Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Welfare Princess of Liberty Park

Alana had turned the inside of the shack into a place of sparkly wonderment for her children.
    (sept. 19, 2011) The “For Rent” sign remained in front of the shack three doors west of my house for a long time after Heroin Chick and Harley Dude moved out. Neighbors continued to grumble about its “disgraceful condition” and its effect on the property values of our tidy, charmingly landscaped Liberty Park-area street.
    On one memorable day, a few months after the former tenants and their cuddly parrot moved  out, I was invited inside by the new tenant. This spirited, brave woman, who was being torn apart by her past, had transformed a filthy, chaotic dump into a place of magic and beauty.
     After the previous tenants disappeared (, I had immersed myself in two projects that couldn’t have been more different. It was pretty funny: I was composing death-metal lyrics for a neighborhood garage band and writing synopses of Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley's speeches for an LDS book-publishing company.
      One project was a blast. The other was an honor. I was neither a howling adolescent male (at least not on the outside) nor a Mormon (not on the outside, inside, or anywhere in between), and I was privileged to be given such a position of trust in each realm.
    I found that writing nihilistic, bloody, irrational, inconsolable, vulgar, gruesome, rage-filled poetry was incredibly refreshing. It was primal-screamy, and I needed that. 
    (My death-metal career -- it felt so good!
    In editing the Mormon prophet’s words, I had the palpable feeling that I was holding him – or his brain, anyway (or his spirit? Yikes!) – in my hands, and in exercising the gentleness and open-mindedness necessary to do the job well, I fell in love with the man. That was not on my agenda! But he really was a sweetie. 
The late President Gordon B. Hinckley -- a darling man.
    (Maybe he just had great PR people? But if the Church had great PR people, I would have fallen for other presidents as well, and I’ve never felt even the tiniest tingle for any of them.) 

   For the past several weeks, when I was kneeling among my front-yard flowers early in the morning, a young woman had been striding by, taking her two children to school. She had said in passing how much she enjoyed my yard. 
    I was intrigued by her face. She was very attractive, but it wasn’t conventional prettiness. There was a beautiful openness and responsiveness, a strength and intelligence, and a glow that drew me to her. 
    Her coloring was striking: rosy-gold skin and reddish-gold hair. She had a breeziness to her, as well as a solidity. She had a fine vigor in her movements and her speech, and she radiated a competent, get-things-done energy that made me feel quite flaccid by comparison. I thought she looked very much like a younger version of Ellen Burstyn.
Alana had Burstyn's eyes and smile.
     One day, she introduced herself as Alana and asked me if I would come to her house and advise her on how to design a flower garden similar to mine for her yard. I said I’m no expert, but sure – where do you live? 
    Just three houses down, she said. 
    Oh my god – in that shack! I told her I needed to do a few things in the kitchen first and have a shower. Then I’d come over. 
    The house looked even worse close up -- peeling paint, a falling-down roof, a crumbling porch. It looked almost as crappy as the shacks I’d seen in the Deep South, except it had real glass windows instead of plastic. The screen door was hanging open, torn up and off its hinges. I knocked on the door, which had been brightly painted, wondering what sort of hell hole I’d be walking into. 

    Alana greeted me with a glass of iced hibiscus tea. 

    She had just had a shower, too, and she had a towel wrapped around her head. I realized that she always had that just-showered look. I would like to figure out how that’s done. 

    When I stepped inside, it was like entering a child’s dream (although, I must say, it was sort of my dream too). This was essentially a one-room house. Hundreds of twinkling cardboard stars and moons, covered with aluminum foil, were suspended from the ceiling on six-inch strings. They fluttered and rustled, shooting tiny shafts of light everywhere. The ceiling was sky blue.

The neighbors called this the "white trash" house. I don't like that term.

     Alana had painted each wall a different color – creamy yellow, lime green, lavender, pimiento – and on one of them was a fanciful mural, filled with big trees, flowers, butterflies, birds and forest creatures. It was like visiting Pippi Longstocking, only way better! (She had asked the landlord if he would help pay for the paint, she told me, but he refused to pay for anything to improve the home.)

    Several shelves displayed children’s books the way a library does, with the appealing covers facing forward.


    Alana had made old-fashioned floral and gingham fabric covers for all the cast-off, busted-up couches and chairs she had found during the neighborhood trash pickup, and she had dredged up some quirky old lamps, small tables and a big old antique wall mirror as well, plus a decent wooden table and chairs for the “dining area” of the room.
    The effect was pure magic. It was like a secret refuge, dedicated to her children, and abounding with joy and love. The fact that it was hidden inside such a dumpy, down-and-out hovel made it all the more exhilarating.
She had turned a hell-hole into a spirited, happy, crazy place.
     The bathroom was so narrow, it seemed that it would be almost impossible to turn around in it. It had an old clawtooth tub, which Alana had colored aquamarine. Tropical-fish decals were pasted along the sides. The walls were coral. There was a sliver of a room, large enough only for a cot, where Alana slept. Each child had a “slumber corner” in the main room, where the cot was folded up during the day, and which included a colorful curtain that could be drawn for privacy.
    This luminous environment seemed to have been created by a person who was flowing over with happiness, energy and optimism.
    But when we sat down with our tea to talk, I learned that Alana was a deeply traumatized victim of long-term sexual molestation by her father. 
As a child, she had told her mother about the rapes, but her mother had called her a liar. She got pregnant at the age of sixteen and had a son who was now in college, in addition to her two elementary school-age children. She was an alcoholic. She had recently gotten fired from her job at a hospital when she was caught drinking mouthwash to get high. She had finally mustered the strength to leave a violent marriage several months ago and was on welfare. She was struggling, emotionally and financially.
    But the face that she showed to the world was one of radiance and responsiveness. And, more importantly, the face she showed to her children was one of unconditional love, a sense of adventure, and a confidence in the future.
     She was determined to give them the support they needed to have a better life, and she was overwhelmed with emotion when she described her eldest son’s achievements in college. She was so inspired that she intended to sign up for two or three classes in the fall.
    My heart ached for her. I was awed by her dignity. When she told me about her father – I couldn’t control it – I embraced her and cried.
    Over the next couple of years, I enjoyed having people in my life for whom I could buy or make little treats. Alana and her children were, it seemed, always on my mind when I was shopping or cooking.
   Those were the good old days, when I could still get dressed, drive to Sugarhouse, walk into a store, and browse. It sounds easy enough, but I can’t do it anymore. I don’t do any baking, either. The mere thought of producing those big, beautiful loaves of whole-wheat bread – with oatmeal, flax and sunflower seeds – makes me dizzy. It tires me out. It’s too complicated.
    I felt great tenderness for Alana’s son, Jason. He was an odd, awkward, scrawny eight-year-old blond boy who peered almost unseeingly out of big, thick glasses. His whole body seemed out of joint. He was bullied at school. He didn’t seem to engage with people in a normal way, although he was very sweet. If he were in the school system today, he would probably get some sort of diagnosis that would be as likely to damage as to help him.
    He craved affection, and I was happy to provide it. We hugged and rolled around with such abandon that he soon learned to take his glasses off beforehand. His dream – inspired by watching the news -- was to be a paramedic. He liked art, and asked me how I felt about Salvador Dali. 
I love Salvador Dali! You should see his stuff at the Guggenheim. It’s even more mind-blowing in person than it is in your mom’s art books.
     Alana’s daughter, Claire, was a couple of years older. She was pretty and subdued. I thought she might look like Clara Bow when she grew up. She wanted to be a veterinary assistant.
The actress Clara Bow.
    She was once assigned in school to interview “an older person” about the important issues of life, and she chose me. Oh great, now I’m an older person! I had always behaved in such a crazy way with Alana’s kids that I was hoping they saw me as a peer. Oh well.
    The questions the teacher had drafted were very silly, I thought, but also very hard to answer. What was my favorite color? Are you kidding me? What does it matter, and anyway, I pretty much love them all, except for brown.
    What was my favorite food? Good god, honey – I have to give this some thought! Because I am an eating maniac!
    What is my favorite song? Come on, you crazy educators – how can you expect anyone to answer that? To require that we do so is just plain cruel. There are hundreds of songs from decades past that have become not just part of my history but also part of my DNA, and I’m sure a lot of people in my generation feel the same way. I feel as if I actually consist of music. I swoon, I dance, I reminisce and get teary-eyed. I have no favorite song, Miss Bimbo Teacher – don’t be ridiculous.
    The only question that was interesting and enlightening, as far as I was concerned, was, “What is your favorite book of all time?”
    It took me a few moments to realize that my answer – boring though it might seem – was inevitable, and surprising, even to me. I knew I was going to disappoint Claire.
    “If I can only pick one, it’s the dictionary,” I said. “Sorry, I know that’s weird.”
    “My mom says you’re unusual. I don’t think that’s the same as weird,” Claire admonished me, that pale, serious face of hers becoming even more serious.  “And my teacher told us to be nice to people who are ‘different.’”

    Alana brought her eldest son, Nathan, over to meet me one brisk autumn afternoon. They were both wearing scarves that Alana had knitted with that happy Pippi Longstocking aesthetic of hers.
     It was such a beautiful day, he had decided to skip his classes at the U. Even though I expressed mild disapproval, we hit it off immediately, and he asked me to go for a walk around Liberty Park, which was less than two blocks away, and is Salt Lake City’s smaller but very lovely answer to New York’s Central Park. He was a striking young man, with Alana’s glowing red-gold coloring, tall and slender, with long, wavy, glossy hair.
     We bonded over our love for the rock band INXS, the writer Virginia Woolf, animal rights and brain chemistry. We got so deep into our discussion of memories, dreams, prejudices and how neurotransmitters affect mood and behavior that I didn’t even notice we’d walked all the way around the park several times. Then we got going on the issue of free will, until we realized it was dinnertime.
The brilliant, doomed writer Virginia Woolf
    Nathan was majoring in film studies, which concerned me a bit.
     “What’s your backup, in case that doesn’t work out?” I asked.
    “Woodworking,” he replied. “I like making furniture. Or maybe I’ll do something at Wild Oats. I dig their environment.”
    One morning, I stopped by Alana’s to let her know that my boyfriend and I were leaving town for a brief road trip. I knocked on the door and heard her say “come in.”
    It was so hot in there. Alana was lying on her cot, with covers piled on top of her, and she was sobbing.
    I knelt down beside her. “What happened?” I said.
    “My father died,” she replied, convulsed with grief.
    I kissed her on her forehead and cheek, and then I stood up. “I’m sorry you’re in pain,” I said gently. “But that asshole should have been shot 30 years ago.”
    “I know – thank you for saying that,” she said through her tears. “It’s complicated.”
    I knew it was complicated, of course, and I wasn’t surprised that she was grieving. But my job, as her friend, was to hate him. I hate you, Mr. Daddy – you fucking prick. For what you did to this priceless person! I hope you rot in hell.
I couldn't cry when Alana's disgusting Daddy died, either.
     As I was about to leave, she called me back to her bedside, still wiping her eyes.
    “I just have to tell someone – I got raped again,” she said.
    For the second time, I fell to my knees to console her, but she stopped me.
    “At this point it isn’t even a big deal anymore,” she said, although the tears continued. “I was walking home from the corner store one night last week, and this guy just pulled me off behind a house and did it. I was already dead meat, anyway. I’ve been dead meat for years. I basically didn’t even feel it. I just walked home, went over the kids’ homework and got in the tub. I didn’t even bother to call the cops.”
    I was taken aback by her use of the term “dead meat.” For decades, that’s how I’ve often thought of myself.

    Alana and her kids disappeared. It wasn’t unusual for me to go for days or even a couple of weeks without catching a glimpse of them, but it was my boyfriend who noticed that they had apparently moved out.
    I think it was at least two or three years before she called to tell me that she had moved back in with the man who had repeatedly beaten and constantly denigrated her during their marriage. She had been too embarrassed to let me know.
    She basically threw herself at his feet, begging for mercy. She wasn’t making it on her own, psychologically or financially. She needed his co-parenting assistance. She was living in her own small wing of his house, she told me, with a private bedroom and bathroom. He was treating her civilly, and he was being good to the children. She was grateful to him and believed there was nothing else she could have done.
   We spoke a couple of times over the next few years. She wasn’t able to work or go to school. She evaded the question of whether it was alcohol, depression or both that kept her hidden away in her ex-husband’s house.
"Mercy and Me" by Lisa Ballard
     Then one day, she called and asked me if I would attend the funeral of her son.
    Our sweet, strange, knock-kneed boy had committed suicide at the age of 15. He left letters for everyone, drove up the canyon, and climbed to a spot on Mount Olympus, where he could look out over the Salt Lake Valley. He had his Walkman with him and a "Fields of the Nephilim" CD. He shot himself in the head.
     I was devastated. I feel devastated when anyone commits suicide, even serial killers in prison. It’s ironic, because I contemplate suicide all the time. But when others do it, it strikes me as the saddest thing in the world. I always – foolishly, of course – visualize myself being with them and persuading them not to do it.
    When I saw Jason’s obituary, I was astonished by his transformation since his awkward elementary-school years. He had become a beautiful boy, with shaggy blond hair, an open, sweet-natured face, and no more glasses.

    I don’t do funerals, but I felt I had to haul myself out of my robe and make an appearance.
    Alana had said, “I understand that you can’t stay, but please come and give me a hug. I want to see you."
    When I arrived at the mortuary, I didn’t see Alana or either of her two remaining children. What I saw instead were dozens of goth kids, in full goth regalia -- Jason's friends, here to pay their respects.
    I had had very little contact with goths. I saw them occasionally when I was out shopping, and they were always quiet and well-behaved, in contrast to their aggressively freaky, morbid clothes, spiked and/or death-oriented jewelry, disturbing piercings, inscrutable tattoos, extreme makeup and radical haircuts and hair coloring. I actually loved their sense of style, although it was quite different from mine.
They look scary, but I have found them to be sensitive, loving and creative  people.
    I had interacted with goths who were store employees a few times, and they seemed like good people to me, although they avoided eye contact most of the time. They answered my questions without irritation or impatience. They weren’t sullen or weird, but they appeared to be withdrawn and loath to express any interest or emotion. Even so, they appealed to me. They had a special dignity and courage. Perhaps they were just saying that they did not want to be a part of mainstream culture, but they conveyed it without contempt or anger. I wished I understood them.
    I had always wondered if they were as unhappy and alienated as their costumery projected, or if this was a demeanor that was simply part of their subculture. I had the sense that they were tender young people who had felt out  of place and lonely until they found each other. 
    Were they abused at home? Were they bullied at school? Had they been persecuted for being gay or not conventionally attractive or merely "uncool" by mainstream standards? Or were they simply drawn to a different aesthetic than most of us? Maybe they just enjoyed shocking people, and even each other, by being as far-out as possible. Hey -- I can relate to that! I still love shocking people, even though I should have outgrown it decades ago.
    Whatever the situation was, I felt warmth and respect for them.
    I sat down to wait until Alana appeared. The goth kids touched me immensely. They had discarded any pretense of coolness and aloofness, and they were embracing each other and crying, overwhelmed with sadness. Group hugs were rampant. They were extremely respectful of the somber setting as they came together in their grief. They comforted each other in the most loving way. I felt proud of them.
    Alana appeared, so flushed and bright-eyed that I assumed she had been drinking. When we embraced, we both cried. Her skin was the hottest skin I have ever felt. As we spoke, a very pregnant teenager appeared. She was quasi-goth, if there is any such thing.
    “Don’t you remember me?” she said.
    Oh my god, it was Claire, doing a replay of her mother’s teen-pregnancy life. Alana, for some reason, was ecstatic.
    “The baby is due any time,” she said.
    “The father?” I asked, reluctantly.
     “Out of the picture,” Alana replied blithely. And then she asked me if I had seen her elder son Nathan yet. “See, he’s right over there with Calais.”
    She was pregnant, too.
    “They already have a little girl,” Alana beamed.
    Nathan hadn’t graduated from college, she said. “When Calais got pregnant, the priorities changed – he had to get a job,” she explained.
    “Woodworking?” I asked, hopefully.
    “Wild Oats,” she replied.

    I am always relieved to get the hell out of wherever I am so I can go home, and this was no exception. I cried as I drove, thinking about Jason and what he must have gone through that would have caused him to kill himself. Suicide is so lonely. I wished the love of so many people could have made him less lonely, but I know it doesn't always work that way.
    I cried for the whole family, especially for Alana, who had struggled with such ferocity and love to end the toxic cycle that had devastated her own life. She had failed utterly.
    Since the 1970s, there has been a persistent stereotype of the bejeweled “Welfare Queen,” who pulls up in a Cadillac to collect her monthly check. 
    Anyone who has known poor people and people on public assistance realizes that this is a cynical lie that is perpetuated to turn the public against government assistance for those in need.
    From the moment I saw the sparkly, welcoming interior of Alana’s shack, I thought of her as the “Welfare Princess.” 
She was an Earth Mother as well as a Welfare Princess.
Alana provides a reminder, I think, that we should help – and we should not judge – those who have suffered physical, social, economic, psychological and sexual damage that we are in no position to assess.
    In the process of helping those who need and deserve our aid, of course we are going to find people who are “gaming the system,” just as we do in every arena, including the most prestigious corporate and financial institutions in the country.
    There will always be abuses. In some situations, such as funding private contractors to supplement our armed forces overseas, abuses are the norm. In the realm of helping the poor, we don’t do enough, and abuses are the exception.
    I love you Alana, and I salute you for the battle you waged so honorably.