I am never going to eat Ramen Noodles again!
Last year, when I read the “Congratulations!” in my Yale acceptance letter, that was the first thought that came to my head. At King Soopers in Denver, you can buy 10 packages of Ramen for a dollar. So with every paycheck from my movie theater job, I paid the rent, filled the gas tank and bought enough Ramen to last a month. Of course, I learned a few ways to create some variety. I ate Ramen with tomato sauce, Ramen with ranch sauce, Ramen with cream of corn, Ramen with — well, whatever was in the cabinet at the time, including grape jelly, but that was only once. When all you’ve got is three bucks in your torn jean pocket, you take whatever you can get. My days of Ramen-consumption at the house on Fox Street were luxurious compared to the sleepless nights I spent in a warehouse on the West Side. But when I got to Yale, nobody knew any of that.
At dinner one night in Trumbull, my friend shook her head in disapproval.
“So not healthy!”
My meals at home had consisted of M&M’s and coffee, and she could not see that it was not up to me.
“So not by choice!” I growled as I hurried to gather my things and leave. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ll see y’all later.”
Everyone at the table had been talking about their eating habits. How their usual patterns have changed since they got here, how there are “so many carbs in a bagel.” I was silent the entire time, until one of them mentioned how I had not eaten for almost two days. I shrugged at the gasps and shaking heads. The complaints of fellow Yalies resounded in my mind — the bland dining hall food, the small bedrooms, the uncomfortable beds, and the misery of finding a comfortable place to study.
It drives me insane, until I remember that I’m at one of the nation’s top colleges. I’m sure that if I had lived a “normal” life, I too would cry out in terror at the sight of the closet-sized Lanman-Wright rooms.
Before moving to 2261 Fox St. with five other teenage unfortunates, my mom and I lived in a warehouse on Kalamath Street, where we shared a couch that reeked of urine, cigarettes and liquor.
To avoid suffocating in the smell, I slept face-up, on my back with the covers shoved between the side of my face and the couch. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I was homeless until my teacher forced me into her office one day and demanded to know why I had bags under my eyes, why I always shoved my uncombed hair under a bandana, and why I ever only mixed and matched two outfits.
“Crystal, honey,” she said, “You have to let people help you.”
But I couldn’t. I wanted everyone to think I was strong.
For $5.50 an hour at Colorado Center 9 Movie Theater, I scrubbed bathrooms like I had no other objective in the world. At 6:30 every morning, on my way to school, I took the public bus to Colorado Boulevard. I walked the rest of the way, since public buses weren’t allowed to run in the suburb of Cherry Hills — home of Kent Denver Country Day, which I attended on scholarship. At school, I spent every free moment finishing the work that I couldn’t do in the chaos of the warehouse. At home, I fought a war against sleep, tears and drunkards.
One night a drunken stranger stumbled over from a warehouse party and passed out on me while I slept. His weight crushed my legs and his elbow dug into my back. I didn’t move. I just prayed that he would wake up and stumble away. Eventually, his friends came to drag him home. I don’t remember if I slept or not that night. But that’s when I realized my life wasn’t just another one of those rags-to-riches stories that I read about in 9th grade English. This was real, and I didn’t think I would ever make it to the “riches” part of the story.
I never told my mom about the drunkard. But a few days later, we moved our couch out of the warehouse’s “living room” and into a closet-sized space (about half the size of the rooms in Lanman-Wright) in the same building. We split the couch into three parts, placed it in a U-shape so that it would fit the tiny space, and duck-taped a sheet to the doorway for privacy. I made a poster with a list of colleges on it and taped it up above my L-shaped section of the couch.
I stared at that poster every day; it didn’t bring much hope. I wanted so badly to just stop trying. But there were so many reasons for me not to give up — the distant dream of college, my mother’s hope, the fear of becoming that girl on the corner toting her pathetic cardboard sign and a backpack full of troubles.
I could have made everything a whole lot easier. I could have dropped out of school, taken the full-time supervisor position they offered me at the theatre and rented a one-bedroom on the West Side for my unemployed mother and myself. But I didn’t want to end up like all my friends and family, stuck in Denver working nine to five at Wendy’s and telling myself everyday that I would eventually do something with myself. When a friend told me she had found a few people who wanted to rent a house together, I thought I had finally found my escape.
There were five of us in the two-bedroom house. We had all moved to get away from our pasts: Kassia ran away from the orphanage her abusive mother stuck her in, Myli and Sheri had no place to go after arriving from Illinois, Kassie was kicked out of her strict Christian aunt’s house after doing the unthinkable at work, and I needed to get out of that warehouse. I thought my mom was going to come with me. I still don’t know why she didn’t, but shortly after I moved out she met her current husband and moved in with him.
I was on my own at 16. I wasn’t homeless anymore, but I wasn’t exactly going to be placing a “home sweet home” doormat at my new Fox Street residence, either.
My roommates partied incessantly and rarely attended school. I slept whenever I had a moment free from studying, working or fighting with the landlord about rent. I wanted to give up. Sometimes, you just get tired of living. I didn’t want to die — I just didn’t want to live the life I was stuck with anymore. When you have nothing, there is nothing to worry about, but nothing to care about. But when I started applying to college, I suddenly had something that could be taken away — hope. And I was terrified that it would be. After a year and several broken windows later, we were evicted.
But I didn’t care anymore. I had already received my acceptance letter from Yale, and I knew that this life — of chaos, of struggle, of living day to day — was over. I was free.
“Dear Ms. Paul-Laughinghouse: Congratulations on your admission to Yale College, Class of 2008!”
I would never again crowd by the stove to stay warm in the winter. I would never again steal toilet paper from the corner gas station. I would never again sleep in my car, or fight one of my housemate’s drunken boyfriends. I would never again wash my clothes in the bathtub, or use a T-shirt as a washcloth, towel and toothbrush. I knew, after I saw that acceptance letter, that Yale would be my deliverance. And there would be no more Ramen.
I tried to assimilate, to immerse myself into life at Yale by forgetting what I had gone through to get here. I distanced myself from the troubles at home that my mom called and complained about. I became just another person who got into Yale. I nodded along as others laughed and whined about the small rooms in Lanman-Wright. And when a friend said she had missed lunch that day, I shook my head, and said, “that’s so unhealthy!” along with everyone else. But when my cousin called to tell me a friend of ours had been shot and murdered, I knew I was betraying my family and my roots.
The problem isn’t that I’ve had a difficult time assimilating into the Yale culture. The problem is that I don’t want to assimilate. I don’t want to comb my hair every day, or eat a salad at every meal or change the way I talk just to make people comfortable. Because I would rather have endured sleepless nights in a damp warehouse than enjoyed a comfortable daybed in a posh suburb. My experiences allow me to appreciate even the smallest luxuries at Yale, and I want to be able to keep my past with me and maintain my identity. But I don’t want to shut people out just because they haven’t had the same experience I have had and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.
When my mom and her husband came up for Parents’ Weekend, I was afraid they would notice some sort of change and tell me I wasn’t who I used to be. I felt like I had betrayed them by completely abandoning where I had come from. I felt guilty, but my mom just looked around my suite.
After a few minutes she turned to me with a mix of genuine curiosity and sarcasm on her face, and spoke.
“What? No Ramen noodles?” n