Saturday, December 12, 2009

Another Thief (post from four weeks ago)

We limit our clients to taking four items of clothing per visit, and we're not too particular as to whether the women sorting through through the donations are actually clients or whether they are simply impoverished women from the neighborhood. They don't come regularly unless they have the YANA background anyway, and some people might need the encouragement of clothes and coffee first before they're ready to acknowledge prostitution. There's good reason to let impoverished women take the things they need -- or, at least, I think so. Some of the time.

The "regulars," the "real" YANA clients, can get pretty worked up over outsiders coming in and taking their stuff. The other day, so did I. A woman I didn't know came on a quiet day and began moving about the room with the kind of wordless determination that my dogs (sorry) will get when they're after food left out on the coffee table. The few YANA women present rose in alarm as they saw her obvious attempts to take far, far more than the allotted amounts. Either so desperate or so socially oblivious that she didn't notice that the only other three people present were intent on every move, the woman careened from one part of the room to another, pulling huge amounts of clothing out of the cabinets, trying to stuff it in her bag, and angrily taking it back out again when reminded of the four item limit.

Finally, when she was literally backed into a corner, trying to shove multiple pairs of shoes on top of a small wardrobe's worth of clothing, the woman melted down to a brief, but dramatic, temper tantrum. "This place is a trip!" she screamed when I blocked her from taking her stash. "This is a trip!" Shoes went across the room. She threw a shirt back at me. "Call the police," one woman said. Both the other clients were standing right at my shoulders. There was no violence. It only occurred to me later that there probably would have been if I'd been alone with her and hadn't let her take what she wanted. After the woman stormed out, the other clients had quite a bit to say about her.

One of the clients who'd been there, Jennifer, knew the woman from the neighborhood. Predictably enough, Jennifer's stories centered on drug use, violence, and theft astounding even for Jennifer's street. According to Jennifer, this woman had been put out of an abandominium. "Put out of an abandiminium!" Jennifer crowed. In other words, she was so low, so incapable of even faking basic, civilized behavior that she was forcibly ejected from an abandoned building by the other squatters. Jennifer is a good story teller. The women laughed. I laughed. I probably should have done something very different.

Friday, December 11, 2009


For those of you who recall the "Whatever Happened to the Little Girl?" post, the client who saved the little girl -- while prostituting her own daughters -- still comes to YANA once in a while. I'll call her Annie, but I think of her as Typhoid Mary, after the woman who went from town to town nursing the sick and unknowingly infecting them with her disease. Our own Annie is, well, she's a pleasure to be around. I always enjoy her company. She is interested in the little world around her. She has energy. She tells her stories passionately, and she genuinely cares about the people she tries to help. She also has immense system of denial that allows her to move through the world completely ignorant of the harm she inflicts and the many illnesses, physical and psychological, she carries within.

Annie lives in one of these bizarre arrangements that exist in our part of Baltimore. It sounds like sort of rooming house, sort of a charity, mostly just one guy's weird idea of something he'd like to do. Annie's son pays $350 per month for her to share a room in a house full of recovering female addicts. There's the usual set of mind bogglingly elaborate restrictions, swiftly enforced with punishments for the disobedient. A pair of squabbling, fifty year old roommates may each find themselves standing in the corner when the manager on shift gets irritated enough with them. And after listening to Annie recount the actual squabbles, it's sometimes hard to find all that much fault with the manager. Anyway, while most of Annie's energy has gone towards protecting her stuff from her thieving roommate, she is sometimes very moved by the suffering of the other women. She tries to help them. Her latest cause is a woman with AIDS.

The AIDS victim has been thrown out of the house because she has AIDS, but has slipped back in and is hiding in the basement. Annie seems to be leading the small band of women bringing her food and helping to hide her. Recently, they've discovered that the landlord's wife knows the woman is in the basement and is yet another secret sympathizer. All the women know that they will eventually be caught and disciplined.

Meanwhile, the landlord is requiring everyone to submit proof that they are HIV free, and an argument appears to be raging throughout the house as to how the disease is transmitted. Annie seems to be telling the truth when she says that she has been going to the library for information on the subject. She doesn't seem to have her landlord convinced yet that the virus isn't airborne. Annie herself is wondering how to show proof that she is virus-free. She knows she is, but she doesn't want to open up all her medical records to this man. I'm a civil rights lawyer, and I'm making her no offers whatsoever to intervene. I'm not sure whether meeting the requirements of civil litigation would be too much for these women or whether meeting the realities of this house and its occupants would be too much for any court, but I just don't see a good outcome in juxtaposing the two.

What I'm left with is Annie, sympathizing with anyone who has such a disease, trying to help her, comfortable in her own good health, entirely forgetting the day a few years ago when she wept and told me her own HIV test had come back positive. Frankly, I wish some of her psychological shortcomings were as manageable as the virus.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Note on Tina and Liz

They're cousins. I'd had no idea, but I probably should have guessed there was some family relationship. They have the same small builds, light brown hair, and regular, even features. They have the same intense love/hate relationship with their sisters, with whom they both live and by whom they both claim to be abused on a regular basis. One day they come in distraught, telling us that they have no clothes, no medicine, no place to live because their sister put them out on the street after collecting the rent money. The next day they are borrowing a cell phone to check in with their sisters and say they love them. They have much of the same illness and the same sweetness.

Tina and Liz are two of our sickest clients, the ones we watch striding the brink of death, strangely undaunted, grasping at small victories and slender attachments. They are both still ready to throw their little, semi-invalid bodies into the mix, Liz still prostituting, Tina still up for a street fight. (Liz has occasional flashes of self awareness, though. She once told the room that cars slow down for her, get a good look, and then speed off. "They're thinking, oh no, grandma's out tricking!" Liz told us. Then she roared with laughter. Tina, on the other hand, narrates a fight with another woman at the homeless shelter with no sense at all that there's anything futile and strange in a brawl between two sickly women exhausted by their own diseases. "We had to stop," she tells me. I assume she meant someone broke up the fight. "No," she says. "We couldn't breath.")

They were probably both once beauties. They are needy, and mannerly, and small. They are mentally ill. They make me think of two little old men -- leathery old cowboys, maybe -- who never retired. They keep riding the bucking bull, getting thrown until their bones are crushed almost to dust, imagining that the few sad blocks of South West Baltimore are the glorious, wide, open plains. Never guessing a world could exist beyond their horizon.