Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Oxford Street Shelter

As we know, I married at 18 desperate to know who was going to love me forever and to have it in writing. I thought we were proving the vast chorus of naysayers wrong until Friday, September 13, 1996 when I discovered all that he'd been up to (in?). It was a month before my 21st birthday and I had exactly zero coping skills for such rejection. A girl so eager to have it all sown up shortly after her 18th birthday was not a girl on solid emotional footing, although I did a decent job of making it appear so.

I quit my resort receptionist job and hopped a Greyhound in hopes of something, distraction, redemption, I don't know anymore. Perhaps it wasn't hope at all, just agitation. I filled 7 journals during this time, all interlocking as I could never find my current journal and would use a new one until an older one showed up and then I'd use that until I lost it and repeat the process until I had 7 journals going at once. I recently took a confusing and white knuckled ride through these journals, screaming at the pages: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING! Oh my god ohmygod ohmygod. And I don't mean the horrifying lack of organization, I mean the terrifying lack of concern for my own safety. I mean, I know that girl survives, but as I read those journals, it seemed beyond unlikely.


Making my Greyhound way from Orcas to Chicago, I get out to stretch my legs in the middle of the night at the Spokane station. A man starts up a conversation and I describe him in my journals as wearing satin shirts and being good looking and sitting next to me all the way to Butte trying to talk me in to coming to stay at his place for a bit. I note that he looks so much like a pimp that it was hard to believe he wasn't an actor on a cheesy tv show. OMFG girl, get your head out of your ass, he's actually a pimp. Lucky for me, I want nothing at all to do with any man at this point and his having a penis automatically disqualifies him from being taken seriously.

For a few nights I stay in my sister's dorm, just outside of Chicago. Later, I get a bed at a hostel in the center of the city. The basement is an ocean of pinball machines and I spend an inordinate amount of time drowning in them. I take drumming lessons. I try to sneak in to bars where favorite blues musicians are playing, but am rejected due to my age. I visit every single art museum in the city. I spend several days with the armor exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, admiring the artistry of impervious garments, the beauty of not getting hurt.

New York City seems to call suddenly and I arrive in the late afternoon. I grab my small backpack, the only thing I've brought, that and a purple shoulder bag full of half filled journals and an enormous camera. I emerge from the station into a sunny afternoon. I stand at the door. I am in New York City, BABY! But I don't know where. I don't know where I want to go from the place that I don't know where it is. I don't have a map. I don't have much money. This girl, me, running on the idea that there are no bad ideas (the irony!) realizes that this might actually be one. I turn a 180 and queue up at the ticket counter. I tell the woman at the window that I want the next bus leaving the city. She hands me a ticket for Portland, Maine. As the bus navigates out of the chaos, I promise myself that I'll come back some day and someone will show me around and I'll have enough money to enjoy it all. I have never been back.

In Portland, I begin looking for a place to spend the night, a hostel, a room, something. Parked at the payphone, I learn that there's an elevator manufacturers' convention in town, plus President Clinton is here to bless an oil spill and hotelier after hotelier tells me that this means there are no rooms. The only one I find is at an expensive bed and breakfast 100 miles from Portland. I came in on the last bus and it's too late to leave this town now. I'm stuck here.

I decide to cafe hop all night. A solution so simple there's hardly a problem. I stash my backpack in a locker at the station. The first place I go is a restaurant named Papa's and I think that Lou Reed is mistaken in his cautions against eating at a place called Mama's. After too much coffee and some truly terrible soup, my journals get jittery, difficult to read and confusing. I realize that perhaps this is not the best time in my life to stay up all night writing about my feelings. I move on to a Uni dorm lobby, chatting with students as they come and go. At curfew I'm kicked out. I wander down to the waterfront, where the bars are. I'm days shy of 21 but no one will let me in. I'm feeling so low that I begin wondering about ways I could kill myself. The coffee is making my mind race and it's spinning out of my control. Plus, I really need to pee but the bouncers won't even let me in to do that. It's just constant rejection, up and down the street. I'm crying hysterically now and snot is burbling out of my nose. I have no tissues so I wipe with my sleeve, repeatedly shellacking my cheeks. I decide I need to call someone, someone who might care if I exist or don't exist, but someone not too wrapped up in it to freak out. I grab a payphone and call my ex-ing husband. (I eventually get actual, trained help with this later, so don't worry). He talks me down until I suddenly come to my senses, my olfactory senses specifically. "Ohmygod, what's that smell!! Holy shit! This phone is covered in vomit!" I drop it and run.

I try one last hotel, hoping that perhaps someone no-showed their reservations. No such luck, and also no public bathroom. But they point me to the YWCA up the hill.  As I turn the corner, hours of caffeine and watered down soup just can't be held back anymore and I wet myself thoroughly. It turns cold in seconds and my thighs chap as I waddle up hill to the YWCA.  The woman closing up the Y for the night tells me that tonight is the first hard freeze of the season and so all of the shelters are full, including theirs. I gesture at the nice couch in the lobby but she says she can't allow that. She eyes me, head to toe, and says I better use their restroom to freshen up before she has to kick me out.

In  the bathroom mirror, I see a girl covered in a variety of terrible bodily fluids. I try to clean myself, but it feels hopeless, pointless. I mostly just cry. Back in the lobby, she cheerfully tells me that one shelter has one bed open. It's across town. I'll have to walk miles, at night, through a dangerous area, and across a railroad yard, but they'll hold the door for me. I should be safe because no one will be out looking for trouble in this cold weather. I must leave immediately. I can hardly blame her for not offering to drive me but it's hard to imagine NYC turning out worse than this.

When I arrive at the Oxford Street Shelter, I endure several rounds of paperwork and then am allowed to mingle in the common room for a bit before lights out. A bakery messed up a wedding cake and I eat my fill, as Marie Antoinette suggested. There are only men in the common room now. At first I avoid them, but they are so nice that I move to their table.

They tell me their tales of woe and homelessness. One man tells me about his old factory job and how his coworker with kids got a lay off slip, but he talked the manager in to letting them trade, because he couldn't let those kids go hungry. They are kind and gentle men with super low IQ's or severe looking depression. I tell them I'm done with Portland and I hate this adorable little town. I tell them I'm thinking of trying out Bar Harbor. They erupt in excitement! They tell me I should really go to Bahaba. And I was like, "Bahaba? Where's that? Does the Grayhound go to Bahaba?" Yes, the bus goes to Bahaba, they assure me. They tell me I want to go to Bahaba. And I respond with, "Yes, but what about Bar Harbor?" And they say, yes, I should go to Bahaba. And I say great, maybe after I go to Bar Harbor, I'll try Bahaba. At this they erupt in frustration, slamming the table with their fists. I pull out a map and ask them to show me where Bahaba is. They point to Bar Harbor. And I say, "No, that's Bar Harbor. Show me Bahaba!" But they keep point at that little black dot and yelling "Bahaba!" Suddenly I realize we're doing a Nor'easterner's version of Who's on First. Bahaba is Maine-ish for Bar Harbor. Bar Harbor. Upon realizing the situation, our giggles quickly turn to belly laughs. As I look around me I think, A girl could get used to this. Delicious cake. A warm bed. Total freedom and good, kind company. What more could I want out of life?

It's lights out and I'm ushered into the last cot of Portland. The cot is about 18" wide with less than 12" between cots.  I'm encouraged by the caretaker to brush my teeth before bed and behind her the deadbolt clicks, locking us in, for our own safety.

Oxford Street Shelter looks partly kinda cute on a sunny Sunday morning
The bathroom is tiny and pink. And someone has smeared an oil based ointment on every single surface. The meticulous attention to detail is impressive. It's been q-tipped into the nooks and crannies of every screw and faucet. It's thick on the mirror and I feel fortunate I can't see myself.

I use my purple bag as a pillow. I stare up at the ceiling. It is a the dark room full of women, stacked like logs, snoring. To my left is a plump, short woman who overflows her cot and her thighs touch mine. To my right is a transvestite in white go-go boots and a mini-dress. No one seems concerned about her using this bathroom, but that was a different era. She sleeps so that her feet are in my face. I will wish she'd take off her boots, but then when she does, I'll wish she hadn't.  Every car that drives by wakes her up and she runs to the caged window and yells to the sodium vapor street light that she'll be right out. She always adds a name: Tim, Jim, Ryan.  But she won't be right out, because we're all locked in here.

I recognize that I'm hardly the ideal cot-mate either. I smell of urine and vomit and have a thick crust of snot over half my face. 

The plump woman to my left is snoring so loudly that I can't fall asleep. It is thunderous. I beg for god, who I'm beginning to think is made up or possibly a complete jerk, to make it stop. This, this is the prayer, the single prayer in my life that god answers. "He" could have used his own judgment here, but he passive-aggressively grants my ill-advised wish. Well played, mother fucker, well played.

As my wish comes true, her thunderous snores give way to giggling. And in her giggling she sometimes tells "Paul" to stop it. Stop tickling her. Stop telling jokes. Stop being so silly, Paul! So Paul stops being silly and gets dangerous. No Paul, she whispers, growls, I can't do that. You know I can't do that. Paul, what are you saying! That's not right. I could never. I couldn't harm her. She's getting louder, I wouldn't. You know that, Paul, so stop asking. Paul, NO. NO Paul. NO!!

I'm looking at her from the corner of my eye. I have no idea what Paul is telling her to do but it doesn't sound good. She sits up, her eyes open wide and she stares into my face. Screaming, spit flying, her eyes inches from mine: "DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND!?!?! YOU HAVE TO DIE!! You are going to die!!" From your lips to gods ears, honey.

If you are not crazy before homelessness, we can fix that.

Sleep is obviously out of the question. As soon as I hear the deadbolts in the morning, I bolt. The attendant yells something about breakfast, but I'd had it with the Oxford Street Shelter/Asylum.  In the cold morning light, I see how bad the neighborhoods I'd walked through are. I wonder at that woman at the Y sending me here, alone, at night. I find a Dunkin Donuts and buy myself, what else, more coffee, this time with donuts. Trembling, I am barely holding it together, perhaps only by the brute force of dried snot on my face.  A family strikes up a conversation with me. The mom says running away is never the answer. The dad says I can come home with them, get cleaned up, go to church with them. They say they know a nice shelter for me to stay at. But all I freak: well-meaning people are dangerous, sometimes rules need breaking and these people seem incapable of knowing when. I'd had it with obedient people, bouncers and hotel clerks and YWCA bitches and god and myself as well, getting married at 18, following all the rules and look what shit it all is.  At the word "shelter" I run so fast, I leave my coffee and donuts. I run and run. Running away might not solve every problem but it was very nicely solving the problem of stupid people talking to me, at least for a while.

I run back to the cheapest hotel. The clerk is shocked by my appearance, "Weren't you here last night? What happened to you?!"
"I stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter."
His jaw dropped. "oh. my. god. Not that place? Oh god, I'm so sorry. Had I known, I would've let you crash at my place." Oh great, another fucking pimp.
"We had an early check out. I'll go clean the room for you. I'll give you two nights for one."
I take an extremely long shower in the communal bath. When I returned to my room I open up a bottle of sleeping pills I acquired the day before. And I take as many as I feel like taking. I do not read the directions. I do not care. I want to sleep and if that is for a day or two or eternity, it does not matter to me anymore.

I took this photo just before I finally fell asleep

I awoke the next morning, nearly 24 hours later. I called my parents. They suggested a religious commune-ity outside of Boston where I stayed for a few months, safer, healing a bit, but also surrounded by a different kind of nut job and a whole other blog post or two about what happened next.  I am one of the lucky ones, spending only one night at that shelter, not weeks, months, years as was the case with some of the women.

Blue recently bemoaned that she'll never top my adventures (which she's just recently begun asking about) and I said that I hoped she cared enough about her own safety and value to not even try.  There are a great many things I am unsuccessful at; she could try one of those many low hanging fruits.

In my current life, things so look normal and occasionally some people make assumptions about me, about the path I took to get here, about how lock-step it must have been. But the truth is, whatever stability and normalcy I've found, I fought like hell to get and to keep. Maybe it's boring, but to me, now, this normalcy IS my wildest dream.

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