CW: For readers of this story--This is a story about the early 1990's. It is about a rough time and place where strong and objectionable language often prevailed. In the middle "panel," I am spoken of as suffering from "pasty-faced fear," i.e. being "too white," due to my previous inexperience at the time with Latinos who were poor and not schoolfellows. The point of the final sentence of this passage, a Biblical reference to "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," is that in such an area, I was being harassed because the men on the street thought that, being out so late, I was a prostitute, and the young man was different from his comrades and was too modest to think that he himself was "without sin." In the last "panel," "Ryan's" family was in a sense marketing him because they mistakenly thought I could take care of him, and thus they in a sense made a sex worker of him to me, or me to him, though I didn't catch on right away. Coming from another area where strong language has often prevailed (where, for example, developmentally disabled people are still sometimes referred to as "retarded," and people with emotional disabilities "not right") it was possible for me to see even then that this made me and "Ryan" roughly equivalent in the prejudice we suffered from, though it was necessary as a stronger person for me to stop things. Referring to the institution as the "loony bin" marks me not as a person uninvolved with it here, but as I am myself a former occasional inmate of such places, I'm letting you know that people such as myself get tired of them, and object to the prejudice that goes on even within them where one is supposed to be safe and that often inmates themselves use such terms to define their experiences with the behavioral health system. I think anyone who knows me well will be able to say for me that I rarely use objectionable language except to make a point, but this is not a story for prissy language or the faint-hearted. That being said, I hope you enjoyed watching the gradual enlightenment about wider and other lives that my main character (myself) underwent in another kind of education. I want the main experience for the reader to be becoming aware of how far we have come, and where our dangers still lie (because we are now facing the same sorts of issues again nationally). It's time to stand up and be counted.
Funny how you focus on things other than what’s really at issue sometimes. It was the third heavy snow of the season, and I was trying to think of expressions for the cold. They always said, “As cold as a witch’s tits in January.” Though if you don’t like witches, I’d guess they’re too cold for you at any time. Or maybe even colder in the end of October, near Halloween, or at a witches’ sabbath. Those who had less shame about showing no regard for honest labor said “As cold as a welldigger’s ass.” Tits and ass: typical Americanisms. However you wanted to phrase it, I’d lived in the Snow Belt before and it was cold. But somehow, the last time it’d been in Ithaca, going to school in a place where I was supposedly one of an elite, however little I behaved like it. People judge you later for things you can’t help either way, I guess, people on one side of the American divide or the other. And how to explain that
I had lived on both sides, more or less? People don’t want to hear long-winded explanations, it sounds too much like making excuses.
So, anyway, here I sat— on a fold-out couch with bad springs in a Welfare apartment. No heat, no refrigeration for my perishable food, and my little cat huddling under the couch hiding, wondering why the hell we had left Buffalo, where the apartment was heated and she had been comfortable. That I hadn’t been comfortable with a sleazy landlord who was trying to jump my bones was something that I couldn’t explain to her, nor why he was, since my mother was paying full rent for me to live there and try to write.
“You’re a writer, eh? Well, just don’t bring any colorful characters into my apartment, okay?” Colorful characters? What had he meant by that? He and the other tenants were a real slice-of-life crew, not polite or particularly honest, and the first lot like them I’d met up with in my mostly-protected life. What did he mean by colorful? His imagination was a filter I couldn’t conceive of.
So, it was after that I left, after the tenant who had a copy of my keys against my will, had stolen a third book from me (I was sure it was she). The landlord had come in some time and cut off the gas to the stove, apparently to produce some effect in me, I wasn’t sure what. He’d then turned up at the back door one night all the way from Depew, the suburb where he lived forty-five minutes away—well, I mean, what else could he want? He had a raunchy cologne on and his hair was slicked back, and he tried to force his way in the door. I think I shut it on his foot; he went away when it was firmly pulled to, anyway. It was after that I packed what I could take, hid my cat under my thick winter coat at the chest in a warm sling, and got on the bus headed to Amish country. Surely they’d take me in, let me work on a farm somewhere, give my cat a good berth. This notion gives me a belly laugh now. I had a worse sense of humor back then.
But of course, we never got there. Because the cat, too warm? having to pee? hungry? who knows? started to wail, and the driver pulled the bus over and amid a lot of laughing girls, who’d done their best to hide me out in some unavowed kind of sympathy, by pretending to wail and be responsible for the sounds themselves--he found me. And my cat. He stopped the bus in Syracuse and made us get off, regardless of what I’d paid to get to Pennsylvania.
There were various events after that, in a sort of kaleidoscopic array: a long-distance friend paying for a cheap motel for a while, a stay in an institution for two weeks while the motel manager looked after my cat for the price of my piccolo, then a rush transfer to a Welfare apartment where I luckily got in just a day before the cop squad came to look for me to try to put me back in the institution. There’s no telling just how many places like that were being used back then to house people who were stable enough at the time, but had no place to go. I hadn’t phoned Mom, couldn’t rely on her dollar, she was probably still mad about being asked to go all the way up to Buffalo to put my other stuff in storage somewhere. So, there I sat. And it was cold.
The window glass was cracked and thin in places, with a few ripples near the edges. Rime had gathered all around, and thick ice inside on the bottom three inches, and I was still sitting, wondering how many more days it was going to be before the appliance store that the Welfare Office had an agreement with would deliver the mini-fridge I was supposed to get. I’d just been to the grocery store two miles away; I was a strong walker then, with a backpack and extra bags, armed with food stamps and some spare change I’d saved up for cleaning and cat food, since they couldn’t be bought with the stamps.
I sighed. There was no reason except foolish appetite to have bought a quart of milk and a quart of half-and-half, or even the eggs and the jar of mayonnaise, the fresh vegetables, the other odd items which now would spoil. I shivered, and got on another jacket and wrapped myself in a blanket, the last two unpacked bags still on the floor in front of me. Then, in a blinding neon of late insight and halfassedry, I realized that if I was in an undesirable deep freeze, so were my groceries. Only for them, it wouldn’t be bad, but good. I hummed as I lined up the perishables on the four windowsills in the living room and back room. I left the kitchen sill empty; it was warmer in there because of the heat from cooking and the interior position of the room kept it so. That sill I would leave for the cat to sit on. Yes, now the mayonnaise was safe.
It’s late at night, no, early. Still dark as a bat’s wing, though, brownish-black winging through the old clapboard houses and yards. Syracuse post-Happy Hour. Friday night, of course. Not the best (cheapest) time to call, but when did I ever think of her first, she’d say. Still possible, then, to place a collect call from the only payphone in three city blocks (back, I cast my mind back; I remember the small post the phone was mounted on, time after patient time, by a phone company’s workers who knew if they went by three weeks later, the neighborhood’s boys— can you really call them young men?— would have it torn wire from wire and leave it hanging to the ground again). And after all, then the workers could go for a quick beer at noon, when the streets were drowsy still, out of their truck and into Danny’s for lunch, company-allowed surfeit time, who would know about the beer? Who would care? Only an absent management. I stood at the phone, yes, still functioning, both of us, wakeful, waiting. I had waited only for the time when the streets would be quieter, less occupied by potential for attack; I didn’t like my neighbors, and they didn’t like me; I didn’t belong on Shonard St., a fish out of her fishbowl trying to make do with ocean. I called. I called again. Mom still asleep; I need some money, Mom, somebody stole my check from the box. Have to keep ringing, annoying the operator till Mom wakes up. Rapid escalation of heartbeat, “suddenly” is the wrong word, “instantaneous” is it: boys, no, young men coming down the street, laughter too raucous, tones too mocking, too many of them. They go past, catcalls, taunts, safely past? No, pausing at a distance, some stopping, quick whispered dialogue; I wouldn’t know now if Mom even woke up and answered, my attention too obsessed with boys, men so soon, trying to attract my fears, my fears going out to them with obliging readiness, terrified. They head back my way, picking up rocks, pebbles, still howling and caterwauling, throwing them, striking my arms, my legs, my back. I hang up the phone and slowly walk away, so as not to allow them—as if I could prevent them—to give chase. Relief. They are done with their fun with me, I hope, as they seem to keep going in the distance. No, not yet: one of them still following, my footsteps echoed by his own. Can I pick up my feet any faster, still slow, not seeming to run, but able to get away? I go faster, he pursues. Quickened by pasty-faced fear, I feel him grab? No, tap, but still, my shoulder, hear the Latino accent, this is it, I have to whirl around as if able to combat, I whirl, at least he’s not the biggest: he says, “Miss? Miss? May I walk you home?” “No, thanks.” “Okay.” At a guess, he’s not the one who threw the first stone.
My second cold January in a frozen city. But I had lived through a bright, hot summer, cool and dappled with light both, as the perennially damp cold of even the top half of the small house where I was living was pleasant in the summer. And in the back room, the light from the sun poured across the stale old carpet, making a smell that would have been indefinable if I hadn’t been able to imagine all sorts of things, noxious and rotten things, that might have contributed to it. I’d been in Syracuse from a cold late fall to this January, and now my mother had had enough of my abasement at the hands of whatever one was supposed to assume the fates were these days, and she was coming to move me off Welfare and to Boston area, to be closer to my brother, who might help me reorganize my life. It was odd to ponder the words “fates” and “Welfare” as existing in the same universe; certainly they didn’t seem to find room in the same galaxy of discourse: the fates were what I used to read about in literary courses, where characters in myths, legends, novels, and poems had such things. Welfare, on the other hand, was something no one had better have any more of than anyone else, or it was unfair; and a fate was a thing too special, too prejudicial, to exist in the same conversation.
Things had happened to me and others in Syracuse. Unintentionally, I’d had an affair with a developmentally disabled Latino man with the first name of Ryan (no last name given). What do I mean by unintentionally? I mean, I do have scruples, and though I didn’t abuse him in any way, I also wouldn’t have been more than a friend if I’d been clued in or been told that he was what people in my neck of the woods called “retarded,” which differentiated him from people like me, who were usually (as clients of the behavioral health system) simply called “not right.” I guess that amounted to being “wrong.” When Ryan first showed attraction, I’d not been desperately interested, but his sister and brother-in-law egged us on, and I assumed that the difficulty we were having communicating was a problem a good ESL course would have corrected (or, conversely, my learning Spanish). He was generally coherent, kind, loving, had a bright sense of humor, and was passionate and considerate at the same time. One of our neighbors, a younger man in his teens, kept pointing to me and saying to Ryan something that sounded like “Cho-cha.” I asked what it meant, and he grinned and said “Cupcake.” I still don’t know for sure what it means, but I feel it likely that it didn’t mean “cupcake.” In fact, I think it was probably, given the general behavior of the teenager, something a lot more prejudicial. Ryan and I were involved for only a little while, but I finally saw the light when his sister tried to get me to “take care of him” when they moved away. They were planning to go without him, with such an unsteady guardian as I was in charge. Just to confirm my new impression, I spoke to the mailman, who knew everything: sure enough, I had made what amounted to a serious, mistaken lapse of judgment in my own world.
I was also ill, and when I told my neighbors I didn’t feel well, they called an ambulance. Somehow, though, I was put back in the loony bin for a weekend, and while I was away, someone came into my apartment, threw everything around, and stole my cat and a red cashmere sweater my mother had given me (which I never wore except when she was visiting). The sweater was unimportant, but the cat was unforgiveable. I asked around, I called outside, and one morning, I heard my baby give an answering meow. It was mid-morning, the street was mostly empty, and I kept calling and calling. Soon, it was obvious— she was in the upper level of the house next door. There was a broken window atop the house, and as I called, she poked her beloved head through the wide aperture and looked at me. I ran up to the house and climbed on the porch bannisters of the first floor, holding on with precarious grip to the roof, coaxing her down the slope of it to where I waited. Though I’ve never picked up a cat by the scruff of the neck before or since, as I cannot be persuaded it’s comfortable for them, that was the only way to carry her with one hand while I balanced with the other and got down. She submitted to this way of being handled and we went home, after Ryan had come across the street and asked what was wrong. He also delivered my Welfare check, which, even though we were no longer together, he had been protecting from a distance as it sat in my mailbox during my absence.
And as the joke goes, “then some other stuff happened,” meaning in this case that Ryan and his family moved away, that one night there was a Hell’s Angels rally on the street and I was afraid to go out, that when the house next door vacated, they left their own two cats and numerous kittens there to roam the neighborhood. I took three of the kittens in, the ones that had begged admittance at the front door, meowing hungrily and winding around my legs.
My mother had been coming periodically to visit all this time, and in an effort to restore me to myself, she had been bringing the New York Times crossword puzzle, which we always worked together. Without a dictionary or any form of reference, we always got it right. I don’t know how. It must’ve been one of those gratuitous dispensations, a small handout from fate. And that was all.
On the day I left Syracuse, we took the refrigerator and a few other things that Welfare had paid for but refused to take back for the use of another client, and put them on a street corner, where someone else could use them. As an afterthought, I took a real gold bracelet I’d been hoarding, one which a long time before one of my college friends had given me, and hung it on the top of the pile. My final gesture of fealty and bewilderment and tribute (or guilt?) to a system that might have meant well, but didn’t serve well, so what could it have possibly done for the others who had equal right to it?
And with me, I took my little family of four cats, the few possessions I’d had, and one small, injured songbird of a sparrow, who’d lived with me and the cats in his separate cage the whole time after I found him in the dust on a city street where he chirped in pain at a leg missing below the knee. Pennywhistle, who had re-learned to fly by being swung in a circle through the air on a halter of wool I’d made to fit him; who was kept in the back room away from the cats and let fly out of his cage when the door between the rooms was closed; the bright spirit who had learned the sound of the grocer’s truck coming up the street, and always whistled because, summer or winter, if I was there, I bought him cherries and fed him through the bars of the cage. Pennywhistle would be our ensign.