As I drove the Project Reach-Out van up Central Park West, I spotted a homeless woman I’d been searching for. Helen looked decades older than her mid-sixties. She was sitting on a bench and owning the sidewalk. Her belongings—a rolling cart and multitude of bags— were spread every which way, causing pedestrians to step into the street to avoid her things.
Helen had survived years eating garbage, living in cardboard boxes, and having rats crawl over her. I’d seen her contend with all manner of health problems with feisty defiance. At the top of her dazzling array of coping mechanisms was her ability to keep people away—she wore black plastic garbage bags, smelled like rotting fish, and was covered in a protective layer of grime mixed with lice. From a distance, she looked more like a heap of trash, or a corpse, than a living, breathing, human being.
Though I’d known her for five years, her earlier life remained a mystery. I pulled over to offer her a sandwich, which she accepted, saying, in her thick Russian accent: “Still focus on everybody else… vhat running avay from, Anne? Vhy you no look at you own problem? Vhere is boyfriend? Better find before too old… you not so ugly yet.” She was short of breath and every few words were interrupted by a cough.
Like most people suffering a mental illness, her filter mechanism was on the blink, but there was a tenderness that trickled from under her rough shell. I caught sight of her legs, a pulpy mixture of pus and blood infested with wriggling maggots, and gagged instinctively.
I did my best to zero in on her face, which was velvety beneath the net of a beekeeper’s bonnet. With remnants of beauty still evident, her angular features were bronzed with dirt and tan, her eyes fierce. Her body was puffed-up and swollen to the point she couldn’t bend at the waist or extend her legs to see the tiny, pale, worms gnawing at her flesh. Yet she could inexplicably manage to walk around the island of Manhattan, carting all her belongings. Helen took the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I offered and ate it with gusto.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I was worried. I haven’t seen you in a week. Can I sit here?” I asked, pointing to the bench beside her.
“Is free country,” Helen said. We sat together with all her worldly goods crammed into half a dozen bags around us—a navy wool blanket, a matted fur coat, newspapers, receipts with doodles in the margins, photos, a collection of plastic forks, straws, crumpled napkins, condiment packages, and a giant tub of Vaseline. There were more bags stuffed into one of the six bags, along with a lamp, in a bent, collapsible shopping cart—with bungee cords in place of metal bars and wheels of varying colors and sizes.
A group of young women strolled past, wearing gargantuan sunglasses, discussing which bars didn’t card; a man in a suit sprinted down the sidewalk with his briefcase nearly hitting us, and nannies paraded by with their strollers—but no one gave Helen, or the rice-pudding-like mixture where her shins used to be, a second glance. She by design, and I by association, faded into obscurity.
Helen had been forcibly hospitalized a few years earlier for failing to come inside when the temperatures dipped into the single digits over several consecutive nights, the kind of nights she had somehow survived outdoors on occasion. She’d rejected the “one bag” shelter rule, despite assurances I’d safeguard her belongings, and had consequently lost three toes to frostbite. I’d been a part of the effort to bring her inside, which had led me into a battle with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization I had been a member of for years. The ACLU supported her right to choose to freeze to death in the park, and I maintained she lacked proper judgment to know the risks. I wanted to make her come with me, which was really no plan at all. Legally, she could be hospitalized against her will only if a psychiatrist deemed she was a danger to herself or others. So I called the mobile psychiatric team and the street assessment had ended with Helen in handcuffs as fifteen police officers in full, terrifying, riot gear led her away. I’d waited nearby, in the shadows of Central Park, and thought her eyes, wild with fear, had spotted mine as she was led away. She knew I was the one responsible for her nightmare. I’d wanted to tell the police to be gentle with her. I’d wanted to tell her I would take care of her belongings. I’d wanted to call it off. Following my “deception” she had been hospitalized. She refused to talk to me for four months.
Now I looked at her sitting on the bench next to me, as ill as I’d ever seen her, and prepared myself for the worst, leaning away slightly. “Helen,” I said, “I know how you feel about Dr. Powell, but I really think you need to see him…I promise you won’t have to wait and I’ll bring you right back here.”
“Leave,” she commanded. I sat still. “Bring coffee,” she clarified. “Not going,” she said with a grimace.
“Yeah. OK. Well, think about it. Please. Your legs are a mess. You have to be seen by a doctor. You can’t stay out here like this and I want to help you. You’ll still be here tomorrow?”
She spit on the ground. “Not your business.”
I then lost her for a week. Where did you go in your black garbage bag, carting around an unmovable mess of stuff, Helen? When I spotted her back on her Central Park West bench, I immediately phoned the on-call psychiatrists, saints who worked pro-bono, and this time I stayed away when they evaluated her. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, an acute and serious condition, and she was once again hospitalized in a dramatic showdown, with well-intentioned police officers scaring the living daylights out of her and everybody else within a mile radius. I visited her a few days later in the locked psychiatric ward at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. I was sent to the day room, at the end of a long corridor. Light radiated through a huge window like a blessing, and on the street below two little girls pony galloped among normal people running normal errands. In the day room, patients sat slumped in molded plastic chairs, staring blankly in the general direction of a giant-screen TV, but Helen wasn’t among them. A long, laminated sheet listed the unit rules, some of which were in bold print: NO CHANGING THE TV STATION WITHOUT PERMISSION, NO FOOD IN LOUNGE AREA, NO STREET CLOTHES, NO VERBAL ABUSE, NO TOUCHING, etc. These—the rules, lack of freedom and fresh air— were everything Helen despised. I was directed to her room and saw her before she saw me.
She was folded over on herself, wearing the standard-issue green hospital gown and staring out of the barred window from her bed. Her legs were wrapped in gauze. With her loneliness exposed and raw, she looked so small that I almost didn’t recognize her. She smelled like rubbing alcohol and defeat. Her frizzy grey hair, usually under a hat, was shockingly long, her skin a sallow, sickly, pale yellow. It took a moment for me to realize that the transformation was, in part, because she’d bathed (or had been bathed) and layers of dirt had been removed. She was less swollen and the skin on her arms hung loose in crepey folds, with white skin above a tan line on her upper arms, a hospital identification band around her wrist. She looked in my direction with vacant eyes that made me want to look away.
With a faded white towel around her neck, she looked like an aged prize fighter who’d had the life knocked out of her. I cleared my throat loudly and she scowled in my general direction, then seemed to speak to the ceiling, with a weak “allo.”
“Hi Helen, you look good,” I lied. She looked only mildly surprised to see me.
“Is shit look good? Where is cigarettes?” Her speech was garbled, like she had a mouthful of marbles, her eyes glassy and unfixed.
“I’ll leave them for you at the nurse’s station; it’s against the rules to smoke in your room.”
She patted the bed and smiled dispassionately, inviting me to sit beside her. She looked me hard in the eyes and I had to look away, but not before I saw a cord of drool escaping the corner of her mouth. “What day it?” she asked, thick-tongued, and I told her it was Friday. “What you doing with the NO money and the NO boyfriend this weekend?” I took it as a good omen that she was making fun of me.
I told her about a weekend camping trip I was taking with friends “I need to get away, out of the city for a while,” I said. A young African-American man poked his head in and out of the doorway and dramatically moon-walked back down the hallway, chirping, “Whitney Houston is my baaaby.” He nearly bumped into a fellow patient who was walking slowly and looking at the floor.
She smiled and said, tapping her temple, “You nice girl, but not such smart as thinking. Who vants camping? Vhy need go avay for sleep on ground? ”
Against my better judgment, I told her about a world far away from hers, where the sun reflected off running streams and fields of wild flowers waved with bees. “We’re going to hike to a spot where we’ll pitch our tents around a freezing cold pond. You can see the fish and the bottom is so clean. I’m not so sure about sleeping on the ground, I voted for the cabins where we stayed last time, but I’m not going to be the one to complain, as long as we’re somewhere near the comfort stations.”
“Always vorried ‘bout vhat everybody think of you…too vishy-vashy. Vhant cabin, sleep in cabin.”
“My friends are gung-ho campers, with every kind of gadget to make roughing it less rough. Anyway, I grew up playing at the creek in our backyard woods. I love all that, and I want to see the stars again. You can’t see them here in the city, it’s too bright.”
“Too bright,” Helen repeated, nodding her head, as if she’d been thinking the same thing. As if she had the luxury to concern herself with the sky, the stars, with things other than survival.
A disembodied announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Dinner starts in 10 minutes. You must wear your slippers to the dining room and wash your hands before eating.” People were already lining up in the hall, standing off kilter like they were on a moving train, each one wearing expressions of people who’d had something important taken away from them. I wondered if many of them had been feisty, like Helen, off their meds.
She gave an unhappy laugh, which I interpreted as: I’m sick of being prodded, medicated, and talked to like a child. Where’s the fresh air? My freedom? Then she stopped me cold and whispered, “Take me vith you.”
I floundered for words. “Yeah, well, maybe not this time but we could try to get a group together and go to someplace one weekend. That could be fun, when you’re feeling better. We’re going to find you a nice room of your own, like you used to have. No, make that better than you used to have, some place without algae growing from the bathroom drain and a crazy landlord.” I tried to make a joke about a situation that had cost her to lose her last apartment. It was in poor taste. I needed her forgiveness and her blessing in order to walk out of there feeling decent. I suddenly thought about brushing her long, wiry hair but knew she would likely fly into a rage at the mere suggestion of such an act of intimacy.
“Vhy you find me on bench? In park? In here? Vhy you want do this for work?”
It was a simple question, but I had no real answer. Because I liked to fix things? I wanted to save someone? Apologize to all the homeless people? Keep up the high I got watching someone who’d been living in a refrigerator box put the key into their own apartment door? Was that what this was about? I honestly didn’t know. My identity felt like a moving target but I admired and self-congratulated myself for doing good work. Maybe I did it to make up for some sneaking suspicion of badness in me. I remembered the time a young rookie police officer tried to arrest Helen for bathing in the Columbus Circle fountain, soap and all, and I’d intervened. I was uppity and sarcastic with the officer and lucky I wasn’t arrested myself. I was forever marching in protests and lecturing people on the rights of marginalized populations. My altruism was loud and showy. But how had I chosen this population, in this place? I thought about it, and not for the first time. It was my job and I was good at it. My co-workers complimented me on my ability to gain the trust of some of the most disturbed (by which I think they might have meant the most disturbing) people they had ever encountered. I had a way with mentally ill people, and it turns out not everyone does. I enjoyed their company. I found them to be more intuitive, honest, and sensory than the so-called sane. I cared about Helen, and the other people I worked with, but she wasn’t my mother, sister, or friend. She was my client, and she knew that. Of course, she knew that. I was paid, not a lot, but I was paid to care about her, and that was the dirty bottom line. What I really wanted in that moment was to be out doing errands to prepare for my trip. I didn’t want to feel guilty and selfish and cruel, leaving her there alone and stripped of her dignity.
“Why don’t I walk you down to the day room,? There’s better light down there,” I said as I prepared to leave. “It’s kind of gloomy in here.”
“I sitting here,” she said softly, rubbing the heels of her palms into her eyes.
She let herself be hugged, but didn’t move to reciprocate. I told myself that most people wouldn’t have survived half what Helen had, that the normal standards didn’t apply to her, she was invincible, she would be fine. She’d managed in a state of perpetual devastation (my term, not hers) as long as I’d known her. In the past few years I’d seen her battle police, landlords, hallucinations, rat bites, diabetes, and obesity. I’d seen reports of the two armed-robberies she’d survived.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you Monday. Wish me luck, okay? If I’m hunched over and hobbling next time you see me, you’ll know sleeping on the hard ground is not for me.”
“You know vhat’s good for you,” she said, putting her hand over her heart.
While I was drinking beer around a campfire and flirting with my co-worker, New-Mike, who hadn’t been new for three years, Helen must have been making her plans. The other six people around the fire pit made enough money to live in NYC— a doctor, an investment banker, two lawyers, and a couple of traders. Mike and I made fun of them for working-for-the-man, but were always more than happy to have them pick up the check for dinner. We wore our poverty like an anti-bourgeois badge of justice, but we secretly liked nice things as much as anybody else did.
We were buzzed and relaxed when Sarah asked, passing a joint, “So, don’t go all crazy on me Anne, but, what about Reagan and deinstitutionalization? It seemed like kind of a good idea, letting people out of those awful state hospitals where they’d been languishing for life.” Sarah made six figures straight out of college and was on the fast track to make partner in her prestigious firm.
I took a long sip of beer. “Except there weren’t any fucking services or housing or anything else in place. People were discharged to nowhere, without money or skills to live on their own. People wandered the streets, which became unsupervised psychiatric wards. They were doomed to fail.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Claire said. “But, on another subject, where did you get your hair cut? I love it! Does crazy Brian still cut it at your work place? Remember when you told us he blew a fuse blow drying your hair in the bathroom and you pretended not to know what had happened?”
I saw a falling star and thought it was a sign of good luck.
When I returned home to my tiny studio apartment, it felt confining, despite the Spartan furnishings, consisting of one bed, a chest of drawers and a file cabinet. I missed the outdoors. Cockroaches scurried frantically from my kitchen sink and starving ants wandered single file in search of a crumb. A moldy orange sat alone among half-used condiments in an otherwise empty fridge. I thought how odd it was that I had so few possessions and Helen had collected so many things. I played my answering machine and fast-forwarded past the bill collectors to find a message from Helen’s hospital social worker. As I listened, my knees trembled and my head dizzied; I sat down on the floor to steady myself. Maybe she’d been thinking about it for some time, or it could have been a spur of the moment impulse. Either way, she’d held her ground, had the last word. No one could tell her how to live her life, and she wasn’t about to let anyone tell her how to end it. She had summoned all her determination and energy for a final, kick-ass flight, through the sweet outside air. Taking a running start from the end of the long hallway leading to the day room, she had smashed through the window, floated through a starless sky, and plummeted four stories to her death. I hoped there was a moment of elation somewhere in the act, which must have required impossible fortitude, like so much of what she did. I hoped she’d felt fresh air on her skin and smelled the sweet sugar-coated peanuts roasting in the food cart on the street below. That’s how I choose to think about it, anyway.
I replayed the message over and over on my machine. I kept wondering: what if I hadn’t run into her that day on the bench? What if I hadn’t gone camping that weekend? And what if I’d shown her there could be a break in the struggle? How had she managed to run…or was it a slow-motion limp…and why hadn’t anyone stopped her?
Why, in the name of all that is holy, didn’t the day room window have goddamn bars on it?
I went to my office Monday morning and chronicled Helen’s last week in the chart. There were no friends to call, no family to console. I contacted the Social Security Office of Disability and made arrangements to secure her burial funds. I phoned the hospital, and they assured me they were installing bars over the new window. The nurse said Helen had given no indication of suicidal thoughts. She said I could pick up her belongings. I couldn’t imagine what I would do with them, but neither could I imagine telling the nurse to throw them out.
When she told me Helen had smoked all but her last cigarette, I found it oddly comforting. I hung up the phone and imagined her voice in my head. “Best things to have is boyfriend, then cigarette. Least I have cigarette. Next time, I have boyfriends, too.”
Image by Jon Tyson from Unsplash