A few months prior to what should have been the end of my final year of undergrad, my then-girlfriend told me she was going to study abroad in London.
It was the middle of the spring semester, but any identifiable aspects of real spring had yet to hatch. The air was a rusty knife—unwieldy and dangerous—and the whole city tossed and turned under a thick, grey duvet of clouds. My then-girlfriend was set to graduate, but I wasn’t; I needed 12 credits and fourteen thousand dollars. The 12 credits didn’t include foreign language, and the 14 grand was for unpaid tuition and fees, which triggered a hold on any future registration. Despite all of that (or maybe in spite of it), I planned to go to London, too. My hold, though, prevented me enrolling via the regular study abroad channels.
Going to London was important. It was as if something fragile had to be held in place and my going to London would hold that fragile something exactly where it needed to be. I guess I sort of figured I’d be able to sort everything out once I arrived. Of course, I thought everything could be sorted out when the time came. Everything.
The first two weeks I was in London, I bounced between a half-dozen hostels. I had nowhere to live since housing arrangements ran through one's sponsoring school. Because of my hold, I had no sponsoring school, so I had no housing arrangements. The other American students—the ones officially enrolled in the study abroad—gave me a nickname: homeless. It was a joke between the dozen or so of us—my homelessness—and I suppose that since I was 23 years-old I should have known better, but I didn’t.
Near the end of my first month in London, I finally got a room in a flat up in Northolt. The sub-letter was a woman, a blackjack dealer at some casino out along one of the autoroutes. She worked almost every night of the week, so she and I were on nearly polar-opposite schedules. When we did cross paths—no matter what time it happened to be—she always seemed to have on some sort of satin robe or gauzy coverlet, which was usually untied so that I’d catch momentary glimpses of her negligee or bra (always lacy and fire-engine red) or (on at least three occasions) naked breast. I moved out of her place in the middle of the night after only about a week-and-a-half because she 1) sneaked up behind me in the kitchen one morning, pressed me against the counter, tongued my ear, and whispered You know you want to fuck me (which I most definitely didn’t) and 2) barged into my what-I-thought-was-locked-and-probably-was room late one night to see if I wanted to shag her from behind while some other guy watched (which I likewise wasn’t at all interested in doing).
When I told my friends about her and her come-ons, they agreed that it seemed I’d been better off homeless.
And now, almost two decades later, that same word, homeless, is clattering around inside my brain, and the only thing I’m thinking is, How many students are even at this school?, which is pretty fucked up given what I’ve just been told.
A voice suddenly stabs forth from the center of our little group. It’s the President.
“A hundred and two?” she asks.
I think she hopes, like me, that she’s misheard the figure. Sadly, she hasn’t.
“Yes,” the counselor repeats, “a hundred and two.”
The counselor’s name is D’Marne, and she looks quite young and has on these shiny, patent-leather heels with long, narrow points at the toes. Her blazer is cinched tight by a single, diamond-shaped button that wrenches her torso just above her waist. She seems uncomfortably off-balance and disproportionate to both herself and the space around her.
Her lips twist awkwardly around the words she speaks, but I don’t want to notice this twisting since it seems so awfully inappropriate given the implications of what’s being said.
“The latest data,” she continues, “and we’re swimming in data, indicates that we have one hundred two homeless students.”
As she speaks, my chest collapses. Of course, it doesn’t really collapse because nothing that trite happens outside of movies or short stories, but I am given time in the slow, beating movements of blood and breath to think about what, exactly, D’Marne’s statement implies. I’m uncomfortable with this, uncomfortable considering the explicit awfulness a reality where one hundred two students at a single Milwaukee public high school are homeless.
I’m standing in the massive, open-concept, glass entryway that anchors the north and south wings of Leslie Tech, part of a little huddle of administrators from the handful of four- and two-year colleges that dot the map in and around the city of Milwaukee. I see students in classrooms crammed with a complicated array of technology. The students—at least a majority of them—seem distracted. It’s as if they’ve been teleported here from bedrooms or isolation booths or places where this type of stimulation is foreign and rare and so overwhelming that it almost posits a complete shutdown of all cognitive processes.
And now D’Marne is talking about something else, but I can’t pay attention; I can’t shake the thought of one hundred two homeless high school students. This thought bothers me because I don’t know what to do with it. Holding it feels so heavy that I’m afraid I might slip and tumble right off the edge of the Earth. Not holding it, though, seems reckless. Not holding it seems irresponsible and convenient. I shift and squirm and stand and look at them—girls, boys, men, women. How many of them, I wonder, are homeless? How many of them have nowhere to go when the bell rings at 2:45? How many of them are included in that number: one hundred two?
I wonder how the one hundred two survive. I wonder how they even show up, day-in, day-out, and do whatever it is they’re doing. I wonder how me or anyone else can expect them to do anything different than whatever it is they’re currently doing. I mean, just by being here, they’ve accomplished a hell of a lot more than I ever would or could if I was in their position.
It’s a raw deal they’ve been dealt. It’s unfair, untenable, indigestible, and like a single spark that grows and multiplies and lights the darkest depths, I want to do something about it.
I need to do something about it.
Conversations erupt all around me—educrat talk about co-requisite acceleration and retention, about support and testing.
But fuck all of that.
I want to say something—anything—to get us all back to the point that matters, the one we’re all working so hard to ignore. But I can’t. All I can think about is the number one hundred two and the way D’Marne’s voice shuttered like a slightly torn sail as she spoke it only moments ago.
I’m restless and furious; I’m scared I might explode. But I can’t—I won’t—explode.
What, then, can I do?
What can any of us do?
There are so many peaks and canyons tucked into these insurmountable mountains. I hate myself for not being brave, for not having answers that don’t exist. The only response me and my privilege can muster is to tuck both of my hands into my pockets and stare anxiously down at my boots. I got them in Los Angeles from a store on the corner of Lincoln and Venice Boulevards. I didn’t pay for them, but I know they retail for $559. Five hundred fifty-nine is a big number. It’s far, far bigger than one hundred two. And even though these two numbers (559 and 102) are seemingly unrelated, it’s their current, conjoined context that seems to inspire everything. I wonder as I stand here and stare at my boots, how I can be so concerned with one hundred two when I care so little for five hundred fifty-nine?
There’s weight behind five hundred fifty-nine, but it’s different than the weight attached to one hundred two.
I live in Wisconsin where minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A Wisconsin resident who works 40 hours-a-week at minimum wage earns a gross, weekly paycheck of about $310. Taxes and pay-ins take a little less than 20%, which essentially means that a minimum-wage Wisconsin worker pulls home roughly $268 each week.
Sources that seem mostly credible report that the average American spends about half of their weekly income on housing. Most of these same sources state that between one-third and one-half of the remaining amount is spent on food. That means that after housing and food, a minimum wage Wisconsin worker has about $89.33 left in their pocket for other things, both essential and non-essential. It's pretty clear what category my boots fall under, but let’s just—for the sake of argument—pretend they fall into that other category. If a minimum-wage Wisconsin worker wanted to purchase my boots at the price they retail for, they'd have to work for 6.26 weeks and purchase/pay for nothing but food and housing. 6.26 weeks of work equates to 250.4 hours or 15,024 minutes or 901,440 seconds, which is a fucking eternity, especially when you’re thinking about how one hundred two students at a single Milwaukee high school are homeless. It’s even longer, I suppose, when you’re the one who’s actually homeless. The truth is I have no idea how long anything is when you’re homeless since I’ve never been anywhere close to homeless except in the tentacles of my most furious and terrible nightmares. There, of course, and at the butts of bad, tasteless jokes short on consequence, but long on insensitivity.
I wonder how many seconds I could last if I were actually homeless.
It sure as fuck wouldn't be anywhere close to 901,440.
And even with all this, I still can’t manage anything but silence in the face of one hundred two homeless 14 to 18 year-olds.
I have so many words for so many other things. I throw words away, toss them around like disposable capital, and yet I can’t make a single, goddamned sound for any one of those one hundred two.
So, as I stand here in this massive entryway, the number one hundred two careening through my skull, I think about the cost of my silence.
But it’s hard to talk about cost.
From a manufacturing standpoint, my silence has no cost since nothing is expended in its production. By all intents and purposes, my silence is the very absence of production.
From an economic standpoint, the cost of my silence is nearly impossible to determine since it’s unclear what’s lost as a result of it. Also, what's the perceived, apparent, or relative value of my silence? That, too, is nearly impossible to determine. I can’t, after all, retail my silence. It doesn't actually exist in a physical, quantifiable sense. The argument, of course, can be made that it exists in a quantum sense—that it has weight and utility and the ability to occupy space—but that discussion is theoretical. This discussion, on the other hand, is real.
The truth is that I don’t say anything because I don’t have to. I can afford to remain silent. I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say or how to say it and because I don’t actually have to say anything, I remain silent.
These students—the ones in front of me, all around me—they can scarcely afford my silence, especially those one hundred two.
But none of them know what to say, either.
Their voices don’t work; they can’t and won’t form words because what are those words, anyway? I mean, how can anybody—especially them—possibly begin express the awfulness of homelessness at 17. Or 16. Or 15. Or 14.
So they embrace their only seeming alternative, they manifest their voices through their actions, their demeanors. I stay quiet, they rage silently, and we all burn like some junkyard tire fire. How can sentences be strung together, sentences that would become paragraphs and whole essays on injustice and privilege and opportunity (or the dire lack thereof) when words aren’t available?
And whose fault is it? Theirs? Mine? Is it the fault of the schools? The administration? The parents? Who’s to blame, after all? The system?
It has to be something, doesn’t it?
Something has to be to blame for this; something must be at fault.
The awful truth is that it’s not the fault of any of those aforementioned things. It would be nice (or at least convenient) if it was. I mean, then we could point to one or two things (maybe even three or four) and assign blame. That would give us all something quantifiable to work with, something physical and manifest. Then we could all dive in, right up to our necks if we wanted to, and fix matters. We could solve the problem and insist that all it took was a fresh perspective, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty with organized effort. We could talk about how it really wasn’t that difficult, after all. Then, if our solutions proved faulty, we could look for other, less apparent elements—ones that hadn’t before emerged—and we could reassign blame to them. Or, we could blame some aspect of the process. We could analyze the process, gather more data, and see where things went wrong. Eventually, we’d really know what or who or how to blame. And that, we’d agree, would make all the difference.
But we can’t do any of that.
I mean, we can (and we do) do all of that (and more), but we really shouldn’t. We shouldn’t do any of it since none of those things—those convenient, quantifiable things—are actually to blame.
It's the silence, really. The silence is the problem. The silence is to blame.
The silence is guilty—mine, yours, theirs, everybody’s. Our collective silence is fucking criminal.
And my boots with their $559 price tag?
Well, they’re innocent.
After all, they’re the only ones talking, the only ones making noise.
I hear their sound every time I take a step.
And it’s so fucking loud against the backdrop of my silence—against the backdrop of everyone’s sickeningly ridiculous silence—that I can hardly stand it.
I hear my boots all the time, echoing louder and louder with every single step: Privilege. Privilege. Privileged.
Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his 2016 short story, “Jimmy.” Recently, he’s had stories appear in Two Cities Review, Palaver, Pithead Chapel, Gris-Gris, and Per Contra. He was selected as an Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s “Short-Story Award for New Writers”. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Greg Dulli, Tom Colicchio, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling. Tommy released a new record, These Ghosts, in November of 2016. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts. He can be found online at www.thomasjamesvollman.com.