Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Priscilla Stops by in Absentia

...but it's a good thing. Last night when I got home, the white plastic bag was still on the bottom step. Priscilla's sneakers were gone and my old ratty sandals were inside.

No other sign of Priscilla last night. Let's hope, but not expect, she did go to treatment.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Priscilla Stops By II

It took Priscilla at least 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, to fall asleep. She was twitching and scratching herself in that way crack addicts have before her breathing slowed and she stilled.

Earlier, we had been talking while she ate. "You got a lot of novels in here?" she asked me. She picked up Mark Kurlanksky's Salt and I laughed.

"That's a boring-ass book," I warned her.

"You don't have any V.C. Andrews?"

"No, I don't. You like V.C. Andrews?"


"What else you like to read?"

"Dean Koontz." She told me she read Cujo once but Stephen King is too long and too scary for her. Dean Koontz is OK and maybe she read some R.L. Stine, too, when she was a kid.

She told me she flew to Colorado once, when she was 12. She went mountain climbing there. I told her my sister and her husband do rock-climbing in California.

"I don't think I could do that," she said.

"Oh, I think you could," I told her. "You have the arm strength." She smiled shyly at that.

She told me she's been doing crack for six months. "I'm 21 years old. I look like I'm 30. I feel like I'm 60," she said. "I don't want to do this anymore."

We talked about where she could go for treatment. She knows of some religious place on Hermitage that offers treatment. It's not Teresa House (they don't do treatment).

When I went through her jeans pockets before putting them in the wash, I found her crack pipe. It was the only thing she carried. It was very small. I set it on the dryer.

About 11 p.m., when her clothes were about halfway dry, I woke her up and made her take a shower. She stumbled to the stairs, eyes still red from drugs and lack of sleep. She was ready to fall asleep on the guest bed after the shower, but I wouldn't let her.

"Please, could I stay the night? I won't steal anything."

"I am not ready to do that yet," I said, very calmly.

"I understand," she said, with just a hint of disappointment.

When she was dressed, bandaged (her feet had cuts and blisters) in socks and sandals, and five dollars richer because that's how much it costs to stay the night with some lady who takes in overnight guests to make a buck, I showed her the pipe.

"I found this in your pants pocket," I said, holding it out to her.

She took it, then said, with a slight edge of resentment, "Why did you have to give me that back?"

"Because it's yours. Do you want it?"

"I could give it to somebody..."

"Is that really helping them?"

She handed it back to me. "I'm going to that place on Hermitage in the morning," she said.

I hope to God she did, but I don't expect it.

As she left, I told her, "Priscilla, you know this is the last time, right? No more money, no more food, no more showers. If I see you again on the street, I'm going to ask you about treatment, because that's the first thing you need. Do you understand?"

"Yes," she said. "I respect that."

Then she asked me to leave her sneakers out on the steps for her to pick up in the morning.

This morning I left them in a white plastic bag on the bottom step.

Priscilla Stops By

This weekend I went to my hometown, a small city in an oft-forgotten state, for my 20th high school reunion. At the Saturday afternoon picnic in a state park, my oldest friend's five year old daughter had a small problem and went looking for Mommy.

Though I didn't see the event that set her off, I saw her running with a very serious, purposeful expression on her face until she got within eyesight and earshot, at which point the waterworks and sound effects went off. She ran up wailing. Mommy, who hadn't seen her coming, went right into consolation mode.

"She was fine until she got in range," I noted to another friend, also a mother, who laughed knowingly.

Last night the same thing happened to me, except it was Priscilla the minute I got out of the cab from Midway. I even saw her coming. I was picking up the soggy copies of Hoy on the front sidewalk when I saw her small, lithe shape coming from across the street. "Oh, shit, it's Priscilla. Here we go," flashed through my head.

She wasn't crying then, but she was when she got within range. "I just need to talk to you," she wailed. "Yup-yup beat on me." We sat on the stoop. I thought I saw Rosa getting out of her white car with the different-colored doors and wished I was talking with her instead.

Priscilla and I sat on the stoop while she sobbed out a story to which I paid very little attention. The story involved her boyfriend, whoring for crack (this time she used the words "going on dates" as a euphemism), how she wants to get off the stuff but he got mad when she didn't bring any rock home to him, etc. etc. She says two ladies prayed for her on Sunday and she was able to stop using for half a day. It's a start. I had an arm around her, which she appeared to want, but my inner purpose was to judge her arm and body strength in case something bad happened and I would have to use force to defend myself. She's strong for her size, and it's harder to stop someone on crack.

When she started to wind down, I had her breathe deeply and long on the exhale until she was quiet. "Are you really hurt anywhere?" I asked her, with a serious not syrupy tone.

"No," she said, equally serious. It's so hard to know when the actor's mask is off with an active addict, but that word had the ring of truth.

"You're probably hungry," I said. "I don't know what I've got in the house, but let's see."

She was soggy and cold (it rained all day--it was sunny in my hometown). I let her eat. She asked for a t-shirt to wear while her clothes were in the washer. I went upstairs and found an old t-shirt with the word "Boss" small on the chest and large on the rear. It was a gift from a friend when I became board president of her youth-focused nonprofit. It has a stain on it now and was the easiest of the t-shirt memorablia to part with. Besides, it's probably Hugo Boss, so Priscilla could be styling in it.

She took a nap in the living room while her clothes went through the washer. It's hard not to feel affection for someone while you're watching them sleep. But that still didn't mean she was going to spend the night at my house, which she was angling for.

to be continued...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More good than scary neighbors

Quick update on the scary neighbor front: the good neighbors are helping out. I've had an offer of a place to sleep--thanks Rose and Junior and family---and my neighbor the principal is going to take a walk up and remind the guys on the corner that she lives here too, so there's another white lady to pick on about calling cops. Fr. Ed suggested I bring on the prayer brigade. Not sure how that's gonna work, but we'll give it a try, right?

Maritza's Wild Ride Part II

I couldn't remember exactly how to get to the museum parking lot, and the kids began to smell smoke from the engine at Lake Park Avenue just before we turned on to Stony Island. The gauge didn't show anything--the needle was smack in the middle between C and H. I can't smell because of my allergies, but the engine light came on just as we were coming to the museum. Anyway, what was I going to do, stop????

The official museum parking lot is at the bottom of a hill. Oh, great, I thought--this will be fun getting out. I had barely started down when I saw the LED lights: Parking $8.00

I spent all but two bucks on gas when we left home. "Hey, I don't have money for this!" I started trying to turn the car around. Ready fire aim--then I asked, "do you guys have eight dollars between you?"

"We have money," Aurora said, quite calmly. Tires squealing, I lurched the van around again. The turning ratio just cleared the curb and we went down in the garage.

"Eight dollars," said the attendant.

"Could I park this thing and come back to you?" I said over my shoulder, rolling away, with one foot on the brake and the other on the gas pedal.

Once the car was parked, Joey put his hand on the hood. "Ow! It's hot," he said, shaking his hand to cool it. Aurora pulled out the family cell phone and called her dad to warn him that the engine was overheating and we might need a ride back. Aurora then paid the attendant while I took a few deep breaths.

We had a lovely time at the show, and the engine had about two hours to cool off. Another good thing was that, unlike me, most people knew where the free parking was and avoided the garage. We were among the first back there after the show and bolted out ahead of the crowd to avoid getting caught on the hill.

"Aurora, could you turn on the heater and crank it up as high as possible?" She fumbled with the controls while I got us up the hill and back onto Stony Island. Since we were going home in the dark, I found out a few more of the car's idiosyncrasies--its lack of interior lighting, for example, making it impossible to read the speedometer, any of the gauges, or read the gears on the shift. One of Dad's old cars was like that too--oh no, it was just that the speedometer was broken, that's right. Anyway, I knew I'd had some good practice driving blind thanks to my old man. And he was definitely enjoying the ride with us last night, I'm sure.

The other good practice of yore that came in handy last night was to run the car heater to let the heat out of the engine. I learned that one the summer after I graduated college, on a ride through Phoenix at 108 degrees. That trick kept the engine light off most of the way home last night, too. By this time, I was really getting that shifting down and feeling my way into just enough pressure to keep the engine idling not whining at stoplights.

We really lucked out at the end--the parking spot was still there! It was big enough to drive into, and though the van's tail was sticking out a little relative to its head, I figured Dawn's dad could deal with that if he didn't like it.

I came in to give back the keys. Dawn's mom asked how it went. "Ella era nerviosa," Aurora told her.

"Si, era nerviosa!" Yep, I was nervous. "Pero no mate tus ninos." I didn't kill her children, and by 9:17 I was home drinking what I felt was a very deserved beer.

Maritza's Wild Ride

Last night Dawn and her friend Janice and her little brother Joey wanted to go to the free Redmoon Theater show at the Museum of Science and Industry. I had made reservations for us a while back, and the plan was we would take the Garfield bus out there and get a ride home. But my friends with the car bailed at the last minute (totally OK--wedding plans take precedence), so we were faced with taking one bus home through uncomfortable territory or two buses home on a school night.

So Dawn's parents offered to let me drive one of their cars. Great idea, right? But these are the same people who left one of their cars on my parking pad, remember? It's still there, still with a beer can on the seat, still not running yet because Dawn's dad and brother haven't had time to work on it. Last night's car was an older model white van, I forget the make, in only marginally better condition.

Dawn's brother, who's officially not allowed to drive because he messed up when his parents did let him--the fact that he's only 15 now is apparently immaterial--was deputized to show me how to drive the van, since he could explain the fine points in English. He hopped in the driver's seat, gave it some serious gas, and explained that if you let your foot off the accelerator, the car will stall out. "So you drive with two feet," he said, demonstrating the use of the brake with the gas on an automatic car. My dad drove that way all the time, I thought. Then he pointed out the wisdom of shifting to idle at prolonged stops, as if you were driving stick. Pop, I thought, you better come down from heaven and take a ride in this car. You are the man for this job. Especially since the driver's side seat belt was broken.

"No voy a matar tus ninos," I promised Dawn's mother. Fortunately, she laughed. I really wasn't going to kill her children--after all, their seat belts were working.

"Say a Hail Mary before we start," I suggested, more than half seriously, but didn't enforce it. Given that I drive about three times a year and the last time I got behind the wheel I rear-ended someone at a tollbooth and ended up out $500 between the car I hit and the one I was driving, I really did want Dad's spirit along for the ride. We certainly had our share of rolling stops at stop signs, but eventually I did manage to shift into idle without provoking the enging into agonized wailing.

Joey tried to play with me on the way to the gas station. "What's that noise?" he asked.

Aurora could tell it was no time for games. "Joey, hush!" she said earnestly. He did.

I managed to keep my cussing to down to one east of the expressway and one west. The first cuss was on the one slope we were stuck on, just before the Ryan, where I nearly front-ended someone trying to shift out of idle on the tiny slope. "Fuck" escaped me at that moment. I'm sorry.

Twenty feet later, the other curse emerged. "Shit, would you get in a lane!" I said as a truck with a busted taillight hand-signaled past me.

"Can we go on the highway?" Joey asked.

"No way, buster," I said. At least he made me laugh through my gritted teeth and leg cramp from keeping my left foot ready to brake at any moment.

to be continued...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ring My Bell

...but please, not at 3 a.m., like you did last night, whoever you are.

Dinga-dingadingadinga-ding-dong. Really loud and really fast. It took two or three of those before the doorbell called me into full consciousness. Who is it? Dawn? A prank? No, probably Priscilla, I thought, fumbling for my glasses, checking the clock, pulling on jeans and a baseball shirt.

Priscilla stopped by night before last in search of five dollars. She met me earlier this summer, when she cut through my yard and Mr. Worrisome worried on my behalf that she was trying to steal something. I invited her to set on the stoop with me and have a drink of water and some cherries.

The other night she rang the bell at a decent hour, maybe 8:30. "I remember you. You were nice to me. I need five dollars for my baby's Pampers," she told me. From the number of times I've had women addicts tell me they needed money for Pampers, it must be official code for a nickel bag. "I'll come wash your windows, whatever you want. I don't want to go whoring for it," she added so matter of factly I thought I felt some truth in there. [But damn, addicts are such good actors she might have been playing me with that line, too.]

"No, that's not necessary," I said, in a tone just as matter-of-fact, though surprised inside to hear someone speak so casually of "whoring." The words that really caught me were "wash your windows." They're filthy and I've been thinking about washing them for two months, but haven't gotten to it. An extra pair of hands would help. "I could use some help washing windows. Why don't you come by Saturday morning? I think I've got five dollars in here."

I went to dig up what I had in my wallet. Frankly, I was broke til payday (today) and knew five dollars was going to wipe me out. Priscilla started pushing for seven.
"You're getting what I've got," I said with just enough truth and just enough edge that it stopped her. "Here's four. I think I've got a dollar in change...." I had to go down to dimes and nickels but I got it and gave it to her.

She seemed pretty enthusiastic about Saturday. She's squatting in the same house down the street where Jesse is. She informed me that Yup-yup (named for his call on the street) just got out of prison. A while ago, little Junior asked me, as casually as Priscilla spoke of whoring, if Yup-yup was the guy whose brains got shot all over the pavement back in July. I knew Yup-yup was alive, didn't know he'd been in prison, but we hadn't heard his call on the block for a while. Priscilla suggested Yup-yup could help me find her Saturday if I didn't spot her right away.

I didn't think more about it until the doorbell rang. There was a lot of noise early last night--I couldn't tell whether it was in the alley, on the corner, or down the block. There could have been some of all three. It was also hard to tell whether it was loud talking or the kind of arguing that warrants a 9-1-1 call. Frankly, I was too tired to investigate and didn't even feel like picking up the phone. So I didn't. Maybe I should have. I'm superstitious enough to see one way of looking at the 3 a.m. doorbell as karmic revenge.

No, I wasn't planning to answer the door, by the way. I promise I'm not that stupid. But I did go to the front top floor windows and look out to see who was there. By the time I was looking, no one was on the front step. I went down and looked out the back first-floor windows and no one was there, either. It felt like it took an hour to get back to sleep. In that time, Priscilla got a few Hail Marys out of me on top of the five bucks.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Near and Distant Relations

I went by Dawn's house last night to see how the first week of school was going. We were chatting on the front porch when her mom brought out some family photos. I got to see Dawn getting baptized in Mexico, Joey when he was just a baby, even Dawn's mom when she was about Dawn's age now. They do look fairly alike.

Joey was supposed to bring in something from his culture for a school assignment. He wanted to bring a photo of him and Dawn riding horses in Mexico.

We got to talking about baptisms. Joey is eight and has yet to be baptized. His mom--I am so embarrassed I am not sure of her name but for here we will call her Elizabeth--says they don't have anyone to serve as his godparents. Godparents are a big deal in Mexican families. It's not just that they promise to raise the child if the parents die--that's pretty standard Catholic folk legend that people take seriously but priests try to fight, saying it's more important that godparents help kids grow up as people of faith--but they shell out lots of bucks at the baptism and at other key life points. I make that point because as an Irish-American godparent I'm not really expected to do that for my godson/nephew. Dawn's family would want a padrino and madrina who could really be second parents, compadre and comadre, with them. That's pretty different from my experience of godparents, both the ones I had and the godmother I am now.

Supposedly today was grandparents' day at Chavez. Joey wanted me to come as his grandmother. "The only thing is, you're a lot whiter than I am," he said, which cracked me up. Really the whole thing had me laughing pretty hard--I'm only a year or two older than his parents, hardly abuela/grandma material--but I was like, "sure, why not--if it's OK with your mom." I've been wanting to go to school and meet his teachers. So we went to talk to Elizabeth about it.

She was in the back making dinner for her husband--Joey and Dawn's dad works nights so he eats dinner (or is that breakfast?) around 9:30 before he goes to work. I believe he fixes cars at an all-night garage or something. When Joey told her his idea, both his parents busted up laughing. Loosely translated from Spanish, she said, "You don't have any grandparents here. Maureen can come to school and meet your teachers another day."

They do have family here--at least one uncle and an aunt or two, I think. But it's hard not to have grandmom and granddad around when you're little.

Oh, Joey also made me laugh when he said I remind him of his abuelito when I nag him about finishing his homework. Apparently Grandpa would poke him in the shoulder when they were doing something and he got distracted. Then he would say, "Come on Joey, hurry up!"--which is what I say when I'm trying to get him to get through his homework. So I guess I'm his honorary granddad.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Yellow House has a Party

Everybody has parties in my neighborhood. When it first warmed up in June, I made some noise complaints to the cops because it was 2 a.m. on Saturday and I guess I was the only one planning to go to 9 a.m. Mass. So why do I care if the yellow house has a party?

The yellow house is on the northwest corner of the intersection north of my house. It's where there are guys frequently hanging out selling drugs. I think some of them knew the guys who got killed in my house. I met one guy last fall, drunk and smelling of alcohol at 7:30 a.m., who told me his version of the fire in my house, which featured cops spitting on the corpses and a near riot breaking out. It could be true. I haven't seen that particular guy on the corner that much, but I got more afraid as I lived there longer and have not gotten close enough to take a good look.

Last winter, I met a guy named Jose who moved into the yellow house with his family. He seemed very nice. The family had fallen on hard times--I gather Jose had lost his job and the family was forced to leave their home in Brighton Park for somewhere cheaper. His oldest son was at Curie. He asked me to pray for him and his family. I did. They ended up moving east of Ashland, because they didn't feel safe in a house where drug dealers stand out front day and night.

Over the summer, I was walking down the block and some guys were sitting on the stoop next door to the yellow house. "Prime fucking example," one of them said as I approached. He repeated himself, I'm pretty sure with intent I should hear. "Prime fucking example." Sounds like they think the neighborhood is changing, and not for the better from their point of view.

I was calling the cops on them last fall but this summer have been a bit afraid of them spotting a causal relationship between me walking by and cops appearing if i call too soon after seeing them. In the fall, sans foliage, I can see to the corner from inside my house, but not in full summer leaf. And I'm not here in the afternoon, when I actually think there's more trouble.

The owner finally showed up at the August CAPS meeting, saying she and her husband want those guys gone, too. She said none of their tenants are black. I hate to say it but that makes it easier for me to decide to call, since now I know for sure none of them live there.

I don't know what happened in the last month, because I thought I remembered seeing guys out there a couple of times, but last night I went past the yellow house and there was loud music blaring. Mexican music--accordions and polka-like. The front door on the first floor was open and I could see an older man in a white Stetson two-stepping with a woman. There were guys on the corner. They were Latino. There were little kids. They could have played til two in the morning and I wouldn't have said a word. I hope it's not the last party at the yellow house.

Back to School Mass

At the end of the Holy Cross 10 am Mass yesterday, Fr. Bruce called to the altar all the students in grades one through eight. He asked them, "What are you looking forward to about going back to school?"

"My friends," was the first and most popular answer. "We get work," one little boy said. Wow. Another little boy wasn't too sure which school he was going to this fall, but his big sister knew it was Lara Academy.

Then Bruce had the high school students stand up and bless the grade schoolers, and then the grade schoolers blessed the high school kids. The public school teachers (there were three in the congregation--hurray and God bless them!) and the parents all stood and Bruce whipped out the holy water for everybody. OK, I'm a big sap--yes, I had to hold back tears.

Just to make note--during annoucements, we heard that two men from Holy Cross/IHM are taking four trucks down to Mississippi and Louisiana today to help with the Hurricane Katrina effort. These parishes raised thousands of dollars for the tsunami effort last winter, even though you can hear change rattling in the collection baskets because people can't afford to throw in a dollar bill. These are some of the reasons why I moved to this neighborhood.

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