Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stephanie's Lamp

     If I wasn't blogging, I would still have the lamp that Stephanie gave me. That's not her real name, but the one I used after I interviewed her when I was doing a project on women who had been homeless. Stephanie Hawthorne. It sounded right, a good fit. 
     She was remarkable. I met her in the Women's Section at Pine Street Inn when I would do occasional fill-in 3-11 work as a counselor. The rest of the staff got annoyed by her tendency to clean out her locker ten minutes before the lobby closed. That meant she'd pulled out forty plastic bags that held more, smaller, plastic bags that held various belongings and that all of this was spread on the floor at her feet with no possibility of stuffing it back into it's space where it belonged.            
     During some of this time I was working in the clinic as a coordinator, an almost full-time job that I had when I took a leave-of-absence from teaching in order to delay my tenure decision for a year. The job was the best one I've ever had (though I love teaching) and I learned even more about what it meant to be homeless and why a person might have found herself in that position than I had being an irregular counselor. 
     Stephanie would come into the clinic with the problem of having spilled a container of yogurt in her mammoth handbag hoping that I'd let her use the back examining room to wipe down the many plastic bags. And I did. 
     She was a fabulous story teller so I loved listening to her. I never know whether what anyone says is true, and that's even more relevant in a shelter when there are many reasons for people to lie. But it doesn't matter. A story is a story and hers were lengthy and funny and almost always involved the way she fooled people with her very classy voice. 
     She might have grown up in Wellsley in a well-to-do family. Her use of language and diction certainly indicated that this was possible. And she probably had been married to someone of some stature. And she might have had a good number of children. And I'm quite certain that she had a Great Dane when she became homeless and that the dog had many, many puppies. That has to be true. I imagine that she just drifted away from some apartment or other just as she drifted back to one during the time that I knew her. 
     One evening, just before she was leaving the shelter for the night, I took her into the clothing room. This was quite a lengthy event and I know that the regular staff was probably cross with me, but I spent a lot of time while she looked for an appropriate dress to wear to a downtown hotel, I helped her find a good pair of stockings while she tried on shoes (she had large feet so she was lucky to find heels.) Her plan was to pay for a drink in the hotel bar where she would read a book, then sleep in the upstairs ladies room. The doorman would knock on the door to wake her in the morning and she'd get dressed and leave. She'd done this many times, she said, having become quite friendly with whatever staff at the hotel helped her carry out her ruse. 
     I would not have believed it possible for her to actually rent a place in a brownstone on Commonwealth and furnish it with things she found in the back alleys that were still in their original wrappings and a living room suite paid for by a married airline pilot who saw her whenever he was in town. Nor would I have believed that she would rent the extra room in that apartment to a boarder. I've forgotten how long she was there before she was evicted, but it was some number of months. 
     Once I let her stay in my tiny apartment because she was between funds, between fancy rooming houses and coughing like mad. It was just for a week and I was very hesitant, but she promised that she wouldn't smoke inside and I was out working almost all the time. When she left, the bed and the room where she slept was covered with cookie crumbs, 
    As repayment, she later found two lamps for me. One was quite modern with a number of necks and the other was a brass floor lamp with a rather exhausted silk shade. Neither had working plugs. I threw out the modern one almost instantly to Stephanie's annoyance. Why wasn't I capable of rewiring it? She could have done it in ten minutes, just as she could manage many odd feats. 
     But I kept the brass lamp. Maybe I didn't dare throw it out because she'd scolded me. Maybe she'd emphasized that it was 'brass.' She'd been carting around two huge cloth bags of brass lamp fixtures and selling them in some way so I knew that she knew brass when she saw it. I never did rewire it. And I've never used it. It's just stood somewhere or another for well over fifteen years.
     But I'm thinking more about paring down so I decided to get rid of it. I got it as far as my landing. Then I thought -- well, I could give it to Lorna's daughter. She and her husband, Muna, have a huge house in Chelsea that they are fixing up and they need all sorts of things, like Stephanie's lamp.
     Quite magically Lorna called me just a few minutes after I was thinking about Madeline and Muna. Lorna wondered if I would mind if she took the photographs she'd matted for me down to the Chelsea Cafe where they were required. Usually I try to stop Lorna from doing too much, but I said yes, that's great, please. And would you like to pick up a lamp for Madeline and Muna? It has a brass stand.
     I have no idea where the lamp is now, whether Madelaine and Muna can find someone to rewire it, but Lorna did pick it up. 
     I lost contact with Stephanie after a few years and was really sorry when a social worker from Healthcare for the Homeless told me that she'd died. He'd asked her if he could call me, but she wouldn't let him. I'm sorry that she didn't. She was a remarkable woman and I would have liked one more chance to tell her that.

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