– Darryl Jerome Seals –
Foreword by Susan Celia Greenfield
For the past year and a half, I have facilitated the story-telling aspect of the Life Skills Program sponsored by the Interfaith Assembly of Homeless and Housing and developed in partnership with New York Catholic Charities. Meeting twice a week for twelve weeks, the course helps homeless individuals recover from their trauma and develop a supportive community. Participants engage in a series of conversations about healthy living and social justice; meet with mentors to achieve individual goals; and write a version of their life stories to share with their peers, family and friends, and members of the Interfaith Assembly. Some graduates join the Assembly’s Speakers Bureau and go on to tell their stories to public audiences. Dennis Barton, who is the Coordinator of the Speakers Bureau and a graduate of the Life Skills Program, told me, “Writing my story was the beginning of the process of healing from homelessness. As I have gone out many times to share my story, that healing has continued, and I have been able to change perceptions about what homelessness is." With this same goal in mind, Darryl Jerome Seals, a graduate of the 2011 Life Skills program, shares his story with CURA.
~ Susan C. Greenfield
Hello. My name is Darryl Jerome Seals. I am a native New Yorker, born in Harlem in 1955 and raised in Brooklyn East New York. I was educated in Massachusetts. And I have worked for some of the most well-known companies and organizations in these United States of America, and I have experienced some of the most traumatic misfortunes typical for many inner-city minorities. I've survived childhood molestation, domestic violence, prison, and crack-cocaine addiction. Also I am a survivor of a stroke with left-side paralysis. These somewhat typical yet not normal occurrences have led me down roads I'd never imagined.
My childhood was very normal in comparison to my life experiences. I remember being a happy kid with the normal American dream of becoming something like a policeman, a dentist, a fireman, doctor, or lawyer. I was the kind of kid who enjoyed my own company as well as others. I liked playing neighborhood games like touch football, scully and coco-levio. I remember my birthday, because every year my father would take me to Carvel on Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn to pick out my ice-cream cake. I remember my birthday parties with all my friends from around the neighborhood and me having fun. I use to love a TV program called Million Dollar Movie that showed some of my favorite actors like James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Victor Mature, Vincent Price, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Lon Chaney, Susan Haywood, Loretta Long, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Doris Day, Sidney Poitier, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Bob Hope, to name a few.
My parents gave me all the love they knew. If there was a line-up of fathers and mothers to choose from again, I would pick the parents I had all over again hands down, regardless of the hardships suffered with them. I am the youngest child of three and the only one living of my nuclear foundation. My father had a 7th grade education and my mother was a high school graduate. My parents grew up in the rural south without indoor plumbing or running water—hardships that my siblings and I never experienced. I remember the first time visiting where my parents were from. All the roads were dirt and all the houses were wooden. I remember the old-fashion water-pump in the kitchen at my great-grandparents’ farm, because the water was ice-cold from the ground and there were no toilets. The bathroom was empty except for two tall pots with lids, respectfully known as the shit and piss pot. To go into it would take too long, but I grew up in an upper middle-class lifestyle, attending Broadway plays, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, attending dances at the Waldorf Astoria, weekly shows at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and dinning at landmark hot-spots like the Riverboat. These were rare opportunities for African-Americans in the late 50's and 60's. To think about it, my childhood was the best part of my life.
Growing up, we never think that the things that are happening to us will form who we become later on in life. We sometimes look at it as a passing fancy (so-to-speak). During my teenage years I was very popular amongst my peers, even though the high school I attended, Franklin K. Lane in Brooklyn, was plagued with gangs mugging people for money. The gang activity was so bad that if I had to use the rest room I would go home for the rest of the day, because the gangs were also mugging people in the Boys Room. I eventually joined the school newspaper to replace my lunch-period. I excelled so well that I won the journalism-pin at graduation and a 4-year scholarship to Columbia University in 1972.
I turned the scholarship down and attended school out-of-state because during my teenage years my father and mother grew apart after building the American dream together of owning apartment buildings and various businesses. Their differences turned violent for many years and caused me much pain and stress all through my college years. My father's vicious violent physical attacks on my mother—busting her lips, putting stitches in her head, breaking arms, and the black and blue bruises on her—scared me. I said, “Who is this man, my father that I loved so much?” I said, “How could he do such a thing to a small 5-5 woman like my mother?” During high school when the domestic violence began, it affected me so much that I went to my high school guidance counselor to request to be placed in foster-care. When my parents were informed of my intentions they downplayed the seriousness of the matter and I remained in the situation.
By the time my father died of a heart attack on Christmas day the year I graduated from college in 1975, my family was very much apart. I'll never forget seeing my father alive for the last time on Christmas Eve. He was 6-8 and 375 lbs. The illness caused him to lose so much weight he looked frail and weak. Even after my father had been so unfair and unkind to my mother, I'll never forget how my father spoke to me with such honor on behalf of my mother, and then the next day we visited him in the morgue. The memory of the moment they rolled his body to the viewing window is etched in my mind like it was yesterday. My mother broke down crying frantically as Donna Summers was singing “Love To Love You Baby” over the radio. Later on in life, I thought how poignant of God to time that moment with that song.
At this point, the many years of confusion took their toll on me. All the bloody incidents of domestic violence and my memory of it catapulted me into smoking marijuana and snorting powder cocaine. I drank alcohol when I couldn't get the other drugs because I didn't know how to deal with the pain and loss. And so began a 30-year period of bad choices and self-sabotage, quitting jobs, not paying bills, and so on. In 1990 I became addicted to crack cocaine. I don't talk about my drug addiction in detail, because those demons have been put to rest. All I'll say is crack cocaine is the most immediate devastating drug ever invented. Take my word on it.
I will talk about the day I was released from prison at the age of 40. No one said anything prior to telling me that morning. One day while I was watching TV, the guard says, “Seals, you're getting out today.” The words every convict hopes to hear one day. Today was that day for me. I was taken to the clothing room and given a white dress shirt, a pair of kitchen pants that were almost halfway up my legs, a pair of Pro Keds, and a white pair of socks. Underneath my shirt I used shoe strings to tie the oversized waistline of the pants. When I looked in the mirror I saw Steve Urkel from the TV comedy Family Matters. But I didn't care. I was going home (so-to-speak). In essence, being released from prison was my first day of homelessness. To think of it, what a switch—prison to homelessness. The officers drove me to the county where I was arrested and put me in a motel for the night. The officers didn't know, but fate had it that the motel was about 5-city blocks distance to the nursing home where my 99-year old grandmother was living. Even though I was told not to go anywhere, I went to see my grandmother, and after many years of not seeing my grandmother, when I walked in the room she just smiled and said, “I was wondering when you were coming to see me!”
Being homeless is different for many, I'm sure, but also the same in many ways for all of us that are homeless. For me, the homeless experience was and is exhausting. In a 7-year period I lived in homeless shelters from North Carolina to Hartford, Connecticut to Boston, Massachusetts to Washington D.C. and New York City, trying to find one that would make me feel at home (Ha-Ha). For me, living on the streets, sleeping in abandoned buildings or parks or sleeping on the subway was not an option. It was important to me to keep two basic necessities at all times. Getting sleep and keeping my body clean.
In October 2004, the stress of being homeless took its toll on me and I suffered a severe stroke while homeless in a Volunteers of America transitional housing program. The rules and regulations, the unwarranted treatment by workers as if you've done something wrong, the verbal abuse and constant threatening rhetoric used to control people that are homeless, make the homeless experience nothing less than a living Hell. Unfortunately, you have to go through it to get to it—that is affordable housing. A big part of the homeless experience is being told what to do. It makes many adults feel like a child growing up all over again, because we are told when to get up in the morning, we are told when to eat, and we are told when to come inside. Doesn't that sound familiar?
The day I had my stroke was about an hour after I came from working out at the gym. As a matter of fact, I was feeling great and I had been working out in the gym for a couple of months. All I remember is my body started trembling. I thought it was a muscle-spasm, because I just finished working out in the gym. The second time the muscle spasm was stronger, and I never had a stroke, but I said to myself, “Darryl you're having a stroke.” I called the ambulance. They came and took my vitals, then rushed me to the hospital. They kept me overnight for observation. When the nurse woke me up the next morning to take my blood pressure I couldn't move my left side. I had had another stroke in my sleep and was now paralysed on my left side. I remember asking for a bible after all the doctors examined me, and I was told that hospitals are not allowed to hand out bibles. I made such a debate about it that a nursing assistant overheard me and brought me a bible in the next day. I held that bible day and night in continuous prayer. I know it was the blood of Jesus that restored me back to functional independence.
After two hospitals and one rehabilitation center, I signed myself out and returned to the homeless shelter system to get back on track for housing. Now being disabled, my priority for housing moved me to the top of the list. In less than 3 months I was accepted into a one bedroom apartment with a terrace in Staten Island through a HUD subsidy for disability. Being partially paralyzed is a struggle. But one day, while I was sitting in my living room, the sky was clear and the sun was shining bright. Then all of a sudden the view in my eyes expanded and I took a look around me. That was the point for me when I realized I had recovered. I was no longer homeless. I had regained my strength back to being physically independent and I saw an overflow. Recovery is simply getting better, and that day in my living room I saw things had gotten better for me physically, spiritually and mentally. I call that recovery.
Today I am dealing with homelessness all over again. The decision to return to the homeless shelter system was because of safety reasons. The complex I resided in had 5 murders in a 16-month period, and the little 3-year old girl that got her eye shot out in September of 2011 in Staten Island lived in the complex and the very same building I lived in. I am now at a transitional housing program in the Bowery. The experience of being homeless is different this time around, because the issue is only housing, period, where before it was housing, employment and drug related issues. The facility I now reside in has an outstanding administration. The sanitary conditions are exceptional, and instead of the multiple open-bed dorms of traditional shelter settings, this one has single rooms. Soon, I hope to be in a safe building regulated by security and strict guidelines and to recover my peace-of-mind before I leave this earth.
Tomorrow I plan to manage my money better so that one day I can make decisions concerning my housing independently again. Tomorrow I plan to find a safer building to live in, because I am a 56-year old disabled man alone with no one to defend me. I need safety where I live more than anything else as I grow older. I also plan to stay focused to the best of my ability on my condition physically, spiritually and mentally, and to never miss another day for the rest of my life giving thanks to God for his only begotten son, Jesus. Amen.