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Archive for February, 2010

Nina was most like me-I thought. She was young, well-spoken and educated. She moved in a month after I arrived and took the top bunk. When “Crazy Connie” wasn’t there, Nina and I would giggle over how off the wall Connie was. And we grossed out over her penchant to shave her crazy yellow tonails with a straight razor right there in room. (Excuse me while I gag)

She and I seemed to get along well-until she drank.

The difference between Nina and Patty was that Patty accepted she was an alcoholic, never denied her behavior and was actively seeking an inner spiritual revolution to motivate her to stop. Nina, meanwhile was a woman so deep in denial and afraid to be alone with her own thoughts that not only did she drown her thoughts with the radio as she fell asleep, she would drown her thoughts with a “sip” of Olde English, and a “shot” of B and J  “here and there” about  twelve times a day. Or she would deny completely that she’d had anything at all to drink.

When Nina drank, she wasn’t  agitated and high frequency  like Patty. Nina was stealthy. She would bumble down the hall towards the room after having sex with one (or two) of the  ex-convicts in the house next door and then she’d and enter our room at three, sometimes four in the morning with contempt for me. Her words were soft but passive-aggressive and antagonistic. It was like living with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? In the beginning she baited me easily because of my own insecurities. She always seemed to know which buttons to push; accusing me of acting as if I were “better than everyone else.” The way I felt about myself was complicated because my ego felt very much like I was better than everyone in the house, thank you.  But my inner spirit felt as if I deserved what I was getting. That I didn’t deserve better than this evil, uncomfortable house.

It turned out that Nina and I were nothing alike. She had lost custody of her two small kids who each living with their separate fathers. She had her tubes tied after three abortions and she had begun a relationship with an ex-con next door twice her age who sees roses when he looks at her. She has told me several times she’s just “waitin’ on that Nigga’s settlement check and SSI to kick in” so that they can “kick back.”

I learned to let Nina’s drunken jabs roll off me. I even tease her when she’s sober about how she tries to provoke me when she’s drunk. She never remembers it and shrugs “you know how I get when I have a little sip. My tolerance is so low.”  Yes, about as low as my tolerance for this house…which at first was pretty high or else I would have fled this house a lot sooner.

*names have been changed

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The Women: Connie*

July 5, 2009…cont.

I was unpacking my car. Everything I had acquired in nine months of  Los Angeles could be stuffed into my 2003 Hyundai Elantra. The rest of my belongings (really relics of a promise of a life) were in boxes back in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.  “Apartment” is a generous term New Yorkers use to describe a functional but small space. Even still, I was missing it desperately. It was my safety zone. I missed New York so much that I physically became ill with anxiety thinking about it. I missed the energy, the no-nonsense, the 24-hour lifestyle, the connections I’d made in my eight years of living in Manhattan, my imagined boyfriends, my actual friends, my $20 an hour + double that in tips job and my privacy. I had given all that up willingly (if not extremely  reluctantly) to move to Hell to go for “it.” I hadn’t anticipated the Economy or the extreme culture shock. L.A. was the worst place I’d ever lived…EVER.

As I made my bed in the back of the house that had a view of the concrete back yard and (if I got on the rooftop with a pair of binocular) a view of El Segundo, a very thin, squirrely, black woman, same skin tone as mine of about…50 or 60, or 70 (who knows with us)  scampers to the room with a bundle of bedsheets and blankets. From her accent and dialect, I correctly assumed she was from the East Coast. Boston to be exact. Hi, I’m Connie!  I brought ‘cha some bedshets. I can tell you’re going be a faaaabulous roommate! Welcome!

Ordinarily, I’m  a friendly person and I trust my immediate instincts about people. Even with my walls up, my defenses locked and loaded and my skeeve-out detecor fully engaged, I got the very true gut reading that this woman was “off.” HOWEVER,  my  tragic flaw of blind diplomacy kicked-in as always. Damn, I always argue the opposing stance because there’s always merit in finding the logic in people’s behaviour and I really , really want to believe the best  about people…even though my gut screams the truth against my head’s better advisement. People assume I’m argumentative, bossy or disagreeable. I naturally take the opposite stance for SAKE of arguing the other side. I live in a gray world.

Connie wore the Goodwill’s finest 1970s Kelly green polyester slacks that were two sizes too large, a simple buttoned down cotton blouse and a black vest with a name tag that read “Connie, God’s Child.” Above the shoulder she wore black-rimmed cat-eyed glasses and a floppy sun hat.

If I were updating “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” I would cast her as Trudy. You see, Connie spoke to spirits, had deemed the other women in the house “Devils” and had a direct hotline to aliens who she called angels. When Connie wasn’t trying to exorcise demons from the house, she locked herself in our bedroom and read the Bible for hours on end. I would often wake up to her piercing whistling of a gospel tune, or to the AM Radio Station called “The Good News” (or something like that) where the singers belt in a Disney World’s Small World attraction manner “The B-I-B-L-E.”

I discovered Connie’s peculiarities the first night.She took an immediate liking to me and treated me as a daughter…always looking after me, always slipping me ten dollars on my way out the door, always defending me against the “demons.” Connie was brilliant, conniving and mentally ill.

I was a news reporter in my previous life. In her’s, she was a successful ground-breaking litigation attorney. A pioneer for professional black women. Three months earlier, she had been a “crazy homeless woman.” Looking at Connie, I felt as if I might be viewing my terrifying future.  The process of self-discovery had begun and I felt myself sinking into a pit of depression.

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The Women

I was raised as an only child by grandparents who were overprotective to the point of suffocation. I was a little Libra born with a lazy eye and wore thick eyeglasses between the ages of  two to thirteen.  I wasn’t allowed to “hang out” with my peers outside of school activities- that is, the peers who didn’t viciously tease me from first bell to sixth period every single  day between first -seventh grade.   So, I didn’t learn to make friends easily-especially female friends. I had become conditioned to avoid conflict and to seek a bottomless abyss of approval. All these years later  the six ladies of Safe Passage would be instrumental in enabling me to finally shed those qualities that had sabbotaged so many efforts and had helped derailed my entire first career. It was while living here that the women knew me only as one amongst them. Accepted me for who I was…not who I was going to be or once was.

Patty*

July 5, 2009

I pushed the doorbell expecting to hear the sing-songy “ding dong.” Instead it sounded like a goose snoring loudly. The door opened and the most delightful, sunny face with the saddest dark brown eyes greeted me. It was Patty, the House Manager. Patty is what they refer to in Central Casting as “racially ambiguous.”  Black women come in hundreds of shades of beautiful, so I assumed that her honey tanned skin and straight hair were products of a Creole background. I would learn later that Patty’s mother was Filipino and her father was black.

The house was empty. Patty explained that some of the women were at work and the others were at meetings or running errands. I should have asked what kind of meetings. She walked me through the house. It was clean with hardwood floors, a little cluttered and slightly dusty in some areas, but mostly designed to house as many women as the fire codes would allow.

The living room had been converted into a bedroom with two beds, the adjoining middle room had a bunk bed and then down a long hallway was the back bedroom-my room. There were three beds. A single and a bunk. I could take the single if I wanted it.

It didn’t quite feel right. A house with this many beds. What sort of place was this? Why were so many grown women living together in these conditions? Patty must have seen the look on my face. I wish I could have seen the look on my own face. She tried to assure me that the women who lived here were down on their lucky and just needed a quiet, affordable place to get themselves together. To me, this sounded like Victims Retreat.

As much as my body recoiled at the being in the house, I really had no other choice. I was underemployed, I had run out of my savings and I felt like I couldn’t do any better. So, told Patty I’d take the bed and that was that.

As Patty instructed me on house rules (no drinking, no smoking, no men overnight…all rules that she would break frequently) I noticed that hanging on the wall over her bed there was an obituaray with a photo of a handsome, middle aged man who looked strikingly like Patty. I would later learn that it was Patty’s brother, Oliver* who had been killed suddenly in a motor cycle crash three years earlier. Next to the Obit was a framed photo of four children; two older teens and two young children of about seven and nine. They were Patty’s children whom she no longer had custody. Patty had come to Safe Passage a year after her brother’s death. A year of drinking herself into daily blackouts to forget her beloved brother had led to her losing custody of her children.

Patty imagined herself going sober. Just not yet. Over the coming months I would learn that Patty’s sunny demeanor was always haunted by her excessive drinking. WHen her grief was too heavy a burden to bear, her positive attitude would turn Street, vicious and dangerous. Patty was my biggest champion, my confidant and at times, my fiercest enemy.

*Names have been changed

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In The House…

Safe Passage is actually a traditional Spanish-style stucco house nestled in a hilly, nearly-gentrified stuccoed neighborhood with manicured front lawns and sand and concrete back yards.

Twenty years ago, this ‘hood was a gangsta’ music video staple; the infamous Crenshaw District. Today the biggest nuisance is the neighbor’s spastic barking dog that never sleeps and the leathery Mexican who’s probably a lot younger than he looks who sells  “Hot Tomales! Hot Tomales! Hot Tomales!” from a rickety shopping cart he pushes from sunrise to sunset- which I discovered is when he performs his night job of selling oranges and flowers near the I-10 entrance ramp.

Next door to Safe Passage is the companion men’s halfway house. They have a common living area with flat screen tv and satellite. Here in the women’s house  there’s no such luxury. Its’ each girl for herself in the T.V. department. No common area…just a converted house full converted bedrooms.

There’s no sign outside that broadcast to the neighbors that the women  here are a bunch of broken, broke and broken-down spirits who spend the early morning attending mandated  A-A Meetings, the early afternoon sleeping and half the night succumbing to old street habits-panhandleing and digging through trash for aluminum cans.

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From News to Blues

I Haven’t…

I can count on one hand the number of times I tried to get high on Marijuana…and failed:

(1.) Early 1997 Evansville, Ind. I was a cub reporter for the ABC affiliate in town. I smoked some “Medicinal” weed with my one of my co-workers to celebrate the remission of his Lymphoma.  I didn’t like him much, but for some reason, he invited me to share his moment. He got mellow and joyfully weepy, I got joyful watching him weep. I had misjudged him.

(2.) Summer  1998 Sanibel Island, Florida. I was a rising reporter/anchor for the CBS station in Southwest Florida. I was smoking with the crush du  jour  who promised his “shit” was “tight.”  Strange words for a young corporate white guy, but hey, I’ve been called an “Uppity Black Chick” who am I to judge?

(3.) Indian Summer Sept. 11 2001 New York City. News had kicked me to the curb and I had found out in Feb of 2001 that Pink Slips are not really pink. I  moved to NYC just one week prior to  9/11/01.   I was sitting in the stairwell of a dilapidated building on 8th Ave. near Times Square that no longer exists now. I was smoking with my new friend, a Bus Boy at the restaurant where I had begun working to pay the rent. His name was Earland- a smiley black surfer dude (really) with a huge afro whose dealer lived in a pre-famous Madonna’s former crib (circa 1970-something).  Puffing among the ghosts of pot/crack/coke/heroin heads past, It felt as if anything could happen and anything was possible- even though Manhattan had sank into a firey pit just days earlier. I was was no longer a local celebrity defined by my glossy job. I was anonymous, careerless and fearless.

I Don’t…

I drink casually. I’ve suffered many throbbing hangovers and in my lifetime I’ve puked up about $200 worth of over-priced club/lounge/pub cocktails purchased by hopeful hornies at said establishments. A cocktail goes for at least $12. That’s not very many drinks. In a word, I don’t drink much.

I Was…

Roll Tide. I am a graduate of The University of Alabama. I have a B.S. degree  in journalism. (there’s an obvious joke there)  I worked eight years as a professional newscaster. I was an Anchor Woman. Really.  I made decent money, I was a local celebrity.  I was respected by my viewers.  Television News is a very small club to which only a few claim membership (compared to most other “normal” careers) and I was one of its members. Then suddenly…I was out.

I Am…

standing in the doorway of Safe Passages, a Christian-run halfway house for paroled women who are recovering refugees from crack cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, abuse, prostitution, homelessness.  I am their newest tenant.

I haven’t done drugs…

I don’t drink excessively…

I was a professional career woman

I am a law-abiding citizen.

I am drowning in low self-esteem.

How did I get here?

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The Economy was kicking my ass. There were shoeprints where a job, love and self-respect should have been.  I was down to my last $10 and living in a strange new city that I’m convinced is actually Hell and my options were not attractive: live in my compact car, check into a homeless shelter, or take a bed at Safe Passage– a Los Angeles-based Christian-run halfway house for recovering addicts, abuse victims and parolees.

I was not a recovering addict, victim of abuse nor a parolee. I have a university degree in journalism. But when I lay in that $400 dollar a month over-priced bed in the room that I share with two other broken women listening to them  snore, fart and wrestle with the addiction demon in their nightmares, I had to face the fact that the busted economy hadn’t landed me here. My own reckless actions  due to an abysmal lack of self-worth had landed me here and I would have to accept that fact before I could change that fact. This blog is part of that process.

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