[Carmen Delzell lives in Mexico, travels to India, and does occasional audio essays for us. Here’s another post in her: Bag Lady’s Guide to What’s Left of the Planet…]
By Carmen Delzell (Written in 1988 just before I became homeless.)
I never intended to live the way I have.
I thought—in that hazy hopeful time right after graduation and before my foolish marriage that I could be a bohemian, a colorful avant-garde part of the late 1960s and then (I’m not sure when I thought it would actually be) I expected to have a house, go to graduate school and eventually teach at some small liberal arts college somewhere.
I guess I got a lot of these notions from biographies and magazine articles that fell into my hands from my mother’s casual (and probably mundane) choice of reading material.
She herself had fancied a similar life and she too found the shock of turning middle aged without it too much to bear.
I’m hoping I won’t have to.
Certainly not yet and hopefully not ever.
It is early afternoon.
I am, as usual, sitting up in bed waiting for my life to start.
The comforting whistle of the radiator tells me we still have oil in the furnace. There’s enough Medaglia D’Oro for one more pot of coffee, and, if I don’t do something rash between now and supper time I think there’s enough money in my account for a pound of hamburger and a box of generic soap powder.
That, if I choose to accept it, is my assignment today.
Today I will buy soap powder.
Tomorrow I will wash the sheets.
The hours between then and now are full of possibilities.
They remind me of the days between high school and motherhood.
How shall I fill them?
I could (I tell myself) get dressed and go look for a new place to live.
That would only require finding an unladdered pair of stockings, a fresh coat of face paint, and my good black dress.
No. Can’t do that.
I did that yesterday and look what happened.
I drove to the borderline of the city that divides rich from poor, black from white, clean from dirty.
That’s where the man who answered the phone told me I would be able to afford to live.
When I got there I was met by a large unfriendly woman who I mistakenly thought was from India.
She blocked the door to the building and refused to tell me if there were any vacancies left until I filled out a form asking me far too many personal questions.
I had to stand outside on the steps of the building. It was 30° with a wind chill factor of 7°.
I heard that on the car radio.
I lied a little bit on the paper; I said I had only one child and that I made over a thousand dollars a month typing letters for a lawyer.
I gave the name of a friend who had agreed to back me in my lie.
The landlady grudgingly let me down a dark hallway to a basement laundry room.
At the end of the room was a door with a bumper sticker that said “One Day at a Time” in elaborate gothic letters.
I recognized it from others I had seen around town.
Under the bumper sticker was a kind of three-dimensional silver sticker that flashed different colors if you moved closer. It was an optical illusion and was also vaguely familiar to me.
The words printed on it were: “One Way to Jesus.”
I thought the door was the one to the apartment I had come to see but the landlady said no. That was where she lived.
Through the cracked door a beautiful brown child peeked at us and ran away when she spoke to him in another language.
He returned with his mother who handed out two keys.
A wonderful warm curry smell came from the crack and I wanted to go inside. A soap opera was playing comfortingly in the background. A bird chirped from somewhere.
A parakeet I think.
They had a parakeet down there.
Maybe I could have one too if I lived there.
The landlady insisted I leave her my checkbook and car keys as a deposit.
This was not the building where the vacancy was she said. She would not be coming with me.
I had to cross the wet muddy courtyard by myself.
By the time I found the number written on the cardboard tag and was able to open the door the sun had gone down.
The windows were glazed over so that no one could see in or out.
There was no view anyway, I thought to myself. Perhaps it was for the best.
The two rooms were tiled in beige squares of plastic which were peeling away at the edges.
The toilet had no lid.
Brown rusty water dripped from the faucets and stained the chipped sink. A child’s black patent showe with a lace rosette lay under the tub.
The rent was $400 a month.
I began to cry.
When I returned the keys the landlady said she was from Guyana.
She said white people thought she was stupid and black people tormented her grandchildren when they went outside.
She suggested I come back in a few days.
They were evicting a family she said with a sad laugh.
Their apartment had real windows and a small place in the kitchen for a table.
I promised I would call today.
Instead I have stayed here in bed bleeding on a towel.
The towel is printed with roses.
The roses are the color of the landlady’s slippers.
If I had had another baby this late in my life something might have been wrong with it.
Anyway there are so few two bedroom apartments left anymore. I really wouldn’t know what to do.