I wanted to smash my head through the massive window and get a million little pieces embedded in my face, and one massive shard straight to the jugular, so I could bleed out quick. I stood in a line that twisted around the block, impatiently waiting to donate blood. I’d been smart, got there early, so I could lean against the building itself. Many of the men in front and behind me looked almost as bad as I did–but they were homeless, and I was not—I had a cozy spot on my friend’s couch. My hair, thick, matted, crusted from dandruff, my eyes bloodshot, and my fingers tingling because of opioid withdrawal. With my head pressed against the glass, I remembered how the year prior, I’d been in Australia, listening to toucans singing and the sweet coos of island women. The year was 2008, and I could only wonder: “Why had I left the military?”

I’d joined the Navy back in 2004, the year after America invaded Iraq. I joined the Navy because it seemed the safest option of the major branches. And it was, for a little while. By the time I left the Navy on January 31, 2008, I should have known life was about to suck.

I felt outstanding. In the previous four years of service, I remembered each time I’d felt good about something, because that was right before tragedy hit. Upon getting the news of my exit from military life, I was all too happy to be done with what I saw as a very difficult, yet brief, career in the service. This was mostly thanks to an event that would change me entirely, forever. At that time, I wished that someone had told me what was coming next, because I would have laughed, taken three shots of whatever he was drinking, then blown my head clean off. Past deeds can be that unforgiving.

By 18, I’d already worked as an IT, on multi-million dollar equipment. I was proud, my parents were proud, the world was proud, I imagined. And due to this pride, my 22 year-old self wagered I could do better outside the Navy.

“Don’t worry about that, bro,” said my shipmate, as we watched the news flood the TV screen with clips of dealerships full of cars that would never get purchased, which bled into footage of the Lehman Brothers building, and giant Enron signs. “Don’t worry, man. We’re in intelligence. A guy like you, you’ll be just fine when you get out.”

That was three days before I left. Three months after I left the Navy, I had to leave Virginia because of an eviction notice, a car I couldn’t pay for, menial jobs I couldn’t get, and the embarrassment of seeing former shipmates who’d been smart enough not to exit when I had, and therefore kept their bi-monthly paychecks: 1st and the 15th. My personal hell hurt that much more because I was a veteran. And I can remember people saying, so loudly, “You’ll have preference in the workforce. It’ll be just fine. You’re smart. You got these amazing credentials. No problem!”

black men, the recession, black excellenceAnd that was just it. None of my training mattered. All those hours of working on sophisticated equipment that is found only in the military, the certifications, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted on skills and information I couldn’t use. Drinking to excess was my refuge.

In total, I spent six years in the South, during and after the military. Every single day was a war. But Virginia was nothing compared with my moving to Florida. Between getting called the N-word each time I had to walk somewhere (which was often because I didn’t have a car), getting water or trash tossed at me from speeding cars, not being allowed in restaurants, or not being served or acknowledged at retail stores because I had that “unlucky” color, I gained a wealth of knowledge about the workings of the racist white fraternity. I also gained a healthy hate for my own skin, greater than I ever remember having as a dark-skinned kid and teen.

I had only been in Gainesville, Florida, for about a month, when I got into my very first “trial” with police. I’d never had major issues with cops. I’d gotten pulled over for driving with an expired inspection sticker once and was given a warning, but this was all.

“Where were you at seven this morning?” The taller of the two policemen was way too confident, accusatory, so I doubt he was asking a question. I found it humorous that he had that thick, brown porn-like mustache that everyone expects cops to have. The shorter man slowly got out of the car, his reflective glasses shimmering, he coolly combed his fading blond hair. It was about 80 degrees already, at 8 AM, and they’d unexpectedly driven onto the curb where the bus would be pulling up. I worried I’d miss my air-conditioned ride to work.

“I was, uhh, washing, I think.” I couldn’t believe how guilty I sounded. It had taken me a year to get a low-level pizza joint job, and I was about to lose it all because I sounded like I’d done something wrong. Sweat ran down my face from the two different types of heat: cop and hot. 

The Blonde reached for his waist, as fast as muscle memory would allow. And before my mind even turned to anticipate something, he pulled his walkie off the clip. I was sitting directly across the street from the University of Florida library. How could this happen? I was the type to wear collared shirts and prescription glasses.

While the other man spoke gibberish into the radio, the tall constable looked down at me, his deep blue eyes eager to drown me at sea.

“Identification,” he said.

“Sure, I can do that.” I usually carried my wallet outside my clothes and on my lap while I was stationary. In hindsight, that was one of my best ideas. I handed him a drivers license from Virginia State, my Veterans Affairs card, and a regular ID I’d gotten once I moved to Florida.

“Officer,” I made sure to enunciate each word. “I’m on my way to work,” I pointed at my thrift store attire, with the faded shirt that had my job’s name on it. 

He took a few steps back. One-by-one, he held each ID up to the light, blinking widely, as if they were mirages.

“You just…uh, you…” He was struggling not to be cliché. I could tell. “You fit the profile.” And I’d soon become used to this kind of treatment, sadly. I was forever “fitting the profile” in this city, as if a sea of Brothers who wore Birkenstocks and khaki shorts had washed ashore.

Now, I might have tolerated this terrible and shitty situation just fine and dandy, if it weren’t for the nightmares. They just popped up, not long after the altercation with the cops. Cold, sweaty reveries of the mistakes I made when I was on the ship. None were more haunting than those based on my encounter off the coast of Haiti.

Several weeks before Hurricane Katrina, my boat went to the small country. We’d been told we were going to provide relief to Haitians affected by the 2004 coup de´tat of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Trying to fish in the waters around Haiti was impossible; we kept reeling in boots, newspapers or tampons. We chuckled a little, but it was hard to ignore what we saw from the ship looking at the island: fires, broken, battered wooden ships, crying children. I still remember those dark black faces, smiling, because they just knew we were going to save them.

A huge wooden ship was on our tail. It just emerged. This boat was ancient. And it was big! About 35 or 40 feet tall. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that it was a dangerously unstable vessel. Some of the wooden joints of the ship were not wood at all, but shoeboxes, toy boxes, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles.

Beaming adults smiled brightly, waving their limbs like life depended on it. I gasped. Their fingers looked like thin licorice sticks, they were so hungry.

The little kids on the ship waved happily at us. In their tattered and frayed getups, they looked like they were putting on a generic stage production, one that heavily showcased what poor kids looked like a hundred years ago. A swollen belly peaked out from underneath the shirt of one of the children, and I couldn’t tell if she was suffering from malnutrition or just pregnant. She seemed way too small to be having a kid, but just the right size to be underfed.

Over the ship’s loudspeaker I heard the booming voice of my Haitian shipmate, Poitier. He was a really nice guy with a dark past that he never spoke about. This was his homeland, these were his people. Surely, he was going to give them good news.

“Arrêtez! Arrêtez!” Said Poitier, instructing them to stop, not to come an inch closer. “Nous allons te tuer. Nous vous tuerons si vous vous rapprochez!” The threat of being blown out the water can really change a person’s outlook. The massive ship diverted. Cut off. Rejected. Its passengers, with their beautiful smiling faces floated back toward the horror. All those people who looked so much like me. I thought, I could have family here. I never learned why we didn’t help. And that was one of the hardest things to handle, that made my dreams that much more unbearable because there would, and still won’t be, closure. 

Once the dreams came, the bottle wasn’t enough. Hence my later addiction to pain pills, which, in Florida at the time were being basically tossed at patients by the bagful. The VA was also throwing pills at me, and the combination of Vicodin, Percocet, and Valium somehow made it impossible to sleep. The ghosts of my past grew larger, more vibrant in my dreams. I was broke all the time. And that brings me back to why I was outside that blood bank. $25 dollars every two days. Because you couldn’t donate every day, according to the staff. So, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was like winning the jackpot.

What would follow would be years of homelessness. Upon becoming homeless back in my home country, I felt nearly as neglected by my government as the Haitians who’d been promised our military intervention.

It would take me about four years to get stable enough to get off the streets. Of course, by that time, I had moved to New York, and gone back to school on the GI Bill. And it’s so funny now. Looking back at those ten years. I’d hardly say they went by fast. No, I suffered through that shit. If anything, it taught me a great value of patience, and that I’m stronger than I feel sometimes. Often, history repeats itself. And if it does, we may all need to buckle down and get tougher.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.