According To Michael
By Stevan V. Nikolic
Second book of the “Michael Nicolau Series”, this novel follows thirty-three years in the life of Michael Nicolau. The story takes us on the long path of Michael’s soul-searching and understanding of circumstances that brought him to become a dishonored and homeless man living in the Bowery Mission, a New York City shelter.
Eager to vindicate himself and his actions, he speaks about his life for hours, day after day, to a social worker in the Bowery Mission. At the same time comic and tragic, villain and hero, Michael is wrestling with the concepts of truth, reality, hope, fate, love, and honor. In his words, truth and reality are just our personal perceptions of the things and conditions we see, hear or feel. Likewise, the whole idea of honor is very abstract and subject to cultural interpretations.
As the story unfolds, his social worker discovers many faces of Michael Nicolau: a boy that never grew up; incurable and passionate lover; master of manipulation and deception; lonely and misunderstood soul; tragic victim of his own dreams; heartless and selfish man. Which one is true and which one false? Are they all expressions of the one and the same personality?
By the end of his stay in the Bowery Mission, Michael realizes that there is a higher purpose in everything that happened to him in life, and he goes on into fulfilling his destiny.
Chapter Two – ON THE N TRAIN
The following two days went fast. It was the same daily routine for Michael as the first day. Coffee at Barnes and Noble, long walks around Manhattan, another coffee in the evening, searching Craig’s list, calling and writing to people he would normally never call, asking for help. But it was all in vain. In the next two days, besides coffees–, Michael had one egg on a roll from the corner deli, and one cheeseburger at McDonald’s.
On the third day, in the evening, he was sitting in the McDonald’s at St. Marks Place thinking of what to do. Where was he going to spend the night? And what will happen the next day?
He walked out of the restaurant and started walking down Third Avenue. It was a cold evening. That didn’t help either. He remembered March nights in New York, which were much warmer. But that night it was in the low thirties and windy. Almost a real winter day in New York, just without snow.
He wasn’t sure where was he going. At this point it really didn’t make a difference. He knew that he would end up sleeping on the subway. He just didn’t want to get on the subway too early. He was already thinking that the N line would be good to spend the night on. It was about an hour and a half ride from Astoria in Queens to Coney Island in Brooklyn. Four rides from one end to another, would take him through the night. If nothing changes the next day, he could go next night on the F line.
But even that could not help him for long. He had no money in his pocket for food and his weekly subway card would be valid for just two more days. He had to find some solution.
Third Avenue merged into Bowery Street. Michael kept walking. Bowery Street changed quite a bit since the last time he was there. It used to be restaurant supply stores row with a few homeless shelter buildings. But now most of the stores were gone replaced by bars and restaurants and fancy residential condo buildings.
Michael passed by the Bowery Mission. It was one of the oldest homeless shelters in New York City still sitting in the same location for over a hundred years. In front of the building there was a long line of homeless people waiting to enter a soup kitchen for a free dinner. He was hungry, but he didn’t want to get on line.
Maybe he was homeless, but he still didn’t want to admit that to himself. Nor to others. He kept walking.
Finally, around midnight he walked back to Union Square, entered the subway and got on the N train towards Astoria. The train was still crowded with people going home from the city. Everybody on the train looked happy to Michael. They really didn’t know how fortunate they were, Michael thought. Everybody had a destination they were going to. Everybody but Michael.
Around one thirty in the morning the train cleared out. There were only a few of the late riders and several homeless people dozing off on the corner seats. Michael was sitting in the middle of the train car next to the door. He knew that if he takes a seat in the corner, it would certainly be warmer and safer, but he didn’t want to appear like a homeless man. And the cold air that came from outside into the train car, once the train doors opened in the station, was keeping him awake. He kept his backpack on his chest with his arms crossed over it.
He really didn’t want to sleep but he knew that he had to rest. He was trying to keep his eyes open whenever the train was entering into a station and he would open his eyes at the smallest sound. At least, this is what he was trying to do. But once in a while upon opening his eyes, he would notice that more than one station had passed, which meant that he fell asleep and hadn’t notice that.
He couldn’t wait for morning to come to get out of the subway. With the first light, around six thirty in the morning, he walked out onto the Lexington Avenue and 59th Street station.
The fresh morning air getting into his face felt good. This was the very first morning that he didn’t shave, take a shower or changed his clothing. He felt dirty and smelly. He wanted to find a place to at least wash his face and brush his teeth. But it was too early for something like that. Few McDonald stores that were already open, were still not crowded and everybody there would notice, if he went directly to the restroom. He didn’t want to feel embarrassed.
He walked down Lexington Avenue, then he switched to Park Avenue and after a while, found himself again on Union Square. He needed to go to a restroom, so he entered Starbucks Café that was slowly getting busy. There was nobody in the restroom, so after using the toilet, Michael washed his face and brushed his teeth.
He spent the next few hours walking aimlessly up and down Manhattan Avenues. By noon he already felt tired, so he decided to go to Barnes and Noble bookstore and rest a bit. On the top floor of the Barnes and Noble store on Union Square, there was a sitting area used for book promotion events in the evening hours. During the day, customers were sitting there reading books and magazines. Quite a few of them were actually homeless people resting and spending their time in the warm and safe environment.
Michael took the escalator up to the fifth floor. He walked down the history books aisle, looking at them. But all he was thinking was that he needed to sit down. He picked a book on Knights Templars from the shelf and walked to the sitting area. There were not too many people sitting there. Michael took a corner chair, far from the others.
He took out his laptop to check mail. There was only one mail from Eliza. “I love you and I miss you a lot. I can’t wait to be with you again. It is so strange and so empty without you my love. I hope that you are taking care of your business in New York and that I’ll see you soon. Be careful and don’t forget to eat! When I come, you are going to need lot of strength, because I won’t let you out of bed for a week. And call me or write me! I know that you must be busy now, but I want to hear from you. Much love and many kisses!!!”
He looked at Eliza’s mail with a sad expression in his eyes. If she only knew what was really happening to him. If she only knew the extent of the misery he put himself in. But before he left Bucharest, he just didn’t have the heart to tell Eliza the whole truth about the depth of the trouble that he was in. She knew about his debt to Volodya and she knew that getting involved with loan sharks in post-communist Romania was a dangerous thing. But he never told her that he lost everything in New York and there is simply nothing and nobody to return to.
Michael was really hoping that once in New York, he would be able to find a way to get to some money and bring Eliza to be with him. Years before, when he was established and respected entrepreneur with many business associates and friends, it was very easy for him to get any amount of money needed. He was proud of his ability to convince people to give him money. So he believed that he would still be able to do so. But he didn’t realize that times like that were far gone. He was absent from New York for three years and his divorce and disarray in which he left his business in New York before going to Bucharest, earned him a bad reputation with people who knew him then. For them, he wasn’t the same Michael they knew.
Michael didn’t know how to answer Eliza. He didn’t want to lie to her any more, but he couldn’t tell her that he was a homeless man sleeping on the subway. He just couldn’t.
He closed his laptop and then a thought came to him. Maybe he could sell his laptop in the pawn-shop and get some money for food, if nothing else. He remembered passing by the pawn-shop on 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. “I will go there.” he thought.
But he needed to rest first. His legs and back were hurting.
That afternoon Michael sold his Toshiba laptop to the pawn-shop for eighty dollars. He immediately bought another weekly subway ticket and went to McDonald’s to eat.
He was a bit relieved because he had some money in his pocket and his backpack was lighter for the weight of the laptop. But he was also concerned. That laptop was his last link to the world. Nobody could reach him now, neither could he reach anybody. He could not look for a job online. He could not do anything.
The next eight days Michael spent sleeping in the subway cars on the N, F, and Q lines in the night time, and walking up and down Manhattan in the day time. He limited his daily expenditure to six dollars: coffee in the morning and evening, two 99 cents cheese burgers at McDonald’s, buttered bagel from the deli and two loose cigarettes. To wash himself and go to the toilet was the biggest problem. But he found Starbucks on the Astor Place and Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Union Square to be very tolerant towards homeless people using their facilities, so he followed the examples of other homeless guys browsing through that part of Manhattan.
Michael didn’t think any more about finding a job or about calling anybody to ask for a help. All he was thinking about was surviving. He knew that his subway card would expire eventually and that he would run out of money again, but all that mattered to him was getting through the day. It was only about surviving till the next day. However, without a change of clothing in almost ten days, it was obvious to everybody who could see him that he was a homeless man. He could not pretend anymore to be a late night subway rider or a customer browsing through books in a bookstore.
Eight days passed. His metro card stopped working and he spent his last dollar for a cup of coffee. He knew that if he tried to sleep on the bench in the park, that he would be arrested. The only solution was to go to some shelter. He remembered the Bowery Mission that he used to passed by a few times in the last several days. “Maybe I could go there,” he thought.
It was March 14th at four o’clock in the afternoon when Michael entered the Bowery Mission. He will always remember that day. It was his birthday. He was fifty three.
“Hi,” – Michael said to the big black guy sitting behind the counter at the entrance hall. “I heard that here homeless people can get a bed to sleep and food. I need a place to stay. I am homeless.”
“Do you want to join the program?” the man behind the counter asked.
Michael didn’t know what it meant “joining the program”, but he didn’t want to ask. He just said: “Yes.”
“Okay, go here to the chapel,” the man pointed to the doors on the side. “Sit there and wait. I will call our admission counselor and somebody will take you to him.”
Michael went through the side door and found himself standing in the long and dark Chapel with high wooden cathedral ceiling and walls painted to resemble Romanesque style stone walls. Rows of long wooden pews were lined up on both sides of the Chapel, sitting on red brick tiles. In the back of the Chapel was a large red door serving as a main entrance into the Chapel. In the front of the Chapel was a stage with a few chairs and doors in the middle. Right below the stage in the center was a pulpit, concert piano on the left and organs on the right.
Michael sat in the last row. Two other men were sitting in the pew in front of him. One of them was a black man in his forties with an afro hairdo in a dark leather jacket ripped under the left arm. The other one was a young baby-faced light skin Hispanic man, not older than twenty with short curly hair wearing a brown t-shirt.
“Guys, are you waiting for a counselor?” somebody asked behind Michael’s back. Michael turned. A short stocky built man with a crew cut, in jeans and white t-shirt entered through a side door and was standing behind him.
“Yes,” Michael and the other two men answered almost in unison.
“Come with me.”
The three of them followed this man back to the reception hall and up the flight of stairs to the second floor to a room in front of the office of the admission counselor.
“Sit here and wait. The counselor will call you one by one,” stocky man said and went back down the stairs.
All three of them sat around the large conference table in the middle of the room. Each one with his own thoughts. They didn’t try to have a conversation or to introduce each other. They even didn’t look at each other. The doors of the counselor’s office were slightly open and they could hear his voice. He was talking on the phone to somebody. Then doors opened wide. A white middle age man with blonde short hair, five feet tall and skinny, in grey worn out pants and cream dress shirt, with golden framed glasses over light blue, almost gray eyes, was standing at the doorway.
“Who came first?” he asked.
Michael and the other two men, looked at each other for a moment, not sure what they should say. Then the young Hispanic man after a short hesitation said: “I think I did.”
“Okay, come in,” the man at the door said, and moved aside to let the young man into the office. Then he closed the door behind him.
It took around half an hour before the young man walked out of the counselor’s office. He had a smile on his face. “I got the bed,” he said and sat back at the table. “The counselor wants the next one to enter”.
The other man with the afro hairdo stood up and entered counselor’s office. The young Hispanic man turned his face to Michael and asked, “Do you know what time is dinner?”
“No, I don’t know. I’ve never been here before,” Michael said.
“I hope we don’t miss it. I am really hungry. Haven’t eaten in two days.”
Michael didn’t answer. He just made a face as a sign of understanding. They didn’t say anything after that. They both just looked at the table surface in front of them.
Suddenly, the stocky man who brought them there walked into the room.
“Who is Joel?”
“It’s me,” The young Hispanic man answered.
“Come with me. I’ll show you your room. Do you have any luggage with you?”
“No, man. I don’t even have a coat.”
They left. Michael was now by himself. He didn’t know what to expect. But all he had in his mind was surviving. He needed a bed to rest and food to eat.
The office door opened and the other man walking out, said to Michael, “It is your turn.” And he sat back at the table.
Michael stood up, took his backpack in his left hand and walked into the office.
The counselor’s office was a small room, maybe eight by eight feet, with a tiny window facing the building next door which allowed for just a fraction of daily light to get into the room. One wall was covered with file cabinets and book shelves. The counselor’s desk was facing the wall with several framed pictures and diplomas hanging on it. On one side of the desk was a stand with a printer. On other side was an empty chair.
The counselor was looking at the screen of the computer monitor in front of him and typing. “Have a seat, please,” he pointed to the empty chair without even looking at Michael.
Michael sat in the chair and placed his backpack next to his feet. The counselor stopped typing, raised his head towards Michael and said: “Hi. My name is Allan Schapiro. I am the admission counselor here. What is your name?”
“My name is Michael Nicolau.”
“What brings you here today, Michael?”
“I am homeless, have no place to stay anymore, have no money or job. I’ve been sleeping for last ten days on the subway. I really don’t know what to do next.”
“Can you tell me how that happened?” the counselor asked.
“Three years ago, I left my wife and went to Romania, where I was originally from. I started a business there, but it didn’t work out. I lost all of my money and came back to New York two weeks ago. I was trying to find a job or a place to stay, but nothing happened. After I ran out of the little money that I had on me, I stayed on the subway.”
“Did you try to go back to your wife?”
“No, our marriage is over. She is still hurt and angry. She would not help.”
“Did you cheat on her?”
“Well, I left her for another woman from Romania. But it wasn’t that simple. It was not just about being with another woman.”
“It never is! What happened with that woman?”
“She left me a year ago, when my business in Romania started going downhill.
“Was she young?”
“She was thirty one years old.”
“And how old are you, Michael?”
“I am fifty three.”
“Do you drink or take drugs, Michael?” The counselor asked and started typing again. It seemed to Michael like he was filling out some type of form.
“Well, when I was in Romania, I used to drink, but mostly wine. I don’t drink beer and hard liquor I drink occasionally. I never took any drugs.”
“How much wine did you drink?”
“Well, depends… Usually, it was four to five glasses or one bottle a day.”
“How’s your health? Do you have any health problems? High blood pressure, diabetes…?”
“So far, nothing, thank God,” Michael answered.
“Do you smoke?”
“Yes, I do.”
“How much a day?”
“About a pack a day.”
“Do you have children, Michael?”
“Yes, three daughters. Two from the first marriage and one from the second.”
“Oh, so, you were married twice, then?” – The counselor asked.
“Yeah,”- Michael answered with melancholy in his voice.
The counselor kept typing. –“How did you hear about us?”
“I have passed by your Mission many times. There are always homeless people in front waiting for the soup kitchen.”
“Okay, let me tell you something about the Bowery Mission. The Bowery Mission has existed since 1876. We are a Christian- based recovery program for men. In another location we have the same program for women. We mostly deal with homeless men who are homeless because of their addiction, be that alcohol, drugs, pornography, or something else. We offer a six month recovery program which helps men get back on their two feet, cleaned out, get a job, and be able to live independently. After completing the program, our “students,” as we call them, are looking for a job. When they find one, they are allowed to stay here another six months until they save some money to be able to move away and live on their own. During the program, our students have free lodging, food, and clothing. But of course, there are conditions. The first one is to stay sober and clean of drugs. Anybody caught drinking or using drugs is automatically kicked out. If you leave the program before its completion, you cannot come back. Also, you cannot have a cellular phone, computer, music player or any kind of electronic device that would keep you in touch with the outside world or entertain you. During the six months, everybody in the program has to be focused on his recovery, so the best thing is to be separated from the outside world. Two times a week, students can go out for two hours for a walk or sport game in the park around the corner. After four months they are allowed to go to the Sunday service of a church outside. We have a nurse on staff, and we have a doctor seeing students once a week. Also, before meals, there are services in the Chapel every day for an hour and all students are required to attend. In the morning hours, there are Bible classes, prayer, and computer classes. In the afternoon are usually tutorial sessions, for those who want to improve or complete their education, while they are here. If this sounds too restrictive for you, you can always come here, hear the service in the Chapel, and have a meal. He serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to homeless people every day. Also, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, homeless people can take a shower here and get a free change of clothing. In the winter time, when the temperature is below 40 degrees, we allow homeless people to sleep in our Chapel on sleeping mats. But that is on a first come first serve basis and it fills pretty fast. We cannot accommodate more than a hundred people.
You are not the typical student that we normally have. Most of them are lifelong alcoholics or drug addicts. But somehow, I sense that drinking and women had something to do with your troubles. So, what do you think, Michael, are you interested in joining our program?”
“Yes. I don’t think I have another choice. I need to put myself back together. This seems to be the right way.” Michael answered.
“Good. I’m going to start the paperwork for you. These are the forms that you have to fill out. Do you have any ID’s on you?”
“I have my passport and my S.S. card. Also, I have my New York drivers’ license, but it expired more than two years ago.”
“Wow, that is more than most of the people who come here have. It is good. I will need to make copies of it, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t have any more beds available today. I just gave the last one to Joel, the young man who came before you. You and Victor will have to sleep for one or two nights in the Chapel, until I get some beds free. I will call somebody to take you downstairs to the bathroom to take a shower and get clean clothing. Then, you can go eat with the rest of the students. It is almost dinner time. Do you have a phone or any other electronic device with you?”
“I have my phone from Romania. But it doesn’t work anymore. It was prepaid and there is no more money on it. I had a laptop but I sold it to a pawnshop to get some money for food, a few days ago.”
“You will have to leave your phone with me. After four months, we will give it back to you.”
The counselor picked up the phone.
“Mike, there are two more new guys here. Their names are Victor and Michael. They will stay in the Chapel for now until we free some beds. Could you please come and take them to take a shower and change their clothing. Then you can show them around a little bit and take them to a dinner.”
“One of the students will come shortly and take you to the showers. If you need anything, feel free to come and ask. In a couple days, you will be assigned a counselor and you will go from there. Okay? the counselor said to Michael.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Welcome to the program, Michael. I wish you all the best. You can go now.”
The counselor shock Michael’s hand as they both stood up. Michael walked out of the office and sat back at the table.