My 21-year-old daughter, Mimi, loves Bernie Sanders and sharing her life through social media. I was with Hillary Clinton, and I’m sick of social media. Yet we share this in common: We’re graduating college in May.
Mimi is a senior at St. John’s University, while I’m at The New School. We’ve shared study sessions, and she’s even asked for my help.
Different paths to college
She went to college at 18. My wife and I worked hard for that. I didn’t want her to be like me; it took me 24 years to get here. I dropped out of high school at 16. I tried to earn a degree in that time, but school was interrupted by marriage, parenthood and homelessness.
Last fall, Mimi and I met at Washington Square Park and walked toward NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. We sat on a bench and I turned to her: “When I was at New York University, I was homeless and slept on this very bench.”
“What happened?’ Mimi asked in shock.
I was a clerk at an insurance company that took a financial hit paying policyholders impacted by a hurricane. When the dust settled, I got $1,000 in severance pay. I had fallen behind on my rent, by two months. I had the money but paid my tuition at NYU.
My landlord was a friend so I thought he wouldn’t mind. He did. After I was laid off, I went to see my then-girlfriend who had invited me to lunch. I was happy to see her. But before I could tell her what happened, she said, “We need to break up.” She was starting to get busy with classes and hospital rotations and didn’t have time for me.
Two days later, after looking for work, I came home. Agustin, the landlord, stood by my door. “You gotta leave,” he said.
A month later, I was still sleeping on the streets. I hated the stigma of being poor. I didn’t say anything to family or friends.
At 4:45 one morning a police officer woke me up and said that sleeping in the park wasn’t allowed. I walked out, reaching a garbage can on the corner of Waverly and Washington. I was hungry, so I went digging. The first time I ate from the garbage, I had a bologna sandwich with mayo. Disgusting.
I still had my NYU ID card, so I sneaked into the recreation center for a shower. Homeless and 22, I didn’t have the skills or degree to get a job. I wanted to go to the public assistance office. But pride would not let me.
‘Things were gonna get better’
During my time at NYU, I met Gene Redondo, a 50-year-old NYU employee. He hired me for a temp job and allowed me to stay in the empty rooms of the dormitories I had to work in. To get me started, he gave me clothes, money and a job as a janitor and painter at NYU.
After I told Mimi the story, there was a long pause. “So my dad slept on a park bench and ate from the garbage?” she asked.
“I knew things were gonna get better,” I said.
Later, Mimi and I were in the library. We read, took notes, and shared highlighters. On graduation day, the one selfie I want is of Mimi and I in our caps and gowns. That picture I’ll post on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
Ralph Ortiz is a correction officer at Rikers Island.