Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae part 34: A Sense of Right and Wrong

A Sense of Right and Wrong

No matter how splintered life had become, there are those among us who never fail to acknowledge the suffering of others. This could be that there is a part of every person that realizes that as long as breath escapes one’s lips, there is always someone worse off, and in the gesture of recognition we somehow alleviate our own suffering no matter how intense it may be. For some this comes easy, for others they may need to find the darkened stained-glass environments of a church or the corners of bookstores and libraries learning how to trap compassion into words.

Jenny’s mother was one of these people, a woman who would offer the food off of her plate to feed a troubled high-school kid. With a shortened sixties bee-hive this thin woman would startle a room by her misgivings of various television shows, one time she exclaimed that Freddy Kruger was “the trashiest man I have ever see”, and another time stated in reference to “Revenge of the Nerds”, shaking her head, “my heavens, well nerds are people to!” I quickly nodded my approval.

My grandmother, due to untold suffering in the Second World War, was a hoarder, one who had a multi-colored collection of empty egg cartons stuffed under varying sizes of plastic bread bags filled with coupons, cut-out photos of flowers, teddy-bears and used stamps. For years, her living room consisted of varying paths leading to chairs and the television, rugs covered by thick plastic protectors that could have been used for industrial use. Magazines, stuffed animals and Kleenex boxes formed miniature mountains throughout her house, with Cheeto tubs and Triscett boxes strewn along the paths to offer fortitude for the weary traveler who dare traverse the house on Boxwood Drive. One time at an all-you-can-eat Ponderosa I witnessed her stabbing my uncle Peter in the backside of his hand as he tried to steal a spoonful of mayonnaise and cheese from her bowl of uh, mayonnaise and cheese. It wasn’t as if my family wasn’t kind it is that for some, empathy was something to look for, a search for betterment that needed constant feeding.

Jenny has always had a heart bigger than even her thirst for the drink. In the summer of 2005 rolled on, she was staying in the ravine. The ramshackle camp she lived in was fraught with fights and the seething discomfort that only a homeless camp combined with the thick acrid wave of humidity that only Central Ohio spews forth. At times, when I would go looking for her, the camp would consist of only two or three men, men for whom time and weather had turned their skin leathery and their faces taunt with alcoholic poverty and vacant stares. “She ain’t here, there was some trouble last night and they took off up the ravine or they went by the river” one of them would bellow, “She’s with some safe guys, she’s alright but someone got cut here last night.” Traipsing down into the ravine, careful not to come into contact with any poison ivy I never felt fear but was always hesitant about what I may find. “Christ, what the fuck happened the last ten years” I would think to myself as I try to spy empty forty ounce bottles or fast food bags. Jenny had told me once that if you went deep enough into the ravine and arrived at the tunnel that connected the Glen Ellen Park you had gone too far, because the crack heads tended to smoke around the tunnel. It could get dangerous back there.

I walked about 100 feet back and didn’t find anything, except empty cans, no signs of anybody sleeping in the bushes. When this happened my insides would curl for a moment, an edge would climb up into my head and settle for most of the day. Sometimes, my wife would pick up on it and ask me what was wrong, depending on how severe my concern was I would tell her or not. She worried about me going to the camp, even though it was just a stone’s throw from out front porch. Our lives had changed dramatically in the past few years; we were more domesticated than ever before. She was getting ready to give birth to our first child; I was contentedly working at Used Kids and had returned to college. I had taken my Buddhist vows earlier in the year and was meditating every day, trying hard to extinguish the fires of attachment that still burden me to this day.

There is a time when frustration unattended turns into acceptance, I had quit wrestling with trying to save my high school sweetheart, the times of being the white knight had passed and I wrestled with just not acting on whatever though went through my head. Jenny would always appear in a few days, when the violence would settle down in the camp and it was safe to reclaim their small patch of concrete behind the Goodwill. Some of the men were in fact dangerous, one in particular, a tall man with a striking resemblance to Snoop Dog could be frightening in the manner in which he could switch. At first he had tried to protect her, and they were lovers briefly until she realized he occasionally smoked crack, when she rebuffed him he could turn violent and he would show up at the camp intermittently to harass her and her boyfriend. His name was Butch, he was roughly forty-seven and had sinewy arms that a lanky athletic body that betrayed the hard life he had lived. There were stories that he had done time for murdering one man and had perhaps killed another. He was respectful of me as all of the “tramps” were. Jenny, in her most romantic Hollywood way, referred to all of them as tramps and the camp was filled with these blighted men and women (only a few). She would build up my exploits and kindness to these folks, so when I came down offering coffee, White Castle hamburgers or bottles of water they would change their tone of voice as if I had some authority that I didn’t have. I just wanted to get her out of there.

Butch knew I was sober and once in a while he would talk to me about some of the 12-Step meetings I went to, which were a lot back then. He had experienced small steps of sobriety over the years and we could talk about this and what his life was like. He would shake his head, look towards the pavement and say, “yeah, but that rock will get you every time.” I suppose it would but I always tried to squirm away from some of these conversations with the men. There is a maudlin stereotypical version to much of the speech used by homeless and criminal offenders, as if they had lost everything except a high school cliché of life that they desperately hung onto. I had tried most of my life to avoid clichés, not only verbally but especially living one.

When I would bring Jenny and her boyfriend food, she always first offered it to the other tramps, who would dig in with a gusto only found around dog shelters and kegs. She would wait until everybody ate. After living in the camp for roughly five months an outreach housing program helped get her and her boyfriend off the street. She had been housed since then, with two moves into better apartments during the past five years. It was not uncommon during the first several years to arrive at her apartment and find the floor littered with several tramps who knew they could count on the kind sympathy of Jenny. I would tell her, “You’ll get kicked out of the housing program if you let them stay here.” “Where are they supposed to go?” she would scowl back. “A shelter, they can go to a shelter.” With that one of the heads would rise up from the floor, the stench of stale alcohol spreading across the room in slow motion drift, “I ain’t stayin’ in no fuckin’ shelter!” For some of the tramps the shelters could be more dangerous than the woods, with more drug use than in the camps. For many of these mentally ill men and women, they were safer banding together with their bottles of booze and cans of soup.

Jenny was always like that, it was not uncommon for me to find some barfly, whose fingernails told the sure sign of homelessness on our couch with  a plate full of food and one of my Milwaukee’s Best ensconced in his hand. She would have had a happy hour pitcher with him or pulled him from the corner of Chittenden and High and brought him home to feed. I would let him finish, slip him a few bucks and send him on his way. Haranguing Jenny all the way back to our pitiful bedroom where she would hide under the blankets to get her verbal whipping. “One of these days, I’m gonna come home and find you dead and raped by one of these guys. Shit, you can’t save them all.”

Some years later as I sat talking to a friend and colleague who did a lot of work going into the homeless camps of Columbus, I had mentioned Jenny and inquired into whether he knew her. He did and replied, “Wow, what happened to her? Everybody knew her, at first we were like, is she a worker? But then we realized she wasn’t. I would think, how did she end up here?” I looked at him and said, “yeah, me too.”


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2 Responses to “Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae part 34: A Sense of Right and Wrong”

  1. kmz Says:

    bela –

    i know you only from crying your knife away. somehow i stumbled upon your blog.

    it resonates. i was not as deeply in the music scene, but we are about the same age and i identify in some way.

    i love yeah me too and kryptonite. the energy and – the distillation of youthful fuck it all – cannot be denied. gaunt was better than new bomb turks. gaunt should have been green day but better. those are hit albums in a more just universe. i still listen to those records.

    anyhoo, i write this because your brutal honesty, your poetic sensibility (really), have made an impression. you are a writer, believe. and your experiences are noteworthy.

    i am glad to see that you are well after the madness. im interested that you have found something in buddhist practice. writing about that would probably come off as sanctimonious, but its a cynical world. and theres no point in converting people.

    i am an alcoholic. i am involved with a local (phila) zen group. so i identify.

    ok, i wish you well, ive read your entire blog and am a fan. – kmz

  2. david (mike) schooff Says:

    I was in the OSU marching band with Jenny ( a talented trumpet player), and I bought records at used kids and frequented staches, blue danube, Bernies,Larry’s and the dicks den scene. OSUMB is a pretty elite organization as well as the Columbus music scene. Although the tramps are as “elite” as they come to face daily pain, and come down from artificial highs. I’m sure Jenny is a leader of the tramps, however she could be channeling that vibe to help tramps in a camp such as a social worker like you Bela (sounds righteous but true. I’m sure it’s frustrating to make her realize her potential in the setting of addiction. Keep trying, or not Bela., Compassion and Elitism, an oxymoron or not? I know what your thinking. WB pass it back Tell that to Jenny she’ll getit, Thanks.

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