The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When I was a psychology intern in a hospital ward, there was a man there who claimed to be Lucifer himself. Even megadoses of medication didn’t seem to touch Luce, as we called him. He had a look of pure evil — sharp features, slitted eyes, a long, pointed tongue that lolled wetly from his mouth — and he constantly spewed obscenities, hatred, and rage. I couldn’t stand Luce, and tried everything short of threatening to quit to get him assigned to some other trainee, but to no avail: he was all mine for an hour a day. I did my best to work with him, pretending that Luce was my shadow self, here to teach me about my own evil and arrogance. As it turned out, I learned a lot, but could do little to help him.
A few years later, I read that a patient named Luke at the same hospital had died while rescuing a number of other patients from a fire. My curiosity peaked, I called the chief psychologist at the hospital. Here is what he told me:
“About a year ago, Luce became friendly with a new patient who claimed he was God. Soon, the staff began to notice profound changes in Luce’s behavior. He was still psychotic, but he became more and more benevolent toward others, even sweet. He insisted that his name was now Luke. ‘I’ve been talking to God,’ he said, ‘and God has forgiven me. I’m one of his loyal angels again.’ ”
Scaly Mountain, North Carolina
In spring of 1972, I was a young chaplain at a Midwestern university, struggling to decide whether to stay in the priesthood. I offered Mass in my dorm room for the students, reading the liturgy as cars whizzed by several stories below. After the others had left, a shy nursing student would hang back to talk about her classes and her hometown. I often saw her sitting by herself at the campus coffeehouse I ran in an old basement on weekends. Young lovers would sit there with their arms around each other, listening to folk music in the semidarkness. It was awful to be alone on those warm spring nights. The nursing student and I began taking walks along the lake after I’d closed the coffeehouse for the night. Our strolls turned into quiet evenings together, then into weekends.
I worried our relationship might “cause a scandal,” something I’d often been warned against in my training. But in my wiser moments I realized we were good for each other. I was no fallen angel — merely a man who appreciated the warmth and companionship of a lovely young woman.
Troy, New York
Becoming a teenager was terrifying. All at once, my childhood seemed to come to an end. My friends were smoking pot and taking acid, and suddenly it was as if I didn’t know them anymore. When she was high, my closest friend would look at me and laugh as though she knew something I didn’t. Once, a girl I didn’t even know called and threatened to beat me up because she’d heard I was talking about her doing drugs.
When my parents finally caught on, they sent me to a private boarding school for girls, thinking it would be a better environment. If anything, it was worse. Everyone at boarding school did drugs: pot, ludes, Valium, acid, hash, speed, coke. My suitemate was an addict at age fourteen. She came from a wealthy South Carolina family. Her parents had sent her away to school because they hadn’t known what else to do with her. She’d run away from home many times, and been sent to reform school. The last time she’d run away, she’d worked as a stripper and turned tricks at a truck stop to support her drug habit.
After classes were over for the day, all the girls would sit out in the yard, and the deals would begin. Local guys would drive up in Camaros, Corvettes, and Firebirds ready to trade a joint, a lude, or a blotter of acid for a kiss, a ride in their car, or more. I was too scared to do drugs, but I stayed drunk so no one would mistake me for a narc. My first kiss came from a man in his forties who drove up to the school in his van. He gave me a rum and Coke and tried to get me to ride around with him. His four-year-old son was asleep in the back seat.
When I was twelve, my father turned me out in an attempt to save himself from the criminals to whom he was in debt. (In my old neighborhood, this was hardly unusual.) The strategy did not, of course, save anybody from anything. Not only did the same thugs keep right on terrorizing him; they also smashed my already shaky adolescent psyche to smithereens.
I had always been a weird, introspective kid, but out on the streets, things got a lot worse for me. That whole year went by in a rush of harsh clichés: my vicious black pimp, my cowardly white father, the painful dramas unfolding all around me. Then, that first working winter, a girl named Leslie killed herself with a razor.
Leslie was a skinny, dirty girl with no real parents and no sense; a thirteen-year-old problem with limp-noodle hair and coal-rimmed eyes who went out in the snow without stockings. She wore white lipstick and pearl barrettes and too much cologne, and her perpetually unzipped pink windbreaker was frayed and gray around the collar and ventilated with cigarette holes. She smiled constantly at nothing and nobody, bit her nails and sucked her thumb, and drew blue and black ink pen doodles around the scabs on her arms and legs to pass the time. She probably wouldn’t have died had she not been so totally, tragically alone.
I’d always felt sorry for Leslie. Without even thinking it, I knew I was better than her: I had parents; I looked clean; I passed classes. I thought myself pretty lucky. But that changed the day Leslie died.
I’d like to say I suddenly realized what deep trouble I was in, or that I “got in touch with my rage.” But what actually happened was far more subterranean, visceral, and dark. It was as though something living inside me, something ancient and alien and carnivorous, woke up. And its waking woke me up. I felt it thump and uncoil in my heart, felt its sour breath at the base of my spine. It drank my tears, ate away at my gut, and never went away until I’d gotten myself far from that deadly, freezing place.
I am forty-three now, with two college degrees, a husband, three children, a warm home, a good job. I know now that my dark angel was the very same creature that whispers in the ear of the serial killer and the child molester, that torments the psychotic and the demagogue. But somehow, for reasons I may never understand, it let me ride it out of there lucid and alive.
Last summer, I journeyed south for an internship in Greensboro, North Carolina. Several days a week, I practiced kung fu in the parking lot of a church, and I sometimes drew a small crowd of admiring kids, who would ride up on their dirt bikes and request flying side kicks and other acrobatic feats. Although often I could perform only sloppy executions of the moves they wanted to see, they didn’t seem to mind, and would cry, “Wow!” and, “Cool!” I did my best to please the kids, and became somewhat of a minor hero to them.
One night at the parking lot, I was quietly practicing alone when a squad car pulled up. The officer said a witness had seen someone matching my description throw a brick through a window a couple of blocks away. Soon the lot was full of police cars. I must have looked very guilty, and was glad no one I knew was there to see me getting into the police car. Then, as the officer said, “Watch your head,” and closed the door on me, I glimpsed light reflecting off the shiny frames of two dirt bikes in the distance, their owners standing beside them.
I waited several days after first spotting the backpack in the alley behind my house before going through it. I’d guessed that it belonged to a homeless person, and had felt sure the owner would return for it. But no one had.
Inside the backpack I found an assortment of necessities: a bag of cereal, some rotting apples, herbal medicine, a few toiletries, underwear, gloves, a hat, a cassette player, some music tapes, two paperback books on a spiritual leader whose name I didn’t recognize, a book of poems from the public library, a few loose coins, a couple of scarves, some tarot cards, a letter addressed to a couple on the other side of the country, and an empty beer bottle.
I read the letter. It was to his parents. He wrote about having survived another winter in Seattle, and said he didn’t want his parents to take his departure many years ago as a reflection on them; rather, it was something he’d needed to do for himself. He sounded lonely to me. On some level, I thought, he wanted to go home. I worried about what had caused him not to return for his things.
I mailed the letter, along with some of his belongings, to the address on the envelope. Within days, I received a response from his father, who thanked me and explained that his son had called a couple of weeks earlier and told them his backpack had been stolen. The father told me it saddened them that their son had chosen to live this way, mostly on the streets. He couldn’t understand his son’s choice; they had raised him in a loving and Christian home. Of course, he said, he had destroyed the tarot cards.
I felt shame. I had self-righteously invaded this family’s privacy. I had peered into their lives and found one man who had consciously given up material ambitions to search for a spiritual path, but had left his family bewildered and in pain; and another man who had given his son the best he knew, but was ashamed of who his son had become.
L. C. F. Shaw
I work with at-risk high school girls. Neglected by their parents, they are burdened with more freedom than they know how to handle. Even in a small town, these kids grow up fast, experiencing adult ordeals long before they are intellectually, emotionally, or physically ready. Their main sources of guidance are their peers, who usually suggest quick fixes, like sex, alcohol, or drugs. Some of these girls attend school, some don’t. Some have perfect attendance for weeks, and then I never see them again. I strive to make my lessons meaningful, because each one may be their last. These girls are young, beautiful, and full of promise, but they can’t see it.
As the girls enter my classroom, I can already tell Claire is so high she doesn’t know where she is. Mary has a new stud through her lip; that brings the number of piercings to three in the lip, two in the nose, thirteen in the right ear, and seven in the left, for a grand total of twenty-five. Sue is neat as a pin, with beautiful hair and a sweet personality; she just finished serving six months in jail for auto theft. Sherry’s all smiles on the outside, trying to fool everyone, including herself; she hasn’t had a good day since she got drunk at a party last year and was raped. Laura’s seventeen and has a two-year-old daughter; she knows nothing of the real world, but is planning to move out of her parents’ house next week with the baby. Lisa is here today; she runs away a lot. Last year, only fifteen, she was on the lam for five months. And Ellen? Ellen won’t be here today because she tried to kill herself last night.
I stand to begin the lesson on self-esteem.
Growing up in the sixties, L. was just another high-school jock in love with his sweetheart. He played varsity football and baseball, but he was no star athlete, and was more sensitive than most. He graduated in June 1968. That summer he and I were on an American Legion baseball team together. The following year, when I was a senior, he showed up back at our school in his army dress greens, obviously proud. (You didn’t see that sort of thing very often in 1969, not after the disastrous Tet Offensive.)
Two years later, at age nineteen, I was in Vietnam myself, near Bong Son, a coastal village in the Central Highlands. I was new to the country, a “cherry” on my way to the field to replace a medic killed earlier that week in an ambush. I was told that, in the field, I would eventually meet Doc Dew, a medic who refused to come to the rear. He was a paradox: he had a couple of medals for valor, but was heavily into drugs. He made the lifers nervous.
Two weeks later I met Doc Dew. It was L. When we were alone, I asked him what had happened. He just looked at me with vacant eyes; that young, sensitive high-school boy was gone. He shot some heroin into his arm with a syringe from his aid bag, then walked away.
When I first arrived here in prison, I signed up for church so I’d be able to get out of my cell and walk around the yard on weekends. Catholic church was the best because it let out at 9 A.M., just in time for yard.
Before Mass that Sunday, I stood outside smoking cigarettes until the last minute, then entered the small room that serves as church, mosque, and synagogue. Someone handed me a booklet, and I sat down. The priest was already speaking. I tried to find the passage he was reading, but his words were almost unintelligible because of his thick East Indian accent. So I listened attentively as the service progressed. I had never been to a Catholic church before, and was both embarrassed and fascinated by it all.
The altar boy, a long-haired, bearded convict, was quite a character on the yard, but here in the chapel he took everything very seriously. It was hard not to laugh watching him somberly ringing the bells. At one point, the priest instructed us to share a token of our love for one another, and everyone stood up and began shaking hands. I was amazed; convicts who wouldn’t even look at each other on the yard suddenly were exchanging smiles and handshakes.
During Communion, I was dumbfounded by the sight of these violent, hardened criminals lining up to receive their wafers, tattooed hands pressed together in prayer, shaved heads bent in supplication. Many of their cheeks had tattoos of tears, symbolizing either hits on enemies or fallen homeboys. One by one, they stepped forward and stuck out their tongues to receive their own little pieces of the Lord. Some even knelt in front of a brightly colored statue of the Virgin Mary.
That was all I could take of this crazy scene. It was still ten minutes before yard, but I figured I’d rather dodge the guards than stay there another second. I quietly returned my booklet and stepped into the bright sunshine.
Crescent City, California
Until he turned eighteen, my father was his mama’s little angel: sensitive, caring, intelligent, and handsome. But on his eighteenth birthday, he enlisted in the service without her consent. He disobeyed her for a second time just before he was sent into action overseas. She’d offered him a hundred dollars (a considerable sum in 1943) not to marry my mother, whom she considered not good enough for her precious son. But of course he married my mother anyway. Knowing he would soon be shipping out, they had a hasty wedding and honeymoon during his three-day leave, then shared a short but happy month of marriage at the army base before he was sent overseas.
In the war, my father served on a paratroop-transport plane. His job was to help the troops make their jumps, and to bring the aircraft back to base should the pilot and copilot be wounded or killed. If somebody got shot up trying to jump, my father was to get him back in the plane and pray he’d make it back alive — or “bag” him if he didn’t. Once, he pulled in a guy whose head had been shot off while he waited to jump.
Stationed in Sicily, my father befriended a little girl with dark, needy eyes, named Maria. She was one of a group of hungry children who begged the GIs for candy bars and spare change. He sent home pictures with her sitting on his lap, staring up at him adoringly. After he returned, whenever his own well-fed children left a morsel of uneaten food on our plates, he’d cry and tell us there were children starving in Europe.
Although my father was not physically injured in the war, it left him jittery, unsettled, and deeply disturbed. He’d mumble in his sleep, then yell as he jerked awake from some awful nightmare. He cried whenever he saw anything on TV even remotely related to war. In the car he’d hang on to the wheel so tightly you’d think he was about to be sucked out the window. As a passenger, he’d slam his foot on an imaginary brake pedal and bob from side to side, as if to avoid collisions with distant vehicles.
He began to cope with this unease by drinking. At first, it was a shot and a beer after work with the boys. Then it was shots and beers with the boys and a couple of beers at home afterward. Then it was a few after work, a few at home, a few before bed, a few in the morning — until he was drinking around the clock.
After several years of this, my father started having seizures, which led to hospitalizations, which led to the dt’s, which led to long stays in mental wards. He suffered from malnutrition and liver damage. His mother criticized him; his wife was disgusted by him; we children were ashamed of him. Still, no matter how far he fell, he would not stop drinking.
Eventually my mother filed for a divorce. He stopped working altogether. He slept all day and roamed the house at night, ranting and raving. He was like a ghost. He had lost everything: his wife, his family, his dignity, his hope.
One evening, he climbed the ladder to the dark attic and, with nothing left to live for, placed a rope around his neck, said a prayer, and flew free.
Linda Jeffers Russell
Upper Montclair, New Jersey
My sister Kathy tells me over the phone that she practiced yoga in college — and still does sometimes, on the floor of her living room, after work. “The fetal position is my favorite,” she says, forgetting the name Child’s Pose. “I fell asleep in that position once; I was so comfortable.”
I’m not surprised it’s Kathy’s favorite; we often return to the fetal position in the face of harm or neglect. I wonder if she adopts that pose to ward off the blows.
Another time, Kathy calls crying and says, “Dave almost killed me. He almost killed me, but I made it. I came out OK, and alone, on my own.” I can think of nothing to do but congratulate her, because the times she acknowledges herself are so rare I don’t want to let this one pass unrewarded.
I’ve had a nagging fear for some time now that Kathy will die young: cancer from the two-to-three packs she smokes every day; a drunk-driving accident; suicide if she ever bottoms out. Or murder.
This time she calls and talks for two hours, nonstop. “He sleeps in the basement now,” she says.
I suggest she tell him to leave.
“I’ve tried that. I even changed the lock on the door; did it all by myself,” she says with pride.
But then she gave him the new key.
“Not to keep, of course,” she says.
She says he drinks too much, but he’s a good person, and maybe she can help him. She says she wants to leave him, but it would hurt him if she did. She ends with her slogan: “I don’t want anyone to hurt the way I have hurt.” That’s what keeps her from kicking him out, keeps her stuck.
What finally makes me cry after I hang up is not anything she’s told me, exactly. It’s just that, after all these months of my trying to trust the universe, of believing that God is with all of us, all the time, I can’t help thinking my sister’s been forsaken. She’s thirty-nine years old and still lying there in that fucking fetal position, unable, unwilling to move.
My grandpa was the most precious person in my life. Until I was five, I lived just down the road from him, and was always at his house. I slept there, ate there, and also worked there, helping him gather, clean, and deliver the eggs that were his main source of income. He even let me feed a lamb that had been abandoned by its mother, and when the lamb was sold he gave me the money. Most importantly of all, he introduced me to the piano, inspiring my lifelong love of music.
As a teenager I was put in a foster home after being sexually abused by my stepfather. I lived there until a friend and I got our own apartment in our junior year of high school. When Grandpa found out, he arranged for me to live with his oldest daughter, my aunt, in Tennessee. He feared that if I lived on my own I would never finish school.
I did graduate, and Grandpa paid my way through college, where I majored in piano. But he died before I got my degree.
When it came time for my senior recital, my oldest sister flew in from Oregon to hear me play, and our aunt invited us to dinner. As our aunt showed us pictures from her childhood, I commented on how glum she and her brothers looked. My aunt said nothing, but the next morning she called and asked us to come over. We did, and she told us that, when they were growing up, she and her two brothers would hide beneath the thick covers on the bed, listening fearfully as their father severely beat their mother, and wondering when the same would happen to them.
This was Grandpa, my grandpa, who did those things.
It was the early years of World War II, and my family was not yet feeling the tension and worry that the war would later cause, after two of my brothers were sent overseas to fight. We had all spent a pleasant summer Sunday afternoon eating dinner and reading the Sunday comics. Now the air was growing heavy with humidity, and we gravitated to the screened-in front porch to catch whatever breeze there might be. Grandma sat in her rocking chair and watched the comings and goings of the neighbors. Dad read the sports page.
The sky began to turn that greenish purple color that precedes a severe thunderstorm, and sure enough one moved in rapidly. The late afternoon turned dark as night as thunder rolled. Knowing we were in for some fireworks, we settled back in our chairs to enjoy the spectacle and await the break in the oppressive heat. Then we noticed a man hurrying up the street. He was a stranger — an unusual sight in our neighborhood. Just as he passed in front of our house there was a flash of fierce lightning and a thunderclap that rocked the foundations. Shaking all over, the man plastered himself against our maple tree and appeared to pray. To this day, I have never seen anyone — even a child — react with such extreme fright to a thunderstorm.
My father opened the screen door and called to the man, who turned and looked, his eyes white with terror. “It’s not safe for you to stand under a tree,” Dad said. “Come up on the porch.” He beckoned with his hand, and the stranger, though apparently unable to comprehend my father’s words, understood the gesture and ran swiftly up the stairs.
Curious, I studied the stranger with fascination. He did not try to communicate, but stood in a corner and turned his face toward the house so he would not have to look at the tempest raging all around us. Dad shrugged his shoulders, and Mother offered the stranger a glass of iced tea, but the man shook his head and mumbled something in a language we didn’t recognize. He was taller than my father, and had on clothes of a rough, drab cloth.
Out of politeness, we acted as though it were not unusual to have a foreign stranger praying and trembling on our porch. We children went back to our card game, Dad sat back down, and Grandma continued to rock. Mother commented, “It’s getting cooler already.”
The storm ended as suddenly as it had begun. The rain stopped and little glimmers of sun began to peek out. The man ceased his shaking and looked around.
“It looks as though the storm is over,” Dad said, and held the screen door open for the stranger. On his way out, the man suddenly grabbed Dad’s hand, bent over, and kissed it, then ran down the steps and up the street. I can still see the look of total amazement and embarrassment on Dad’s face.
That was more than fifty years ago, but sometimes I wonder who the stranger was, where he was from, and where he was going. Did he remember, in later years, the kindness shown him by a simple American family?
Both of my brothers saw action in the war, and both, unlike many, returned safely. I think of the words of Hebrews 13:2 — “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Kendall Park, New Jersey
When I first came to this maximum-security prison twenty-two years ago, there were about a thousand inmates. Now there are almost fifteen thousand. And counting.
A. was one of them. Like so many nowadays, he’d been raised in foster homes all his life and had no real ties to anyone or anything. I think that’s why he was always seeking acceptance in any way he could. I met him in the county jail when he was first arrested: a thin, baby-faced boy of fifteen with long brown hair and hazel eyes. A couple of years later, I was walking the tiers and saw a group of cons gathered around some “fish” (that’s what we call newcomers) — and A. was among them. I couldn’t believe he had already been sent to the penitentiary. Now he was with the big boys.
A. lasted less than a year here; I was in the next cell when he was killed. His lover, R., had just come out of the hole. While R. had been away, A. had given himself to anyone who wanted him, just as he’d done since he was a kid. Upon his release, R. and one of his buddies had come to A.’s cell to celebrate. They had a couple of joints — and a couple of shanks. By the time A. realized what was happening, it was too late.
They stabbed him more than eighty times; then R. pissed on the dead body. The guards didn’t find out until hours later, when they came by to count. I watched as they brought A. out on a stretcher. He looked like a little boy sleeping, except that his long hair was plastered against his cheek with blood.
I tell the younger prisoners, “We live in the old style, stripped of all emotion and running naked with crude weapons. And when we take someone out, we like to see how it affects everyone else. No drive-bys here. It’s raw and it’s nasty.” They ask me, “How have you survived so long?” And I say, “I haven’t.”
I can’t help but wonder how many of them will be like A. But there’s nothing I can do. It’s hard enough taking care of myself, maintaining my own sanity.
I’ve been here twenty-two years. Sometimes I wonder if it might be better for me just to remain here forever. I guess I’m as scared to get out as I am to stay. Can you come out of hell and not smell of fire and brimstone? Can you walk the streets without burning those you touch?
Canon City, Colorado
Kathy pauses at the other end of the phone line, then whispers, “I love being with him. I don’t want to stop. What kind of Christian does that make me?”
I don’t know how to respond. Kathy has been my best friend since childhood. We grew up two blocks apart, both in strict Catholic homes. Kathy got married at twenty-three to a well-mannered Catholic boy, while I married a Vietnam veteran with no religion and was divorced four years later. Now Kathy is having an affair with a plumber named Jason while her husband is away on business.
It started off innocently enough. Kathy and Jason talked while he repaired a broken pipe in her laundry room. He helped her mop up the water, and she offered him iced tea and homemade cookies. Each in need of companionship, they became friends.
Before long they were making love in the early morning a couple of times a week, after Kathy’s two children had left for school. On several occasions, Kathy called, breathless and excited, and begged me to take the kids overnight so she and Jason could be together. She described Jason’s lovemaking as ardent, precise, and completely unselfish.
“I feel sexually alive when I’m with Jason,” she’d say. “Everything seems brighter.”
Kathy believes that her meeting Jason was predestined, because of the strong, almost mystical bond between them. She claims to still love her husband, John, but admits having had no sexual interest in him for two years. Their relationship, Kathy says, is passionless, the sex difficult and unemotional.
Now we sit across from each other in our favorite cafe. The waiter brings our usual: a double espresso for me, a cinnamon cappuccino for Kathy. There is despair in her eyes.
“John is coming home in a week,” she says. “I’m afraid he may want to have sex with me, and I won’t be able to fake it after all this. What do you think I should do?”
Without hesitation, I tell her, “Follow your heart. Be true to yourself and to those around you, and things should work out.”
Kathy and I were raised to believe in sin and to feel guilt for wanting to experience life. Kathy worries that she has fallen from grace. I prefer to think that each life experience can bring us closer to wisdom and truth.
When I was twelve, I began voice lessons with Mrs. Friedman. She was a tiny woman with a big voice and a heart large enough to accept anyone, even a gangly, miserable teenager like me. No matter how unhappy or surly I was, she was always glad to see me, and made me feel welcome in her home. Ostracized by my peers and misunderstood by my family, I went to her house for refuge when I felt unwanted everywhere else. Even after I ended my vocal studies, I continued to visit Mrs. Friedman.
When I was twenty-one, my mother died. My father soon remarried, and I found myself unwelcome in the house where I’d grown up. At twenty-four (too old to be living “at home” — especially a home where no one spoke to me unless my father was present), I took an apartment about an hour away. The move was long overdue, and it was good to be out on my own. When summoned to my father and stepmother’s house for Jewish holidays, I got through the strained, uncomfortable festivities by remembering that afterward I would stop at Mrs. Friedman’s for coffee — and for the affection I no longer found at home.
A few years later, I met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband. He wasn’t the “nice Jewish boy” I was supposed to find, but a newly separated father of two, sixteen years my senior, and a practicing Episcopalian. I wanted to introduce him to Mrs. Friedman, and assumed that she would accept him as readily as she had me. But the next opportunity to bring my husband to meet her was Passover, and Mrs. Friedman didn’t allow non-Jews at her Seder table, obeying literally the biblical command that outsiders should not partake of the holiday meal. I said we’d stop by afterward, but we ran early, and they ran late, and as a result we arrived just as the ceremonial meal was beginning. We were seated at the table, but Mrs. Friedman felt compelled to explain each step of the Seder to my husband in a singsong voice, as if he were a child. It was incredibly uncomfortable, and I couldn’t wait to escape. Although Mrs. Friedman had accepted me during my adolescence, when no one else would, when it came to my husband it was a different story.
It was late summer, the early seventies, and my crazy mother and I had just been evicted from our apartment in New York City. Roughed up by the cops who forced us out, and mocked by our landlord, we found ourselves adrift in the company of lost souls.
We camped out temporarily on a bench at the edge of Central Park. As dusk fell, a group of five young black men approached. They had been eyeing us and wanted to know what a seemingly uptown white woman and her sixteen-year-old daughter were doing stuck on the fringes with them. We swapped hard-luck stories, and wound up pooling our money for a pizza. A bottle in a bag was passed around. As it got dark, we decided to get some cardboard boxes to use for beds and go into the park to sleep. One of the young men, a part-time chauffeur named Romeo, volunteered to get the boxes. When he returned with them we flattened them out, dragged our stuff into the park, and set up our encampment. Due to the isolation of the spot, I was a little uneasy about sharing our cardboard beds with these strange men. But after a while I drifted off to sleep.
During the course of the night, I was awakened numerous times: first by mosquitoes — and then by the gropings of the man next to me. A timid virgin, I was afraid that if I told him to stop, the situation would only escalate, so I silently fended off his advances. My head was full of stereotypes of insatiable male lust — black male lust, in particular.
At one point, Romeo woke up and asked if I needed to go to the bushes to pee. We went a short distance, and when we returned he lay down next to me, effectively blocking the roaming hands of the other man. Confident I could trust Romeo, I finally slept.
When morning came, we went our separate ways.
Here at the women’s prison where I have been incarcerated for the past sixteen years, we begin preparing for Christmas in September by forming a choir to sing traditional carols. Most of the women who join the choir are serving life sentences, yet give up months of free time to rehearse. The harder we practice, the more we draw upon one another for strength, and somehow we always end up with a deep sense of accomplishment and unity.
It takes two nights to visit every unit in the prison with our carols. The first night, we go to where the women spend most of their time under lock-up: the reception center, the infirmary, the AIDS unit, and the psychiatric unit. One year I shall never forget. We entered the reception center and stood at the top of the hall lined with cells, knowing that there were two women in each one, probably with their ears pressed to the locked door. We began to sing, our voices echoing through the hallway, and heard in response the women’s muffled cries of “Merry Christmas!” and “Right on!”
As we sang, however, two male guards entered the hall and began going from cell to cell, systematically searching them one by one and throwing into the hallway whatever “contraband” items they could find: a little extra food saved for a private Christmas snack; extra blankets to ward off the chill; an extra piece of clothing. They loudly slammed and locked each cell door behind them, while we held our heads high and sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”