By Dan Valentine
Where was I? Oh yes, the law!
I came to Nashville with a trunk full of songs–just like in the movies–plus a screenplay, a short story or two, and some summer clothes. And my resume.
I was staying at the Music City Hostel. Free waffles and coffee. $600 a month! Not bad! Embassy Suites is some $150 a night, if you’re lucky. I know. I stayed there my first night in Austin. Free breakfast, free cocktails at night, well, y’know …
Back to Nashville.
A few days before running out of money, I read a story in the local paper about an organization called Operation Stand Down, a group that looks out for honorably discharged veterans in need–in particular, those homeless or about to be.
I looked up the address and walked to their headquarters, several miles away, and was greeted with open arms, as is every vet in need.
Earlier in the day, I had asked the owner of the hostel if he could store my suitcase for me for a time. He said sure, but only for three months. That was nine months ago. I’m afraid to inquire about it.
Back to Operation Stand Down.
I told a counselor my story: onetime daily humor columnist, former special assistant to a US Senator, onetime member of the BMI Musical Theatre workship in New York, etc.
We hit it off and he offered me a bed in his home until his wife returned. She was out of town visiting relatives or friends. I stayed three nights. In a bed in a room of my own! It had been awhile. (At the hostel I was sleeping in a bunk bed–the top berth is murder to get into when you’re over 60–in a room with several others.) Then his wife called, said she was returning early. She was just a few hundred miles away, in fact.
He let me off in the parking lot of Operation Stand Down, giving me some survival pointers, one being: “Don’t go to the Mission.” (A refuge for homeless to sleep the night and get a meal.) “You’re not ready.”
I walked down to Vanderbilt University, spent the day in a bookstore reading a hefty Stephen King novel. I had the time.
That night, now homeless and penniless, I stayed up all night in the cafeteria of Vanderbilt Hospital, writing.
Second day, back to Stephen King.
Second night I returned to Vanderbilt Hospital and the cafeteria, writing, where a cop asked me why I was there. I told him my wife’s grandfather was in surgery.
Third day. The book store and Stephen King. Then back Vanderbilt Hospital. I hadn’t slept now going-on three days. I was exhausted. I went outside and found a fairly hidden place in the bushes, took my sport coat off, laid it on the ground, and tried to sleep. Impossible. The spot I had picked was right where the medical helos were landing and taking off. What a nightmare–soundtrack straight from a Vietnam flick.
I donned my coat and returned to Vanderbilt Hospital, roamed the halls, found the cancer ward. There were chairs and couches with some thirty people sleeping and waiting for the outcome of a loved one’s operation or something.
I found an empty chair, took my sport coat off for a blanket, and went fast to sleep.
Cut to close-up of boot nudging me awake. I opened my eyes to find three cops staring down at me, one in riot gear–helmet, billy club, gun in holster, etc. (in case of a terrorist attack, I guess.)
I sat up and said, “I’m-a-Vietnam-vet-I-have-two cents-to-my-name-I-haven’t-slept-in-two-days-I-haven’t-eaten-in-three.” (That last was a lie. I’d had more than my share of complimentary oranges at the downtown Marriott.)
What gave me away? I had forgotten to brush the leaves off the back of my coat, I was that tired, and someone doing his/her civic duty must have called the cops.
I was led downstairs and interrogated. One of them was the guy I had lied to the night before. A nice guy, he didn’t take offense. Finally, after an hour or so, they said they’d drive me to the Mission. I said, “I’m not going to the Mission. I was told not to go the Mission.”
It was three in the morning now. To make matters worse, it had started snowing. Cold as hell outside.
I mentioned Operation Stand Down and said I’d go there, and off I went into the night, in the freezing cold, snow coming down. A cop car followed closely behind, making sure I went to where I said I was going.
I stood in front of the entrance of Operation Stand Down for some four hours, in the freezing sleet and cold. I can’t remember being so cold. Every once in awhile the cop car would drive by, checking on me.
Welcome to Nashville. Welcome to the real world, as they say!