Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Red Dress Playlist: "Runaway Train"

A few weeks back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess.  To read about the origin of my project, look here.  For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be.  A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am.  I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.

I walk past them every day odowntown.  I see them sprawled on the sidewalks, loitering in the lightrail stations, laughing animatedly with their friends in the downtown courtyard.  They catch my eye and ask for change.  Most days, I avert my gaze, pretending to fumble for my keys, my phone; anything to avoid interaction.  I feel equal parts angry and ashamed that I am made to feel so awkward and aloof.  They are Portland's homeless youth, and at last count there were between 2000-3000 of them, each with their own story...their own dream...their own history.  Today I didn't walk by.  Today I stopped to speak with one of them in an attempt to better understand what draws someone to a life on the streets.

Her name was "Lucy".  Lucy is nineteen years old and dreams of being disciovered on 'American Idol'.  She grew up in a home riddled with both physical and sexual abuse and by the time she was five years old, Lucy would sneak out of the house to sleep in the park; the only "safe" place she knew.  When she was seven, her parents were arrested for drug abuse and criminal negligence and Lucy and her siblings wound up in foster care.  Despite living in about twenty different homes and attending twelve different school, Lucy is proud of the fact that she earned her high school diploma last year.  She is the only member of her family to do so.

"After graduation I was placed at a group home." Lucy stated. "It was cool and the staff was pretty nice. I stayed there for about six months until I got caught with weed. They said they were going to kick me out. I thought that was unfair because it was nothing big. It was only weed. I was mad so I went upstairs, packed my bag and left. I took the bus to my friend’s house and camped out there 'til she bounced...then I just kinda found myself here."

On her first day on the streets, Lucy went into a Starbucks’s and met a guy who let her stay in his apartment for a while.  "It wasn't a biggie" Lucy shrugged. "I've fucked guys for dumber shit, so fucking one for a place to live was cool". Then Lucy went to the Portland Rescue Mission shelter. “It was a horrible, horrible place,” she said. She said there was a lot of crime and molestation and she wanted something safer.  She went to the library to google information about women's shelters and put her namae on the waiting lists for three of them.  But the lists are long and beds are limited.  In the interim, Lucy remains on the street.

"I pretty much spend my day getting high", she laughs. "When I'm not high I hang out at the mall or the library; you can catch a nap at the corner tables there and nobody gives you shit.  At night I sleep at the park in the slide -- you know, the one that's like a big tube?  It's warmer in there.  Or I cop a squat under the bridge like today."

Lucy admits that life on the streets is not ideal, but she loves how accepted and welcomed her fellow street friends have made her feel.  

"These motherfuckers may smell like piss and shit but they are the best friends I've ever had" Lucy cries while fist-bumping one of her buddies. "If you need a hit, or a clean shirt, or just someone to bitch at these guys are there.  They're down, 'cuz they know what it's like.  They get it."

Lucy is hopeful that a bed will open soon at one of the womens shelters she applied to, but is pretty philosophical about her life.  "It's like that Ice Cube movie 'Friday', you know?  When he says 'You win some,  you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day.' My past is part of me. It will follow me wherever I go, but hopefully someday it will be put in the past. Most times I don’t regret living on the streets because it's made me wiser. I know what I have to do to survive. But somedayI’m going to get a job and be somebody.  I'm gonna be so famous that everyone will love my ass!"

Like many of her companions, Lucy lives life with a "Fuck you, leave me alone because I can do it myself" mentality.  She makes enough money to eat and score weed by panhandling and occasionally selling t-shirts at a friend's booth at the Saturday Market.  One weekend she met a young man playing guitar and she began singing along with him.  Another Saturday market vendor heard her beautful voice and gave her a second-hand guitar that she is now learning to play.

"When things get shitty, my music makes it all go away" she said with a shy smile. "Someday I'm going to take REAL lessons and try out for American Idol or The Voice or some shit like that.  Someday EVERYBODY is gonna know my name."  Despite her current circumstances, Lucy has an extremely positive attitude toward life.  "I don't walk around telling everybody I'm homeless.  I don't smell and I keep pretty clean so a lot of people tell me I don't look 'street'.  I'm proud of that, but I'm not ashamed to be 'street' either; street people are the only one's who won't stab you in the back.  We're family."

When asked about her biological family, Lucy had less to say.  "Fuck them.  They didn't care about me so I don't care about them.  I don't even know if they're still alive or dead and I don't give a shit either way."

Talking with Lucy opened my eyes to the prevalence of homelessness in my own backyard.  Many of these young men and women come from similar backgrounds of abuse, addiction, and neglect.  Thousands of them suffer from mental and physical disabilities and are simply unable to find placement in state facilities.  And still more are in a constant holding pattern; waiting for a bed to open at a shelter, waiting for the next dollar from a passerby, waiting for that golden opportunity to escape life on the streets and make their mark on the world.  Before I left, I bought Lucy and her friends a bag of bagels from the neighboring bakery and asked her if there was anything else she thought I should know.  She grinned at me around a mouthful of bread and said "We aren't invisible.  We matter."  Thank you, Lucy.  I see that now.



Killer Cupcake said...

I don't know how I feel about this. On one hand, it's so tragic that it makes me want to drive to Portland and bring her back here with me so that she's safe and warm and doesn't have to "cop a squat" under a bridge or sleep in a tube slide.

On the other hand, she's obviously a strong young woman, a survivor, and I admire her determination to "live another day."

I hope she doesn't become a statistic.

I hope I see her on Idol or The Voice.

Thanks for sharing her story, Jen... this is a remarkable project you've undertaken.


Jen said...

DANI- She does have an amazing voice. Sadly, she also has NO desire to quit smoking pot and using crank so her future looks a little bleak. I really can't imagine all she must have seen in life.

Johi said...

I hope Lucy achieves all of her goals and dreams.
Geez Jen, you're making me look bad. The most altruistic thing I did this week was ignoring that Flock of Seagulls guy that I mocked on my blog (and to his face), accepting free drinks and then driving my drunk friend home.
The whole Bex thing doesn't even count because it is for selfish gains, as I really want to wild stride with her.
Good on you for connecting with someone outside of your comfort zone. You have inspired me to get to know more of my neighbors. On second thought, scratch that.
You have inspired me to vote on American Idol this week. Yeah.

Jen said...

JOHI- I would pay good money for a picture of Flock of Seagulls dude, no lie. And as for Idol, go Team Jessica!

Meg said...

Wow. What a powerful post, Jen. Thanks for sharing Lucy's story. I hope that some day, kids with her history won't have to grow up to live on the streets, in such desperate straights.

I also wish she could put aside the drugs, but addiction is an ugly beast.

Gia said...

Wow, I think it's awesome that you went out there and talked to her -- most people (as you note) just walk by every day...

Misty said...

Oh damn . . . this:

"These motherfuckers may smell like piss and shit but they are the best friends I've ever had" Lucy cries while fist-bumping one of her buddies. "If you need a hit, or a clean shirt, or just someone to bitch at these guys are there.  They're down, 'cuz they know what it's like.  The get it."

. . . totally made me think of all of us in this blogging community. Anyone else see a paralell? Just me? Oh, ok then. Sorry.

Good on ya, Jen. You are making the world a better place, one bagel at a time. If she ever makes in on the Voice, I'll vote for her. I've given up on Idol.

Jen said...

MEG - She has so much potential. It breaks my heart to see her throwing it all away.

GIA - It is so easy to make the homeless "invisible" like Lucy said. I am always torn when asked for change because the last time I gave food to someone instead he threw it at me and told me to fuck off. I just can't give money if I think it may be going toward something illegal.

MISTY - I totally thought of our blogosphere too! ((fist bump)) I don't know if I changed anything except perhaps for my own perspective. It's a start.

Tainted Fibers said...

Another great post. I am guilty of looking the other way too. I talk and theorize much better than I practice. You are starting to make the rest of us look bad. I think we are are guilty of judging before we know the truth.

Brett Minor said...

It always make me so sad when people think the group they belong to is the only group that is worth anything. She has obviously been served a bad hand, but the nastiness she has experienced is now limiting her from seeing what is actually out there for her.

I pray for her future, but in reality, waiting for the 'BIG' thing to happen is not going to bring it about.

There are programs out there to help people, but as I have discovered with the people that I work with here, most don't know how to take advantage of them. The cycle of misery just continues on.

Jen said...

FIBERS - That's why I started this quest; to make you look bad. ;) Kidding! I am so guilty of judging others and it is really limiting and negative. Time to open up my mind a little.

BRETT - I am not optimistic that Lucy will make it. Sadly, she is apt to wind up right back where she is...if she doesn't die first.

Alana Dill said...

I've made contact a few times, bought someone a meal or whatever, and I always give money to musicians if I have any. I don't generally give cash because I know it will just go to drugs (exception: sick old people in wheelchairs. WHY are they on the street? There's something really sick about this society.)

To me the fulcrum of the seesaw has to be legalization of drugs/prostitution, and taxing the bejabbers out of both to pay for social services. I hope this will happen in the next 10 years when the Cheney generation's finally shriveled up and crumbled to the dust from which they are made. Not that I'm resentful or anything...

Kelly said...

This girl just gave me the biggest roller coaster of emotions. Half of me wants to adopt her, another half wants to shake her until her ears bleed for blowing money on pot and shit, another half wants to high five her and thank her for being so real. Yes, Lucy, you do matter. My tears are proof.

Jen said...

ALANA - Yes, yes, and YES! I blogged about that a few months ago -- legalizing and taxing that shit instead of spending so much money fighting it would solve a myriad of problems. And I'm a that's weird. :)

KELLY - Felt the same way, Girl. 50% hugs and 50% smack upside the head. ((sigh))

gengen said...

Cudos Jenn! I am a writer (aspiring novelist) and I really believe that every person has a story to be told. I love that, no matter what happens to Lucy good or bad in the future, you have told her story here. You have immortalized her and given others a glimpse into the what and the why of a lot of these kids.

I try very hard not to turn a blind eye to the homeless around me, but there are days that I am better at it than others. I have had good experiences with some and some less than stellar ones as well.

I witnessed a man who roams around Montreal with these holey shoes being offered a pair of shoes by someone and throwing them back in the person's face.

But I have also met some very kind people who will outstretch their hand as they hold the door open to you and will say "have a nice day" even if you don't give them a cent, just because you actually acknowledged their presence and apologized for not having change.

My most lingering interaction is from ages back. I worked evenings and was heading out to pick up some dinner and a couple of collegues. This man was asking for money for something to eat bcuz he has missed dinner at the Mission near by bcuz he'd worked late at a new job. I went into McDonald's to get something for one of my collegues and bought an extra happy meal. On my way back to the office I stopped and gave it to the man. He was SO HAPPY and thanked me what felt like a thousand times in the couple of minutes we interacted.

WOW that was another babble! Your Red Dress posts seem to cause that in me!


gengen said...

yeah that should read "dinner for me and a couple of collegues" *facepalm* this WOULD be the post I say I'm an aspiring writer...

Angie said...

Once again an incredible well written post. I admire you for taking charge and attacking your stumbling blocks. Bravo!

When I see a story like this, I have to wonder to myself just what it would take in my life to put me in that same position. How many steps are any of us from making a decision that would change our lives and leave us homeless? If that did happen, how many of us would have the strength to climb back out.

My heart and hopes go out to Lucy.

Anonymous said...

I feel like Brett is right - and yet I hope not. It would be wonderful if she could pull through and make something out of her life. Maybe if she gets into one of the shelters it will be a change of scene enough to give her a new perspective.

Thank you for this post. Her last point was so touching:

"We aren't invisible. We matter."

Bloggertobenamedlater said...

This is seriously grim. There are so many problems in this screwed up world it is impossible to to know where to start to try to fix them. All you can do is one problem at a time. Sometimes, lawyers can help speed the process. If you know how to find her again and IF she will let someone help, let me know and I will see if I can get one of my lawyer friends in your neck of the woods to make some calls. It won't fix the world, but it might make a place for her to sleep that's not a fucking slide.

Mandy said...

I kinda don't know how I feel either. I know weed isn't the most expensive drug you could do, but it seems to me that, if she could save up her weed money for a month, she might could have enough for an outfit to wear on job interviews. Not corporate, mind you, but just... McDonalds... Walmart... SOME place, ya know? And then after her first paycheck, I bet she could find a place to live... maybe qualify for assisted housing?

I dunno. I guess it's easy for me to say that. I am the only child of 2 doting parents who are still married and don't even have any debt. I graduated at the top of my class, got my bachelors from a top 10 program... work at a law firm making more that some beginning lawyers. And I've always had the mentality that if you want something bad enough, you can get it. It might take awhile, but you can get it.

I know the weed makes her zone out and feel better, but at some point (and please don't shoot me for sounding insensitive) you gotta suck it up and have short term discomfort for long term gain.

I can definitely say this: I am grateful to you for shedding light on this topic. (Especially as one who also fumbles around in her purse and crosses the street to avoid homeless folks) I also TRULY hope that she's able to get her wish and be on American Idol or The Voice and see that there's more to life.

Jen said...

GEN- you're not babbling; I love your comments. And I'd love to see some of your writing. Perhaps a romantic comedy featuring a 41 year old college professor and a ruggedly handsome Canadian actor? :)

Jen said...

ANGIE- There but for the grace of God go we.
BOZO- I want to believe things will improve if Llucy finds space at the shelter but I'm skeptical. She's run away from so many other places in the past.
BLOGGER-if I see her again I'll ask. Homelessness is so prevalent in Portland... Not sure where we'd even start.
MANDY-I'm a big pull-up-by-the- bootstraps kinda person.

Charity Woosley said...

As the first poster said, I'm not sure how I feel about this. On one hand I'm sad for her, and on the other hand-- I'm in awe and realize there's nothing to be SAD about. A bunch of shitty circumstances and choices landed her where she is-- yet she doesn't seem bitter about it.

The most intriguing part is how *alive* she seems to be. This is awesome to me.

It also sorta brings home the whole 'first world problems' thing for me. Here I am bitching that my new shoes were delivered at 11am instead of 10am-- and this gal's worrying about her next meal.

Jen said...

CHARITY - That's how I felt too! Sad that she was on the streets, then happy that she'd found a "family" then sad that she was pissing away what little she had on drugs, then happy that she was so was a real roller coaster. I know I complain about my mom driving me crazy or my sister being a hypochondriac, but then I think of that beaten and molested 5 year old child hiding in the park at night and it makes me feel very small. A thousand emotions spinning all at once.

gengen said...

I think maybe a birthday story of that nature could be arranged! Of course I have no idea when your birthday is so I may have missed it...Let me know how much time I have and I can make a fun romantic comedy with those character leads!

Andrea said...

Thanks for sharing. It just makes me crazy having that feeling of being unable to help, but getting past the fear of just saying hello looks like a grand first step!