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March 22, 2010

Nine days. There are nine uncrossed-out days left in March on my dry-erase calendar. My roomie Nona does not know that those nine days remaining this month are exactly the number of days left before I, as others who fantasize about leaving here would say; “get up out of here.”  In grammatically correct terms. I’m moving out April, 1.

The last few days have been invasive. About a week ago, someone went into my chest of drawers and stole my bikini. They didn’t touch my Ironman watch, my favorite brown rockstar studded leather belt which took a trip around the world without me last summer, nor did they touch my Michael Jackson collector’s pins. No. They stole my new bikini that made me look a cup size larger and a butt size smaller. Yesterday, someone stole Nona’s off-brand ghetto cigarettes from her drawer and she blamed me for not informing her that I was leaving for the day so that she could guard her “good shit.” She got so angry and loud about it that I thought her brain tumor would burst.  I kept trying to calm her down because quite frankly, there’s no contingency plan in place in case she makes good on her daily threat to die soon. But she was fully committed to her Coniption Fit and the best I could do was to let her vent. I’ve had the song stuck in my head that I used to drown out her voice-a random 80s tune by the Australian band Icehouse called Electric Blue. “What can I do…la la la,  Electric Blue.”

So, this  morning I  whistled that tune and marked off another day on my calendar  and left the house with the intention of spending as much time as possible away (as usual). If I’m not in class or at my job, then I’m floating around Santa Monica or the Valley  in my car looking for a comfortable place to write or prepare for auditions. The irony is that I moved to Safe Passage to avoid living in my car…but considering the amount of time that I spend avoiding the house….I essentially live in my car anyway. When I look back over my journal entries since moving to Safe Passage last July,  I see that I would have to be absent 24/7 to avoid the inevitable drama that erupts when you throw six addicts and a splash of “school girl” under one roof. This seems like as good a time as any to share those journal entries.

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If silence is Golden then Melisa is Fort Knox Bling. Melisa is short, compact and built like a square. No one knows her story because she won’t tell it. She won’t tell us anything. When I say anything…I mean, Nothing. No ‘good morning, good night’ or even a ‘go to hell.’ Melisa was mute 99 percent of the time. That one percent when words escaped from her mouth they were thoughtful and carefully measured. They were almost prophetic.

Once, when was particularly skeeved over one of my roommate’s lack of hygiene, I was blowing steam about how I was going to get the hell out.

Melisa, who just stared at me while I erupted in vile against the roommate says, quietly. “You will not escape. You will leave. For if you escape you are still a victim. If you leave you are empowered. If you walk out now, you are a victim. Nobody like the victim.”

That sums up Melisa. I don’t know what crime she committed or what drug she abused. Maybe, like me, there were no drugs or jail. Maybe just a chain of bad choices. For better or worse, we were all under the same roof. A social experiment that only a reality show would love. In this house there are no prodding producers, no omniscient cameras and no ‘confessionals’. This is just me…the  odd one who would have to love herself out.

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Dianne

By the time Dianne moved into the house, I had become as comfortable as one can with the revolving door nature of the house. Aside from the core six, there were three other vacant beds that would be what we called ‘drifters.’ The women who would appear, then disappear without notice or fanfare. Usually they were homeless women who hadn’t relearned how to live indoors. Dianne started out that way. She was dropped off around 11 pm by the house manager in November shortly before Thanksgiving.  At first she acted ike a stray puppy,  looking for a corner in which to recoil until someone gave her directions or showed kindness instead of fangs. That person was always the house manager, Paty*. Then, she would just disappear, leaving behind her trinkets and garbage bags full of dirty clothes, shoes missing their mates, junk. Her disappearing act went on for a few weeks until she’d decided that at age 51, she was too  damned old to be on the streets. And she was tired.

Dianne looked frightening. She had very rough, wooly dingy gray hair that was matted to her head in a big, lopsided Fredrick Douglas-like ‘do. She was the color of dark chocolate, but had open sores all over her face and body that were even darker. She had some skin condition that I, in my lack of medical training, assumed was shingles or psoriasis. But Cancer Lady, a one-time RN blurted out that  it was “proably AIDS” for she had seen the disease present itself many times in African Americans in the very same manner.

Freaking Out. Dianne was like having an untrained dog in the house. She sometimes missed the toilet when she urinated, she would leave the restroom without washing her hands and she would take loooong baths with oatmeal to try to heal her  sores.

“That shit ain’t gone heal, bitch. You got AIDS” was what Cancer Roommate would tell  Dianne. Those two did not get along from the very beginning. Dianne is a recovering crack addict.  Cancer Roommate, who herself never used crack (she claims), spoke with indignation to Dianne about how she’s never been a ‘Crack Whore.’ I would buy hand sanitizer and fancy hand soaps to entice Dianne to use them. And she finally did get into the habit of handwashing. I also found myself keeping Clorox wipes handy to wipe down everything she had touched in the bathroom and the kitchen…for I am a bit of hypochondriac who recoils at swapping body fluids. My sex life sucks. No pun intended, there. I know how AIDS is spread and if Dianne does have it, I know the chances that I’ll catch it from touching the refrigerator handle is zero…unless of course I have an open wound on my palms and she’s bled all over the handle moments before. But that hasn’t happened, to my knowledge. But still, better safe than open sores, right? Right?

*Names have been changed

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Nona* has cancer.

Cancer; seizures. Cancer; voices. Cancer; angels. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Nona is the most recent resident to move into the house and she  has Cancer.She moved here from a homeless shelter and she has cancer. She used to be a registered nurse, she says, and started using and selling drugs to support her five kids and she has Cancer. She went to prison for two years for possession and she has Cancer.

Nona has all kinds of cancer that has matesticezed in her brain, uterus and  bones. Nona is the most frustrating roommate because she evokes sympathy, yet she is the least sympathetic person. Nona manipulates the entire house into feeling guilty about her cancer. Her anger provokes her to alternate fits of rage and passive aggressiveness. She speaks in tongues and sees “Death Angels” throughout the house. She laughs uncontrollably at times and talks in her sleep. Sometimes, she pretends to be engaged in a cell phone conversation. God forgive me, but I hate sharing a room with her because she bums me out. Not because she has cancer, but because she seems to hate that we don’t “get it.”  She makes cancer seem contagious. I feel a tinge of guilt for feeling this way…but “Cancer” is wielded as a weapon around here and it’s not the kind of fight in which I’m willing to engage.

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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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