Homeless for the General, by Jeff Brown

I share with my students that I was homeless at the time I started the general exam for my PhD candidacy.  That item comes in a list of several bits of personal trivia, some of them bizarre, none of them with any context.  The homelessness mention seems to be one that makes the deepest impression, I think because many students feel substantially at risk of becoming homeless themselves, they recognize the stigma that homelessness carries, and they dread that situation.  That saddens me deeply.

Here, I’d like to recount the comedy of errors that found me sleeping on unfamiliar floors during one of the most important exams of my life.

Frankly, although “homeless” is literally correct as a description of my situation, it was devoid of most of the connotations that accompany that term here in the 2020s.  At no time during this episode did I ever feel that I was being persecuted; it simply was the confluence of several independent, impersonal mechanisms occurring at a most inconvenient time for me personally, with some of those independent events having developed quite suddenly, and I never had any thought that the situation was other than temporary. Nonetheless, it made an already challenging situation preposterously difficult. So, how did I find myself homeless at one of the most consequential moments in my life? Well, we’ll get to that.

I had lived very happily in dorms all four years as an undergrad, and when I went off to grad school, I signed up for my first year in the dorm there as well.  However, the dorms at my graduate school had a different social atmosphere. They operated from much more of an in loco parentis attitude, with evening (human) monitors checking IDs of those coming in after hours, inspections of the rooms to make sure unapproved items weren’t present, etc., none of which had been in effect in my undergrad days.  Even though I lived on a floor exclusively for graduate students (on whom enforcement of some of the rules were not as strict), it was an environment I nevertheless found stifling.  Unhappy as it was for those nine months, in the long run that did work in my favor: I rapidly adopted my academic department and especially my fellow astronomy grad students as my social reference group, and this became the community I exclusively identified with.

During that first year, I resolved to abandon the dorm once the contract was up, and when a classmate indicated he wanted out of the shared house in which he’d spent his first year, I agreed readily to go in with him on a new shared student house.  That meant I’d have to live by myself for that summer (his lease was for a calendar year, not an academic year), but that wasn’t a serious issue.  I signed a three-month summer lease for a furnished apartment about five blocks from campus.  I did own a car (an eight-year-old Ford gifted by its previous owner – my grandmother – to me after my college graduation), and I already knew it was not the most reliable vehicle.  But the price had been right, it had gotten me from Washington to Texas, and I did not intend to commute daily with it, merely use it as shopping transport.  I had very little in the way of possessions (I had, after all, been living in a dorm with summers at my parents’ house for four years).  My books and notes fit easily in my portion of the shared-with-three-others grad student office, with some space to spare.  And with my books and notes in my office, literally everything else I owned could fit in the car.

At the time, the General Exam in our doctoral program was given during the intersession just before the start of the second year of study.  It ran four consecutive half-days, a single three-hour session each morning.  As was customary, I took a single course during that summer term.  Also that summer, I had some research duties that I embraced happily, and I spent much of the rest of my time in preparations for the General.  I knew that the end of my summer lease came about a week before the exam, but I did not worry about lodging arrangements most of that summer.  My roommate-to-be and I hunted around for both a house to rent and a couple more roommates to share it with.  We found a decent deal on a house in what seemed like an acceptable location that was being renovated after long disuse, so we paid our damage deposit and first month’s rent, made deposits on utilities, got a semi-commitment from another grad student to go in with us, and hunted around for a fourth roommate.  These deposits drained my modest savings, but with my student stipend, there was not yet a critical cash flow issue.  I gave notice that I would not renew my apartment lease.

The problem that hadn’t been fully set out to us was that the renovations of the house weren’t complete, and once they were complete, a city inspection was required before it could be occupied.  As it developed, multiple inspections failed.  At the same time, my car’s electrical system went kazoo a couple of days before my apartment lease expired, and it did so on the far side of campus from my apartment.  It was parked legally, and I could leave it where it was for a time, but it was unavailable as transportation and not at all convenient as storage; the cost of a timely tow and auto repair was beyond my depleted reserves during those crucial couple of weeks (and short-term credit was not available to 23-year-old students at that time).  Considering where the car was, trying to use the car as a place to sleep did not cross my mind.

The night before I had to vacate the apartment, I carried my possessions by hand from apartment to office, which was about a ten-block walk each way, a process I began about 11 PM.  Campus police stopped me twice as I carried bags and boxes of stuff through the night.  I got everything ferried in three or four trips, and I got to sleep in the apartment starting about 3 AM.  I was up at 9 AM, the apartment passed inspection, and I was out before the noon deadline.

I slept in the department’s common space the next two nights — which was of course against the rules — but it being the end-of-summer intersession, very few people were on campus working at all, let alone after hours.  During the days, I tried catching up on the prep time I’d missed for the General Exam.  I can’t say this made for particularly effective preparations.

Another grad student learned of my situation and invited me to stay at his place until my living arrangements sorted out.  (Like me, he also came from not-quite-middle-class circumstances.)  I slept on his floor in my sleeping bag for another two nights before the General, and then for the first two days of the exam.  At that point, word came that the inspections of the house had finally passed, we got our keys, and I moved my suitcase of clothes and sleeping bag into the house.  I was still sleeping on the floor, but at least I did not feel like I was in willful violation of rules or imposing on anyone else.

I finished the exam. Once the next month’s stipend check came, I had my car repaired and the rest of the move-in was accomplished in a day. Later in the month I learned I’d passed the General, in the middle of the pack of six who took it. I was a little disappointed, honestly; I like to think I’d have done better if I’d had stable living arrangements at the time, but all in all, it really didn’t matter. It remains the only exam I remember taking where all that mattered was passing.

And thus concluded that particular episode.  As I’d felt certain of for its entire duration, it was an accidental coincidence of inconveniences that went away as quickly as they’d arrived, leaving no real long-term effect.  Frankly, the deepest insight I took away from the experience was to notice that the one piece of significant personal charity I received came from the comrade who’d offered me his living room floor, and whose upbringing was, like mine, from a poor socioeconomic state.

As a postscript, the house arrangement failed after another few weeks.  We still lacked a fourth roommate after the first month (and the third was about bail out on us to move in with a new girlfriend), and then on a Sunday evening, literally as we waited for the ten o’clock news to start, a car drove up slowly, halted, and fired three shotgun blasts into the house across the street before speeding away.  The others rushed out to check on victims; I called 911.  That event put an end to the interest anyone had in joining us in that house.  We broke our lease, got a two-bedroom apartment, and stayed in that complex until my roommate graduated.  It took me most of another year after that to finish my PhD, during which time I lived by myself in a studio apartment.

Dr. Jeffery Brown is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Physics at Seattle University.  Born in San Jose, California, he grew up in transient, “army brat”-like circumstances, never living anywhere longer than three years at a stretch until he went off to college.  He was pursued by good fortune all his life, though it only caught up with him when he paused before a serious obstacle. He got his BS from the University of Washington in 1978 and a MA and PhD from the University of Texas in Austin in 1986. After a postdoc at Indiana and a postdoc-research faculty appointment again at the University of Washington, he was an assistant professor in the Program in Astronomy (then part of the Mathematics Department) at Washington State University from 1996 to 2000.  He was made program director in his last year, at the end of which he felt obliged to resign, move back to Seattle, and take a software position in private industry. Laid off at the end of 2003, he reflected that he was much happier in an academic environment despite the lower pay, and in late 2004 took two jobs, one as a scientific programmer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center developing an epidemiological population simulation for evaluating cancer screening strategies, and the other teaching physics and astronomy at Seattle University. In 2008 the grant at FHCRC ran out, and he transitioned to being a full-time lecturer at Seattle U, where he has remained and was promoted to Senior Instructor in 2017.

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