From the Shelters: The Choices of Women
Revolutionary Worker #1224, December 28, 2003, posted at rwor.org
The RW received this correspondence from a reader.
Heat rises from the pavement like a wave. The sweat runs down my forehead. I sink back onto the rugged brick of the wall.
The heat is everywhere. It seems to rise from the filthy sidewalk, mingling with the smell of sweat and poverty. My most precious, my son, Cody is here next to me.
Everything I have is in four bags that I can barely carry. They sit around me like pieces of my life. I can't leave them for a second. When I go into the nearby bathroom I know what it feels like to be a refugee.
I am sick. It is hard to put one foot in front of the other. My joints are swollen, and I try to ignore the pain. It is hard to catch my breath.
Cody tells me that he is hot and thirsty. And hungry. I don't have an answer. The stairs seem too high to climb, even to fill our coke bottle with water. I sink down onto the large bag filled with my clothing to wait.
He asks if he can go fill up the bottle. I'm terrified to let him out of my sight. Can I lose him too in the middle of this nightmare? And if I did, if something happened to him, what would be left? But, of course, one of us has to go for water. I watch the bags. He returns a few minutes later with the water and some candy that someone has given him upstairs and settles down on the worn backpack beside me.
I suddenly realize that just around the corner, in the shade, the whole sidewalk is filled with women, like me, waiting for the bus to the women's shelter. We grab all our stuff and join them.
There's a cop car parked across the street, with an officer sitting inside just watching. Not much later another cop car pulls up. Someone mentions: "They are always here." I rub the bruise on my face that Frank gave me with the huge ashtray and look again at that fat cop glaring over the steering wheel. How many times has HE bruised a woman? And then complained about "that bitch" over a drink?
Believe it or not, tourists pass by this spot in groups, on their way to the museum. I feel like an attraction in a zoo --and I actually hear the tour guide say "don't give them anything" as people pass us. Some things make you feel alone even when surrounded by people. Some people make you feel guilty, even when you are simply fighting to survive.
Cody starts playing with one of the children. This kid's mother is thin, light-skinned, and pretty. She has a bandage covering a whole side of her face. I want to ask. I don't know how. But she begins to speak. "The other night was our anniversary," she tells me. "I got 15 stitches. Kayla saw it. He just smashed me with a beer bottle right there in the living room."
I must have looked shocked, and she added, "If it wasn't for Kayla, I'd just find a bridge to jump off of. He kept saying he would change, and then this.'"
It is a hard, bewildering reality to have a home one day, and to be sitting here the next. To have a bedroom, and a dinner table, to have a TV where Cody can play his video games, to borrow a car to run to the store, to have neighbors, and a phone--then, suddenly, to be sitting here with four bags.
What is the choice.or the price? How many slaps and punches does it take before that old life is intolerable? And what exactly makes THIS moment, sitting homeless on the sidewalk, tolerable?
"You'll be ok" are words that I haven't found to be reassuring. But these are words Cody has tried to use to comfort me. One asshole former-husband used to say, "God clothed the lilies of the field." But I just don't believe there is a god holding his hand over us. We will have to fight to "be ok." And out here, for the moment, alone with Cody, that looks like a very hard alone .
Suddenly the woman on the sidewalk next to us spoke-- all in one gush--as she nervously tugged her short blue dress down over her pale white legs. She is bone-thin, scratching, nervous, wired--and obviously sick, with sores running down her skin.
It was as if the last days of her life just fell out there, on the street, in front of us to share, to be understood: "I've had one of those! Let me tell you, I've had a lot more than one of those! My first boyfriend, he was a fucking addict, but so am I! All the money kept disappearing, then one day I came home and the TV was gone. Then he comes walking in with the TV. He was so pathetic he couldn't even sell our TV on the street to get himself a fix. So he gets mad at me because I told him how pathetic he looked walking back in with that TV. I had to laugh. I couldn't help it. It was just one of those moments. Well, you know he threw it at me and that was that! My next boyfriend, he got angry when I caught him screwing in my bed and then that was the end of that. My last one, he gave me AIDS. But oh I could tell you some stories in between. He had me fuck his friends for money, but he always said he loved me. Can you believe I always called myself not putting up with men's shit! Why is it they think they can do anything they want?"
She shifts uncomfortably, tugging at her hem and adds, "Maybe it's just god's way of getting me right with him because now he's all I got left."
The bus arrives and she tells us to be careful. She won't be going with us to the shelter tonight.
I watch Cody struggle up the steps of that bus, loaded with bags of our shit. And my mind was jolted back to a photograph that someone once gave me. It was a picture of a young Palestinian boy sitting in front of the rubble that was once his home.
I carried that photo with me for a long time. The boy reminded me of Cody. I had felt a connection. I had thought: What if this was my child? How would it feel?
Our column of women refugees climb into the rundown bus, and it pulls away. Cody leans against me and I stroke his hair as he drifts off to sleep.
This is part of life in this society that I have never seen before and now I'm part of it. I cry as I realize how many of us there are!
We arrive at the shelter, kids pulling their own, ragged bags up the long, back flight of steps.
Raw, hurting and afraid, we are processed like so much meat. It starts with a grilling about personal details, done in public like we are in a jailhouse line-up: "Do you have custody? Don't you have any family?"
We are moved through the bureaucracy, and all end up sprawled on the floor in a huge garage-like space. Just lying back on my bags, with Cody there, feels like a moment of relief. I am in their hands--and though it is impersonal and even humiliating, for a moment it also feels safe.
This shelter is the end of the line in the whole system. For many it is the "last stop" before they end up living under a bridge. This is where you go when they kick you out of the other shelters- -for being too "crazy" or too upset. Many roads led women here. Many were "reformed" off welfare, and ended here with nothing.
The woman next to us has six kids with her. She's 27, younger than me, but I mistook her for much older. The rough hands, deep lines in her face and the graying hair give me the impression that she could be at least 10 years older.
Her kids play as if they are at home. In a way they are. She has been homeless nearly two years now. Most shelters, she told me, will not take women that have more than four children. Her youngest child was born homeless.
She tells me how she got a job and got off welfare. She had moved out of public housing but then she got sick and missed work and couldn't make the rent. She told me, "I'm not a welfare mother anymore--I'm just plain broke-and-homeless, bringing my kids up in this shit."
We roll out our mats, we eat, then sleep. Morning comes early, and my whole body is sore from the last days.
The Staff Lady comes in, starched, and has us all get up and hold hands in a circle. She starts a prayer over us:
"Dear Father, we ask you that you bring your blessings on these women and that you help to heal and make right the choices that they have made in their lives. Many of them have strayed from your service, may you bless them and show them the path to your glory since these women do not have a husband or a father now to take care of their needs; we pray that the father will take care of their needs at this time."
She renders her verdict, delivered as a plea to her god.
Is that the solution: a new husband? a new man? divine help? better choices? My neck stiffens. As it will every morning when I hear these words.
Yet heads are bowed in respect. One woman near me whispers, "Yes lord! Yes lord!"
They run us by strict rules -- that are designed to make their work and control easier. But also to send the message that we are suspect women, who probably need discipline and more domestication.
Every day I'm there, I break rules I don't even know about. I'm not good at my chores. They don't like how I roll up my mat. I mop the "wrong" way.
"Didn't your mother teach you anything?!" the Staff Lady snaps at me. My mother taught me to get beat, I think. She taught me to blame myself. Isn't that enough?
A few days later and we've moved again. To a different shelter in an old school building. Cody and I have a bunk bed among the rows of bunk beds that fill the gym.
Over on the next bunk, there is a beautiful old blue quilt, in many shades, draped across the bed. I smile at the woman there, and tell her how pretty it is. "I made it myself," she says, "out of old clothes." And for a second she describes to me the many places she and that quilt have gone together.
Suddenly her voice turns harsh, and I see tremors in her hands. "Don't fuck with my stuff, you hear?" Startled, I just nod. Her hands shake. "The last white woman here, she stole my shit. Don't fuck with my shit! Just because you're white, don't mean you can get away with it. This isn't a playground!" She stalks off, still shouting.
Inside the shelter, everything is regimented. When we shower. When we sleep. Lights out by 9.
During the day, we are free to go outside--which raises simple questions that never crossed my mind before. What do you do for 7 hours in the day, if you have no money, no house to clean, no job to visit, no man to handle?
I feel cut off from the world. At every point I try to find some space. Some time to think. Some peace of mind to focus on the larger world, to write.
I strain to find the ways to stay connected to the revolution. I sneak out of the shelter, and try to continue my work. But sometimes, I'm just overwhelmed, too tired, and I sleep, and I just can't find the strength to connect.
The place echoes with the constant yelling of children. For them, life goes on. They play, and tumble, and race back and forth. The mothers discover each other. We take turns watching over them. One woman walks up to me and says: "Today I had my turn at the used clothing closet. I found something for Cody."
Here we are, sitting surrounded by our broken lives. Many of us sick. Many of us heading back to desperation. But we are, at the same time, here together. Rubbing raw against each other, but also able to share and comfort.
I think in my mind: a dozen shelters in this city, a hundred cities in this country, a world outside of that, with beaten women, homeless poor and desperate women. Women, like me, who had only choices no sane person would pick.
And they pray over us, they blame us, they isolate us, and treat us like criminals -- even while they give us a roof, some food, and a place to catch our breath.
How does this all end? All the handouts and used pants in the world won't free Cody from what he has seen. And nothing here will protect these women from the horrors to come.
I have stolen moments here for politics. I have crept into the library to read the Revolutionary Worker online. But to me, this is not just my lifeline to sanity. It is more than my connection to a community of people. It is not just the world and life that I want to get back to. It is what I promise to do for my sisters here. And it is what I have to offer them and all of humanity. It is, for me and for them, the hope of the hopeless.