Noe Valley Voice November 1999

Wine, Roses & Regrets

By Carol Ormandy

Waking up one morning last fall, I was hyperventilating within two minutes, my bag lady fears greeting me like a toothless hag at the foot of my bed. It wasn't the first time I'd awakened surprised that a shopping cart wasn't sitting next to me, even though I was in no immediate danger of being homeless. But some days my mind just didn't get it.

Between deep breaths and affirmations about the universe being a bountiful place, I decided to go outside and stroll down 24th Street.

It was beginning to be a perfect Indian summer day. As I took in my favorite neighborhood, I passed some rose bushes and grinned, thinking of the saying about "stopping to smell the roses." My unreasonable fears and the morning's anxiety were gone. Homeless indeed. I decided to treat myself to a cone at Rory's and then shop for Halloween decorations.

As I approached the Post Office, I thought I saw my old friend Maggie. She didn't look good. Maggie had disappeared from my life a few years earlier, and I'd heard she wasn't doing well.

She saw me and called my name out. Did we run in slow motion, embrace, and share secrets of feminine hygiene as we caught each other up? No. I was speechless, my breath was no longer a deep and flowing river of peace within. My hands were clenched as my affirmation became a nightmare.

Maggie and a friend were sitting on a bench that was half covered with a torn blanket. I walked over to meet them, and we exchanged the standard comments about the nice weather -- I assumed they were really pleased since it was obvious they lived outdoors. Maggie's skin was darker and used, like my leather garden shoes that I won't toss out. Her clothes seemed cellar damp and were wrinkled like her face.

Maggie's friend left and I sat with her. I told her what was going on with me, leaving out my fears of ending up like her, and she started rambling on about this wonderful, huge crate she slept in near the bay.

She joked about slumming it today in her old neighborhood. I smiled, but couldn't bring myself to laugh, certainly not the way we used to laugh. I shifted around, wondering about dirt and fleas. I began to rub my arms and think of ways to keep our conversation moving. After maybe 15 minutes, I told her I had to go and run some errands.

Later, as I sat with my latte at Spinelli's, I saw her staring at me. I felt as though we were on opposite sides of a window looking into each other's lives, and I sensed that she wanted to be invited back into my world, the world we shared until she'd made some bad choices.

As I was heading home, I walked over to invite her to dinner. I asked her to call a couple of days in advance to let us know she'd be coming; I had no way to call her back. She asked me if she could take a shower when she came by and I said yes, in fact, why not take a bath? My bourgeois imagination thrust me into a fantasy scene right out of the movie Pocketful of Miracles, when the street beggar Apple Annie is all cleaned up in a fancy motel room. I was horrified at my thoughts, but went to Common Scents anyway to stock up on some pampering supplies for her. Or maybe I didn't like the thought of her using mine?

As it turned out, she left a phone message on a Thursday asking about the following night and it was a night we had plans. I got frantic about what I would say in a note to her and how I'd leave the note on my door where she could see it. I even wondered if she would break in if we were not home. When my husband came home, I made him drive me to the area she said she was living in. He drove, but refused to get out of the car, so I walked around calling her name until I began to see how futile it was.

As dusk descended, I realized that I was afraid, and I wondered how Maggie felt night after night in the dark and the cold. When I got back to the car, I was crying.

My husband, also Maggie's friend, unwisely tried to use logic to comfort me, reminding me that she had made a choice: She'd decided she could take pills again after years of being clean. She got drunk every day.

He soon found out that he had made a choice to get dirty looks from me. The only comfort I found in anything he said was that Maggie had alcohol to warm her and to keep her fears at bay. In the beginning, this is what alcohol and drugs do for many of us -- some of us are just more scared than others.

She showed up later that same night. Her 19-year-old son, Tommy, drove her over. She had a fresh black eye and told me a story about the boyfriend who punched her and how she called the police and Tommy, but I wasn't listening. I was looking at Tommy, who I have known since he was 10 years old. My compassion for Maggie had shifted over to him, as I wondered what it felt like to go to a crate to pick up your mom.

Maggie announced that she just came by to take a bath and visit. It was after 11 p.m., and the rest of us had to work the next day, but she had all the time in the world. She spoke of getting back on her feet, and I told her I'd see what kind of help was available and when she came by again I'd give her some numbers and a phone card.

As soon as Maggie left the room, Tommy told me he was really happy that his mom was "kinda sober" that night. I was silently enraged that she had pulled him into any of this. Before they left, I invited them both over for Thanksgiving.

Maggie came back alone on Thanksgiving. She was three hours late for dinner. She stank of booze and the urine that soaked her jeans. We had some friends and their toddler over, and although I had told them that Maggie might drop by and that she was homeless, none of us expected her to look like this. I expected the movie version of a homeless friend.

Maggie asked if she could wash up and I told her yes, but then I lied and said that we had plans to go to the movies and were leaving in 15 minutes so she needed to hurry. My friends were collecting their belongings, protectively holding their son.

I finally got Maggie into the bathroom, but she walked out naked a few minutes later. She had decided not to take a shower, but wanted clean clothes. I hastily found her some clothes and said goodbye to my friends as they ran out the door. My husband gave Maggie some money and drove her back to the same bench we'd sat on a month earlier, so she could catch the 48-Quintara to Potrero Hill. When he came home, we had our pie and coffee alone.

I THINK ABOUT HER THIS FALL, when I shop in Just for Fun and see all the Halloween stuff. We had more visits over the year, with promises and requests for money. I got her into a recovery home last March, but she got loaded and had to leave. Over the past year, she has called me from pay phones in parks, hospitals, shelters, and this summer from jail.

If I could help her, I would. If I could sober her up, I would. She is punch-drunk now and scarred from too many battles. I have reluctantly joined her long list of old friends that she believes have abandoned her, the list I swore I would never end up on when I saw her last November. At some point this became about my need to save her, rather than accept her as she is.

Maggie has joined the parade of people who've let their fears, their pain, and their desperation send them under bridges, bushes, and bus shelters across America.

As for me, I'm still waking up with a roof over my head. And repeating my affirmations: Today, I have all that I need and enough to share. So I will break bread and honor that grace in my life.

Carol Ormandy is a contributor to Multitude, a book of essays on writing compiled by Chitra Divakaruni. Her most recent published work was a piece about the Littleton massacre for Salon online magazine. She is currently working on a memoir about her experiences as a teenage unwed mother and the son she put up for adoption in 1968.