08/13/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Bum in the Car


When I made my way to New York City in early 1984 after doing a short stint in Connecticut, (I call it a stint 'cause it was like prison), I took a sublet on Mott Street just north of Houston. I was from Detroit so I was used to bombed out neighborhoods but this was different. It wasn't called NoHo then, and there were no cute little shops or restaurants lining the streets. There was no name for it at all actually; it was just dead space that linked a few sketchy neighborhoods -- Little Italy, SoHo, and the Village. The neighborhood was a wasteland of dumpsters in alleyways with "no needle" signs painted on every door from Bleecker to Prince Streets. The signs didn't stop the junkies from hiding behind the dumpsters, shooting up, and then sleeping in them.

I was happy to be paying $245 per month for a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment, which was fire engine red from the ceiling to the floor and everything in between including the refrigerator. This place also came with the meanest cat I've ever met in my life called Mr. Milk, who would growl from the moment I walked in until he found it in his heart to ease his way into my lap, only to growl some more. The building was no better either because from the moment you opened the front door, the stench of decades-old cat piss and bleach burned your nostrils and followed you until you entered your own place, and then, still, the smell lingered. It was all fine with me because after cleaning it, painting, and stuffing every hole with boric acid and steel wool to keep out the roaches, I grew to appreciate the central location of the neighborhood, the low rent, and even Mr. Milk.

I was still driving to Connecticut four days a week to cut hair at a salon, so I had a car -- a yellow Fiat 128 four-door sedan that looked like a short school bus. It was easy to find parking on the rat infested streets or abandoned parking lots back then because no one in their right mind would leave their car in that neighborhood for fear of being vandalized and sometimes even torched. I didn't have the money for an attended lot and, for the sake of convenience, started parking in the abandoned one across from my apartment.

By this time, my boyfriend, Kurt, had moved in with me. Kurt was a sandy-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of a guy who also managed the hair salon. One very cold February morning, he and I walked out to the car to drive to work and the front passenger side window was broken. I was upset, but not surprised. I started yelling anyway because I was running late as usual, it was cold and I'd have to drive an hour on the highway while freezing my ass off. Kurt, who was such a craftsman, (he could have built a radio out of wood scraps) said he had a piece of plexiglass that he'd rig up so we wouldn't cut ourselves. I opened the door to take inventory and see what was missing. Right away I noticed that my Pioneer cassette deck was gone. Oh no, I thought, now I have to drive an hour without music. I slid inside the car to pick up broken glass when I noticed a man sleeping in the back seat. He scared the shit out of me.

"Hey!" I screamed. He sat up quickly, then straightened the clothes he'd been sleeping on, my clothes. I kept a change of clothes in my car because sometimes I worked late and would spend the night at a friend's place in Connecticut.

"What the hell," I said, "what are you doing in my car, and where's my fucking stereo?"

The man looked at me with bewilderment. "I folded your clothes, I don't know anything about a stereo."

Kurt was back with the plexi and I started to rant about the man breaking into the car, ripping off the stereo and sleeping in the back seat. He'd made his way out of the car by then, trying to get away, but Kurt stopped him. "We just want our stereo back, dude." But the man insisted he hadn't taken it, that he had found the window broken, and because it was so cold decided to sleep in the back seat. He also kept pointing out that he didn't steal any of the nice clothes back there but only folded them and tried to be neat and tidy. For some reason this made sense to me. If he was gonna rip us off, why would he stay? I asked him to please keep an ear to the ground and try to find out who broke into the car and stole the stereo. Kurt put the plexi in the window and we were on our way to work. I decided from that day on to never lock my car doors on the street because if someone wanted to get in, they would no matter what, so I'd make it easier on them and myself. During the next couple of weeks I found Mel, the bum, sleeping in my car more than once. The weather dropped to an all-time low and I left a couple of warm blankets in the back seat, made sure that all my clothes were laundered and brought inside, and took comfort in knowing that someone was watching my car at night so at least I wouldn't get ripped off again.

One morning, while driving on I-95, I noticed a horrible stench after the car's heater had warmed up.

"Did you step in a pile of dog shit?" I asked Kurt.

"No," he said, after checking both of his shoes. I checked my left shoe while driving, then pulled off my right shoe to look at it, and there was nothing on either, so I kept driving, but as the car got warmer, the smell got even stronger. I pulled off to the side of the highway to investigate. Maybe one of the blankets Mel had used was soiled or something, I thought. Ugh. I stepped out of my side while cars were streaming by in the freezing cold. I opened the back door and saw that the blankets were perfectly folded as usual. I looked around a bit, and then on the floor mat, in the back, I saw it. A three-coil steamer, half defrosted. I started dry heaving right away and screamed for Kurt to look. He was laughing his ass off, but in disgust, then got out, grabbed the mat with the crap on it, and threw it out on the side of the road.

"Mel must've taken a dump." He laughed again.

"Do you think? Ewhhhh!"

It was so gross but pretty funny actually, and the next time we saw Mel, he apologized and said that he didn't mean to leave it there, but it was so cold that night that he couldn't expose his ass to the elements, and then the cops came and chased him out of the car so fast that he didn't have time to dispose of it.

"Sleeping in my car is one thing, but please don't take a shit in it again Mel," I said. "I don't care how cold it is outside."

Mel stayed in the neighborhood for a few more months, always kept an eye on my car for me and, when I had a couple of extra bucks, I made sure to take care of him. That yellow Fiat is still one of my favorite cars I've ever owned. I drove that baby a while longer, until I had to have friends push it while I popped the clutch so it would start. Then one day I parked it in an empty bank parking lot in Stamford, Connecticut, took the plates off, and came back into the city on the train.