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Monday Morning Group
I think it was some time in 1996, at the waning end of the surge in the crack epidemic in South Central. It was the point where rehabs had opened their doors up and down the coast. Some of the doors opened onto pastoral seaside hideaways, or non-descript suburban homes tucked away on side streets.
In South Central where the motto is; “too little, too late,” choices for the average street addict were severely limited. I only knew of the one offered by King Drew Hospital whose doors opened onto Central Avenue, and where the parking lot at night also housed the homeless, pushing battered shopping carts that contained the last remnants of their lives. Every morning with regularity several large and imposing Black guys who worked for the facility, (we didn’t use African American then), cleared the lot so the cars could park. I don’t how they did it or what they said to those men to make them move, but by 9:00 A.M. you could park pretty much anywhere you could find a space.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I arrived around fifteen minutes early and helped arrange the battered chairs in a circle and fill out the sign in forms for the outpatients who attended. Monday morning was assigned to the Recovering Women’s Group, Aids positive and I was completing an internship for an advanced degree with a specialty in chemical dependency. I needed an advanced credential so I could continue to work a second job since my primary career alone was not paying the bills.
I, myself, was an oddity. My skin color was off, (for all practical purposes I was not Black), I wasn’t a recovering addict, and I was quite a bit older than most of the addicts and the staff for that matter.
I picked the program at Drew in South Central because I figured I’d get more hands-on personal experience than at any of the programs on the West Side. I’d worked on the West Side before and lost patience with the neurotic whining from those I was assigned to counsel. Drew was a test for me too. If I felt no empathy there in the midst of all that despair then I needed to move on.
The center was active with various kinds of counseling and support groups running throughout the day. Every few weeks the Center hosted gang summits. They were well-attended by the burly tattooed opposing factions in the neighborhood. I don’t know what went on in those two-hour meetings once the doors were closed and the packaged doughnuts were brought in on trays with pots of hot coffee. The gang members exited quietly, the same way they entered. I figured there must be some progress since they kept coming back, all the doughnuts were eaten, and so far nobody had to call the cops.
The hospital had a standard program format that I was expected to use with each group I ran according to the group’s label. It was frowned upon to deviate from the format or to engage the women in any other kind of conversation about their feelings, because the doctors believed too much introspection would cause these patients to lapse.
I worked with the Women’s Group. That in itself presumes that I could make some sort of identification with the group members. But you can’t always go on presumptions. I too was female and had kids to care for at home, just as most of them did. Similarities declined at this point.
I’d had graduate degrees, and back in those days they counted for something. The women here for the most part had very little education and had difficulty with basic reading and writing. I’d had my kids late in life as opposed to these women who had started in their very early teens. I was generally speaking employable, with a stable work history. They weren’t employable for a number of reasons. Most of them had never held an actual job. They’d supported themselves by selling their bodies, or if they were too old for that, drugs, or if possible, both. They primarily depended on some form of welfare or social assistance to pay for their minimal food and shelter.
I could, with a lot of scrimping, afford to leave my kids with a babysitter when I worked. They generally left their small kids alone, or with a slightly older child, or even a stranger if available, when they went into the streets, night or day. They’d survived lives of deprivation and abuse going so far back they couldn’t remember the origin.
The other difference was that they were addicts, mostly crack addicts, and almost all of them were HIV positive or had full blown Aids. The majority of them had already begun their downward spiral, and each time I saw them I watched them grow just a little sicker.
I was used to seeing a few children parading through the Center on their way to being handed over to some adult who had finished attending one of the groups. If I noticed them at all I tried not to focus too closely. It was one way of not absorbing the sadness that permeated the environment. Generally, I don’t recall them laughing or giggling, or watching them run or skip down the halls. They were small silent shadows, little adults, their heads downcast, their figures stick-like, and their general clothing and appearance disheveled. It was as if they had already resigned themselves to the bleak life that was waiting for them. I’d think of my own children; grateful that they had no knowledge of this world and were free to think and live the way children should.
One woman was late arriving to group. She hesitated and peeked around the door that I’d just closed. The sign in sheet had just been put away. I motioned her in, and she entered slowly, her right arm dragging behind her. She was a good deal older than the others in the group, who aged out in their mid-twenties, or maybe she was just further along and sicker. We never asked those questions.
She was painfully thin, long fragile skeletal bones, beneath frayed corduroy pants, and a print blouse several sizes too big that had begun to yellow many wears ago. The rubber shower shoes she wore were two different colors. When she asked if she was in the right group I noticed that most of her front teeth were missing. That wasn’t uncommon here. Her hair was pulled back severely from her face and twisted tight with a rubber-band. It looked as if she had tried to clean some of the dirt from her hands, even though the nails were broken and black-rimmed, and her fingers were rough and chafed. Somehow I felt that she had tried to pull herself together for this day.
She was pulling somebody behind her. Somebody short. Rules were rules; we couldn’t make exceptions and expect to keep things orderly. Besides children shouldn’t hear the kinds of things that the group’s members shared.
“I’m sorry but we don’t permit children in these groups. You need to arrange for somebody to pick her up if you plan to stay. Do you have somebody to babysit for you?” I knew the answer before I asked the question.
She shook her head, “no,” and the child stepped forward and looked at me directly, studying me, staring in curiosity. I stared back startled at how intensely she was watching me.
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She would have stood out anywhere among children or adults, but especially here, among the poorly dressed, surrounded by the strong smell of Lysol that permeated the rooms. She stood straight, her light brown eyes were focused and her mouth soft and pursed, like a relic from another time, maybe Norman Rockwell’s, where life was softer, slower and more precise. She was wearing a blue and green plaid skirt and a white blouse with a peter pan collar. The blouse was immaculate, the ruffles on the chest starched and ironed to perfection. Her skirt was pinned with a large gold imitation safety pin and hung to just above her knee. She on black patent leather t-strap shoes that gleamed in the florescent light. Her socks were white and ruffled. They even looked starched. Her hair was parted exactly in the middle and twisted into two ponytails that were fastened with red barrettes. She carried a small red sweater with white pearl buttons over her arm, and over her shoulder, she carried a little red purse.
Guilty, I racked my brain, trying to remember what my daughters wore that morning to school. Blue jeans for sure, tee-shirts with screaming decals, and tennis shoes, probably worn-out and needing a good wash. They combed their own hair, just not very well. When was the last time they’d worn a dress? I couldn’t remember. I was just glad most mornings I had time to pour bowls of dry cereal and set out spoons before I ran to take my shower and hit the door running to get on the freeway.
The little girl and I stood looking at each other. Her face was solemn, the face of a child that has a ring-side seat to life’s realities. I began again, “I can’t let her stay here. It’s not a good place for a child…. listening to all this. You know.”
The woman stopped me. “I need to make this group. I got sick last time. Didn’t go.” She looked down at the floor and I thought “sick,” was probably another word for “high.” If I don’t,” she added, “they’ll violate me, and I’ll go back to jail. They’ll put her in foster again.
“But,” I began.
“She’ll be quiet,” the woman assured me. “She knows how when I tell her.” She touched the top of the girl’s head, and looked up at me with pride, as if being quiet was the ultimate accomplishment. “She’s not like those other little motherfuckers, running all over the place.”
I cringed, and looked over at the little girl, but she didn’t seem to register the words. “What about having her stay in one of the counseling rooms,” I suggested, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
“Hell no,” the woman was indignant. “I don’t want her in there by herself. Not with all those winos, and perverts running around here. No telling what could happen.”
She was right about that. The traffic through this place was sketchy. She’d be a magnet for someone opportunistic.
A few of the women stragglers, were starting to trail through the door, stopping to sign in. They glanced briefly at the little girl, expressionless. They had their own pain to worry about, weighing them down and dragging them through an existence controlled on one end by their drug of choice, and on the other by some government dictate. They would be free, one way or another, when the disease overtook them. Dressed poorly, messily groomed, and looking in general, unhealthy, they carefully selected their seats, trying not to sit next to anyone they already knew had a positive diagnosis.
“Her name is Marjorie,” the woman stated flatly, walking in front of me, and pulling the little girl in the room with her. She took a seat at the end of the circle of chairs, and the little girl climbed in her lap.
I looked around one more time, thinking somebody with more authority would intervene, but nobody did. They were all at the gang summit, waiting for the one time when all hell would break loose and they could call everybody they knew to tell about it. So, I closed the door behind me, and took a seat facing the circle.
After calling roll and marking down the women in attendance, I went around, asking the women to tell the group what was going on in their lives, and anything they wanted to discuss.
There were the usual complaints, welfare benefits cut off, children removed from their home, evictions, men leaving, unplanned pregnancies once again, and a few tearful confessions of Aids tests that had come back positive. Some of the women nodded their heads, these were everyday occurrences in their lives. If one of these unfortunate events hadn’t happened, it would sooner than later. As each woman spoke, I tried to solicit input in the form of advice from the others. It was therapeutic, they told us in training. The women needed to be able to analyze problems and come up with logical solutions on their own. It did happen occasionally, but for the most part they sat unmoved, so it was hard to know if they were listening or not. They were the most receptive to the women’s complaints of men leaving. “Kick the asshole to the curb,” they offered, before lapsing back into silence.
I was as usual, overwhelmed with sadness, not just from what I was hearing, but from the very walls of the building itself, that seemed to store up the grief and desolation of the women who came before us, some of whom were now dead. A few of these women here today weren’t going to make it either I thought.
I was also pretty sure a number of them were high, but at least they were there, masking their pain, and doing what their parole officer told them to do. Sometimes I thought it would help if I had a little something in my system to get me through that hour every Monday. When it got too much, I knew how to tune out while looking like I was paying attention.
Twenty minutes into the session, I looked down and saw Marjorie standing in front of me. Without asking, she climbed into my lap, and leaned back. I leaned in and put my free arm around her. She smelled like baby powder and lavender sachet. The smell hit me hard dragging up memories of my children as babies, an innocence that passing time erased.
I tightened my hold and breathed in. The women’s voices droned on but seemed to fade in the background, and I was only aware of the little girl in my lap. She took my hand and squeezed it hard. I felt tears in my eyes. I remembered vaguely that I’d learned children who reached out this way to any stranger were damaged somehow. Was it something sociopathic or something to do with being abused? I couldn’t remember. I only knew I wanted to hold onto the feeling of peace that came over me holding her. I wanted to think that she felt something sad in me and wanted to make it better.
The clock chimed and the hour was over. The little girl slid down from my lap and went back to the woman who brought her. Women gathered around my desk waiting for referral slips for housing or medical attention. Some needed referrals to Children’s Services, immigration or criminal lawyers or authorization forms for food stamps. I was busy for the next twenty minutes answering questions. When I looked up the woman and the little girl were gone. I went to the door and looked out to the street, but they weren’t there.
I pulled patient charts and made entries for all the women who’d attended. I noticed that the woman who brought Marjorie hadn’t contributed anything in group. There was next to no information about her in her chart except that she was Aids positive. I copied down her address, a breach of my duty of confidentiality. I told myself I needed to check up on the child, make sure she was being taken care of, even though she was a walking advertisement for perfection in childcare.
I pulled up in front of a crumbling apartment building. Old rusted autos were parked in front of the building. It was the only building that seemed to be occupied on that block of boarded up and abandoned houses and empty lots. The crumbling cement stairs and railing were surrounded by twisted barbed wire and each apartment had an iron safety door. Only three of the apartments were occupied. The women poked their heads out of their dens of darkness when I knocked and told me they’d never heard of the woman when I asked. No, they’d never seen a little girl like I described. It was common for the patients to give a fake address. They’d been running away from someone or something most of their lives. Old habits are hard to change. I wondered how the woman kept the little girl so immaculate in such dirty surroundings.
I drove away discouraged but stopped and asked a few men standing on the corner sharing a bottle. They shook their heads. Probably thought I was a cop. The next day I tried snooping in the woman’s medical records. She had no record of receiving any kind of treatment for her diagnosis. There wasn’t even any information on how she was referred to Drew. I checked the apartment building again that day and the next without any luck.
The following Monday, I waited expectantly, but she never showed. I got another bright idea and called a friend in adult probation and parole. I had them run her name, trying to track her. Her name did not come up in any of the criminal registers. Probably she was using a fake name too.
After group was over, I drove up and down the neighborhood looking for the woman and the little girl. The little girl that she called Marjorie looked to be about five, so I drove by the elementary school when the primary kids were released to the yard for recess. I drove around a couple of times, but by then the crossing guards were looking at me suspiciously. I decided if I drove by once more someone would report me as a child molester.
At the end of the month, I closed the woman’s file for lack of program attendance. There was no information on who her parole officer was, and nobody to report her to for violating.
The group meetings continued. A few of the women’s symptoms advanced and they stopped coming. A few were re-arrested and headed back to prison. New women joined through a court mandate. I stopped using the program format and asked the women to share more of what they felt, what made them happy and what made them sad. I asked them to remember special times they’d had in their lives, and special people they’d met along the way. I started letting a different woman conduct the session each week and pick the topic of discussion. They started to talk openly about their lives on the street, and for the first time I really listened.
A few months later I went back to the apartment house where Marjorie’s mother said she lived. There was nothing there but part of a charred wood frame and piles of ashes. A wino sitting on the curb told me the building burned down in a fire one night. He said knowingly that the landlord did it for the insurance money. For the first time, I was grateful that Marjorie didn’t live at that address and that I didn’t find her with her mother in one of those dark dirty apartments where the light never entered. That way I could always remember her fresh and spotless, a little girl from a painting that reality couldn’t touch.