Bill and Sarah pulled up with my boxes and me, to move in my stuff and then take me shopping for groceries and household goods. But then the downpouring rain turned to sleet. So with hugs and assurances of speedy return they leaped in the van for an arduous trek back to their seaside home.
In an off-season housing market, just to stand here with bag and baggage waving goodbye in the freezing rain was a fantastic stroke of good fortune. It came about when a tenant moved out of a studio apartment, leaving a pile of trash and thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. Frank in Maintenance alerted Ella in Management. While Ella talked to Frank I walked in to her office, heard her half of the call, and wrote a check for first & last month and security deposit. Ella asked me for a one-month advance for phone and electricity, showed me the unit, and handed over the keys.
The apartment had small narrow rooms all in one line: kitchenette, bathroom, central room, alcove closet. Their windows faced west. Across a little courtyard, there was a close view up at six floors of windows full of neighbors with their TV and meals. In winter, the studio had shadowed daylight from 10:00 to 3:00. The other 19 hours, there were timed floodlights giving our courtyard an evocative Stalag Newsreel look.
I dedicated the apartment as a refuge of prayer and introspection, naming it Little Beje after Corrie ten Boom’s wartime sanctuary for refugees. I moved the boxes indoors, opened Bill & Sarah’s housewarming present, and laughed. They’d given me their mascot! Mr. Snakey was an inflatable nine-foot boa constrictor from the Museum of Science. Set up on my sleeping bag, he looked impressively lifelike.
Next I flicked on the light switches one at a time, then plugged in the refrigerator. Nothing happened. The landline phone, plugged in to its jack, had no dial tone. But thanks to Frank, the floors gleamed with fresh polyurethane varnish. The walls were slathered with fresh paint. So were the windows; they were sealed shut. The oil radiators had no off valve. They poured out dry heat and the roasted rancid-blood essence that hinted at cockroaches lurking in the pipes. The whole floor was crunchy with grout bits or paint chips. I grabbed a box lid as a broom and cleared the center room at a walking squat, moving each box at a time. Opening the hall door for light and air showed that the bits and chips were fumigated cockroaches — not lurking in pipes, but lying on their backs with folded multiple arms. That was great incentive to sweep the place corner to corner. Wrapping my hands with soggy advertising circulars from the lobby I scooped the whole rout into a garbage bag, then slipped and skidded across the courtyard to the dumpster.
The gas stove worked like a charm. So did the faucets, but the water smelled like paradichlorobenzene mothballs. After running the kitchen taps for twenty minutes I made tea, took a sip, and gagged it into the sink. Then I slipped and skidded to the Store 24 on Beacon Street, and was thrilled to find distilled water, crackers, spongy grapefruit, and figs on the nearly empty shelves. With the Sunday blue laws, the store could not sell liquor. But the men in the long line snapped up soda, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, scratch tickets, and magazines in brown paper from behind the counter. Unlike me, they had spent their weekend not packing, but monitoring the weather service.
Whiteout snow hit on the way home. There I stored the grapefruit on the cold bathroom windowsill. In the radiator heat I had to lock the door and drop all my clothes on a chair. To protect the pipes from freezing I turned on all the taps to a trickle. I washed up, and fixed oatmeal and tea while snow hurtled past the Stalag lights. Then for good air I put some clothes on, opened the hallway door, and set up for the night in the doorway with sleeping bag and Bible.
We had three blizzards in five days. The streets were silent; no people, no traffic noise but sirens, no trolleys on the Green Line. From a pay phone, a 40 minute round trip clamber away, I called my boss; he’d had to close up shop, and told me to stay home until after New Year’s. Other businesses were closed too. The drifts were 5 feet high. On side streets the plows could clear only one central lane both ways for cars and pedestrians to share, with blackening snow walls that lingered until April. Frank worked all hours on the roof chopping ice, or fixing burst pipes for tenants with no heat, or plowing snow from the doors. He promised to get my windows open soon.
Every morning it was time to break camp, roll up the sleeping bag, and lock the door. Then I dropped all my clothes. (Naturism was soon a necessary automatic reflex, if naturists vacation all alone in small dark rooms.) With the cardboard lid I’d sweep up the cockroaches, re-robe, drop the garbage in the dumpster, and gather some pine twigs on the way back. The pine twigs went into a stock pot of water boiling all day with grapefruit peels and cinnamon to improve and moisten the atmosphere. There was always pease porridge to tend on the stove too, with legumes and seaweeds and grain from my boxes. Then after a dip in the trickling bathtub I’d wash the laundry and dry it on the radiator in minutes. With a pickle crock weight as a hammer I’d tap a wooden spoon all around the window frames, in hopes of a paint gap for fresh air. When the fumes and heat made my head spin, I’d get dressed and stroll a bit on the snow drifts. Then with the Bible and sometimes Mr. Snakey for company, and a bath towel over my head for the draft, I sat in my doorway to study, read, write, and meet the neighbors.
But where was everybody? There was plenty of bustle in the building across the courtyard, but our floor had no one. Perhaps the other renters were students, at home for winter break? Only a couple of men traipsed through now and then, kicking the advertising circulars into a junkmail-mâché across the floor. I always said hello. They took one look at my setup and kept walking.
By Christmas the dizziness from the fumes wasn’t going away, even outdoors. The trip over drifts to the dumpster needed a sitting rest halfway through. The cold in the hall felt shivery even with extra bundling up. The heat with the radiators felt feverish even with bathtub dips and clothing-optional living. It was fortunate that I didn’t have to go out, because then a sore throat came along with laryngitis, a cough, and shortness of breath. One night I was resting in the doorway with head wrapped in towels, with a fold tucked down to cover my eyes; the fluorescents had a painful glare, and my stomach queased up at sight of the mâché slush on the floor. It was stained by melted rock salt from the snowplows in two city-issue colors (cotton-candy pink, and inauspicious pea green).
At about 3:00 am a rustling noise shook me out of a fitful reverie. Peeling back the bath towels I looked around blinking, and caught sight of Mr. Snakey. He was across the hall in the opposite doorway. While stumbling around feeling sick, I must have fallen asleep in the open door of the wrong apartment! In a panic I flailed around to an upright position against the door frame. “Oh no,” I tried to say. But this was my first human conversation in days; my voice was only a whisper.
To my delirious dismay, Mr. Snakey seemed to come alive. He yanked back his head, as would any sensible snake (a nine-foot python, as it turned out) when confronting a chill draft. A man appeared from inside, looming over us in the open doorway. With a few choice words he grabbed the moving snake and slammed the door. I wobbled up to my hands and feet, locked up, crept to the alcove closet, and verified that my boa was right where he belonged. (Yes, an inflatable boa is nothing like a live python, but don’t ask me how at 3:00 am in a fever.) Then, a breakthrough revelation occurred to me: because the bathroom was all tiled walls and floor, Frank hadn’t painted or varnished it! So that night I pulled my sleeping bag into the bathroom, closed the door, and had a restful sleep breathing well beside the trickling tub under a reassuring view of sky slice with star.
That day or next, a cheerful cricket noise rang out in the alcove. Phone service! The first call was from Bill and Sarah. All during the blizzard they’d been telephoning my inactive phone line, wishing they could pick me up to stay with them, or at least drop off some fresh produce; but by the sea the roads were still hazardous, and they’d had flu themselves.
From then on, people called every day for long insightful conversations. “You are SUCH a wonderful listener,” said one girlfriend. “Nobody pays attention like you.”
“Perfect conditions for attention,” I explained. “Snowed in. Very little voice. In the dark. No clothes.”
The phone gave me a new daily ritual: calling the electric company.
“Mrs. Washington here,” a customer service associate snapped. “Name and address?”
“Hello Mrs. Washington.” I cleared my throat and croaked at her. “It’s Mary —”
“Speak UP!” she barked. “How do you spell that?”
“It’s M –“
“Is that M as in ‘Mary’?”
“Why… yes. Here is my address and unit number.”
“What is the nature of this call?”
“I paid Management on December 1 for the first month, but…”
“EXCUSE me! We are under a SNOW EMERGENCY!”
“Yes Ma’am, I see it out the windows. Just wondering, in a case like this —-”
“Hold the line.”
After 25 minutes of Muzak, the call disconnected.
So did the other calls. I kept on dialing, night and day.
Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Jefferson, Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. Madison, Mrs. Buchanan all looked up my address and unit, then put me on hold until the call cut off.
Finally, Mrs. Roosevelt let me know that the guy living here in Unit 3 before me had cheated thousands of dollars out of the electric company, and now they were in no scramble to light up my life. For all they knew, he was hiding behind a curtain and had put me on the phone. Now I would have to prove that I was me, prove that I was not him, prove that I was not in his cahoots, and that I was hereby renouncing all his vain pomps and works. “Only a supervisor makes exceptions. And they are all out with the repair trucks. To speak with one, you’ll have to call back.”
Mrs. Coolidge wanted a letter faxed to her with my previous addresses, signature, date of birth, and social security number.
Mrs. Eisenhower said I’d have to fax her a postmarked envelope showing my name and address. (Not that I had any; all my mail went to my post office box downtown. And I was too sick to walk to the mailbox and mail a letter from me to me.)
Mrs. Cleveland said that the fax needed to show a copy of the cancelled deposit check. (Not that I had one; the month wasn’t over, and the bank statement with cancelled check was going downtown to the same post office box.)
Mrs. Wilson wanted the fax to show a money order with a future deposit of $500. (Not that I could get myself to my own bank, which was probably still closed.)
Mrs. Harding wanted a past bill from some other utility company.
a copy of my lease.
Mrs. Truman wanted a government-issue ID with photograph, and a copy of my lease.
At least waiting on hold made a good meditation and stretching practice. Soon I could hum along to the different classical Muzak pieces while eating dinner or napping with the receiver tucked nearby.
On New Year’s Eve day I called again.
“Ms. Jackson. State your name & address.”
“Lo, Ms. Jackson.” I told it to her.
“What do you want?”
“Not a thing, Ms. Jackson. I’ve been calling about this account for a couple weeks. This is just to say that any day now it will stop snowing and I won’t always be sick, and then I’ll go out and find an open business with a fax machine and send you all the documents that you would like.”
“What is the nature of your call?”
“To say thank you. You have a high-stress job, and you’re saving lives in this terrible weather. And your Muzak! It’s all I have to listen here at home in the dark, and it’s LOVELY.” I started getting tearful. “So thank you. Happy New Year.”
“Unh.” Pause. “Right. Bye.”
For dinner that day I made split pea soup. An empty potato chip bag turned up in one of my boxes; the crumbs gave a delicious seasoning accent to the meal.
Eating dinner, I was longing for a church, a place with electric lights and people.
So I wrapped up warm with a bath towel around my neck and ventured out for the first time in days, down Beacon Street. Eureka! A large community church was open. In an upper floor all the lights were on. I hurried over snow drifts and up to the parish hall. About a hundred people were gathered for the service.
“You’re here!” The organizers rushed to greet me at the door. “Thank goodness! Wait — aren’t you…? Well, the invited speaker couldn’t make it. Can you lead the meeting anyway?”
“Meeting?” I looked around and saw the 12-Step slogan banners all over the walls. “Oh sure.” I was expecting a prayer service, but this was fine; I’d led many Anonymous group meetings before, including the mixed-program share-a-thons on holidays. “No problem.” Walking up to the microphone I greeted everyone, and suggested a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.
“We welcome you, to this meeting of –” I opened the speakers’ binder. “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.” I stopped and looked up at the audience.
They looked back at me.
These hundred people came through snow and ice, who knows how far, for my story of experience, strength, and hope with this addiction.
First, in keeping with Program standards of complete honesty, I let them know precisely how qualified I was to serve as their speaker.
Then we had us a moment of silence for sure.
Then, they laughed.
Soon laughter rolled through the hall in waves.
People would start to calm down, take another look at me, and start laughing all over again. They laughed until they were weeping, slapping their sides or waving their hands in surrender.
“Were you gonna walk into just ANY meeting?” one man called out in friendly fashion.
“Meeting?” I said. “I thought this was Vespers!”
That set everybody off laughing all over again. While they did, I thought: Come Holy Spirit; this would be a fine time to give me an idea of what to tell these good folk. Finally I said “But aren’t we all here for the same reason? Isn’t it just human, to want to find safety and comfort, and also connection with other people? Isn’t that how we got here? Isn’t that how we can come together right now, this evening? We’re not alone; we made it here. We are in good company. We have wisdom and stories to share, and that starts now.”
So people shared their stories and treatment plans and recovery. There was a lot of adversity and courage and wisdom and cooperation in that room. It was a great meeting. And then people joined hands and said the Serenity Prayer, and gathered around with coffee and cookies and punch before saying goodbye. The gathering did my heart good.
That week, my flu got better.
Frank fixed the radiator valves and got the windows open.
Bill and Sarah took me to my favorite thrift stores and then to the Food Coop.
As the snow began to melt, neighbors showed up out of nowhere.
Here I’d been feeling down, thinking everybody else was off on vacation. But no. Some were hiding in their units all scared and wanting their Social Security checks, pain meds, baby formula, chemotheraphy. There must have been some way to help them. If only I’d put up posters in the hallways, or asked Frank to give out my phone number!
After that big snow, one lovely frail couple had to be taken to a nursing home. They’d survived World War II together in Belarus, and were so overjoyed to find a Russian speaker that they begged me to come for a goodbye visit, to have tea and view their photo albums.
What a life lesson for me! There is always more that one can do, to get out and meet and check on our neighbors.
But meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, the walk home from that SLAA meeting was beautiful. The air was cold and clear. In some places the snow still had some glitter to it. At Store 24, they had bananas and yogurt and lettuce for sale!
Locking my door at home I dropped all my clothes in the dark, put the groceries on the windowsill, fixed some mint tea, and sat watching six floors of neighbors together enjoying their TV shows and parties.
The sound of early fireworks sent me running to the bank of windows. I stretched up against the glass, peering at the scrap of sky in hopes of color and flash.
Instead, at midnight, the electric company made a judgment call. The First Ladies — Martha, Dolley, Mamie, Lady Bird, et al. — turned on my lights. All of the lights. Happy 1993!
I hit the floor out of public view. I shimmied into my sleeping bag, zipped it up to my chin, teetered upright against the wall, and hopped around in the bag long enough to turn off all the light switches with my chin. Then crawling out of the bag again I moved my yogurt and lettuce from the windowsill to the humming refrigerator. Then I drank a tea toast to the electric company, humming their best piece of Muzak.
You can hum it too. It’s the Intermezzo instrumental interlude from “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni.
Happy and Blessed New Year to Everybody!