Note to Readers: I have been working with mentally ill clients over the past five years, all of whom have been mixed up in the criminal justice system. I have been writing down thoughts of what life is like for these men and woman. All the writings are fictional but based on the real experiences of the people I interact with, thus protecting their privacy and my professional relationship with them. These are, a composite of people who interact daily with the criminal justice system in this country, all are survivors who have withstood brutal experiences but because of their situations have little ability to tell their stories. My goal is to shed light into many of the people we interact with, whether its on the sidewalk, in the Metro section of our newspapers, the television, or maybe they are our family members. I was partly inspired by David Shipler, whose book, “The Working Poor” should be required reading for every American.
Pearl Williams part one:
Collapsing in the cracked faux leather chair, with the bottom splitting from approximately fifteen thousand and twenty, tired asses of various makes and models, she looked up, then side-to-side, “whoa, I’m tired.” Shaking her head she took a wadded up Wendy’s napkin from her purse, smoothing it out along her massive knee, trying to make the rough paper into something soft she then wiped her brow. Glanced at the moisture on the napkin, shook her head again at her damp napkin and said, “Shit is hot up in here.” Her young grand-daughter put her hands on her knee, “Mamie, when can I have some water?” She breathed deep again, “shoosh child, let your Mamie get her breath. Right over there, you see where my finger is? There’s a water fountain behind that man who looks like your uncle Leroy, the one in the purple hat. Boy, that’s an ugly hat” she said to herself. “now look, you go get yourself a drink and fill this cup up for Mamie” handing the young child an empty water bottle, itself as dented as the old chair she sat in.
Her granddaughter, checking to see if her grandmother was telling the truth, nodded silently and scampered to the other end of the hallway, weaving through clumps of people, some conversing, others talking on the phone. Most of them had pained expressions on their faces, some of their bodies tense as they paced back and forth, staring out of the twelfth story window overlooking the city. Birds flew by, a large cloud crossed over the sun in an instant causing a shadow to cover the next nearest building, an oblong line split the nearest sky-scraper in half with gray. A sociologist would have a field day in this hallway as over half the people gathered in the hallway had the hall markings of the poor, clothes that dipped past casual into the realm of obnoxious, make-up applied too heavily–as with a paint brush, sweat pants, sweat suits and the largest majority of people black. The others who kneeled down to their eye-level wore suits, ties, pant-suits, long skirts and classy high-heeled shoes that smacked of money spent with an eye for the importance of appearance. Watching intently as her daughter carefully filled the bottle, her tongue sticking out oneside of her mouth in pure childhood concentration, the grandmother sighed deeply. She had taken three buses to get here, left her small two bed-room apartment two hours ago, in the rain and now her knees ached. Her back ached, ached from the birthing of eight children and the raising of five grandchildren and of the worry of what the day would bring.
“What’s wrong Mamie? You look tired,” said her granddaughter climbing on the seat next to her, “Mamie is tired but we’ll get out of here soon. Mamie has to meet a man, and then we can leave, here I brought you some potato chips to eat and a book.” The book was bent, stuffed into an oversized purse, the cardboard cover had seen better days and the pages were filled with the scribbles of eight different childhoods who had all listened intently to the words about the scrappy little puppy. “I know that one already, can I look out the window?” “Yes, child.” Looking to the side she saw several people who she had known years earlier, a man who had dated her sister some twenty years ago, sat with a young man, whose forearms were covered with tattoos. The two nodded at one another. Another woman, the same age but more haggard, more tired and more beaten shook her head to an unknown song in her head, when she opened her mouth one could see the misery she had endured as the spaces of hollow gums told a story that she could relate to. “Who’s that Mamie?” “Oh someone your grandmother used to know a long time ago, don’t stare–it’s not polite.”
Pulling out a watch from her purse, the band split in half, but it still worked band or no band, and that’s all the mattered. She glanced down, groaned and stood up. Moving slowly she turned to her grand-daughter, “wait her a moment, I need to let them know I’m here.” Opening the swinging doors she stuck her head into a small office, “hi there, I’m Pearl Williams, I have an appointment at one o’clock. Is it ok that I brought my grand-daughter?” A white woman dressed in a blue blouse, navy pants and heeled shoes, smiled up at Pearl, “oh good, you’re here, wow you’re early. Just have a seat, I’ll let him know you are here, I’m not sure if it’s ok to have your grand-daughter in the assessment but we can watch her for you.” With that she reached into the second drawer in her desk, and as she pulled out some crayons and a coloring book filled with princes, princesses and dragons she asked, “how old is your grand-daughter?” Pearl smiled, “she’s four. thank you.” She turned and sat next to her grand-daughter.
Pearl shuffled back to her seat, her grand-daughter standing on the warped chair, with tippy-toes plunging into the worn vinyl, she was gazing over the city—”here child, why don’t you color for a while.” The young girl glanced at the crayons and coloring book, thinking for a moment, she tilted her head sideways then this way–”ok.” As she made herself a workspace easily on the floor and her grandmother shooed her up, “get off that nasty floor, you can color here, next to me.” Pearl grew quiet as her booming grand-daughter scribbled away, giving life to the black and white princess on the page, the infusion of waxy pinks, purples and greens bringing the characters to life, an odd life filled with giant butterflies and purple skin but a life never-the-less. Ruminating to herself, the elder of the two thought back in her life, how many times had she sat in a government or social service agency? To be picked and prodded by invasive questions about how she had lived her life, the decisions she had made and the awful things that had been done to her. All done in the sterile offices of white walls and fluorescent lights that hummed like a small purring engine, and for what she asked herself? To be reminded of her failures, as a child, as a woman, as a mother and yes, even as a grandmother? She loathed this process, as she gazed down the hall to a man she once new, sitting next to what was undoubtedly his grandson who was yammering away on a cell phone, crooked ball cap and full of tattoos, pants slung loose around his ass. The man wore a suit, ironed with shined shoes, a quiet dignified presence in the midst of chaos. She grew jealous of him, “he’s probably here for the boy, and he probably thinks I’m here for my daughter or son or someone.” Disgust filled her, with herself and she shook her head.
After a short while, enough time for Althea to grow bored with princesses and dragons, a man with thin silver glasses that matched his graying hair poked his head out of the double doors, “Pearl?”, his head swiveled and he gazed down the hallway then pivoted back to her and Althea, “Pearl?” she smiled up at him, he was also smiling. The man was medium built, with the look of education encompassing him and of course he was white, and it looked like he might need a shave. And he was grinning, looking into one of the other offices, his blue and red striped tie rocking back and forth as if it were a grand-father’s clock, cracking a joke although there was nothing amusing for her today. As she strained to rise she called down to Althea, “come on girl, put them things away, we got’s to follow that man.” The child gently put crayons carefully back into the box, and gathered the coloring book up in her arms, “Grammy, I’m hungry, when can we go?” “Shhhh, we just got here, drink some water.” Althea shook her head, “that don’t do nuthin but make me more hungry. I don’t want no old water.” The man with the tie was holding the door open, he was handsome in a white boy’s way she thought to herself, it looked like he enjoyed life. The other woman appeared, “hey we can watch your little girl in the courtroom, it’s not going on now, the Judge is in another courtroom for the morning, so I can get her something to drink. If it’s ok, the judge brought some bagels in this morning? She can have one of them.” Pearl nodded, gazing at her grand-daughter, “you wanna bagel?” The girl nodded shyly.
The office was small, smaller than what she imagined, with a narrow passage between two separate entrances, and a bookshelf lined with books, almost all hardcover, some with cracked spines and others with shiny sides the suggested that they had never been opened. “can I make you a coffee?” he asked her, she turned behind her, “who me?” “yes, this will take a little while, I can make you a coffee or I can get you a water or something.” Her lips bent down for a second, “hmmmmm, coffee, eh?” She slid the large black bag from around her shoulder, “ummm, sure, I think I would like that.” She looked him in the eye as he motioned for her to sit down in a chair next to his desk. “you know, I ain’t never had a white man in an office ask me if he could make me a coffee” smiling subtlety, “now, that’s funny. thank you very much.” She looked over at his desk, there were photos of children taped to his computer and behind that some postcards of some Eastern religious icon, “who’s that?” she asked looking beyond him. “Those would be my kids, well except the black kid, he was my daughters first friend” he answered without looking up from the coffee maker. “no, not them, I figured as much, that guy on the postcard, it that Shiva?” He turned around, “oh the card, no, that’s not Shiva it’s Milarepa, a Buddhist figure. He was kinda like the Apostle Paul of Buddhism, he did all this crazy bad stuff and then changed and became enlightened.” Nodding, “oh, I used to know some folks who believed in Shiva and that stuff, they were vegetarians’, had all this nice stuff in their house. Oh my, it always smelled good in there. They was nice folks….so, are you one of those?” Sitting down, moved his keyboard in front of him, clicked a few buttons and looked at his computer screen. “one of what?” answering absentmindedly. “A Buddhism person?” “Oh, it’s really not important what I think, I suppose everybody believes in something.”
Handing her a coffee, along with creamer, “How many sugars do you want?” he asked, “how you know I want sugar?” she looked at him skeptically, “well, I don’t for sure but most of my clients take sugar with their coffee a few younger ones drink it black. I just thought you would prefer sugar.” Smiling broadly, “you right, I’ll take five, and thank you.” Stirring her coffee with a plastic knife, she took a few deep breaths and removed her coat. She was wearing a dark lavender blouse and black pants, and silver and imitation gold ear-rings.
He asked her age, “I’m fifty-six years old, a tired fifty-six, sometimes I feel seventy and other times I think I can run like a chicken especially after that little grandbaby out there.” She smiled into herself, “but I’ve learned life isn’t about being easy, it’s been rough but at the end of the day, we all blessed. At least that’s what I think.” He kept typing, “and why are you here, today, in my office? What happened?” Shifting in her chair, taking a pull on her fingers, she scrapped the end of one of her fingernails, “well, I took something I shouldn’t have, up at Wal-Mart, and I had another charge from last year that they gonna bring to you also.”
She blew on the coffee, undid the purple vinyl coat that hung off her as if it was tent that had blown into her body and stuck. She pulled it back, revealing chunky rolls of fat from her neck, there were sores on her shoulder where her dress stuck tightly to her skin and he noticed she was wearing purple sweat pants with gold racing stripes along the side. On her hand she wore five rings on five different fingers, several garish gold ones and three silver ones, each with a single pearl. Upon closer look he realized that they were all the same ring. “this coffee is good, much better than that canned crap I get at the Save-A-Lot, I could drink this all day,” she said mostly to herself. He smiled at her, clicking things on the computer and explained, “this may take a while if you need to go smoke a cigarette, use the rest room or just take a break let me know. One minute here while I open up the document I need. Do you mind if I play some music?”
“No sir, you do whatever you want to do” she had pulled her sleeves up and was rubbing Noxzema up and down her arms, the white greasy cream made a shiny contrast to her dark skin. The room was engulfed with the scent, he immediately thought of his grandmother. ”What you smilin’ at?” Fidgeting with his keyboard, he smiled again, “oh, my grandmother used to use that cream. I was just reminded me of her and her car, it smelled like Noxzema.” “ohh, you probably like that then? I bet she was a nice woman, because you nice also.” “Thanks, shall we get started?”
“so, tell me Althea, what brought you here today—-I mean I understand you have a theft charge but why does your attorney think you need to be part of one of the specialty courts?” Another deep breath, one that held her thoughts at bay, she wasn’t expecting this, so up-front as she blew out she laughed, “boy, you get straight to the point, don’t you? Well, you could say I had a hard life. Real hard and while that ain’t no excuse, I done made a lot of stupid decisions but sometimes a person don’t even know right from wrong when they grew up like I did.” He leaned back, “it was tough, it sounds like it.” She nodded, and her eyes turned far away as if she were peering down a tunnel. “yup.”
Where to start? She rubbed her hands on her bulging thighs, picked an imaginary piece of fabric off her purple coat, breathing again, always breathing when it seemed too much to do, “welllll,” drawing the word out as if were fourteen inches long and stuck in her throat. “let’s see, I was born here in Columbus, over there by where Children’s Hospital is, that neighborhood. Near Sullivant and Parsons, although that house is gone, they tore up that whole damn neighborhood when they put the freeway in. Knocked that house down and hopefully all the bad shit that went on in it. I was six then they did that. My momma cried but I didn’t care. Always hated that place. Anyway, they moved us over to those projects by that hospital OSU now runs.” She took a sip of coffee, and looked at him, “you probably wanna know what was so bad, don’t you?” Rubbing his chin, the white bristly hair that poked out like miniature fence posts, reminded him of his age, “its up to you to tell me what you want, the more you disclose the better I can help you find the support you need and the more information I can provide for the court would impact on how the court views you case.” Althea nodded slowly.
It was hot out, the sun seemed to splinter the fraying wooden porch in real time, the paint was so hot in places if bubbled and cracked and stuck under her bare feet. “Momma, its hot out here, can I come in?” From the back of the house her mother bellowed, “Listen child, your momma said you need to stay out there, it’s hot in this damn house and your momma is busy, you need to shut your mouth before I come out there and shut it for you!” “But, I gotta pee, and I’m thirsty.” “there’s some Kool Aid on the porch for you! drink that.” The girl looked at the pitcher of Kool Aid, it had formed a thin layer of grim at the top, like a country pond melting in the sun. “But momma, it ain’t got no sugar in it! Plus it’s all warm!” The mother ran from the back of the house, she could feel her mother’s feet stomping across the floor even as she stood on the porch steps, big angry steps full of agitation, she was already flinching. The screen door, whose screen hung as if it were a torn flypaper, drooping forward, burst open. “Get your little ass in here and go pee!” She ran up the stairs, her hot feet making a tiny rhythm of childhood, piddle-paddle, piddle-paddle. She opened the door to the rest-room and a man was standing in the middle of the bathroom, slightly wavering, it was as if he were being blown by a strong wind, but there was no wind today, especially in the stiffling house.
“uh, sorry.” as she crept back towards the stairs.
“Its ok, what, you gotta use the rest room, little one? I’ve just finished up. You can use it.” His smile was large, his teeth were yellow, almost the color of dried corn cobs. She would never forget that. He was missing half of his lower teeth.
“no, I was looking for my mamma, I hear her downstairs.” and she turned to go.
“Hey! I said go ahead and use it!” he bellowed at her, his voice pointed like a stick. She felt a large hand on her shoulder, it was firm, strong and it pinched into her back.
“yes sir.” She silently climbed onto the toilet and she stared straight ahead, the sink was dripping, it had two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. Except half the time there was no hot water but the cold faucet dripped. Bink..Bink..Bink. She heard the door shut and felt him standing above her, glancing up she felt his eyes looking down upon her. They were dark, almost crooked in a way and they seemed to be made of wax. He was smiling at her, with a chunk of his teeth out, she could smell his breath. It was old , the aroma of old liquor, of how her daddy used to smell when she would hug him in the morning. His hands wrapped around her head, he was mumbling and she heard not word he said. He stuck it in her face, it smelled as well, she wouldn’t forget that either, musty and dangerous. She cried, but he tried to soothe her and the sensation of his hair on her lips caused her gag and he cursed her. That’s when it started, she later learned he was her mother’s cousin.
Afterwards she hid under the wooden porch, as ants crawled up her legs, she tore at her skirt and cried into the hot dirt. Later that night, she woke up to her mother calling for her. It was late and there were police cars parked out front and swarm of people in the front yard. She crawled from under the porch, streaks of brown dirt stuck to her face where she had wept, her hair with filled with clumps of leaves and trash. Walking to the back yard, her mother spotted her and hugged, “where have you been child? We have been looking for you. What happened to you, you a mess.” She fell into her mother’s arms, as if felled by a gun, “momma can we go to bed, why all those police cars.” “yeah baby, we can go to bed, let’s get you cleaned up. Your uncle and some of his friends got to arguing and that’s just what happens sometimes. People yell and the police show up.They are leavin’, don’t fret.”
Sighing, rocking her left leg she said, ”well it went bad from the get go. My daddy was never around, momma liked to get liquored up and sometimes she would disappear and I’d go to my grannies’ or auntie’s house. Grandma was ok, but I liked when we went to my Auntie’s, she was a school teacher. She later worked for the school board. She went to college, her house smelled nice and they were the first ones to have a microwave and a color television. But, my mom would leave us alone and that’s when the bad stuff would happen. My uncle at first, but he wasn’t really my uncle more like a cousin, then his brother and later my mom met a man who did stuff to me and my little sister. One of my brother’s was slow, you know what I mean?”
He nodded. “Well he was slow and some of them boys in the neighborhood would put him up to stuff, you know get him to do shit. Anyway, one day when I was walking back from the bus, I seen my brother, the slow one. We called him Charlie, he was nice, he would do anything for anyone and he loved to sing that song by the Supremes, the one that goes, “I need love, love.” Her voice turned childlike, chirping the words and a slight smile crossed her face, for a moment she was eleven, walking down her street, singing the Supremes and letting the water from the fire hydrant splash her ankles.
“yeah, I know it, it’s a wonderful song.”
“yeah, Charlie loved it, I think he secretly wanted to be Dianna Ross,” she laughed to herself, “we would actually put on a show and wear my momma’s bathrobe, those fluffy ones they made back then, you could pretend you were royalty or something.”
“or Dianna Ross” he offered.
“yeah, or the Dianna Ross. So, I’m walking home and there was this store we would go to, to buy candy or cigarettes for my momma, and I turned the corner and there was this alley there and the police had blocked it off. There was a bunch of cops there, they had their guns out and in the middle of the alley next to the store was Charlie. I remember him as if it were yesterday, and he is standing there with a knife in his hands, I don’t know how he got a knife, he wouldn’t hurt nobody-he couldn’t. He was just sweet Charlie. And he was crying, he was scared and I called him and he turned and looked at me, and he walked forward and this police man yells at him. I don’t know what was going on with him but he kept walking and they just shot him. And he was dead. Just like that. He wouldn’t have hurt nobody.”
“That must have been very difficult, how old were you?”
She looked up, tears had started falling from her cheeks, big round droplets, sinking into the carpet and onto her purple pants. “I was eleven or something, supposedly those boys told him to go into the store and rob it. He didn’t know what he was doing. After that I went to my Grannies’ for a while, my momma lost it. She went to Akron for a while and she never really got right, I quit school when I was fifteen. I got pregnant, I was running around. you know?” Nodding again, “you want to take a break here?”
“Sure, I’ll go check on my grandbaby.”