May. If I was using my “traditional” training plan I have been using the past decade, I would not start training until the end of June. I’m going to do a slow build up for this race. Not only do I want to make it to the starting line, but I want to cross the finish line too. I want to cross it with as much strength and love as all my heroes do when they finish their races.

Good luck to everyone running Boston tomorrow. May you be like Meb. My love and prayers are with you all as you run the oldest, most prestigious, and beloved race in the entire world. #BostonStrong

 

 

 

Running Down A Dream

DSCN1670

Boston. It’s the Holy Grail of running. Every runner strives to earn a Boston Athletic Association medal. We throw around acronyms like BQ, PR, maxO2, and Gu. Ok, so Gu is a food group, but you know what I mean. Most likely when you meet a non-runner who finds out you run marathons, one of the first questions they ask is, “have you done Boston?” If you are in the Midwest, they probably ask, “how many Grandmas have you done?” referring to Grandmas Marathon, not your beloved senior citizen relative.

Everyone knows about Boston. Boston is the oldest, most prestigious, and has the strictest qualifying guidelines of any race outside of the Olympics. Qualifying standards for Boston are like Victorian chastity belts with a lock and key. Each year we look to see if the standards have changed, and pray for more birthdays so that we can change age groups to perhaps a less competitive one, or simply to get that extra 5 minutes to qualify. Many non-runners do not even know or understand that you have to qualify for Boston. You have to be invited. It’s like waiting for the fancy invite in gold calligraphy to be delivered to you by a guy in tuxedo tails wearing white gloves on a red carpet. You do not just “sign up for Boston.” It’s an elite club that not everyone can join. It’s kind of like a country club, except this one has lots of sweat and trail mix involved.

It is every runner’s dream to cross the finish line in Boston. It is truly the people’s Olympics. The finish line in Boston is the physical manifestation of everyone’s hopes and dreams as they sweat, train and run to achieve what less than 1% of the world population does – run a marathon. The magic of Boston is that in addition to all the professional runners who have 7 hours a day to train with professional trainers and chefs, it is also the housewife who rolls out of bed at 4am to get 15 miles in before the kids are awake and works in a supermarket that can qualify for Boston. You rip a training plan out of a magazine, and say, “I’m going to run a marathon.” Maybe your sister just got a cancer diagnosis, and you’re going to raise money and work with Team in Training (lymphoma and leukemia research). Maybe your mom just passed away from breast cancer, and you are going to run 26.2 with Donna (the marathon in Florida where all the proceeds go to breast cancer research). Maybe you ran a 5k with your kid and remembered how fun and free it feels to run and just “caught the bug” to run a marathon. Maybe you want to lose 40 or 60 or even 100 pounds, and start out just by walking around the block.

Whatever your story, wherever we come from, we are runners. We all have the same dream. The beauty of Boston is that the dream is attainable by any of us. Boston is not just for the people who have the privilege of making Olympic Dream Teams. Boston is the dream that many of us everyday people who have mortgages and kids and work 40 or more hours a week can make true.

Personally, I do not run fast enough to qualify for Boston. Maybe in a few years, once I reach the Masters category, and some minutes are tacked on to my qualifying standard, I will, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I would have to shave at least 40 seconds off of each and every mile to qualify for Boston. The full marathon is not my fastest distance. It is my most favorite distance, but it is not my fastest. Something happens between miles 22 and 26 where, even if I have been on track to earn my BQ, I completely lose my mind and blow it.

My best distance is the half marathon. I have qualified for and ran the Boston Half Marathon, which is how I earned my Boston Athletic Association medal. I don’t mind running half marathons. I do like to change up my race distances every now and again. The half marathon is not my favorite distance. The full marathon may be my most challenging, but is also my favorite.

As I have gotten older, and am approaching the Masters category in a few years, I still have a dream of Boston and getting my BQ. I am not going to kill myself for it. Yes, I can sit there and crunch the numbers and amp up my training, but what is more important to me at this point in my life than achieving my BQ is ensuring my health and safety to be able to run as long as possible throughout my life. Getting a BQ is not going to mean anything if I push it so hard that I sustain an injury that ends my running career. I have already overcome so much to be able to run marathons: a total of 10 broken bones, which includes breaking my spine in three places and spending time in a wheelchair, to 5 concussions, to a patella tear that almost did end my running career.

I am part of this magical community called runners in which we wave at each other as we pass on the trail, we help each other when we are struggling, and we line the streets to cheer for random strangers as they participate in their distance event and run pass. Yes, I am screaming for you, Random Citizen! You are not almost there, but you do look amazing, even if you are grimacing like a monkey humping a football because you are living your dream of running a marathon! That makes you look beautiful.

It doesn’t matter if you get a BQ or not. It does not matter if you come in first, middle or last. It doesn’t matter how many people have crossed that finish line before you, as long as you cross it. Many of us will never get our “15 minutes of fame.” But, you will get 1 second. That one second that your foot hits that finish line and clocks your time for completion, that one moment that you finish your marathon, whether it is your 1st, your 15th, or your 20th, that one moment YOU are the greatest athlete on the planet. That one-second is yours to own. You can say, “I did this.” “I ran a marathon.” Less than 1% of the world’s population can say that, folks.

Boston is every runner’s dream and it is always out there. For me, what is most important is not that I cross the finish line in Boston, but that I continue to keep crossing finish lines anywhere. We are all part of the same community. Boston is the oldest, most prestigious, and most beloved race. Even if you never achieve your BQ, that finish line belongs to all of us. It is the embodiment of all our hopes and dreams. If you never qualify for the bib, you can go spectate. You can still be part of the dream. Whether you are on the race course or part of the crowd, the magic that is Boston will course through your veins. A popular saying has been attributed to many, so it’s origin is uncertain states: “If you ever lose faith in humanity, go watch a marathon.” It’s true. Even if you never get your BQ, the magic of Boston can be experienced just by being there. Boston is every man’s dream.

As I approach medal # 14 this weekend, Boston is still my dream. Always was, always has been, and always will be. I chose one of the top ten fastest race courses in the country with a net elevation drop of 800 feet for my 14th race in an effort to qualify. Will I get my BQ? Probably not. But I will cross the finish line, and I will be able to train next year to cross a finish line somewhere else again. I will cross the start line. I will cross the finish line. I will run a good race.

Every April, whether we have achieved a BQ or not, the world watches with love and hope as people run the Boston Marathon. We are all running down a dream.