bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Brush with Greatness

by J.D. Scrimgeour

At the end of summer in 1982, my family drove me from our home in New Milford, Connecticut, a town of 20,000 in the southern Berkshires and helped me unload my meager belongings—a few bags of clothes—in Carman Hall, the freshman dorm at Columbia University. While I had been to the city a few times, living in the frenzy of Manhattan was an adjustment. One time that first year my family joined me in the city to watch a basketball game, and when they returned to their car, they discovered that someone had broken into it. The thieves had stolen a couple ratty sleeping bags and a few of my siblings’ high school textbooks. The following year, two students in Carman Hall found a rolled-up rug in a dumpster and carried it back to their room. When they unrolled it, they discovered a corpse inside, a man who had been shot twice.
It wasn’t just the grittiness of New York in the 1980s that left me disoriented; I had to adjust to being around so many people who had lived lives so different from what I had known. As someone who had attended public schools, I was fascinated by all my classmates who had attended private boarding schools, places I’d only read about in The Catcher in the Rye. And Columbia was cosmopolitan. I remember going for ice cream during orientation week with students from Italy and France, hearing languages and accents that were foreign to my ears.
Another adjustment was that there were so few women. My class, the class of 1986, was the last all-male class at Columbia, a fact that I’d hardly registered when I decided to attend. I knew that Barnard was just across the street, and I had assumed that the students all took the same classes. They didn’t. In order to meet the women from Barnard, I would go with friends to the campus pub where we’d drink pitchers of beer. At some point, I’d muster courage to saunter up to a stranger and ask her to dance. She usually said no, and I’d slink back to my table and pour another into my plastic cup. It seemed simply impossible to meet a woman. Even if a conversation were to begin amid the too-loud music, what was I supposed to say?
I was adrift, and even the routines that I developed were those of someone who was lonely: playing hours of pick-up basketball in Levien Gymnasium and watching David Letterman’s late-night show in the TV lounge at the end of our floor. I got a kick out of Letterman’s sardonic humor, his stupid pet tricks, and his “Brush with Greatness” segments, in which members of the studio audience shared comic stories about how they crossed paths with celebrities. Having a brush with greatness may have been one of the reasons I chose to attend Columbia. Being in New York held the possibility of seeing famous people, and, in fact, I walked past Letterman himself in Midtown one afternoon as he was filming on the street.

That first semester I’d take The Odyssey or Euripides’ plays out to the campus lawn and lie reading in the sun, hardly registering the words, dozing off more often than not. My classes all went well enough, except for the class in my declared major, Math. Before the semester started, I met with an advisor to help choose my classes. “Wouldn’t you like to take a class with a world-famous mathematician?” he asked, and so I decided to take the test to place into a theoretical calculus course taught by a professor named Lipman Bers. The test was like the SAT, and I did well enough to get in.
Lipman Bers was old, from eastern Europe, with a thick moustache and a thick accent. He had us buy a book with more equations than words. Unlike my math classes in high school, we never had to turn in homework. It wasn’t always clear what our homework was.
It was a small class, a dozen students in a musty room. Although a seminar table filled the space, we didn’t sit around it exactly. A blackboard ran along one side of the room, and Bers would lecture in front of it, so we would sit in two rows on either side of the table, facing the board. I sat in the back corner, the table in front of me. In the front center sat Daniel, the thirteen-year-old with a bowl cut of black hair and just visible fine dark hair above his lip, the beginnings of a mustache. Daniel was, I’d heard, the captain of the U.S. math team, whatever that meant. I don’t think he was enrolled at Columbia; he was just taking this one class.
It seemed like Daniel was the only person, besides Bers, who spoke in class. He’d raise a scrawny arm and ask a question that I didn’t understand. Bers’ eyes would light up. “That’s a very interesting question, Daniel,” he’d say, and the two of them would engage in a long dialogue while the rest of us—or maybe it was just me—sat in befuddlement. Eventually, I began doodling in my notebook, rehashing my stats from my senior year baseball season or reviewing possible starting line-ups for the Knicks. I passed that class with a gentleman’s C, dropped down to a more standard Calculus class the next semester, and dropped that after I bombed my first test. I wasn’t going to be a math major.

I’ve told the story of that math class many times. It seemed a story about discovering one’s limits, though, to be honest, it involved pumping my ego, too—I was good enough in math to place into that class, after all. And the audience always got a kick out of my embellished description of how lost most of us were while Daniel and Bers held their abstruse conversations.
But recently, while writing about this event, I began to wonder about Lipman Bers. He really was, of course, a world-famous mathematician. He was born in a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, at the beginning of World War I, and his early life was colored by the political upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. He spent time in St. Petersburg and Berlin. While studying math at the University in Riga, he became a political activist who argued for human rights, an orator and columnist for an underground newspaper, defending democracy in the face of Latvia’s dictator. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he escaped to Prague. He fled from Prague to Paris with his family, and then, just ahead of the Germans, he fled to the United States. Living as a refugee, he continued to work on mathematics. He eventually did math work assisting the allied war effort, and then went on to write many important papers in the field, known for their elegance and clarity.
He was admired by his students and fellow mathematicians, and a recent book, Lipman Bers: A Life in Mathematics, celebrates his achievements. Mathematician William Abikoff writes this about Bers:

Lipa possessed a joy of life and an optimism that is difficult to find at this time and that is sorely missed. Those of us who experienced it directly have felt an obligation to pass it on. That, in addition to the beauty of his own work, is Lipa’s enduring gift to us.

Bers had a way not just with numbers, but with words. I laughed aloud when I came across his line that “Mathematics is a collection of cheap tricks and dirty jokes,” though I don’t know enough about math to really understand it. Throughout his career, he also continued to advocate for human rights. Here’s Bers himself, speaking about human rights in 1984, when he was awarded an honorary degree from SUNY-Stonybrook:

By becoming a human rights activist ... you do take upon yourself certain difficult obligations. ... I believe that only a truly even-handed approach can lead to an honest, morally convincing, and effective human rights policy. A human rights activist who hates and fears communism must also care about the human rights of Latin American leftists. A human rights activist who sympathizes with the revolutionary movement in Latin America must also be concerned about human rights abuses in Cuba and Nicaragua. A devout Muslim must also care about human rights of the Bahai in Iran and of the small Jewish community in Syria, while a Jew devoted to Israel must also worry about the human rights of Palestinian Arabs. And we American citizens must be particularly sensitive to human rights violations for which our government is directly or indirectly responsible, as well as to the human rights violations that occur in our own country, as they do.

Bers retired from teaching at Columbia in 1982. The class I took with him may have been the last he ever taught.  
I wish I could claim that Bers and his vision, expressed so eloquently above, had an impact on me, but it’s only through the lens of time that I see more than myself in that room—those other students may have been getting a lot more from the class than I imagined. And, having learned a bit about him, I can better see Bers, a man brilliant and committed, see the spark between him and Daniel. What did I know?
It was my first semester, and I was a lost boy. I needed grounding myself to see others. I went on find circles of friends at Columbia, to find a girlfriend when I lived in Barnard dorms my sophomore year. Eventually, I no longer needed David Letterman’s late-night company. And my junior year, I started to put my own words down. I took classes with the poet Kenneth Koch and legendary literature professor Wallace Gray, early steps on the path to becoming a writer.
That same year, I took to the cold March nights to join students who blocked the doors to Hamilton Hall, a main classroom building, demanding that the University divest its financial holdings in South Africa and South African companies. Some of my friends scoffed at the protests, and their cynicism made me doubt my conviction, but, ultimately, I could do the math.
I was usually alone those nights, one of the crowd. Many of those around me were people who, I had been taught, did not look like me. I sat among them all and listened to the speeches, the music, the drumming.
I took in the world, and the world took me in.
Writing this essay, I became curious about Daniel. Perhaps discovering Bers’ words, his insistence on being aware of all others, made me wonder about Daniel and his life. I googled “Daniel, mathematician, born 1970,” and I discovered Daniel, a mathematician at an Ivy League university. I thought the thin face, something about the nose, looked familiar, and so I sent an email. Sure enough, it was him. He read the essay and was gracious and self-depreciating. He confirmed the bowl haircut; he didn’t recall the table. He said he had read some of Bers’ papers and built on his work. I hope that in my own way I’m building on Bers’ work as well.

J.D. Scrimgeour is the author of three books of poetry and two of nonfiction, including Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In & Out of Class, which won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. Recent essays have appeared in blackbirdSolstice, Sport Literate, and The Woven Tale Press.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


by J. Malcolm Garcia

Johnny wants to slam his burrito in my face. Wants to, will do—hard to read— but I’m leaning toward will do.
You took my job. Why don’t you take my lunch, too? Johnny says.
He’s drunk, voice slurring in an ocean of saliva, jaws loose on their hinges. I just wanted a quick lunch. This little burrito joint on the corner of Leavenworth and Ellis, its grimed windows steamed and marked with the finger drawings of the owner’s small children, usually provides me a relaxed place to take a mid-day breather from work. Until Johnny showed up, I’d sat blissfully by myself.
He always drank but I never knew him to get this wound up. Of course, I’d not fired him before. We sat in my office two days ago, his eyes bloodshot and rheumy, pigeons on the window sill, pacing back and forth in their cooing, head-bobbing way, witnesses to the hammer coming down on a guy I’d lied for and promoted.
Johnny, I said, you know how this works. When state budget cuts come down, I have to lay off staff. My way of doing things is to let go those people I think can find work. You can find work. You can get another job if you chill out on the drinking.
In the last three years, I’ve laid off more staff than I want to think about. Fired. That’s how it feels to them. The look in their eyes. The sense of betrayal. The tears. All the self-respect they had clawed back into their lives gone in the two or three sentences it takes for me to tell them. What did someone who had spent years on the street have other than the minimum-wage job I gave them? A room at a residential hotel, no kitchen, bathroom down the hall, and a tab at some restaurant that extended them credit, that’s what. I laid them off and saw them back on the street in no time, back to what they’d known, back to the sidewalks, the doorways, the homeless shelters, in line with everyone else for whatever benefit they might be eligible, general assistance, SSI, unemployment, blending in with one another in an undistinguished mass of ill-fitting thrift-store clothes in a poor version of a nine-to-five routine, as if they’d never left. In a way, I suppose, they hadn’t.
This because of yesterday? Johnny asked.
Yes, I thought, it is. But instead I lied one more time to spare him the truth and to spare me his denials.
No, it’s about the budget. It’s about who I think can find a job, I said.
I extended my hand. He wiped his eyes and ignored it. He didn’t look at me. I knew he didn’t believe me. Too bad for him he ran into Tim McGraw, the guy I answer to. McGraw talked to me and now here we are. However, the state had cut a homeless grant. That was no lie.
Is that it? Johnny asked.
I nodded and he left.

I’m the program director of the men’s homeless shelter for Out of the Rain, a social services agency in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
I answer to McGraw, the executive director. The shelter stands on a block of Leavenworth Street beside boarded store fronts, convenience stores stockpiled with cheap wine and cans of Dinty Moore beef stew, residential hotels and other social service agencies. On the first of each month, I see guys in need of booze to silence the voices inside their heads standing alongside your average, no-voices homeless alcoholics shelling out 99 cents for half-gallon jugs of Thunderbird while the speed freaks do the jitterbug, fried-nerves tweak on the sidewalks, day-tripping out-of-control marionettes fumbling for their crack pipes. Police cars coast their slow, bored, welfare-check-payday-crawl as officers glance over people––who are all suddenly hands visible or hands and arms at their sides or hurriedly walking away, message: I’m clean officer, I’m clean––looking for a drug dealer, an informant, someone in the middle of a score, whoever they can find. Fuck the drunks, that’s just a vagrancy rap. Drug busts mean promotion.
Guys, young and old, their hair askew as if charged with electricity, scratch their arms raw, and they’re not displaying their latest prison tattoos, no, they’re showing dealers their track marks, their need. Slick as slick, unruffled in fake leather jackets, the dealers at first pretend not to see the scratchers or the black lines etched down their arms like bruised highways. No, the dealers wait to see if 5 O circles back. Then they motion to the scratchers, digging into their shirt pockets for bags of the white stuff. When the high wears off, the drunks, the voice hearers and the scratchers lurch and stagger to my shelter, like dead people risen from the sidewalks, broke and hallucinating, until they piss themselves and fall asleep or start a fight and we throw them out only to see them come back five minutes later begging for mercy, begging for money, flying off the handle again in a stream of invective and threats, a kind of poetic assault with the word motherfucker as the driving force.
My contract requires me to hire the homeless, the idea being that people with problems can help other people with problems. I select my staff from the few among them who get clean, or, short of that, like Johnny, keep it together despite their vices. If nothing else, they know their world.
One time, on my way to a meeting, I saw a shelter client holding a knife to a volunteer’s throat. Johnny was on duty. I paused, considered the knife. Serrated edge. Maybe a Gerber, I didn’t know. The volunteer’s eyes were so wide I half expected to see planets orbiting around them. He stayed in the shelter and was guaranteed a bed if he worked a few hours signing people in for the night. He had his hands raised above his head and sweat waxed his face and he could not have sat stiller if he tried.
What’s going on? I asked.
Nothing, Johnny said.
Monday afternoon mood swing?
Something like that.
You got this covered?
Yeah, Johnny said.
Do I know you? I asked the guy with the knife.
He looked at me, eyebrows puckered in thought.
I don’t think so.
We’re good here, Johnny said.
OK, I said and left for my meeting.
When I returned an hour later, the guy with the knife was gone. The volunteer, Johnny told me, had quit. I wonder why, I said, and we both laughed. I thought of asking again what that had been about but I wasn’t in the mood to give credence to an answer I knew would make no sense. Johnny handled it, no one died, all good.
So, months later, when the state of California relieved me of funds that covered much of my staff’s salaries, I had choices to make. The way I saw it, if a drinker like Johnny who, no matter how lit he gets can still make it to work on time, supervise the shelter and chill-out a guy with a knife, well then he has a chance––I’m not saying a great one––of finding another job. That person, according to the skewed logic I engage in, should be laid off.

I want you to have my burrito, Johnny says again.
I’m trying to keep calm but I’m getting a little PO’d. How many times did Johnny show up to work smelling of booze? How many times did I talk to him about it? He used mouthwash like that’d fool anyone. I looked the other way. I considered his drinking a perk I let him have because no matter what I could rely on him. He kept the train running, so to speak. But staff and clients all knew he drank. They didn’t say anything but they knew, and they knew I knew and when I caught people nursing a bottle of Thunderbird in the shelter and told them to toss it or leave, they’d say, rightfully, What about Johnny? I had no good answer.
Johnny came to Out of the Rain a year ago for a clothing referral. He wore an army fatigue jacket too big for his slim body. His graying hair hadn’t been combed in a while and his missing front teeth left a gap in his mouth that made him hard to understand when he spoke. He told me he’d been in the Army, stationed in the Philippines. One morning, he was called into the office of his CO and told he was being discharged. The base was closing, he was no longer needed, the CO said. Johnny caught a flight out that night with nothing but his duffel bag. Twenty-four hours later, he landed in San Francisco, the closest U.S. airport to the Philippines, or so he claimed.
I didn’t believe a word. The Army doesn’t discharge soldiers because a base closes. Johnny screwed up somehow. Maybe it was his drinking, I don’t know. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this: Don’t believe what anyone on the street tells you. They have their secrets. They’re not all bad or all crazy or all addicts. I’ve met more than a few who are homeless only because they need a job, that’s it. But even they have their secrets, their unbelievable tales to fill in the blanks of what they don’t want you to know. I let Johnny have his story. I presumed he’d lost everything else.
While he stayed at the shelter, Johnny volunteered. He put mats on the floor, mopped the bathrooms, made coffee. When one of the shelter staff quit, I offered Johnny job.

I really want you to have it, Johnny says again, tossing the burrito from hand-to-hand as if it were too hot to hold. I’ll give you a fork and everything so you don’t mess yourself.
Johnny takes a step toward me, trips, regains his balance. I hope something will distract him. People coming in for lunch. An announcement that someone’s order is ready. Something. To think that only a few months ago, I lied my way to hell to get Johnny the shelter supervisor job. At the time, the supervisor had been a guy from Texas we all called Tex. He seemed as normal and middle class as a bank teller until one day he decided to resume his crack habit and I never saw him again. That created a job opening. I wanted Johnny to fill it.
However, I had hoops to jump through. The contract didn’t allow me to appoint people to administrative jobs. Johnny and anyone else interested in the supervisor position had to appear before a three-member hiring committee made up of homeless men and women elected by people in the shelter to, the contract read, give the homeless served by the agency a say in staffing. That in turn, or so the thinking went, would teach them responsibility. They’d be, in contract-speak, “invested” in the program and their own “outcomes.” The contract emphasized that the director could in no way influence the committee. I could sit in on interviews and help facilitate but I could not participate in discussions about the applicants or vote.
I posted the position and asked a homeless volunteer, a guy named Ross Hitchcock, to coordinate the election of a hiring committee. Ross grew up in Boston and had a thick, New England accent. He had no teeth and when he wasn’t talking, his mouth flattened into a thin line above his chin. He schemed and had a racket unique to anyone I knew. For several hours a day, he’d stand beside a parking meter and flag drivers searching for a parking space. He’d then offer to get them an hour on the meter in exchange for a quarter. If they agreed, he’d withdraw a popsicle stick from his pocket, jam it in the meter, crank it up and down and watch the numbers flip until they reached sixty minutes. Pleased and amused by his ingenuity, drivers would often give Ross additional change. Within a few hours, he’d make $100.
Ross announced the election that night at the shelter. Whoever wanted to run wrote their name on a piece of paper tacked by the front door. More than a few people thought the candidate sheet was the sign-in list for a bed. As a result, we had many clients unaware they were running for the committee. Three days later, I left ballots with the names of dozens of candidates by the front desk. Completed ballots were put in a box. The three candidates who received the most votes won. If they showed up for the interviews, we had a hiring committee. If they didn’t, we held another election.
The day of the vote, I called Johnny into my office and told him I wanted him to be the new super.
You can’t go before the hiring committee with alcohol on your breath, I warned him.
I don’t drink when I’m working.
You drink and everyone knows it, period.  If you want the job, don’t come here smelling of booze.
At first, only Johnny put in for the job. Then the day before the application deadline, one other staffer applied. Billy White. He came to the shelter about the same time as Johnny. He had a wide, open face with a mole on his right eyelid that seemed not to bother him but always distracted me when we spoke. Guys would hit him up for money and he’d give what little he had and then act surprised when no one paid him back. If someone said, Hey, Billy, I like that sweater, he’d lend it to them but of course he never got it back, and I’d see him at night in line waiting for the shelter to open, his arms crossed, shivering, the hurt expression of a child who knew he had been taken advantage but didn’t understand how or why writ large across his face. I hired Billy to get him away from the piranhas feeding off him.
He did not make my life easy. He never got to work on time because he insisted on standing up to the indignities of his life as if now that he had a job he could finally assert himself against those who had abused his trust. One time, he blamed his tardiness on his landlord. That morning, he refused to pay rent after he complained about the halls being dirty. The landlord threatened to evict him. Billy then called lawyers to sue the owner. Then he asked other lawyers to sue those lawyers for not taking his case. When they refused, he walked to the San Francisco Chronicle to ask a reporter to write about the dirty halls. He demanded a meeting with the editor. He waited a long time before his request was denied. Had they not made him wait, he explained, he wouldn’t have been late.
I kept him. Firing Billy would have been like kicking a puppy. Out of the Rain existed for the Billys of the world, and the Johnnys and Texs too; people who, we should concede, will never fit into the five-day workweek. Unless, of course, our work ethic changes and allows for people who talk to other people none of us can see, people with 24-7 drinking and drug problems, people like Billy who obsess on the smallest slight, people with college degrees who look good on paper, but have troubles, too, and have ended up on the street among all the other dispossessed in an equal-opportunity smorgasbord of triaged men and women, unable to pass the entrance exam to the American Dream.

About two weeks after Tex vanished, Johnny and Billy appeared before a hiring committee made up of clients I knew well:
Oscar, a speed freak, a tall, lean man in his late thirties, was on one of his periodic sober runs. He could sing like nothing else mattered in a voice that should have had Barry Gordy knocking at our door.
Gill Harlee, a guy with a barrel-chest laugh and a round, bowling-ball stomach, and an explosive temper. A meaningless disagreement on something as simple as the weather could set him off. Good mood or bad, he always shouted as if he was trying to make himself heard above insurmountable noise.
Marcela Brooks, an elderly woman who came in every morning for coffee and whom we all called Granny. Depending on the day, she’d tell us she was 78 or 90. She wrapped herself in at least three coats and used a wheelchair like a walker, hobbling behind it and pausing every so often to catch her breath, her lined face canyoned with exhaustion.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the committee interviewed Johnny first. We sat in a circle by a closet where we stored the mats. We held a list of ten questions. The sun shone and I could see seagulls circling above a YMCA at the corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth. Johnny took a chair next to mine. I smelled the alcohol on his breath.
First question:
Oscar: What would you do if the shelter was full and someone needed a place to stay at two in the morning? Would you turn them away?
No, Johnny answered. He’d find them a spot even if it meant sitting in a chair. Granny asked a similar question about a family that showed up in the middle of the night. Johnny said he wouldn’t bother calling other shelters. He understood we weren’t a family shelter but at that hour a family would need rest, especially the kids. He’d take them in, too.
God bless the children, Granny said, and then launched into a story about how she was denied shelter by Salvation Army because she refused to take a shower.
That wasn’t right, she said. A shelter’s not supposed to turn people away. I’m an old woman.
After we finish here, Granny, you and I will talk about it, I said.
It wasn’t right what happened to me, Granny insisted.
I turned to Oscar and Gill.
Let’s continue, I said.
What about me? Granny asked.
We’ll talk, I said.
Second question:
Gill: What would you do if. . .Gill stopped and put the list of questions aside. Instead, he asked Johnny if he’d kick someone out of the shelter if they were caught drinking or using. Before he could answer, Gill demanded, What about you? Would you 86 yourself?
What do you mean?
You come to work drunk.
I don’t drink here, Johnny said.
Gill smirked.
Do you attend AA, Johnny? Oscar asked.
No, Johnny said.
Would you go to AA if you get this job?
I don’t see why I would, Johnny said. I don’t drink at work.
Let’s stick to the questions, I said, raising the list.
Gill made a face and his hand shook with mounting anger but he didn’t explode. I appreciated his self-control. Still, he’d done some damage.

Billy showed up fifteen minutes late. He couldn’t find his keys, he explained. As excuses went, that was so acceptably mainstream, he left me speechless.
First question:
Oscar: If it’s raining outside, would you open the shelter earlier than usual?
Billy pondered. He wanted to now the situation of each person seeking shelter. Had they ever been 86’d? Were they intoxicated? Were other shelters available to them? The committee made up answers to his hypotheticals until I intervened, contract be damned.
Billy, just answer. It’s a yes or no question.
Then yes, he said, although I think these questions need to be more specific.
When we finished interviewing Billy, I walked him to the door, closing it behind him.

What do you all think? I said.
Johnny, the committee agreed, was the better applicant. He answered the questions with common sense. They’d seen him on the job. They knew he was reliable. Billy, they worried, would complicate the simplest problem. They worried he’d obsess over one task at the expense of others. However, Johnny’s drinking disturbed them more. Whatever else could be said about Billy, he wouldn’t be drunk when he enforced the rules about alcohol and drugs.
Why do you allow Johnny to work with alcohol on his breath? Oscar asked me.
I’ve always wondered that myself, Gill said.
I didn’t answer. My overriding principle: make a bad situation less bad. Johnny was my less bad.
Because we’re here for people with problems and despite his he works out better than most.
They didn’t disagree. However, whatever their own problems, Oscar, Gill and Granny understood hypocrisy. They voted for Billy.
Now, are we going to talk about me getting thrown out of Salvation Army? Granny asked.

Billy, I knew, would be a disaster. I needed a plan. Crisis fueled quick thinking. I reminded the committee that according to the contract, the Executive Director had to sign off on all new hires. I knew McGraw wouldn’t care who I hired. I just had to tell him.
 I didn’t. Not yet. Instead, I called the committee back for a meeting the next day and I bald-faced lied to them. I told them that I’d met with McGraw and he had recommended hiring both Billy and Johnny. He wanted one of them to supervise the day program, the other the night shelter. It would provide for better coverage to split the position into two.
        Granny and Gill liked the idea. Only Oscar objected.
        What’s the point of having a hiring committee if McGraw’s just going to make his own decision? he asked.
        He didn’t decide, I said. He just gave us another idea. Think about. This will open up two staff positions.
        Oscar, I knew, wanted a job. It served my purpose to dangle the possibility now. I couldn’t tell if he picked up on my not so subtle hint, but he didn’t push his objection. The contract could talk about homeless people “participating in decision making” all it wanted but everyone knew who was in charge—McGraw. The committee had its say. By channeling McGraw and offering a bribe, I had mine.
        As I knew, McGraw didn’t care. He thought it was a little cumbersome having two supervisors but if that’s what I wanted, fine. I gave him some mumbo jumbo about how it was an example of the agency taking a job opening and creating more than just one opportunity. He gave that laugh again and slapped me on the shoulder. He liked how that sounded. Funders would eat it up. McGraw got his talking point. The committee got Billy. I got Johnny. Win-win-win.
I gave Johnny days and Billy nights. There wouldn’t be much to do at night once the lights went out at eight, which I thought would suit Billy best. Johnny worked out as I knew he would. Boozy breath but fine. Billy, however, was Billy.
I’m sorry I’m late, Billy would apologize to me. The bus was running behind schedule. And I talked to the driver about how that wasn’t right, and he talked back to me. So, I wouldn’t get off until he apologized.
I’d listen. I always listened. I found Billy’s outrage at the everyday insults the rest of us take for granted somehow endearing. Soon, however, the tardiness got out of hand and I suspended him for two days, but it didn’t make an impression. Finally, I dropped him down to shelter staff again. He didn’t object. OK, he said. The dejected look on his face told me he didn’t understand how I couldn’t appreciate his need to confront every disparaging moment. I didn’t.
He was so preoccupied with standing up for his wounded dignity that the demands of being a supervisor had, I think, become just one more humiliation. Whatever he felt didn’t matter. I got what I’d wanted all along. Johnny was now in charge. No one asked me about filling Billy’s position.

About two weeks later, McGraw called me into his office. He sat at a long table strewn with files and spreadsheets, glasses perched at the tip of noise. A computer blinked on and off behind him and a shelf behind his head held books about time management. I knocked on his open door. He looked at me, dragged a hand through his mop of blonde hair and laughed a-here-we-are-in-the-shit-storm laugh that I knew couldn’t be good. He had been an advocate for welfare recipients when he first got into social work. Then, he earned a master’s degree in public administration. Now, in his mid-thirties, he ran an agency with a million-dollar budget. His time now was consumed with grant writing. Advocacy through fundraising, he often said.
He pointed to a chair. I sat down. Then he got to it. Another budget cut. This time the state had decided not to renew a homeless adult program grant that, among other things, covered some of my staff’s salaries. I’d have to cut some positions and combine others.
Start at the top, McGraw said. Higher the salary the better.
I knew what that meant. In the pecking order of high salaries I was first, Johnny second. Well, I knew I wasn’t going to lay myself off. McGraw looked at me over his glasses and gave that laugh again.
I saw Johnny this morning. He smelled like a brewery. You have to draw some lines.
If I draw lines, I’ll fire everybody.
Johnny came to work drunk. There’s your line.

In the burrito joint, Johnny takes another unsteady step toward my table. I look at the guy behind the register. He’s adding up receipts and doesn’t notice a thing. Whatever’s going to happen I guess, will happen. I push back in my chair but remain seated. If I stand, Johnny might think I’m gearing up for fight. Don’t be the aggressor. De-escalate. Where’d I learn that? Some workshop for staff development. Strange what goes through your head when you think a burrito is about to wallpaper your face.
I don’t want it, Johnny, I say again.
He sways and grabs the back of a chair. He drops the burrito on a table and sits sloppily in the chair. Stares at the floor, chin against his chest, arms loose at his sides as if something essential has left him. Saliva hangs off his mouth in a thin line and he closes his eyes until I assume he’s nodded out.
Johnny, I say. Johnny.
I smell it before I notice Johnny pissing himself, a slow, wet stain unfurling across his crotch.
Johnny, Jesus, wake up!
I get up and shake his shoulder. He opens his eyes slowly, looks lost, confused. He closes them again and I keep shaking him.
He turns his head and stares bleary-eyed, sagging deeper in his chair.
What? he says, his voice burdened by the effort to speak, rising out of his throat in a cracked whisper.
Before I can say anything, he presses a hand against the table and rises seemingly half asleep. He reels over the table like a bop bag, turns slowly and walks out stiff-legged, arms out for balance, angling through the open door to the street. Through the fogged windows, I see the outline of his body pass in staggering steps. The odor of piss rises off his chair. I was sure I’d take a burrito to the face. I hadn’t expected it to end this way. In the words of my contract, a positive outcome. Staring out the door, I remind myself that Johnny was just another layoff, nothing personal. He brought it on himself. I covered for him until I no longer could but as much as I want to, I can’t rationalize away the guilt I feel wrapped tight and tucked away deep inside me and out of reach most days. I stand beside his chair a moment longer, then reach for the burrito and drop it into my coat pocket. Someone in the shelter will eat it.

Author’s note: The names of people and the agency have been changed to protect privacy.

J. Malcolm Garcia lives in San Diego. He is the author most recently of The Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream (Seven Stories Press 2019).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Faded Memory

by Rosanne Trost

It was another bitterly cold, dreary January day. Unseasonably cold. No sun for days. My mind and spirit matched the weather. I was going through the motions as “they” say. Bogged down in grief—my husband had recently died—I was filled with fear about raising our daughters by myself.

A dry cleaner had opened near my home. Clutching a new customer coupon, I brought in a small stack of clothes. Standing at the counter, I glanced at the coupon again, and realized it was for men’s’ dress shirts. I wadded the coupon in my purse and forced myself not to cry. Men’s shirts. Oh, how I wanted to have use of that coupon.

The dry cleaners was new, but everything looked old. Dirty-looking gray walls. No warmth. Was the heat even on? The place was so gloomy it looked as if no one was behind the counter. Then off to the side, I saw a woman get up from her chair. She was sitting next to an old radio, listening to Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. The music seemed so foreign in this austere setting.

I saw her name tag. June looked haggard and frail. She picked up my items, asked for my name. We exchanged minimal words, but no smiles. June gave me a receipt and I left.

I visited the cleaners several times over the next months. Each encounter was the same. Always classical music playing. June in the background. On sunny days, the place still remained cold and uninviting. The beautiful music provided a modicum of serenity. June’s expression was always sad. She always wore the same drab brown, frayed sweater.

Once I dreamed about her. The dream was fragmented and illusive, like a fading pencil sketch, but we were both smiling. We exchanged no words.

Eventually and surprisingly, I began experiencing some days with glimmers of hope. The number of hopeful days continued to increase. Maybe I could survive. Still, there were many days shadowed with sadness. I missed my husband. Over time the loss became routine. Almost ordinary.

Thoughts of June often came to my mind. Because I had moments of something almost like happiness, I wondered about her. Was she lonely? Did she have family, friends, anybody? I hoped she did.

I decided the next time I encountered June, I would greet her by name and wish her a good day. Unfortunately, on my next trip to the dry cleaner an obnoxious customer was arguing with her, yelling about a missing shirt. June calmly referred to his receipt, indicating the items were all there. I dropped off my clothes and left. The other customer continued shouting.

The following week, on my way to the cleaners, I thought about what I might say to June. I decided to ask her a question. Something that would require a response. Nothing deep. Just two people having a light conversation.

The door to the cleaners was open; loud unrecognizable music blared from it. A young girl, chewing gum, stood behind the counter.

“Is June off today?” I asked.

“Who? Oh, she doesn’t work here. I think she moved.”

Another customer walked in. I left.

I was overcome with disappointment. Why had I waited so long to show any interest in June? I could have been friendly, maybe even offered compassion.

Through the years, on occasion, I have thought of June. Sometimes I find myself listening for classical music even in the grimmest of places.

Rosanne Trost is a retired registered nurse. After retirement, she found the perfect creative writing class, and has realized her passion for writing. Her work has been published in a variety of online and print journals, including Chicken Soup for The Soul, Commuter Lit, Indiana Voice Journal, and Learning to Heal.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Mixed Emotion Family

by Susan D. Bernstein

“My mama is mean,” Ruth used to say. I couldn’t see this myself. Miss Cora, as Ruth insisted her mother liked to be called, seemed a benign old woman to me. She had traveled to suburban New York from Georgia by bus to spend six weeks of the summer with her daughter. Miss Cora hardly spoke to me. I might say, “Good morning,” and she’d wince a smile or murmur some slight recognition. I found her puzzling, but since she was Ruth’s mother, I accepted her presence without asking questions.
When I was an infant my parents hired Ruth to cook and clean and to care for my brother and me. She remained in this job for over forty years until each of my parents died in the same house where Ruth had dusted, swept, and managed the kitchen work. She witnessed everything, from first days of school to arguments and holiday celebrations. She not only washed the dirty laundry, she saw and heard it. But while she knew everything about us, it seemed, what did we know of her family and her life beyond our house?
          We knew Ruth had grown up in Georgia where her mother still lived. At Christmas each year, Ruth journeyed south to Cordele, Georgia to see Miss Cora and other family whose names I never kept straight, and occasionally Miss Cora came north in summers. In 1979, the last time Miss Cora visited her daughter, she was closing in on eighty, her sight was gone, and cancer lurched through her body. She sat silently in the folding chair by the back door for hours, sucking the juice out of an orange through a straw Ruth had inserted. She wore heavy cotton socks rolled up at her ankles, and my blue gingham shirt from my high school years underneath a sleeveless dress with a faded floral print. Although her eyes did not work, Miss Cora wore heavy black-rimmed glasses. Ruth dressed her mother every day and fixed the elastic in the waist of the slip because Miss Cora liked wearing a slip, but objected if it drooped below her hemline.
          “Why does Miss Cora wear glasses if she can’t see?” I asked. I was home for a visit a few years after I'd graduated from college. Ruth peeled potatoes into the sink, her back hunched over as she supported much of her weight on her forearms, which were massive, as if they belonged on a bigger, athletic body. Due to childhood polio, Ruth’s legs looked like skeleton bones, thin envelopes of flesh wrapped around them.
          “I put them on to keep her from picking at her eyes. She don’t care anymore.” Ruth's low voice hushed the room as she watched Miss Cora from the kitchen window. “She about given up and is just passing time.”
          My mother walked in from the front hall. For many years I’d watched her passing time. “Ruth, did you see my book? I was reading it at lunch, but now I can’t find it anywhere.”
          I hugged Ruth from behind, circling her broad back with my arms. Then I turned on my mother. “Why should Ruth know where your book is? She’s busy taking care of her mother, who can’t see at all.” I was in a stage of belligerence towards my mother and protective of Ruth. Eventually I outgrew my pugnaciousness like the gingham shirt Miss Cora wore.
          My mother sighed, “Oh, leave me be! I didn’t say Ruth should know—I only asked a question. Is that a crime?” Not waiting for a reply, my mother walked out of the room, and I heard her climb the stairs to her bedroom, where she often soothed herself with rounds of solitaire.
          Ruth patted my cheek. “Hear her and don’t hear her. That’s what I do. She only talking to hear herself talk.” Ruth had little tolerance for what she called “chin music” or “jaw dancing,” whether aimless chatter or in this case my mother's mumblings of despair.
          “Where do you sleep when Miss Cora is here?”
          “In there,” Ruth gestured toward her cubby of a room adjacent to the kitchen. but her eyes caught mine as she turned from the sink. Ruth was the mistress of the ironic, “you-fool” glance.
          As a child, I had loved Ruth’s room because it was small, a coziness that I thought had to do with the size and walls, but it was Ruth’s presence that made her room a safe hideaway. I had tried to get Ruth to switch rooms with me at one point when I was five or six, but she told me I had to sleep upstairs, she downstairs. Ruth’s room was warm in winter, cool in summer, as if it had its own thermostat that adjusted to seasonal weather. The shoe-box room held a cot, two feet wide, a bureau, a desk, and a sink. The black and white checkered bedspread, from my brother’s bedroom years ago, was tucked neatly around the mattress. In clumps everywhere were food coupons, prescription drug bottles with the pharmacy labels peeling away, spools of colored thread for crochet projects, plastic bags of assorted shades piled high on top of newspapers and stacks of Ebony and Jet and outdated TV Guides. Miniature china animals and faded hard candies sat on the glass top of the desk along with rolls of pennies, safety pins, and baseball cards. On the bureau, along with the coupons and scraps of papers with Ruth’s handwriting—addresses and phone numbers, stray shopping lists—was a Gideon Bible, like the ones in hotel bedside table drawers. From the array of improvised bookmarks protruding beyond the gilt and crimson edges, it looked as if Ruth read from all the Gospels simultaneously. Once she showed me a dried flower pressed into the pages near a crucifixion scene. “That’s my orchid for Good Friday. Your mama gets me one every year.”         
          My mother gave Ruth corsages twice a year, one for Easter and one on the day of Yom Kippur Eve. The first was for Ruth to wear to services at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended in Harlem. The other commemorated Ruth’s anniversary with our family. I was three months old when Ruth arrived at our house to take care of my brother and me during the evening while my parents went to Kol Nidre services.
Ruth proved ecumenical in her religious practices. She fasted with my father on Yom Kippur and ate matzah during Passover, entirely without my mother’s lapses into bread. Still, she was a dedicated Christian and went to her church Sundays and read daily spiritual texts from a worn pamphlet she carried in her apron pocket. More than anyone else in my family, Ruth was the religious enthusiast, and took to any kind of ritual or prayer. “It all goes to the same God,” she liked to say.

          During those years, the little I did know about Ruth's past came from her occasional revelations or from my mother. Ruth was evasive about her age and her background. My mother told me that Miss Cora was thirteen when Ruth was born in Georgia, but Ruth never confirmed this hearsay. Ruth’s surname was Stedman before she married, then Greene. When I knew Miss Cora, her last name was Smith. I thought that nearly everyone Ruth knew seemed to be related to her, and I could never follow the familial lines, as they seemed to run in a more circuitous fashion than what I understood about my own more limited store of relatives. Although Ruth didn’t have anyone she claimed for siblings, she had countless aunts, uncles, and cousins. I grew up with these scattered bits of knowledge about Ruth's life, but later I tried to learn more.
          In August 1996 when Ruth was eighty years old, I interviewed her, and then didn’t play the video recording for a dozen years, some four years after Ruth had died in a nursing home in central Georgia in 2004. I had asked predictable questions, prompted by the outline of a life my mother had fed me about Ruth, leading questions Ruth either evaded or flat-out contradicted. Like the woman I knew and didn’t know from infancy, Ruth’s answers were elusive, skewed, as if she’d heeded Emily Dickinson’s advice: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies.” Take her reply when I asked where she was born.
          “Now, that is a very big question. I was born on the county line of two places, Dooly and Pulaski—half the house in Dooly, half in Pulaski.” This would be central Georgia, just after the First World War. If her birthplace was suspended across county lines, her family was equally dispersed across many names.
          “Oh, I’m the sum total of a mixed emotion family," This meant four names: McIntire, Brown, Anderson, and Marshall. I don’t know where Stedman or Smith fit in, and Ruth didn’t elaborate. She was adept at redirecting my follow-up questions. Cora’s name was McIntire until she married, but whether she married Stedman first, or Smith, or either one, remains a mystery.
          Some of the naming in Ruth’s family had a more legible genealogy. Her maternal grandmother was Minnie Brown. Minnie married twice. The first marriage produced Mary, Carrie, and Cora, and the second marriage to Joe Brown resulted in a couple of boys, and six girls: Margaret, Lula Bell, Willie Mae, Minnie, Thelma, and Anne. These children from her marriage with Joe were more like siblings for Ruth because they were close to her in age even though they were her aunts.
          “My mother was about one generation, and they and the rest of them another generation. They all came out the same hole. Let’s say it that way. They all by the same woman, so the same little place.” Ruth waxed graphic here, maybe a flashpoint of irritation over my repeated questions to ascertain the exact relationship between Ruth and Thelma and Minnie. I gradually comprehended that precise bloodlines were a contrivance that didn’t have much traction in Ruth’s sense of her world. “We all related” summed up her view.  
          Those patterns of generation fueled my persistent questions to know her family constellation. Joe Brown was Miss Cora’s stepfather; he was a farmer, probably a sharecropper, although Ruth didn’t use this word. “He raised corn, cotton, stuff like that, and peanuts for the house.” During my childhood, Ruth regularly roasted peanuts in papery red skins which fell off in brittle flakes.
My mental images of Joe Brown with his cash crop harvests of cotton and corn, the peanuts a treat for the family, are nourished by a different documentation. My quest to understand Ruth led me to photographs by Dorothea Lange, which show Southern tenant farmer families, with children in raggedy clothes in the cotton fields, many of these from the 1920s and 30s when Ruth would have been a child or teenager. This sharecropper system of exploitation, with its legacy in serfdom and slavery, fell apart under the New Deal in the 1930s when union organizing and strikes brought to wider attention the abuses landless farmers and their families—many African Americans in the South before the Great Migration northward—experienced. This public history offered a narrative arc for Ruth’s account of how she and many of her relatives moved north.
Other details about Ruth's childhood in Georgia came through in unexpected ways. When my daughter was eight years old, she had a school assignment to interview someone “old.” Her class had developed a set of questions to find out what life was like when their subjects were children. Flora immediately thought of Ruth and phoned her with her class query in hand. Ruth was past eighty by then.
          “What kind of board games did you like to play?” was one of the questions the third graders had come up with.
          “We didn’t have no games like that!” Ruth laughed at the question. “We played in the dirt, and with sticks and stones. That’s the only board games we all had.”
          “Where did your family go on vacations?” Flora wanted to know, again referring to the class assignment.
          “Vacation? What you talking about, baby? Well, let me see. Maybe we go up to Valdosta a piece, if we in Cordele, or to Cordele or maybe Sibley when we lived down by Sylvester. We visited our family—aunts and uncles or cousins—or sometimes my mother. That’s about the size of it, the sum total of the family vacation we had!”
 “What restaurants did your family like to go to when you were little?” And that’s how the interview went, a limping affair with most every question totally out of key with the chords of Ruth’s childhood.
Flora’s questions were molded from the same narrow vision of the ones I asked Ruth in my interview only a few years before. I kept trying to find out how the ages of people at certain milestones fit in her narrative of her early years. My aim was to work out Ruth’s age and the chronological difference between her and her mother. I tried to confirm without saying so the unwed teen mother story I’d heard. But Ruth seemed downright annoyed.
“So your grandmother must’ve had those children with Joe Brown later on,” I fished for some ages.
”What you call later on?”
“Thirty-five? Forty?”
“I don’t know how old my grandmother was. She had these three kids, became a widow, married this man, and had those kids. If your husband died, wouldn’t you marry again, if you was a beautiful lady?” Ruth gave me that signature arch look of hers, her voice edgy with impatience. “I called him Papa like his children did. I never said ‘Grandpa’ or ‘Grandma’ neither.”
After her father died, Ruth recalled moving around, even living apart from her mother whose work took her to Sibley, Georgia. “I stayed with my Aunt Mary quite a spell when I went to a public school.” I was very interested in learning more about her father, but Ruth yielded little other than his name was Nathan.
I reached for fiction to parse this shadowy father. In his short story “Cora Unashamed,” Langston Hughes juxtaposes two out-of-wedlock pregnancies, one of a white teen named Jessie, the other of Cora, the family maid. While Cora’s response to her condition is announced in the title, Jessie’s parents force her to have an abortion from which she dies. My own mother had told me the tale of Miss Cora, a mother while she was still a child, but there was not a hint of difficulties in Ruth’s recollection of her origins. Instead, Ruth talked about a father she knew and loved. “He was a turpentine man in Sylvester.”
Again, I resorted to public images to fill in gaps. I found a 1912 postcard of the “turpentine industry” in Florida, with the added caption, “Dipping and scraping pine trees.” The image shows two black men in overalls stripping the bark. Turpentine vapors are health hazards, solvents that burn the skin and eyes, and can even damage the lungs and the central nervous system. Was occupational harm responsible for Nathan’s too early death? Dorothea Lange’s 1937 photographs gave more visual clues: “Turpentine Workers, Georgia, July 1937” shows a group of black men in a field fringed with pine trees.
As she had with Flora's school assignment, Ruth pushed against the preconceptions that prompted my line of questions about her parents. She didn’t remember why or when Nathan died, but that it was when she was too young to go to school. “My father I was very fond of—when I saw him coming down the road, no matter who I was playing with, I would leave them. I’d jump up and meet him, and he would pick me up, put me around his neck, and bring me home. I adored my father, and then he died.”
“Was your mother living with him at the time?”
“I said he was my father!”
“But not all parents live together.”
“Well, this one did.” Ruth’s emphasis on “this one” couldn’t have been sharper, a resolute rejection of my insinuating narrative of a poor single black mother and child. “That’s how I know he died. And after that, my Aunt Mary and her husband came and moved us to Cordele.”
Ruth explained that her mother worked as a cook in those days “for ladies in their homes,” first in Sibley and Sylvester, and then in Cordele. “Why did she have that job, and not another kind of job?” I asked, again wanting Ruth to say that African American women had scant employment opportunities, and that domestic labor was better than other alternatives. I had remembered when I was a child hearing Ruth’s Aunt Thelma declare she didn’t want to cook and clean for anyone but herself in her own home. How Thelma’s insinuation about her relatives’ employment “for ladies in their homes” sat with Ruth, I didn’t know.
During this interview, Ruth had another quick retort to my question. “She had to do something, so she must’ve got a job being somebody’s cook.” Ruth offered a logic about her mother’s work in white people’s homes that she thought was self-evident.
“Now, my mother was a wonderful cook.” About Miss Cora’s culinary skills, Ruth elaborated, “I hear people she worked for rave about what a wonderful cook she was, and if you want something good, let her cook it. I know she made something I loved—that was pork chops. Seemed like they melt away in your mouth.”
          Ruth cooked everything our family ate—from brisket and matzo ball soup and chopped chicken liver to vichyssoise and layer cakes with caramel frosting. My mother would find recipes in the newspaper or Ladies Home Journal for Ruth to prepare. I was astonished to learn from Ruth that she didn't consider herself much of a cook. I had heard the family legend that when my mother interviewed Ruth about the job, she had asked Ruth if she knew how to cook. When Ruth said she didn’t, my mother replied, “I don’t either, and one of us will have to learn how, and it won’t be me.” Ruth’s own account of this encounter didn’t contradict my mother’s story; rather, she played up her own side of it. “She say, you know how to cook? I say, no. You ask me today, I’ll tell you the same thing. I don’t tell nobody I know how to cook. I just don’t.” It was clear that a job cooking for “ladies in their homes,” as Ruth had described Miss Cora’s employment, was nothing Ruth relished.  
          Ruth and Cora had other jobs in the food industry. When Ruth was a very young woman in Georgia, she had followed her mother to a canning factory called Liberty MacNeil. “I worked in tomatoes, my mother worked in beans and pickles.” Some sixty years later, Ruth was telling me about grating tomatoes “near a machine where they’d pull the rotten tomatoes off, and the rest went into a boiler to make canned tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato ketchup, or what have you.” This position seemed to suit Ruth at the time. “If I worked every day, I had a nice check—once they took income taxes out of it. I think they closed that factory. I’m not sure, but maybe they didn’t have peoples to come to work there like when I was working there. My mother worked there year round.”
          For Ruth, this canning factory was a summer job. About her youthful attitude on work back then she mused, “I was a spoiled brat. I wanted to work with the other kids picking tomatoes or tobacco, but they wouldn’t let me go, and I had to stay in the restaurant to help, but then there was nothing to do there.” Ruth didn’t elaborate on this restaurant, nor did she provide background about Liberty MacNeil. These narratives assumed I knew the broader contexts of places and people. I was too uncomfortable to ask outright about the teen mother and other buried bits of Ruth’s story. Maybe it was none of my business.
During that humid summer morning in 1996 when I videotaped our conversation, I pursued the kinds of life stages most familiar to me. I remember once, when in high school I was struggling to translate Caesar’s Gallic War feats, Ruth said she had studied Latin. But I didn’t hear about classical language classes so many years later when she told me about moving from school to school as a young child. Speaking of the time following her father’s death when her mother moved for work and Ruth lived with her Aunt Mary in Cordele, she said, “I went to public school then. Sometimes I visited my mother in Sibley and went to school there too one term, but then went home to Cordele, and went into boarding school at Gillespie Selden Institute and finished high school there. Gillespie cast a certain glow in Ruth's recollections. The school was established in Cordele in 1933 when it merged with Selden Normal and Industrial Institute in Brunswick, originally opened in the first decade of the twentieth century to offer vocational training to African American students. When Ruth attended Gillespie-Selden, most likely during its initial decade, it offered the state’s first nursing program for black women. Although Ruth didn't mention subjects related to health or anatomy when she talked about her school days, she had told me she was once a nurse in Cordele. Ruth linked this work to surgery on her legs while she was at Gillespie. “They chopped up the bones and then pieced them back together,” Ruth had explained to me once when I was a child and I asked about her bone-thin legs. My mother had told me that Ruth had polio and lived where she didn’t receive proper medical care.        
Ruth had a different take on this chapter of her life. “I had quite a few operations—don’t know why.” When I mentioned polio as the reason, she countered, “Rickets too, some doctor once told me. All I know is my legs musta been weak. There was a problem from the time I was little, so they did operations to make me walk a bit better.” A nurse by Ruth’s measure, I gathered, meant taking care of children. “I hung around the hospital as a teenager and everyone thought I was a nurse. A lady, a teacher, wanted me to be a nurse, but I said I had to go back to school to get along with my mother.” Ruth paused here and laughed, “You had to go to school to get along with your mother too because she sent you.” School was a filial obligation, and Ruth made clear that she had finished high school despite interruptions from surgery and work.
Then Ruth left Georgia for wider horizons up north. “I went to Washington and took a change of plans and came to New York. I had two or three relatives there, Lula Bell and Margaret.”
          In a photo booth image taken in the late 1940s when Ruth was in Washington DC in her early twenties, she’s posing with Miss Cora. They look like sisters, although Ruth is the glamorous one, with glossy lipstick, and a spirited smile in contrast to Cora’s mild, wistful expression. Ruth sports the fancier hairstyle, with waves cresting over her forehead, and she wears a double-strand pearl necklace and shiny ring earrings, while Cora has a dark dress with a white collar, reminiscent of the uniforms Ruth wore at our house. Although Ruth did not elaborate on the "change of plans," she did pause in her prescient way, in her response to my question about why she continued on to New York.
          She leveled her gaze squarely at me. “I was looking for you.”

          I learned “phlegmatic” and "laconic" from my mother who dwelled on these three-syllable words as the epitome of Ruth’s sensibility. “She doesn’t show much emotion,” my mother often said when describing Ruth, who did not go in for chin music or jaw dancing. To me Ruth revealed a firm belief that our meeting was fate and that she had sought me even before knowing me. I didn't feel I needed more explanation for feelings that cut through the dross of my reportage-style interview.
          Then she supplied the ordinary answer: “I came to New York to see Thelma. She was a housekeeper for Peanut Cole.” Here I interjected that I’d remembered Thelma saying she didn’t want to clean or cook for other people. “After that job,” Ruth continued, “Thelma came from the mail-packing place. Then she started at some school, a Catholic school, a hospital where chirrens are, where kids come from broken homes. You know, where your mother got mail sometimes asking her to help.”
          I wanted to get back to the narrative about Ruth and my parents. “So you came to New York to see Thelma, and then what happened?”
          “I found you.” Again that prophetic-ironic voice.
          I hung onto a journalist role. “How did you find me?”
          “I found you through Aunt Florence.” We were back to the often-recited tale. Florence was my father’s brother’s wife. Ruth continued, “Well, Aunt Florence was looking for a housekeeper, and Peanut told her—Mrs. Cole told her—that Thelma’s niece was here, and maybe she could get me to work for her.” This alternating between formal and familiar names, between—in reference to my father—“Papa” and “Mr. B,” was indicative of Ruth’s not-quite status, as family member in some respects, yet an outsider in most. The rest of the story had to do with housekeeper-swapping. Aunt Florence was visiting my mother when someone my parents were considering hiring came over. “Aunt Florence liketed her, or she liketed Aunt Florence better than she did your mama.” Ruth injected an element of mistress-trading too. “So Aunt Florence said, ‘I’ll take her, and you take Ruth, you take who Mrs. Cole have visiting.’ And that’s the way it went.”
According to my mother, Ruth was supposed to go to Aunt Florence’s house, but in the end, another young woman arrived earlier to take the position when Ruth’s arrival in New York was delayed by her stopover to visit relatives in Washington. Florence convinced my mother to “try out” Ruth on a temporary basis. “She was very serious and had a beautiful face,” my mother told me regarding her first impressions of Ruth.
          “What was the job like?” I asked Ruth, as if I were conducting a survey for an employment agency.
          “Well, from what I see, I was to take care of her whole house—do her cooking, do her washing, do her ironing, do her cleaning. She had a cleaning lady for a while, but then that stopped. And then take care of you and Jonny, and have off Thursdays and every other Sunday.” When I asked her what she thought of this “job,” her hired position in the life of my family, after all the variety of work she’d had before, she said, “Not too much of nothing. It was something to do and put a little change in my pocket, or I’d have to go back to Liberty MacNeil.”
          Ruth’s retrospective on this employment reminded me of a story my mother had told about her uneasiness that Ruth seemed “unhappy” in our home at first. After Ruth had worked for a few months, my mother considered asking her to leave. “She never smiled and I worried that her disposition wasn't good for young children.” My mother put my father up to the task of sacking Ruth, but that backfired, as my mother relayed to me. “Your father said to Ruth that she didn't seem happy and thought maybe she would prefer a different family or a different job. Ruth didn’t flinch, just looked at him, and said calmly, ‘Everyone who gets to know me, loves me. You all will too.’” This is the tale I heard often from my mother about how Ruth ended up part—and not part—of our family for these multiple decades. Ruth’s words clarified that this was a menial job, “doing” for others in their Northern homes, barely preferable to the factory assembly line in the South. And yet the value of Ruth's labor was not the polished silver or holiday pot roast, but in the lasting—and loving—entanglements with this cluster of people.

“What was I like as a baby?”
“Didn’t want to drink your milk! Didn’t care too much about eating! Jonny kind of clicked with me right away, and everything he had was mine. I wonder why?” Ruth laughed ruminatively. “I guess kids are like that if they see something in you they like.”
My very earliest memories put me in a high chair in the kitchen with Ruth listening to a noontime gospel radio hour, with Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, belting out "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." In memory, all the white of the kitchen merges like the days, each into the next and back again, Proustian style. The white of tile and appliances bleeds into the white of the smelly white fish I could not stand. “Now you eat that up—it’s brain food. Your mama done paid a lot of money for that fish.”
 During the interview, Ruth offered a wry summary of her job. “Life around your house was just a bowl of cherries. Yessssss … you and Jonny would mash the cherries, and I drinked the juice!” There’s a compressed metaphor swirling in that bowl.
Much to my parents' discomfort, Ruth announced, “I’m voting for George Wallace,” the Alabama racist who tried to undermine the effects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when he ran for U.S. president that same year and again in 1972 and ‘76. Perhaps there was some undercurrent of irony in Ruth’s insistence that she could vote for whomever she pleased, whether she intended to cast this vote, or whether she liked provoking my parents’ predictable reaction.
She demonstrated this slippery humor even when it came to her annual vacation. Since my family was dependent on Ruth’s presence, and planned all travels accordingly, my mother would ask Ruth when she was going to Georgia to visit Miss Cora, or if she was going to take any other trips. “Well,” Ruth would sometimes smile, “I’m going to see the Queen real soon!” Maybe she’d elaborate that she had plans to travel around the world, or go to France, but this was her way of joking and the effect was that my mother’s anxiety about travel plans increased. My mother used to say, “It’s hard to know where you are with Ruth.” Ruth’s evasions weren't calculated exactly, yet all told, I see her dodges as something other than narrative allergy. Except for Ruth’s hysterectomy when I was twelve when she was unable to work for a month, she never left me for long.

While I was in high school Ruth called me into her room one evening, and said she had an important secret to tell me. “Walter and I got married last week, but I don’t want your mama or daddy to know.” Her reason for this secrecy was that Ruth didn’t intend to live full-time with Walter until I left home. “When you go off to college, there will be time enough. I’m not leaving you until I see you through to the other side."   
Walter Greene was a chef at a restaurant in White Plains. Ruth loved to take my brother and me to visit Walter’s kitchen where he’d ply us with our favorite menu items. He knew all our dietary delights from Ruth. “French fries?” he’d ask. “I know you love spaghetti, Susie,” and he heaped up a plate with pasta. Ruth added to her ironing basket Walter’s uniforms and I’d see her prop up with starch those white toques. Although I enjoyed his generosity as a professional cook, so different from the domestic version his wife halfheartedly held, Walter remained a shadowy person to me. In death, Walter became more vivid, as did Ruth's world outside our home.
It was after eleven at night when my mother phoned from New York to tell me Walter had died two days earlier from lung cancer. At six the next morning I called Ruth to say I’d be in New York in time for Walter’s funeral.
“Really?” Ruth sounded almost excited and almost like herself, except for a slight hollowness in her voice. “You really goin’ be here?”
My parents and I arrived at the funeral home before Walter’s family. In the front hallway was a black glass-enclosed announcement offering the day’s event: 11 o’clock. Monday February 23, 1981. Services for Walter G. Greene. The three of us went uneasily from the entrance hall to the chapel where the coffin was on display in the front of the room. I saw Walter’s head propped up, his black eyeglasses on his face although his eyes were closed.
Two days earlier Ruth had asked my parents to drive her to the funeral home, “the undertaker’s,” as she put it. “You can see Greene’s body. They did a real good job on him. I made sure they put on his glasses. No one would even know it’s Greene without his glasses.”
I asked my mother, “Was it hard to look at him?”
“Actually, it wasn’t so bad. Your father took one look in the coffin and whispered, ‘That’s my suit he’s wearing!’” We had entered Ruth's world by proxy only, through castoff clothing, even while she lived in ours. We were making our debut at Walter's funeral.
After I greeted Ruth's cousin Agnes who had taken a seat up front, I turned back to the third row where my parents had rooted themselves into gray folding chairs. “We better move back, since the front rows are all for Ruth’s family.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” my mother quickly parried. “We’ll be conspicuous no matter where we sit.”
When the seats were nearly filled, two young men helped Miss Cora, who had traveled in a car from Georgia for thirty hours, in through a side door to the front of the room.
Suddenly a hush descended on the dim hum of chatter, and behind me was a terrible sound, a chillingly painful gasp. Everyone turned toward the main entrance, and there was Ruth as the chief mourner, like the bride at the back of a procession. Going down the aisle ahead of Ruth were Walter’s daughter Patricia from Jacksonville, his brother Charles from Miami, and his sister Anne from Chattanooga.  
Transfixed with fear I watched Ruth, her hands covering her face as she sobbed loudly. I had never witnessed this pitch of emotion from her in all my life. My mother’s view of Ruth as stolid may have had more to do with our particular domestic dynamics. A woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform supported Ruth as she limped toward Walter’s coffin. She held Ruth around her shoulders as they moved down the aisle.
When Ruth reached Walter’s body, she leaned over it and cried out, her voice piercing the still room, “Why did you leave me, Greene?” My fingernails reflexively pressed into my palm. On one side of me, my father seemed to shudder, and said beneath his breath, “Gee!” On my other side, my mother did not flinch.
Once Ruth had been led to her seat in the front row, Reverend John Jackson, the minister from Ruth’s AME Church in Harlem, stood at the pulpit to address the mourners. He was a large man with impressive presence, his voice like a full sunset, streaked with a symphonic range of emotion. He began his eulogy, his eyes trained on the audience before him.
“Sometimes, sometimes, my brothers and sisters, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We have the suffering with the living, and then more suffering with the dying, and then the ache of hell when they are dead. And we cry out in our pain and in our rage, ‘Why Lawd, why?’"
The minister’s head bent down as if under a huge weight, a pendulum suddenly struck still in the clock of life. Slowly he lifted his head. I was mesmerized by the drama of him, the room’s fragile quiet. Now his voice was a low, deep wave, gathering force as it grew.
“And you ask yourselves, brothers and sisters, ‘Why did my brother Walter Greene die? Why Lawd? Why Lawd? Why now? We’re not finished with him, Lawd! Why now? Why did you take him from me, Lawd? Why?’”
After the graveside services when we were walking back down the path to the row of parked cars, Ruth introduced me to Charles, Walter’s brother. “This here’s my baby.” She appeared tired and, as usual, walked with a lame gait. I was relieved to hear Ruth speak without that pitch of powerful feeling, her cries still pinned to my brain.
Charles put his hand out and I shook his. “Nice to meet you, m’am.”
I was Ruth’s baby. She told me this, she told other people this. But was there another baby? Did I replace another lost baby, like Jessie replaces Cora’s Josephine in the Langston Hughes story? Did I displace Ruth’s own story of other babies, narratives buried, forever lost? Twice I heard that doctors had pronounced Ruth’s body bearing the traces of childbirth.
When I was in seventh grade, Ruth suddenly became ill and had to have a hysterectomy. My father’s cousin Eugene was a gynecologist, and so my parents arranged for Eugene’s partner to perform the surgery. I only remember visiting her in the hospital the night after her operation. She looked small and helpless, not at all the Ruth who protected me from my brother’s punches, my mother’s depression, my father’s mild-mannered oblivion. Her face was drenched, and I could tell she was in terrible pain.
“There’s my baby,” her attempt at smiling more a grimace as she saw me at the foot of her bed.
My mother tried to reassure me when we left the hospital. “Of course, Ruth isn’t dying! She just had major surgery. She’ll be fine in no time.” We spent a month eating most dinners at restaurants, or my mother made tuna salad sandwiches. I learned to make spaghetti sauce from a mix. During that period, I overheard that the doctor said Ruth once had a child.
Many years later I heard a similar story when Ruth was crazy with senility, and no longer knew me even by name. That failure of memory was so painful to bear that I stopped phoning her at the Pinehill Nursing Center in Byronville, Georgia. Her cousin Jean Smith, who lived in Cordele and looked after Ruth when she moved back there a few years after my parents died, would phone me from time to time with updates about Ruth’s condition. I hadn’t caught Jean’s place in Ruth’s sketch of her family tree, but Jean told me she’d known Ruth forever. This time she told me that Ruth had some bleeding, and that the doctors said she had cancer of the uterus.
“That can’t be! I know Ruth had a hysterectomy a long time ago, when she was maybe forty years old.”
“I’m just telling you what the doctors say. And they say she had one baby, maybe two.” If Ruth had given birth, what happened to the baby? Dead or surrendered or something else? In the part of Ruth's life that overlapped with mine, so much was unspoken, so much of the past unshared, that baby was as good as dead.

Ruth liked to talk to the dead, and that’s what she did when I took her to visit Walter’s grave. As if paralleling our peculiar family, The Jewish cemetery, Sharon Gardens, where my family has a plot, and a Christian cemetery, Gates of Heaven, lie side by side in Valhalla, New York. Ruth made wreaths for Walter’s grave with different colors of plastic newspaper and supermarket bags which she balled up in some fashion and then attached to wire clothes hangers. Once I suggested I could get some cut flowers from a florist for her to leave by the gravestone, but Ruth declined. “My flowers look fresh a lot longer than those ones you spend your money on.” She had a point.
          I envied Ruth’s camaraderie with the dead. When we approached Walter’s plot, she’d call out, “Look who’s here, Greene! I brought Susie to see you!” Then she’d give a quick update about relatives or friends, the change of ownership of a restaurant where he’d worked.
Some months after my mother’s Aunt Fredda died in a nursing home, her body willed for scientific research, a special delivery package of the rest of Aunt Fredda, now reduced to smooth sand, arrived at my parents’ front door. My mother and Ruth took Aunt Fredda’s box to our local Valhalla. As they approached Walter’s grave, my mother held the open box while Ruth called out, “Greene! I’ve brought Aunt Fredda to stay with you now! You remember Aunt Fredda! She’s the lady who basted the turkey every Thanksgiving!” Ruth scooped up the substance of Aunt Fredda’s remains, and dispersed the grains like fairy dust onto Walter’s plot.

          Ruth's own death, like her life in some ways, felt painfully remote to me. I had not seen her in several years since she'd returned to Georgia and I had not spoken to her in over a year since she didn't seem to know who I was anymore. Still, I was some variety of next of kin and received the news before dawn one September morning.
          “She gone,” I heard a voice say. “She gone now. Susie, this is Jean. Ruth passed in the night, around one o’clock."   
          A week later and a thousand miles away, Ruth's funeral took place at the New Oak Grove Baptist Church in Cordele. Jean sent me the program from the service, a six-page foldout with a large color photo of Ruth on the front. The image of Ruth came from another photo which appeared inside, one I’d taken at my brother's rental home on Martha’s Vineyard the summer of 1996 when I’d interviewed Ruth. In the original picture, Ruth sits in a tee-shirt on a lawn chair in the company of two toddlers, my brother’s daughter Jenna and my Flora next to her. Flora is hamming it up, Jenna is studying something on her hands, Ruth is looking at the camera. Her expression seems distraught, but perhaps she was in the middle of saying something, and the shutter caught her face at an odd angle.
          The program came to me like a long-distance notice of the framework of Ruth's story, her early and final years in Cordele, which became legible on my mental map when I learned the city was forty miles east of Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains. Unlike Walter Greene's funeral in White Plains, NY, Ruth had the royal treatment with escorts courtesy of the city of Cordele, including the chief of the police department, the city manager, and the sheriff of Dooly County. The order of the service includes two selections of songs by “The Gospel Ensemble” and a eulogy from the Minister Charles Perry. Ruth’s body didn’t make it to Walter’s Valhalla resting-home; she was buried in “Pleasant Valley”. Toward the back of the funeral program is a poem titled “Come and Rest":

          God said you were getting weary
          So he did what he thought best,
          He came and stood beside you
          And whispered, “Come and Rest.”

          If there were any “Why Lawds” at Ruth’s funeral, the answer might have been this, that she was “getting weary.” Arranged around the poem at the center of the page are several photos including one of Flora and Jenna, a few of Ruth as a much younger woman. In one she’s in a kitchen, although I don’t recognize it. In another, she wears a uniform with an apron, and another shows Ruth with her arm linked through Walter’s. Although neither my parents nor my brother and I appear in any photo, there is one of Ruth at the Hartsdale train station, with her hand resting on the back of my parents’ 1960s Cadillac convertible. Ruth was likely heading to her church in Harlem.
          A short obituary begins: “Mrs. Ruth Steadman Greene, daughter of the late Mrs. Cora Smith born on January 1, 1916 in Sylvester, Worth County, Georgia.” Finally, I learn Ruth’s age, and marvel that she died at eighty-eight, a year older than my father had lived, and thirteen years longer than my mother. She was less than two years younger than my mother. Why had I assumed my mother was at least a decade older? Neither woman was forthright about her age. In addition to her mother's name, this version of Ruth’s biography mentions two aunts and seven cousins, again a glaring contrast with Ruth's own account of an adored father. Then, this: “She moved to New York where she lived and worked for many years. She was employed by a very loving and caring family, The Barntine Family.”
Something was garbled in the translation here, from “Bernstein” to “Barntine,” but no matter. Like a photo negative, Ruth's many decades in New York working for our family for most of her adult life was a shadowy detail for the people at her funeral in Cordele. What she told me about her childhood and family in Georgia, an account colliding with my mother's version, was more a sketch than the thick description I sought. From each perspective, her Cordele community of her childhood and final years, and her workplace people like me, Ruth was a strong presence, known in some respects, and not known in others, the very marvel and mystery of herself, as she had told me, a sum total of a mixed emotion family.

Susan D. Bernstein moved a few years ago to Boston from Madison, Wisconsin where she spent twenty-eight years as a professor of English with a focus on Victorian literature and gender studies. She now teaches in the English Department at Boston University including a course on life writing. In addition to scholarly books and articles, she has published literary nonfiction essays and short fiction, and is writing a novel.