Wednesday, 6 December 2023, 13:31
He does not consider himself a writer, but Ángel Custodio, 44, has written and self-published Salir de la Calle, a book in which he recounts his experience of eight months living on the streets of Madrid. «I was taking notes, it was like therapy,» says the man who until a year ago was a successful builder and former director of a large Spanish publishing house. Educated, from a good family and good-looking, Ángel has a clear outlook, despite having hit rock bottom, and speaks with an unusual openness. He has a 600,000 euro debt with Spain's tax authorities that he does not know when he will be able to pay off. For the moment, he earns his living by selling his books on the street, and he has sold 600 copies in a month and a half. He was recently invited to the Christmas charity fair organised by Cáritas in Marbella, where he signed copies of his book. He plans to donate ten per cent of the profits he makes to the organisation.
Why did you decide to tell your story?
People who came to see me in the street were very inquisitive. Hey, you don't look like a beggar. You're very strange, they would say. They were very curious. There were people who came to give me a helping hand. They asked me how I was doing and helped me. They also told me about their experiences, their misfortunes and, because of my way of understanding life, in the end I ended up encouraging them. Then I started to take notes in a notebook or on a piece of cardboard. As Albert Einstein said, don't keep in your head what you can fit on a piece of paper. If a child walked past, he would say to me: Angel, you are the friendliest person in Spain. I wrote down all the things they told me and, when I had a full collection, they lent me a computer and I started to put it in order. I've read all my life, a lot, but I don't consider myself a writer, even though I've written a book. It has all the faults that a new writer will make. It's a very direct prose, but it does have the concepts that a book has to have.
What did you think before your experience of living on the street?
I never thought about homeless and street people. I had never given them a euro or stopped to talk to them. I didn't see them, they didn't exist for me. I thought they were drunks, drug addicts or people who had been in prison. Or that they were Romanian mafias or Nigerians who do it for a living. I didn't pay attention to them, until I became a homeless person and I saw that we are all vulnerable, that there are people who are two pay packets away from being on the street. Now I think it can happen to anyone.
What was your life like before?
I was a businessman who had a construction company. At the beginning I did a couple of villas a year and things went quite well for me. I had the opportunity to do a development of twelve villas and I said: why not. As I didn't have the tools or the employees to do them, I subcontracted a lot of things and then I got my fingers burnt, not because I was cheated, but because the war in Ukraine started and the price of materials went up. This was in November last year. It's been just over a year.
What is your day-to-day life like?
I spent eight months on the street and now I live in a storage room in Calle Príncipe de Vergara, in Madrid. It is a passageway. It has a window and eight square metres and a socket. To take a shower, instead of paying 50 cents in the public toilets on the Embajadores roundabout, I've joined a gym. It's good to do sport. I get up at seven in the morning, leave the storeroom, go to the gym, which costs me one euro a day. The first thing I do there is go to the toilet, then I do exercise, take a shower, brush my teeth and shave. Then I go to a little corner of the Plaza Manuel Becerra and there I put out my books and sell them, until nine o'clock at night and then I quietly go back to the storeroom. I pay rent, but I go at times when the doorman is not there so that they don't know that someone is sleeping there. I don't make noise, talk on the phone or listen to music. I don't cook there and I wash my clothes in a laundry.
What response is your book getting?
Most people buy it out of charity and empathy, to lend a hand. How did it happen? At the start I made ten books. I went to a stationer's, made photocopies and had some cardboard for the covers, which I glued myself to reduce costs. People knew me from being there in the square. Then they read it and said, wow, that's good. Apart from being my personal story, it becomes a self-help book. Each chapter contains a reflection. They came back for more and started to recommend it. I've been asked for books from places I never would have thought of. I've sent one to Illinois, another to Brooklyn, Fuerteventura, Las Palmas... Not bad for the last two months. Could I now rent a room? Yes, but I don't know if the book will continue to sell.
Do you have the prospect of finding a job?
Being on the street I've got a job. Just because I live on the street doesn't mean that I'm dirty or filthy. Someone, when they saw that I didn't drink alcohol, offered me a job as an administrative assistant. I was willing to do anything. I had no qualifications, I came from a different trade, I studied labour relations. I made it through the first month, combining it with begging. When I got my salary, because I also had Social Security debts, they took a part of it away from me and left me with the minimum to live on. Up to that point it was fine and I accepted it, but then the tax authorities came along and took away all my salary. And I said: I can't do it. Then I got tuberculosis, I was in hospital and the contract ended. I have worked all my life since I finished my degree. I tried to collect unemployment benefits, but as my company was not liquidated and I had not filed for bankruptcy proceedings, I was not entitled to any benefits. I was in limbo. If I succeed with my book, I might be able to pay off my debts.
What about family and friends?
I have always been a person who has believed in myself and everything I have wanted in life I have achieved. I was a professional athlete, I was a manager in a large publishing house and then I set up a real estate company, a finance company and a construction company, which ruined me. When things were going badly and I didn't want to fail my clients, twelve families who had bet on me, I started to ask for money from the bank, family and friends. I spent that joker to save the company. I didn't say anything to my parents. It screwed up a lot of people's lives. I couldn't tell them that I was on the street. I turned off the phone and disappeared.
Do you feel up to it?
I'm going to do this on my own. I don't know how, but I have a belief. I have God in my heart. I don't understand people who believe in God and say they are not practising. I don't go to mass every Sunday, but when I became homeless I said to myself: He has put me here. Right now I don't understand it, but I will have to learn something without giving up. I have learned more and received more love in Plaza Manuel Becerra than in my whole life. The human race is in great shape. I haven't been hungry, I've hardly been cold. I don't want to sound frivolous, because it has been hard, but it has been a very enriching experience. I can only give thanks for what God has put in my way.
What do you miss from your previous life?
I don't miss anything, because I was self-absorbed. It was my house, my car, my family. I was with my partner for 13 years. When misery came through the door, love jumped out the window. There were my things, my company. I will donate ten percent of what I earn at the Caritas Christmas fair. You have to set an example. If I can do it, you can do it. I would like to set up an association to help homeless people, because I know how to help them. Instead of giving a euro or two euros and keep walking, just stop. As it has happened to me.
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