On Adam: The Portrait of a Classmate Who Lived in His Car

“My darkest time?”

Adam smiles softly and furrows his brow, cupping his chin in thought.

“I think my darkest time would be when I was living in my car. It was this one night. The weather was as cold as this, and I was alone at night in my car. I had like four, five blankets on me, but it was still so cold. And I was scared to turn on the heating because I wanted to save gas.

“But I didn’t go to sleep,” says Adam. “Because I thought that if I fell asleep… that I just wouldn’t wake up.”

Adam’s eyes are honest. As he talks, his memory seems to happen upon itself, as if he has not told this story much.

He is now twenty-five years old and due to graduate from the University of Michigan. It is remarkable to think that at the age of seventeen he was homeless and spent six months living in his car.

Adam was born to a Korean-American mother who had been through heartbreak in her prior relationship. She had had three children before marrying his father Jim, a white American and her second husband (to this day, Adam has not met a brother and a sister from the first marriage). His mother soon divorced Jim, too, after having Adam – and so he grew up with his mother and her third husband. Every weekend, Jim would visit and spend time with his son. He was a friend, his parents would tell him.

Even today, Adam calls his real father Jim and his stepfather Dad. “It was funny because in all the stuff I wrote as a kid I would say Oh my friend came to visit!” grins Adam. It was not until he was nine that anyone thought to tell him the truth. But it did not truly hit him until much later, and it was then, in his adolescence, that he would grow angry.

Nothing in Adam’s voice is as adamant as his love for Jim. He speaks in a measured voice. But when he speaks about Jim, there is a knot within that holds shudders.

“Jim is my best friend. I love him,” says Adam.

As he looks back, Adam finds that he always seemed to know, deep inside, that he was not his stepfather’s son. Even as a child, he had not been able to fight off the feeling that his stepfather preferred his younger brother over him. The little instances of aggression built up, and he ended up hating his brother, hating his father, hating his mother. There would be fights, and they would end with Adam taking blows from his stepfather’s hands. The beatings changed Adam. He built his body up, driven by the vain hope that one day he would be strong enough to beat his dad up. He played football and ran track for Harrison High School in Farmington Hills, and later for Pioneer. For a year when he lived in the small town of Snoqualmie in Washington state, he would run miles upon miles through the mist. Running made him feel powerful, and it helped him focus and stay sane. At a time he was running twelve miles a day, no mean feat for anyone, let alone a six-foot-tall running back.

Then one day when he was seventeen, back in Michigan, his stepfather brought home Dragonquest. Adam and his brother had a dispute over who would play first, and Adam’s stepfather casually decided that own his son would play. This was one straw too far. All the years of Adam’s pent-up anger were unleashed. He was bigger now and he was scared no more. His dad stared him down and said, “If you get up in my face again, I’m going to hit you.”

But Adam struck, punching his stepfather in the face and bringing him crashing to the ground. And he ran away.

For the next six months he lived in his car. He had friends in school that would help him out from time to time. Here and there, if parents were gone for the weekend, he would be able to crash at a friends’s house for a night or two. Around the time, he broke up with his girlfriend, something that he admits now was more his fault than hers. His senior year GPA was a 0. That winter was when he was at his lowest.

He learned to fend for himself. He would shoplift to get by, especially when he was out of work. He learned to wrap his swag in aluminum foil so that the alarm wouldn’t go off at the door. He learned in particular the legal code involving shoplifting – as long as a store worker does not explicitly see the shoplifted object on your person, you cannot be accused of shoplifting, he told me. He did nearly get caught once, and as hilarious as the story is, he looks back at it as one of the times he felt the most vulnerable. He was trying to walk out of a Kmart with a box of condoms and a shaving kit, stuffed into his groin, when the alarm went off. An angry employer came running up behind him, and at that split second Adam decided to run for it. He ran as fast as he ever remembers, and left his quarry in the dust of the parking lot.

“All those miles and miles back in Washington paid off.”

He says he would never shoplift again, and I believe him. He had found a job at a gas station where he would have to work until 4:30 in the morning under an overbearing and unforgiving manager, who happened to be sleeping with his coworker. He couldn’t stand the job, and he had to quit. Shoplifting had become the only way to survive. But all the while that he was homeless, he never once told Jim. His father himself was struggling at the time, and Adam did not want to become an extra burden.

“I never felt the need to tell anyone,” he says. “I didn’t want Jim to know what I was going through.”

Things started to turn around for Adam when he decided he would go back to school. He began taking classes at Washtenaw Community College, taking organic chemistry under one Mr. Clarke. He said he would stay up at night in the library working hard for six, seven, eight hours. He would spend “hours and hours and hours” more talking to Mr. Clarke about life. “He taught me how to study,” says Adam. In high school, people had written him off. It became a motivation for him. He wanted people to know that he existed, and he wanted to help people, to be “directly responsible for touching lives.”

Here at Michigan he majored in business and kinesiology, and is now headed to Union Square in Manhattan to do recruiting work for a high-end personal training firm in Manhattan. He is still devoted to his fitness, even as he is recovering from a hip surgery – a crutch rests against a corner of the room amid a clutter of everything else else in the apartment. There are boxes out, and the tables are littered with household items and toiletries ready for packing, and there are empty bottles enough. I’m meeting him on the eve of his departure to New York. He’s leaving behind his old life in many ways, but he’s tied the loose ends. He’s come to terms with his mother and his stepfather, and his half-brother, whom he used to hate, now lives with him. The two are best friends.

Adam lives by the virtue of hard work. He is a motivated person, but it is not faith in God that guides him – after studying about the body, he sees only chemistry and biology in the workings of our brains. Whatever he does, he wants to help people get on their own feet, and that is what keeps him motivated.

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About Omar Mahmood

Omar was the editor of the Michigan Review.