Posts Tagged ‘homeless’

Homeless and Flashlight Tag.

June 15, 2017

Walking down High Street in the spring feels like liberation, when the bleak chilly overhead carpet of clouds slip into their summer hibernation, the bluest sky awakens while people peel away the dreariness of winter by wearing cut-off shorts, tee-shirts, and glide down the sidewalks on skateboards that were shuttered for the winter months. Along the Olentangy River, small pockets of fabric appear amidst the overnight greenery of woods that line a fifteen mile bike path. It is here that many of the homeless camps sprout just like the green buds and purple flowers that awaken in the spring. A stroll through the various parks along the way brings many passerby’s next to men with rumpled men, whose breath wheezes alcohol and whose shoes are cracked and frayed from years to pounding asphalt.

At some point, usually in the middle of July or August within the woods of the bike path the heavy humidity of Ohio is fertile ground for millions of mosquitos to breed, it is not uncommon for a person to resemble a welted corkboard of mosquito bites when strolling through the trees and bushes. The homeless carve out tiny homes within the thicket of bushes and the muddy shoreline, these homes are big enough for a body and not much more and some may consist of walls of pallets, thin slabs of sheet metal and discarded plastic while other may be as simple as a one-person tent or sadly, a sleeping bag and backpack. Bikers, joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers may well be unaware that within the small bushes of the path they are using a person maybe sleeping, brushing their teeth, taking a shit or drinking a tall 40 bottle of malt liquor.

From the explosion on youth culture in the nineteen sixties, where the campus area became a magnet and a beacon for some, a five mile stretch that disaffected kids, drug users, college students and dropouts flocked to. The sidewalk across from the University was a bustle of energy, where pamphlets were handed out, kids with frayed jeans and threadbare tee-shirts smoked cigarettes while playing guitar with a small coffee can on the side to catch silver coins, and later a contingent of homeless African-American men spouted poetry, shaking plastic coffee cups, plying their vocal gymnastics trying to get by on a daily basis as the mined white college students for the change in their pockets. “Help is on the way” one fellow bellowed for nearly twelve years before the heavens took his ghost away. Help indeed. Later, when the wrecking balls bullied their way onto the campus area, smashing memories and campus landmark to bits all in the name of retail progress many along High Street gave up their hawkish ways, it is just a wisp of what it used to be.

After a while, the panhandlers, street crawlers and even many of the students have left, scattered to other parts of the city. Mid-town suburbs, former working-class neighborhoods and, the woods. Each crack in the sidewalk has a story to tell, but as the years sigh by they get forgotten, small bits of an image that dissipates like smoke. From a small-town boy’s point of view the rising mountains of steel and concrete of big-time cities spun tales of bustling people, elbowing one another while scrambling for space and for others in the small towns of Ohio, the cities were to be avoided lest one wanted to get robbed. But for many it was a potential escape from lives that were told that high school was the best time of a person’s life when for many it was the worst time of a person’s life. The idea that this would be the pinnacle of existence felt like suffocating under the weight of the sky. “Your fucking kidding me, right?” is what I would think when my high school teachers told me to enjoy those oppressive days.

We moved apartments as if we were hunters and gathers; a new one nearly every year—from one broken-down, roach filled apartment to another. As if one patchwork wall with faded paint was a step up from another one, but in our minds, as we carried boxes of books and records, Hefty trash bags bulging with clothes from dilapidated cars to the newest old apartment a small pillow of pride burst out from our shoes with every step towards the new home. Each place birthed new experiences and stories, the tales piling on top of one another as our existence and lifestyles invited characters that could have sprouted from thin paper-back novels, some of the characters with stereotypical nicknames, Dan “the man” From CleveLAND, Barefoot Jeff, Crazy Jim, and more that have been replaced by fresher memories.

Working three jobs at the age of twenty was difficult although two of them were at record stores and one was the overnight shift at a Ohio version of 7-11, but with a right-wing religious streak that had the chain refusing to sell condoms, porn or rolling papers—alcohol and Mountain Dew were ok by their strict standards but not the prevention of disease and pregnancy. I walked off the job one night after confronting a drunk frat kid who was harassing a homeless man, “shut the fuck up man, and get out!” I shouted in his slobbery fatty face, “ohh, who are you to tell me, overnight UDF guy?” From there a verbal admonishing to his friends for having such an asshole as a friend, he staggered out screaming “I’m going to tell your manager!” After checking on the homeless guy, not charging him for his food, I undid my apron and said to the co-worker, “I really don’t need this bullshit for $4 an hour.”

Jenny was usually in an elevated mood during her twenties, with a mind twirling as fast as a window fan, thoughts and ideas would spin out of her as if her mouth was shuffling cards. As much as she could spit energy into a room she could also ingest the energy and suck it dry, leaving the inhabitants sweaty and uncomfortable. Oblivious to the fact the propulsive interjection of her far-fetched and usually hilarious words would continue unabated. It was transfixing. She gathered men in her wake like sex infused pied piper, all the while many of us would sit and watch. For some there is a well of sadness that stirs underneath the essence of a person, like the deepest darkest sea under lurking under miles and miles of ice. The rustling of life that tramples above, stirs the sadness is quiet waves, a slight turn of a phrase by a friend or the leaving of a lover turns into a slow ache that upsets the balance of living, spiraling out in waves. The darkness expands in small shadows the crawl over the soul by miniature degrees, a Chinese water-torture of the psyche. A rustling would build inside her, stirring softly and then exploding into reckless behavior that was galvanic, with shards of emotions dripping from every aspect of the persons involved. Some of these escapades caused deep wounds, and dug into the skin of whatever emotionally frailty I had at that age, for Jenny, she would take for whatever hurt was no fault of her own but of my own stupid expectations about her actions. “you know what you were getting into and I can’t help it if you are always so serious” as she tugged a mouthful of smoke from her cigarette, other hand peeling back the wet label from her Natural Light. After a few years of sleepless nights, and anxiety, there was a point where a person gets used to this sort of treatment and it would be addressed with a gallows humor, an emotional brawniness had formed within me. Built with chips of disappointment that had calcified around my core. Nothing was shocking.

Rubbing his sweaty hands against his filthy jeans, which were so soiled that they could have caused his palms to turn even more grimy. On the table in front of him was a flashlight, gloves, his wallet, a pair of cheap women’s pantyhose, a ring of car keys with a plastic blue tag that read “Ricart Ford”, his cracked black wallet and half a can of Busch beer. His patchy beard twitched as he gathered them all up, stuffing them into his pockets, they were soon bulging with the tools for his evening adventure. It was summer, in Ohio the summer was constructed of sticky sweat and mosquitos but the Ohio State campus area was devoid of students apart from graduate students and young people whose lives revolved around the campus.

Jenny was working at the Travel Agency, an odd name for a campus bar the didn’t know if it wanted to cater to the Greek crowd, be a dance bar or even cater to the burgeoning underground music scene (Royal Trux and Urge Overkill both played the odd little bar.) She worked as a bartender, which was akin to having largest man on the block working the buffet table at Ponderosa. These were easy times in her life, where responsibilities meant how late to stay out, when to do laundry; job choices were dependent on lifestyle choices and not the other way around. Nights merged into mornings while eyes were wide awake, and the turntable was in a constant motion. Everything a person needed was within walking distance, record stores, bars, carry-outs and grocery stores made the life of burgeoning alcoholics easy, it was as if there was an invisible sheet being pulled over our collective lives by Anheuser-Busch and Jim Beam. The secret would be revealed years later with devastating consequences but the twirling dances of trembling nights of those days brushed aside any thought of the future.

I wore Dockers to two of my jobs, cheap imitations of professionalism that spoke to the truth of low wage management and sales job, “just who are they fooling” was my thought every time I put the stiff pleated blue or tan pants on, the mild annoyance of the fabric streamed up into my mind blossoming into an infrequent rage when the poverty of hope tripped up any semblance of aspiration. Casual business attire was code for supposed professionalism, collective bullshit by men who had never scrapped quarters from couch cushions to buy a hamburger. A soft seething blistered inside of me on a daily basis. Home life didn’t help, trying to piece together fragments of what domestic life was supposed to be, culled from prime-time television, after-school specials and Sunday morning services, to the reality that every person brings every experience that has ever occurred in their life to each moment. Every. Single. Time. Blending expectations with reality is fiction without practice. Jenny worked several jobs, one at the bar and the other at the Ohio State Faculty Club, her quick wit saved her from getting fired many times. The bar gig allowing her to stay out later, be the center of attention and of course, have access to an almost endless supply of alcohol.

Walking through the alley, stepping over shards of broken glass, empty fast food bags, pieces of broken furniture and massive green dumpsters filled with rotting garbage and piles of empty liquor bottles, he was deliberate in where he chose to go. He started off on high street, and within a few steps he was in the alleys, lurking behind apartment buildings and campus duplexes. After a long day of working two jobs, one selling cassette tapes to young college students, at one point that year I sold a new Kids on the Block tape to a young Chris Jent who later became Lebron James shooting coach, and the other job selling Twin-Tone and SST records to young men who lives almost depended on the sounds being sucked up and through the small needle cruising across the spinning vinyl. Jenny wasn’t home, which wasn’t expected-it was a Friday night—even though summer had come and settled over the city like a moist shawl, campus on the weekends still blossomed the young in need of dancing and sex. I sat on the floor, legs outstretched, with the sounds of High Street floating through the open window while the television flickered a semi-forgotten Steve McQueen movie, with the sound off the record player blared out the sounds of The Rolling Stones “Beggars Banquet.”

Drinking alone was becoming a habit, although listening to music can make the exercise an almost spiritual experience, I brought a six pack into the living room. Three cans in, flipping the record over, looking at the small plastic clock that ticked past two am, a small fear clutched my chest, it was hard to breath as I contemplated the fact that she may just not come home until five am again. Sleeping alone, even briefly-for the initial slumber was frightening, the drink could help put the mind into the warmness of rest, as if the mind was sinking into a steamy bath. The motivation to enter the bedroom alone has hidden in the murkiness of myself, it would need to be cajoled as thoughts went to the scary unreal, the imagination that pictured my partner giving head to someone else or moaning in pleasure while, I sat alone with a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, an old Steve McQueen movie and Mick Jagger warbling. With every late night excursion she had a small part of me would harden, a kernel of steel would form around my chest, never to be dislodged for years. The cicadas had landed that year, digging out of their seventeen year slumber, with only a days to find a partner before death swept over the mass of them, they sang songs of courtship that filled the air with a lovelorn chatter.

The Travel Agency was roughly two blocks from our apartment, as the ache built in my heart, of Jenny not coming home after close I debated walking over and fetching her as if she were grammar school aged and staying out too late with her friends. “Jenny you are missing your supper.” But that was a trip I had made before, walking in while she stood in a circle of people, performing her jokes and dropping her wit as if she was a firework of laughter. I would enter unsteadily, unsure of my role only knowing that I wanted her next to me, the surety that she made my other half whole and I felt naked without her. Every time as I approached, I felt the eyeroll, the invisible needling of an elbow in my ribs, to my heart, “uh, Jenny it looks like your boyfriend is here” some drunk would mutter and turn away, another would raise eyebrows high and her boss, Randy, the balding former wrestling coach who had repeatedly professed her love to her many times in my presence or on our doorstep would rush from behind the bar and yell, “she’s still working, she has to help clean up. You can leave now.” Turning, she would offer a shrug, “well, Bela, yet again you arrived too late at the party, just go home and wait for me.” On some occasions, she might be weirded out by some creep and ask me to stick around. Oddly, it would take me years to realize the waiting I held fast in my chest, the anxious energy that built up within me, the wondering, the visions of awful deeds that would dance in my mind as I waited for her would be the same behaviors and fears that I would cause my future partners as the hold of alcohol gripped me tightly, holding my feet fast to the bottom of the bar stool long after the doors had closed. Tonight, I opened another beer, found another record, Tim Hardin “II”, and listened as Tim sung about the deepest loneliness a person can feel. Outside, the car horns beeped, drunken students screamed at each other in the streets, bumping into one another as they bleated whatever ideas that sprung into their minds and the cicadas sang away, wrestling with their own doomsday heartache.

The front door opened, footsteps landed on the creaky linoleum kitchen floor, “Bela, I’m home. I brought a few drinks with me, aren’t you glad I’m home on time.” She wasn’t but it was better than four a.m… Plopping down on the floor, “why are you watching the television without sound?” “because, it’s stupid” I did not turn her way, the enjoyment of drinking alone had elbowed everything else out. After a few moments of silence, she moved to the couch, speaking into the air, her words landed around me, as if they were discarded plastic army men left for on the imaginary battlefield of childhood.

Outside on the street below, he had found a window with a light on, with enough space to remain almost safely hidden from passerby’s but enough in the light to be dangerous, to push the envelope just enough out of his pants. He placed the pantyhose around his head, mashing his black greasy hair over his forehead, splashing his beard across his cheeks, putting the large silver flashlight, the kind the police use to club someone over the head on the ground in front of him he fumbled with his zipper. Anxiety climbed up his ankles as the anticipation almost swallowed him whole. With one hand he tossed small rocks against out window. High Street was roughly a few hundred feet away, as he stood in a small empty parking lot, just off the curb of Chittenden Avenue. “what the fuck is that?” I asked Jenny. “I dunno, someone is throwing rocks at the window.” Nobody had knocked on the front door but since we lived on the second floor it could have been somebody who wasn’t sure this was our apartment. After a few more rocks had smacked against the window, I roused myself up and walked to the window. Twenty feet below a small bearded man with pantyhose pulled firmly over his head, a cap and dark clothes held a long silver flashlight (the kind that cops use to beat people) in his right hand, pointing it carefully on his midsection. In his left hand, which was working furiously, was his penis. The whites of his eyes shined through the woman’s undergarment mask as he worked away. He was truly a man on a mission. Pulling away from the window and sat back on the floor. “Who was it?” Jenny asked. Deadpanning, “I think it’s one of your boyfriends, go have a look.” I took a sip of beer. Peering at the window she laughed, “what should we do?!” “I suppose call the police.”  She handed me the bulky plastic phone and I dialed 911 explaining the circumstances, “so there is this guy masturbating outside our window, he has a flashlight and panty hose on his head.” “Sir can you describe him more accurately?” Pausing, I replied, “well, he has a penis in one hand and the flash light in the other. Its aimed at his penis, really illuminating what he’s doing…. if you don’t hurry up he’s going to finish up.” A deep sigh on the other end then the reply, “A squad is on their way, your comments are just going to hold them up.”

Slipping my bare feet into my shoes, pulling on some pants I rose to go outside and wait for the police, “I don’t think it’s safe to go out there, Bela” Jenny said behind me. “What is he going to dick-slap me to death?” “No, but he has a flashlight.” “Oh yeah, although he might be too tired to use it, I’ll wait on the staircase just in case.” Walking half way down the metal staircase, I sat down and took a sip of my beer. The man was gone and I took in the smell of the alley, rotting food and urine hovered in the backyard, the alley and small parking lots that lined the back ally were flecked with small tiny pieces of glass, sprinkled around the black asphalt. They made it look like miniature stars were imbedded in the blacktop, and when the lights of passing headlights shone upon them, they resembled rhinestones. The apartment building just to the north of us housed a George Cooper a giant of a running back who played for Ohio State, and next to him a gay man who was prone to wearing dresses, lipstick. The gay man was one of the first openly gay men I had met, he was quiet and kept to himself but would wave at us, and Jenny would talk to him quite a bit. ‘You should talk to him, Bela, he has some good taste in music.” I was hesitant, as I was still trying to shed the homophobia that going to high school in Springfield, Ohio had tried to instill in me amongst other bigoted ideas. The apartment below us was empty for the summer as were most of the apartments in the building just to the south of us, campus got fairly quiet-the exception being the drunkenness that occurred on High Street every weekend. Soon, a police cruiser pulled up, I walked down and explained to the officers what had transpired. “He was holding his penis and a flashlight? That’s a new one for me” said one the officers. “Yeah, he was quite ambidextrous” I chimed in. They set out looking for him, Jenny came and sat down next to me—we drank some more beer, the feelings of betrayal had left me, replaced by a closeness to her brought about by the absurdity of the situation. We always had laughter to pull us towards one another while our actions pulled us apart.

After ten minutes or so the cruiser pulled up, with a small bearded man in the back. “We saw him walking in another alley a few blocks from here, he had a flashlight and some pantyhose in his pocket. Can you ID him for us.” Wanting to make a crack about needing to see his dick, I refrained. They pulled him out of the back of the cruiser, he was short, with greasy black hair, a scraggly beard that was a pockmarked as a fourteen-year-old boy. He had on a pair of worn out black tennis shoes, his pants were about three inches to short, exposing his hairy legs; he wore no socks. Hunched over, he resembled Charles Manson, when the police asked him to look up at me he sneered, “I didn’t do any to you man!” His teeth were yellowed. Asking one of the officers to come and talk to me, I whispered, “what will happen to him if I ID him?” “well, we will take him to jail.” Thinking I walked towards him, “I don’t know if this is him, so I guess maybe let him go.” The officers told him to stay away from our house and he sauntered off into the night. In the darkness, while pale light from the streetlights made his small frame glow he turned, scowled back over his shoulder and kept walking.

It would take some time, years in fact for an understanding of the mentally ill and the homeless to swell within me. Of course, seeing the slow-motion avalanche of Jenny over the years proved a valuable albeit painful lesson in perceiving the far extremities of not only mental illness but also addiction. Issues that have swarmed inside of my own life and mind throughout the years, depression can suck a person dry from the inside as if the soul is being slowly burned by an inner sun, where the result is a deadened feeling. A feeling of desperation that acts like a tranquilizer in a person’s life, unless a person has felt this, it is very difficult and, exhausting to explain. Akin to describing a color that doesn’t exist or an apparition that dances only at night whilst a person sinks into slumber. For many, the task of this explanation proves to be too difficult, the already awkwardness of being different tends to push a person away for help, the inner recoil which may have proved to be a safety valve is the method that may save them but alas, many times it is never used. Jenny always embraced the absurd, as did Jerry and in my own way, I have tried.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Now

July 10, 2015

Now.

           Cleveland Avenue splits the ghetto in half, starting in downtown Columbus, traveling at a slight angle northeastward to the cotton white suburb of Westerville, it holds a squeamish history of poverty, classism and crushing desolation. Jenny has moved in and out of abject neighborhoods since getting plucked out of the homeless camp that was carved into the small wooded ravine that cuts North Campus from the liberal Ohio State infused neighborhood of Clintonville, nearly seven years ago. Her story of shuffling in and out of housing is a tale of how dysfunction is an everyday occurrence for people who fall on the wrong side of the money.

            After surviving living as one of only two women in a homeless camp, living for nearly two months in the Ohio State School of Music and finally, at another west side camp, she and her (now deceased boyfriend) were given Section Eight Housing through a program designed to provide Housing First options for people on the street. While at the same time, they were both linked to mental health services.

            For a number of years, Jenny complained of pain in her legs, her once sliver of a body–reed-thin underneath her flower patterned sun dresses had difficulty moving from the couch to the refrigerator and the months living outside in the elements didn’t help. She can be a living manifestation of the worst type of alcoholic, one who wakes up throughout the night, to take a pull off a plastic bottle of Smirnoff or Aristocrat Vodka just to make it to the morning without seizing up, at various times she would hide her booze throughout the house, at first to hide her shame and addiction from the men around her until finally it was more to ease the annoyance of carrying a bottle or having to travel to another room to fix a drink. Her life had turned into the troubled aspects of Bukowski without the poetry, a life lead by breathing from one drink to the next while trying to scrap the last vestiges of memories of happier times from a brain that had stuffed itself more with life than any brain should be allowed. Weeks were played out with multiple runs to the convenience store, which she had for a short time referred to as the package store, a term she picked up living in Miami, flying road side signs asking for money off the closest freeway ramp from their first Section Eight House, located on the far southeastern side of Columbus. The ramp they held their sign was roughly three miles from the depleted apartment. She had tried to get a job at the convenience store just on the other side of the parking lot that split the apartment complex from the store that plied its customers with lottery tickets, cheap liquor and dusty tins of canned meat but shortly after she applied she was taken via stretcher out of her apartment and the owner told her that he thought she would be a health risk. Jenny and Dale would arise early, walk the three miles to the ramp and “fly the sign” they worked as a team, with an older friend who also had lived in the homeless camp with them, one of the twins. She would pack a lunch of cheese sandwiches, chips and a tumbler of vodka and Hawaiian Punch and two of them would sit in the woods, passing the time telling stories, listening to music on a boombox they had found dumpster diving and trying not to drink too much. “The drivers don’t wanna give you any money if they smell alcohol, plus it’s so hot out there most days, you just get dehydrated that you kind of just have to hold out.” She said they would average about $11 a day and more when she could hold the sign, “they like me to hold the sign because I’m the white girl, people don’t expect to see that in the hood, but I’m always appreciative of what they give,” but her legs were increasingly failing her. Many had assumed that it had to do with her alcoholism, and during a period of a year and a half in around 2009 she was hospitalized countless times. She would be discharged, get herself together and cut down on her drinking. At one point she started playing music, the prospect of playing again terrified her but also provided much needed hope, and she was asked to play Comfest, an annual event held smack dab in the middle of Columbus where thousands attend.

            Comfest of 2010 was a disaster for Jenny, although she put on a brave effort is was difficult for her to get back into performing shape, she was recently off the streets and her apartment was smack dab in the middle of a rouges gallery of gang warfare and crack cocaine dealing, plus she was nearly two miles from the bus line. Her biggest supporter, Sean Woosley, who had made a small career of his own making prickly-pop in the vein of Bob Pollard and Elvis Costello. Sean, whom Jenny had bestowed the nickname “Robin” many years ago, had played with Jenny nearly from the outset dating all the way back to the late 80’s. Sean worked hard to get the band together, and the practices were difficult, as Jenny had not played piano since living in the music building and her drinking was nearly 24-7. The revolving door of hospitalizations had not yet started, partly due to the fact that for the poor and homeless, access to services has been historically limited. Prior to the Affordable Health Care Act, with the access to Medicaid, the homeless were at a loss to access services, most was done in emergency rooms where treatment consists of M.A.S.H. like services, where putting out fires and getting the person out of crises is the number one prerogative.

            Jenny played Comfest in the late afternoon, I wasn’t there but had heard that she fell down, no doubt because of heavy drinking and her once deeply emotional voice, rang hollow like a raggedy flag beaten into submission. This was her first time in front of a Columbus audience in nearly ten years, and afterwards a mean-spirited emcee poked more holes into her effort by cruelly and clumsily deriding her as she was carried off the back of the stage. The legs that once bounded across the fields of corn and soybeans in western Ohio, as she flourished on the high school cross country team, with the orange sun sucking beads of sweat out of her taunt legs, were crumbling around her feet. These legs that had walked through rain and baked parking lots on the Ohio State campus as she practiced hour after hour to get the routines of the Best Damn Band In The Land, and soon after across football fields around the United States had finally given up. Talking to her afterwards, she was crestfallen, not only for not being able to play well but for the embarrassment of falling, “Bela, I couldn’t feel my fucking legs—they just quit working, I was scared,” I heard take a pull from a bottle, wiping her mouth, “I fell in front of everybody, I’ve never been so embarrassed.” “Even more embarrassing than going out with me,” I joked. “No, you were the worst embarrassment, you nerd” she laughed. Growing serious,”Were you drunk?” I asked, as if alcohol was the root of every problem she had. “I had a little, but that had nothing to do without feeling my legs, god-damnit! Jesus Bela, is that all you care about, in all your drinking did you ever NOT FEEL YOUR LEGS!!! And then Paul, who used to be so nice to me made fun of me, that was really shitty. I’m not going to play again, I can’t go through the disappointment.”

            The call came from Dale, it was late, three a.m., in the background I heard the rain pelting down against him, small bombshells of water thumping-thumping-thumping against his large green withered Army coat. “Bela, it’s Dale, they just took Jenny away in the ambulance–they wouldn’t let me go with them because I’m drunk and I’m not her husband.” Yawning and clawing for my glasses, “where are they taking her?” “I’m guessing OSU East or Grant, she wasn’t doing good, she had a seizure and blacked out. She wasn’t making any sense, talking about these little silver men who were in the couch. Bela, I looked there were no little silver men in the couch.” “no, fucking shit” I thought. She was emaciated, except for her face and stomach which was starting to bulge out a little, the years of drink had started to hang deep in her face, while her arms grew thinner, her legs were dead weight at the end of the bed, tired eyes lined with red blinked at me, “Bela-baby, I can’t feel my legs anymore—I don’t know what’s wrong and then I had that seizure, Dale said I was hallucinating again. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m scared I’m gonna be in a wheelchair and I won’t be able to get down the stairs to my apartment. Then what?” She was in the ICU for nearly three weeks, and it was discovered that she had a heart condition, similar to her mother that went undetected through the years through neglect by Jenny and to a lesser degree by physicians who were too concerned with her drinking and seizures, they simply missed it as she would get stabilized and then discharged. Since she didn’t have insurance or Medicaid at the time the hospitals would to the minimum necessary and discharged, in hindsight, if they caught her heart condition earlier it may have saved hundreds if not millions in more lengthy hospital stays. It took nearly a month in ICU for the hospital to trace the loss of her legs on poor circulation due to a weak heart. She would eventually play two more shows over the next four years, both which were much more successful—but she arrived at both in a wheelchair.

            Driving north on High Street as I leave the late 19th Century house my family and I live in, the streets are lined with flowering trees, even the white clouds lay as if plucked from a white pillow and pined into the sky for a prop of idyllic life. Azalea, Rhododendron, Vinurum bushes form a pathway of whites, reds and purples from my doorstep to the unending cups of coffee, poured into shell-white porcelain cups at the wooden designed coffee shop where I spend my Saturday mornings. Just two miles away on Cleveland Avenue, which runs parallel with High Street, the flowering bushes are disguised as bus benches, with black and red advertisements for check cashing and bankruptcy help, the green foliage that provides a canopy of shade for sparkly metallic fuel-efficient sport cars that makes High Street a destination spot sits in sharp contrast on Cleveland Avenue as the thick gray of concrete and gravel spill off the streets into the multitude of parking lots, semi-vacant strip malls and the uniform architecture of fast-food buildings. They are two of the longest roads in Columbus, just two miles apart in distance but seemingly countries apart in lifestyles and income. Cleveland Avenue is desolate, and the desperation in brought to life by the number of abandoned storefronts and empty building, even the McDonalds on the middle section of Cleveland Avenue is abandoned. It is just past a dilapidated strip club, whose rotting rood wavers with every boner in the club where Jenny now lives. After extensive looking, calling and asking for favors it was the only handicapped accessible Section Eight unit we could find her off the bus-line. Recently, Jenny was again in the ICU for a number of weeks. Hug those you love.

live in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQCwSNzhDb4

she used to play these on the piano quite a bit:

Pearl Williams part-two

May 13, 2014

Disclaimer: Pearl Williams is not a real person although she is based off of people I have worked with over the years in my job as social worker. A few years ago, I was talking with Micheal Galinsky about creating a book that included some of the clients I have worked with and having Mike take photo-graphs, but we have never gotten around too it. I created Pearl to give light to so many of the impoverished women I have worked with over the years, whose lives are sad reminders of those in society whom we don’t care to look at. I have always been amazed at the fortitude and resilience of these women. This is a work in progress.

 

Pearl stared at the white lady playing with her grandbaby, the child was smiling, big brown wet eyes that gathered in the room, and she breathed deeply and pointed to a black and white picture of a group of Native-Americans on the wall, their faces haggard, clothes constructed of leather and long feathers hanging from belts and it said, “Real Homeland Security.” The little girl poked a tiny brown finger up at the picture, “Who are do’s people?” The white woman smiled and said, “Oh, they are Indians, they used to live here but they had to move away.” Eyes growing bigger, “They lived in this office? All those men, lived here? Where did the sleep?” With laughter erupting, Pearl scooped up her grand-daughter, “Child, you causing trouble?” and kissed her on the cheek. “No mami, they have candy here. Right there in that drawer.” The white lady said, “she’s adorable, she’s fine. Are you done already?” Pearl grimaced, “no, ‘fraid not, still got some more to tell that man.” turning the little girl, “hey, grandma will be back soon, ok?” “Yes mame. It’s neat here.”

Pearl sauntered through the courtroom, she eyed the man she used to know as he sat with his felt hat on his lap, his carefully pleated black trousers, pressed dark shirt and white tie in stark contrast to the young man sitting next to him, who was playing with his tiny tight dread locks with one hand and bouncing the other hand off of his knee as if he were playing drums to some song in his head. Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. It went across the entire courtroom, her old friend leaned over and whispered a loud, “son, you need to cut that out, you in big trouble here. This judge may not like that commotion in his courtroom, and why did you wear that ugly ole shirt?” Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. Pearl shook her head, was it at the boy or more at herself? The courtroom was full now, the Judge was on the bench, his gray haired pulled back, he was holding onto a croquet mallet, gesturing to an attorney in front of him he smirked and said, “now Kevin, I’m not afraid to use this.” There was an entire flock of attorney crowded around him, most of them smiling and joking, a stark contrast to the folks who were sitting in the chairs and the smooth wooden jury box that curved in front of the judge. Here were the great unwashed, a litany of the poor and impaired, some by mental illness, others by intoxicants and every one by unfortunate incidents, somewhere, somehow that lead to being in the courtroom today. Next to her old friend and his grandson, was a young scrawny white girl, her face so taunt that it looked as if it were pulled over her face with pliers. Her eyes hung low and dark, deep into their sockets they were tired. Not just from the dope , whose faint echo in her veins was turning into nausea but from what she they had witnessed. Rapes, countless backhands to her face, two screaming children and the grim of dope houses, sleeping on couches and eating cold Dinty Moore stew from a can.

The man appeared again, he was holding a bottle of water, extending it he offered, “you ready to start again?” “thank you, sure I am.”

Pearl wiped her mouth, looked up at all the certificates and diploma’s adorning his walls, “you sure is a smart man.”

“Aw, not really, these just prove if you pay someone enough money they will give you anything.” She liked his self-deprecation.

“That one there, you went to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland?” She pointed to a large framed diploma.

“Yes, I did. I got my Master’s degree there. I was expensive!”

“Well, I lived there. In Cleveland for a while after my first baby. My cousin lived there, just near the University, I moved up there when I was 18, my boyfriend had family up there so I figured, hell, why not?”

“When was that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, early 80’s or so. Right before that crack-cocaine blew the lid off everything. My boyfriend got caught up in that, I had no idea, I was naive. I mean they called it free-basing back then. That was just after Richard Pryor got his-self on fire doing that free-basing, well shit, they just figured out how to sell it to the ghetto.”

She shook her head at the memory, “yeah, that’s when shit hit the fan….” Her voice trailed off and she took another drink of water. Breathing deep she explained, “he’s the one who got me into it. I was mad, I had three babies by the time I was 21 and I was working as a maid in the Cleveland Clinic. He wasn’t really doing shit except not coming home. I told him one day, he had been gone for like a week. ‘What the hell are you doing all the time’?”

Nodding, he asked, “and what happened?”

Laughing and putting her bottle on the desk, “well, that son-of-a-bitch took me over to  93rd and Chester, or somewhere around there. Do you know where I’m talking about?            Anyway, he took me to a crack house. Although, I don’t even know if that was a term  back then, we just went to a party-house. That’s what we called it. So, I smoked it. I didn’t     leave that damn house for three days.” She shuddered a little, “I left my three babies at  home. I just forgot about them, my oldest must have been eight or nine and he got the       neighbor after we didn’t come home. She watched them. After that though, I was gone. I  mean, there wasn’t nothing that was going to stop me. Eventually, my Auntie took the kids, someone called Children’s Services on me and I told them I was sick, you know like  I had diabetes or something. I was a crazy person. I lost those kids inside of four months of using crack. My man got arrested for manslaughter, and went to prison. He done killed this man on the corner, over nuthin’ really. I think it was drugs but he was gone and then we lost the apartment and I was homeless. It just happened so fast, I wanted to die when they took my babies.”

“That must have been tough, working so hard and then losing your children?”

“Well, it was but you know what? It didn’t stop me from using drugs. Not a bit. I knew something was going on with my mind as well, it had been since I was a girl. I’d hear         things, just little things, like a whisper or someone murmuring but there wasn’t anyone shut it out, I didn’t mind being poor and black or what-have-you but I did not want to be   crazy.” She paused, sighed and looked at him straight in the eyes.

“I was good looking to, one thing I can tell you about crack, it takes the weight off of you. I had three babies and I still wasn’t big like I am now but I did that crack and the         pounds just melted off, I figured, why not use what the good-Lord-gave you and started walking the streets. I had a girl-friend who said I could earn good money doing it, so I  just started doing it, I thought nothing of it. But it got weird and scary real fast.”

He looked at her, his eyes casting over her, and he could not imagine this woman selling herself on the street. Her purple coat bunched up around her, enveloping her and her horrible memories that were burping out of her like pop-corn popping. There was no stopping her.

“It got real strange at that time, mid to late eighties. Hustling the streets, one time I was  out there, it was cold, there were icicles hanging from the gutters almost all the way to the ground, the wind would literally cut you. It felt like a knife, that wind did.. and this limo pulls up and the tinted window rolls down. I walk up to the car  and this man with glasses points at me and my girlfriend and we laugh and jump in. He  was with one of the sports teams, a general manager or something, a rich white guy. He didn’t say nothing but his body-guard or whoever the hell he was did.”

She grew quiet. “That was some fucked up shit” she took a drink from her cold coffee cup and stared a head.

“That fuckin weirdo took us back to one of the fancy hotels downtown, and ordered up all  this seafood, you know those black shell-fish, mussels they call them. He had ordered hundreds of them and he had me and my girlfriend take off all our clothes and he made us     put them things all around our coochies, and he just mumbled some shit about pussies       and mussels. He got us high alright, that made it better but we were there for hours, into  the next day with these fucking little fish that look like tiny pussies up around our legs. I can’t stand the smell of fish to this day, and he never even wanted to fuck us or nothing. I  cut my big toe going to the bathroom on one of the shells they were scattered all over the          floor like as if a big ole chunk of wind just gathered them up and set ’em down.  That crack put me in some weird spots.”

 

 

Pearl Williams part one

April 20, 2013

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:

Pearl Williams:

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.”

 

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae part 49: Thinking 1985/2012

August 4, 2012

Thinking. 1985/2012

Weaving through traffic, driving the first new car I ever bought on my own at the age of 40, music blaring as I sing along as if I am in a bullet traveling 45 miles an hour through downtown Columbus. The songs reach back to childhood (Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Woody Guthrie) to my twenties, (New Bomb Turks, Superchunk, Sinead O’Conner, Dinosaur Jr, Matador Records) and then into the present, (Allo Darlin, Sea Lions, Luke Roberts), giving me moments of elsewhere while waiting for a mini-van to get the fuck out of the way. Watching pedestrians as they bustle with bags and briefcases across steamy downtown streets, all the seriousness that a suit can imply, stuck on faces that look straight ahead; no doubt they are thinking of jobs to be done. In the car, contemplating visions of the past while guitars blast into my ears, I invariably think of a father long gone–a man who choose to vacate his family years ago, I think of Jerry, who is always just a flicker of thought and finally of Jenny and what her life is like these days.

Bruno shouts from the back seat, “daddy, punk rock, daddy, punk rock” , leaning down I skip from a Puccini aria to the Dogmatics, and he is pleased. One day, he may have the faint impression of a memory, sitting in the back seat as his father dodges slow cars, singing along to the soundtrack of Bruno’s childhood. I feel alone. Sensing that all the other inhabitants feel the same as I do, constrained to their bodies, thoughts limited to their own experiences, yearning to feel together if not for just a moment. But with the knowing of the isolation that rises again, the feeling that not only intercourse can relieve because the moments after intercourse are a reminder that yet, again, we are all alone.

It’s a science fiction experiment, these bodies of our, like tiny droplets of rain, hurtling towards the soil until our souls splash and explode against the concrete and dirt of our lives. Swallowed by the force of the ground. It is the music that keeps the feeling of life while sitting in the white Volkswagen with a boy in the backseat, shouting above the din, “daddy, more guitars, daddy, louder.”

The phone rings, yet another example of science fiction come to fruition, “hey, just want you to know, I’m still alive.” It’s Jenny, in the hospital again. “shit is crazy over here,” she explains, her voice muffled from the sheer tiredness of life, “but they can’t kill ole Jenny.” She has the memory of an elephant, at moments she is able to conjure a piece of the past that, even if I were there I would doubt that it would happen, some of it so surreal and outstanding that I scarcely believe that it happened. “I was thinking of that one time we had that New Year’s Eve party in that hotel in Springfield with your brother and all his fucked up friends. Remember?” Searching the moldiest canals of my mind, past exams I took, under papers I wrote, children saying the most fucked up shit, I bump into the memory, sheltered away some twenty-seven years ago. “Um, yeah sorta.” “Remember, you and I went and fucked in that broom closet and then went back to the party . We paid that security guard $20 to pretend he was arresting Donny Acuff, and then the guy got fired and ended up back at the parsonage partying with us all night. And what’s her face killed Russ, your goldfish? Boy, you told that bitch off.” Pulling into the parking garage, I try to balance the memory with the idea that part of my job is to advise treatment, justice and compassion in court today. “er, yeah, I remember that, but I can’t really think about that right now.” “That shit was funny. Anyway, I’m doing ok, trying to figure out how to get my legs working, and I failed my HUD inspection.” Jerking to attention on this last note, “What, how can you fail a HUD inspection when you are in a nursing home and have been in the hospital for two weeks?” I ask, flabbergasted that some moron at the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority would do such a thing. “Do they know you are in a nursing home?” “Yup, of course they know. They said I still had to do it, so I called a friend to go over there. Everything has to be fixed within ten days or I will lose my Section 8 voucher. But my friend said he’ll fix it.” Thinking to myself, the same friend who beat the shit out of you last month.

“Find out who your worker is over there and I’ll send a letter over and make a few phone calls.” There is a pause, “I don’t know who it is, all my paperwork is at the apartment and I can’t leave here, fuck, I can’t walk.” blowing an air of frustration, with cheeks in full puffed mode, I answer, “Ok, I’ll find out.”

Being poor is not easy, especially in America where people tend to be shuttled between bureaucratic paths that resemble something between a Kafka story and the story of the little girl who feel down the well, at times frustratingly sad but also bold in the ironic malice of workers whose job it is to guard the most basic rights of the poor. I see this on a daily basis, the vilification of the poor and mentally ill, as if those who are blessed with opportunities had in some astral manner, earned these opportunities. The belief that being born into opportunity gives someone the license to dis-empower the powerless.

Every state in the Union has its own laws and guidelines for social workers, counselors and outreach workers, with some states requiring a four year college degree plus the passing of a licensure test to practice the art of helping. Others, have laws that have a minimal requirement, with any four or two year degree sufficing in allowing, someone, usually with good intentions to work with the poor, mentally ill, homeless and addicted. Sadly, in the midst of slogans, uninformed opinions, we, collectively wage war on the underclass as if brandishing their shortcomings in front of them, we will somehow protect our own. Draconian voting laws, every form of stereotype, whether under the guise of patriotism, religion and or capitalism is used as a weapon to keep ourselves from looking at what is barely ours. A fragile shell that is protected by the opportunities that most of us are born into. It is a skinny path we walk, one filled with dangers that can dart suddenly from the underbrush of our lives, in the form of an accident, cancer, job loss, addiction or mental illness. I choose to do what I do as a way to relieve my own guilt for the underprivileged and at times, I do it with a chip on my shoulder, as I have no use for the shaming of the people I choose to serve. I am blunt with the truth as it is the only way I can make sense of the suffering I see, perhaps, I do it to make sense of  the confusion I was brought up with or maybe it is a calling.

There was a large farm next abutted next to the tiny chuck of yard where the tiny ranch house stood, a house that resembled one of millions in America, this one set right of the old National Highway. Three small bedrooms and an unfinished basement where Jenny and her younger sister slept, a piece of 1970’s frayed green carpet kept bare teenage feet from slapping against the concrete. Upstairs their little brother Tony slept in the same room with another younger sister, Megan and down a “hallway” that consisted of two medium steps from the closet sized bathroom was the parents room. This was the third house the family had lived in over the past four years, all of them less than a mile apart. The farm behind and next to them was abandon, the silo standing as a white beacon of failure to every passerby. This was the mid-eighties when the scorched-earth polices of Reagan capitalism cindered many a family farm, but the workings of these policies were cloaked in the feel good speech of an old actor who while robbing the heartland blind made us all feel a little safer. Jenny and her siblings each raised a lamb for the annual Clark County Fair, active members of 4-H, they realized the fragile lesson of life, death and the meaning of the cycle of hardship. The sheep would be slaughtered after the fair, and hopefully each child would be able to sell the animal for a good price, money to be invested in college, a car or to help the family out.

After school, we would climb into my tarnished Ford Mustang, bits of it chipped at the bottom with bucket seats that sat so low to the ground you could swear you could feel the heat of the asphalt under your ass. She would run the sheep, who by nature are not the brightest animals, trying to get them in shape to tone the muscles that would soon be ripped from bone and consumed. The animals would stare at her dumbfounded as if she were an alien, they had no reason to run in circles, besides they thought, “it’s hot and we are wearing wool for christsakes!” I would laugh at her efforts, drinking sun-tea while her mother shook her head, “it looks silly, I know, but she wins every year.” This was true Jenny won a lot of contests, her intelligence hidden by her quick wit and outrageousness. She won first place in the State of Ohio Soil Judging Contest sponsored by the Future Farmers of America, as a junior in high school although she was neither a  farmer presently or in the future. She twice won the State of Ohio Wool Judging Contest sponsored by the FFA. She was in the National Honor Society and was warned by several teachers to be wary of me, due to my mischievous nature and poor grades although I came from a long line of professors and professionals.

We would walk the abandon farm, in the cold and the warmth of spring, trasping over withered husks of corn, clumps of dirt that remained unmoved season to season, the massive wooden doors of the farm remained locked, shackled together with a rusty thick chain. We tried in vain to get into the barn, with the simple reason to unhinge our teenage lust in the dark shadows and moistness of mildewing hay that was waiting for us behind the tethered doors. The raspy corn would crunch beneath our shoes, the wind would sail across the unproductive patch of earth that surrounded us into our chest, holding hands the questions of our adolescent minds abounded as if compelled by the chilly wind. She would explain things to me as we stepped over forgotten plants, pockets of dirt that remained upturned and why certain crops could grow in Ohio and how crop rotation works. This was all new to me, I had assumed through my lens of persecution that farming just involved listening to Hank Williams Jr while riding on a tractor and telling nigger jokes. Of being provincial and dismissive of outsiders, like myself, although it would take me nearly thirty-five years to come to terms that I was an outsider nearly everywhere I went, including, at times my own house. The lump of distaste and protection I had accumulated over four years in living in rural Ohio slowly melted during this time, and an understanding of the wisdom, care and struggles of my classmates and neighbors came into focus. As Jenny called me out on my class snobbishness, one that was rooted in a liberal sense politics, as we were by all accounts poor in a monetary sense, I felt more at ease in my surroundings.

Nestled in the dirt roughly 200 yards back from the farm, her own house a dot in the distance, we found the carcass of a cow. Almost complete, it’s bones, weathered white  and picked clean by birds, rodents, bugs and seasons, we crouched around it in awe. Who would let an animal die out in the field, let alone wouldn’t the animal be noticed? “How does this happen?” I asked, crouching down, examining a hip bone, half buried into the dirt, the white bone resembling a conch shell in the middle of Ohio. She pulled it out, clumps of dirt sticking to its side, it was too cold for any insects, “it’s weird, huh?” I took a few steps back, resting on my haunches, keeping my balance with my left hand I felt something hard in the dirt. There was another carcass and soon we noticed roughly four or five cow skeletons. It as if we had managed to slowly walk into a cave, and slowly brushed a beetle off our arm and noticed that there were thousands crawling around us. “Christ, look at all these fucking bones.” The sky was gray, with soft rolling clouds hanging above the earth as if they were licking their collective lips readying themselves to unleash a torrent of cold rain. A splash of lightening shattered in the distant. I looked at Jenny and she stared at me, a large thick raindrop exploded between us. Wind seemed to gurgle in our ears, and she tried to put the hip bone back where it had submerged, as if it were never disturbed. “I don’t know why anyone would let these poor animals die out here and never collect them”, she said more to herself than me.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae pt 48: Dampness

June 23, 2012

Pt. Dampness

Jenny’s coat wrapped around her body as if it were beaten into her, the rain fell between the cracked plastic and settled into the rotting poly-cotton stuffing that peaked through as if it were making baby faces to the outside world. She huddled into herself, shivering on my porch as the rain whipped behind her. At the end of our walkway, William, waved shyly, his blue eyes a stark contrast to his brown skin. I stepped out onto the porch making sure that none of the cold could slip into our warm house, my wife stood in the kitchen, head bobbing in the background wondering who would be knocking at the front door in this weather.

We didn’t have too many unannounced visitors, and as we settled into the house we had planned to remake into our own, we preferred it this way. As sobriety surrounded us, the clamoring for social affirmation diminished and we simply kept to ourselves. Jenny was swaying, almost to the vibrations of the house, the wind, or some internal song churning into her ears. It had been a long time since she swiped makeup over her face, put a line of lipstick around her lips or wore a necklace around her neck; the skin on her face was taunt, tan from the sun and as weathered as the paint peeling off the side of our house. Her hands were leathery, the ends slightly yellowed by cigarettes, light brown spots a gift from the sunshine, it was hard to believe that just five years prior she wore silver bracelets and pearls.  She had been through a lot this past year, from living in South Beach, in the mansion of a millionaire, to the streets and jails of Miami to the streets of Columbus. During this time she went from making a record with a new collaborator in Boston to having almost everything she owned put out on the sidewalk. I had been given her trumpet and a small suitcase that held a few of her CD’s and records but the rest was gone. She had nothing to play them on and her lungs were no longer capable of blowing a melody into the trumpet.

Her artwork, which she created in manic bursts, had been dumped into trash bins, which would happen anyway over the years as she would gather up some of her belongings and then discard them within a few years as the urge to move would be greater than the need to stay. She had painted hundred of doilies with thin limbed characters holding glasses of wine or playing skinnier pianos, other creations where painted coconut shells that appeared to be a mash-up of dive-bar art with deranged arts and crafts that would horrify most average JoAnn Fabric’s shopper. At one point, while living in Florida my wife and I drove down to Miami for an art show my wife was participating in. We went out to dinner with Jim Williams and Jenny on a beach front restaurant that not only smelled of seafood but of money, the wait staff knew Jenny and Jim and brought them there drinks without them asking what they wanted. The next morning we went to the sprawling house that Jim lived in with his elderly mother, he inhabited a sort of mother-in-law suite that was attached off the living room. The house was stuffed with garish art work and a baby grand piano collected half a room of dust in one corner, as we passed it Jenny said, “His old bitch of a mom won’t let me play it, we had to move to this other part because her and Jim kept yelling at each other.” Jim’s unit was crammed with recording equipment, keyboards, guitars and a big red bass the bounced the sunlight off of its shiny exterior. “Jim bought me all this shit, even if I can’t really play guitar, he wants me to make another record.” The back yard was complete with a bar and dozens of painted coconut shells with dangling baubles, gold chains and the hair of the shells were combed down to make glamorous “sea” models. Jenny said she was trying to make a “whole platoon of these things, I wanna string them around the whole yard, so when it’s night time, the moon can bounce of their jewelry. I have about forty of them done.”  These too, in their ruffled glory were tossed to the trash bin when Jim died.

“Hey, Bela, I know you’re busy,” she stuttered, “but we need to use your bathroom real quick, the Tim Horton’s power went out and William has to take a shit and we don’t have anything in the tent. In case you didn’t notice, it’s kinda raining out.” She grinned when she said this last line. Jim waved in the background as if waving to the President in a motorcade, weakly smiled back, I turned and said, more to my wife than Jenny, “sure come on in, but be quiet the baby is asleep.” Williams started stomping and rattling the rain off of his soggy body as he trudged up the steps, Jenny with arms folded refused to go farther than the front entrance. “Jenny comes into the kitchen, do you want some water?” my wife asked. “No, I’m cool, I’ll just hang here, I don’t want to wake the baby and I’m real wet, if you can’t tell.” The smell of alcohol shrouded her voice, and I realized that breakfast had been served in the homeless camp.

William smiled as he entered and was prone to over thanking us so I nodded at him and casually mentioned that anytime we could help we would. When manic and drinking, Jenny usually spoke with pressured speech, jaw set tight, and her lips stretched around her teeth as if they were made of crystal. Her blue eyes held droplets of water, and for a moment the room was illuminated in these gobs of heavy water, she looked like a battered Christmas tress waiting to be cut down. “I’m sorry to come over here, especially when we have been drinking, we have to get a little bit in the morning, you know, I don’t want Merijn to see me like this.” She paused. “It’s embarrassing.” Most of my life I have never been at a loss for words, but at certain times in dealing with Jenny I was. There were a few moments when all was quiet, the sound being interrupted by William unloading in the other room. We laughed, “I swear to God, I’m going to kill him. Jesus, his ass is going to wake the baby,” she muttered. I heard my wife go upstairs, “bye Jenny.”

Earlier that year, after Jenny had been evicted from the Ohio State School of Music I woke up one morning and found her sleeping at the end of my driveway under the front end of my car. A congested mass of hangover, twigs, frayed nerves and sweat, with a large piece of Little Debbie Snack Cake plastic stuck to the side of her face. “Shit,” she said when I aroused her, “I didn’t have any place to go,” wincing as she pulled the plastic off her face, “what the fuck, I don’t even eat this shit.” “It’s probably from the plasma center customers, they are always throwing shit in our yard, candy wrappers, cigarettes, roaches, I even found a crack pipe in our yard.” That night, I let her sleep in our garage but told her she couldn’t drink in it and couldn’t tell Merijn. I found her gone the next morning, the garage door open and an empty bottle of vodka upstairs next to her make-shift bed. She walked in while I stood standing there, my head trying to shake the disappointment from my shoulders. “Oh, shit, sorry,” she tried to explain, I told her to leave and she started screaming at me, “God-damnit, you’re so fucking uptight, I can’t believe anybody would live with your ass. You fucking control freak, what the fuck, you are such a son-of-a-bitch. Fine, I’ll fucking find my own place, I don’t need your fucking help if all your gonna do is try to control me!” Taking a breath as if it were water, I paused, counting, “Jenny, there is some expensive stuff in her, what did I say, this is Merijn’s studio.” “Fuck you, it’s not that it’s you want to tell me what to do, always.” She continued yelling as I went into the house and called the police; by the time they arrived she was gone.

A small pool of water collected at her feet, looking into the puddle she bent her neck slightly like a scientist gazing through a telescope, “I don’t think we’ll stay out there long, some guys from the shelter are trying to get us out of there. But I and William want to stay together, they think I could get my own place but I want him there. The apartments they give you are in the hood, I just don’t feel safe. We saw a few of them; can you imagine me stumbling out there in crackville central? I’d be eaten alive…no, I want him there with me even if he can be a pain in the ass. He doesn’t smoke that shit anymore, he did once and I told him to forget about me if he was going to do it, I’m done with coke especially after Jim died.”

Jenny’s apartment is on the east side of Columbus, it is her second apartment since living on the streets in 2005, it’s a bit safer than her first one she shared with William, the one with gun holes in the walls, roaches openly defying a person who chose to sit on the threadbare couch, and the group of young African-American teenage boys, conferring in the parking lot at all hours who would always acknowledge be with a nod. I would do my visits there, with my work badge attached, the one that said that I worked for the largest community mental health center. Even drug dealers have a soft spot for social workers. It gave me access to the most dangerous of places.

Her current apartment is still in an unsafe part of Columbus, especially for a mostly single woman who has no income and who battles inner demons on a daily basis. She doesn’t go out at night and takes great care to make sure she has the required reserve of alcohol in her cupboards, under her bed and strews around the house before night falls. She drinks bottom basement vodka, which is usually Kalashnikov, long gone are the days when she would drink Stoli’s, Grey Goose or even Skyy her needs are more basic at this stage of her life. At one point her liquor cabinet was full, with Dewar’s, Makers Mark, Jamison’s and imported beers stocking her refrigerator and pantry, her vodka at that time would be housed in the freezer, as it would not be consumed entirely during the course of the day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night keep me grounded. She pours it into a large tumbler that she keeps next to her bed, mixed with a splash of fruit juice, a twisted reversal of a standard drink. Her artwork climbs the walls, paintings of landscapes, black and white photographs she has torn and forged from discarded library books and old Life magazines. Photos of young romantics, cuddling in outdoor cafes, the scent of love on their necks as they take in the scents of whatever far off city they happened to be captured in, Paris, Antwerp, and Brussels, whatever. The smells of the cafes mingling with the cigarettes that hangs, as if they were props, from long thin fingers while the other hand is intertwined with their lover. For Jenny, it’s the idea of romance and the reinforcement that desire is not tossed asunder as one age, the fact that ideas live in a person’s head regardless of circumstance. She is proud, and her defiance to her situation, while at times appears to threaten her life, is one to behold. The photos of a young John Kennedy and of a determined Leonard Bernstein attest to the culture that have sprung from her well of life in spite of the pain she has tunneled through over the years.

Life is difficult for everybody, and as age grows around our ears, crowding our brains with the trivial and the serious, oftentimes in the same moment it is easy to take the burdens of daily life as a personal Odyssey although for the most part the majority of people I know have a journey paved with soft beds, scrumptious meals and a fairly easy commute to work, there are many where life is a continuous botched attempt to find a moment’s solace. Nearly every time I want to cook an elaborate meal, I run to the store in my 2009 VW, complete with MP3 player and heated seats. There is one mederterian store across the street from my house, and two large grocery stores within one mile of my house as well as five pharmacies within a one mile radius. I mutter under my breath while I stand in line holding a bunch of cilantro and a habanera pepper, thinking of my valuable time.

Chronic, long-term alcoholism can result in a condition called alcoholic peripheral neuropathy, which in laymen’s terms means that muscles cannot receive vital minerals, potassium and calcium due to liver damage. This can result in an awkward gait or at worse the inability to walk; it was one reason why many alcoholics die from taking a tumble down the stairs even though they might not have had very much to drink or anything at all. At times, both William and Jenny have a need to use a wheelchair or a walker, a startling experience for those of us who knew her in high school when she used her young legs to run cross country on a team that won the State Championship, or the young woman who graced the field of Ohio Stadium during half time of a Buckeyes game while marching in The Best Damn Band in the Land. One afternoon, circa 1996, I was leaving Bernie’s Bagels, stepping into the sunlit afternoon from the damp underground bar after taking a short beer break from Used Kids; I passed Jenny replete in gray sweat pants, running bra and white tee-shirt, running down High Street. “Jenny,” I shouted as she galloped past, “what are you doing?” She turned, blowing out hot breath, “shit, I got to get into shape; I thought I’d start running again. What are you doing?” Glancing down High Street, I answered, “oh, I just went on my beer break, Larry’s isn’t open yet so I went to Bernie’s. I’m on my way back to work. I have time for another one, if you want?” Jenny looked down at her brand-new running shoes, glowing white and unblemished from any dirt, fresh out of the box, “sure, I can always run later.”

Running became a passion of mine, shortly thereafter; I started in 1992, to ward off a beer gut that started creeping over my jeans. It blossomed around 1998 when I took to running roughly five miles a day and erupted in 2000, when a personal life that was crashing around me, and an inability to quit drinking once I started I trained and ran a marathon. I did not let a hangover cripple my runs and at one point ran eighteen miles with a hangover that would have immobilized a small dog, cursing my legs and my body the last two miles, I found solace in the long runs where music would guide my emotions and for a brief period I had a purpose even if it were only to put one foot in front of the other for two hours while the OutKast or Superchunk provided the background to the pleasures of my thought.

The journey of running has little to do with the physical aspect, which is easily solved through practice and finding a pace that fits one’s body, but the key is the isolation as feet pound against concrete, step by step, mile by mile until there is nothing. At about forty minutes the brain releases a flood of dopamine into the body, about the same amount as a small shot of heroin, and from there, feeling the runner’s high, a runner finds relaxation and perhaps the glow of creativity. Shortly prior to the summer of 2001, while training for my second marathon, my spouse got a job in Gainesville, teaching Fine Arts at the University of Florida. A dream job for her. I was running daily, drinking roughly four days a week, staying out as late as I could and starting arguments with her on the nights when she wanted me home, so I could escape into the bar lights and the mist of alcohol. Jerry had died shortly before then, Jenny had moved to Miami and I was unmoored, restless with pangs of secrecy and self doubt, even music did keep me grounded. In June while I was in Oklahoma for my cousins wedding I got a call from my wife, “honey, I have some bad news,” she said as I stood above the toilet, willing a minor amount of urine to come out, my head balanced against the wall as my wedding party hangover threatened to dis-rail the soft grip I had on my dick. “What?” She answered slowly, “the record store burned down last night, it’s in ruins, and everything is destroyed.”

Running became something that helped absorb whatever thoughts I had mounting in my mind, diverting fear into the pulse of my headphones zapping mix-tapes into my ears while sweat poured down my back, it was a daily practice that I still continue although the fear has since left me many miles ago when the drink found another person to occupy. The fear now is of age, of finding time to cram the lilting dreams that still drive me today, dreams for my children, dreams for my job, dreams for my friends, and dreams of finding time to write all my ideas.

Jenny is frail, with thin arms and legs that are slivers of skin, her clothes hang off her as if she were truly skeleton pried up by skin. She shakes and wobbles when walking, and with William in a nursing home, she has taken to wheeling herself around her small apartment. She needs medication but does not have health insurance and no income; both she and William live off of his Social Security that she helped him get. She has been hospitalized at least five times this past year but in an all too frequent encounter I have daily, the system has failed her. Several times, I have spoken with social workers while she was in the hospital to help her get her Medicaid as she easily qualifies, it has never been done. She was linked to a mental health center some years ago and got awful service, where her case manager lied to her and never followed up. Her case was eventually closed as her case manager stated “she refused services” although I had spoken to her case manager directly explaining her needs and advocating for her.

The nearest grocery store to Jenny is roughly two miles from her house, it takes her three buses to get there, and fare for a bus is $4. There is a convenient store about half a mile from her apartment as well as a Dollar Store, she buys pasta and tomato sauce and sometimes sells her food stamps for a ride to Kroger. She is given prescriptions when she leaves the hospital but is unable to fill them as she has doesn’t have insurance. She has not been able to have any mental health service in five years as she doesn’t have any insurance. The only alcohol and treatment center in town will not pick her up, she will need to call every morning by seven am and the get herself there by eight if a bed is available. It is nearly an hour and a half bus ride to get there. At times, she feels stuck, hiding in her apartment, huddling in her bed, watching reruns of the Golden Girls, at times feeling the inspiration to paint a picture or play some songs on her keyboard.

Days clog into one another; the fermenting carpet that is dotted with vomit, coffee and vodka and juice droplets makes the apartment more oppressive. Lately, with William sleeping against death’s door, Jenny is again reminded of what she has lost. Her eruptions are always on the phone, and while the anger has long since been wrenched from her voice, the fear remains steadfast. She calls and I listen. Listen. And then I listen some more. While my son points out the back window of the car, noticing the fire engines, a dog or the billowing blow up advertisement of a Jiffy Lube sale, Jenny issues a play-by-play of the madness in her world. Her life is one of frustration, of a beginning that never really begins and an ending that is clouded in the annoyance that the little things never get done or have never arrived.  The oddity of my own life is that I have spent a good deal of my days the past seven years helping many people like Jenny, at times helping the person leave the shell of poverty, mental illness and addiction but most of the times, offering a concerned ear to the decimation of their lives. I get paid to be compassionate. With Jenny, there is always the wish that something would click but I have learned in my life that I cannot put my own expectations for her life as a guide to measure her life, so I listen some more.

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

July 5, 2010

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.”