Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Bag Lady of Southampton, Long Island

Wow, things are speeding up quick. I better tell this story fast.

Something xjacktarx said recently in a comment struck a nerve in me. He suggested that if I wanted to be useful and make a contribution to world affairs that I should direct my "ample energy," and go work with the poor or something. Given the law of identification, you spot it, you got it, I hear his own cry for meaning and validation. So I report back, that I do understand the law of altruism is inviolate, and in helping others, I find the source of any power I might claim.

The poor are with us everywhere, they just sometimes look different. The establishment watering hole resort of Southampton, Long Island, where I domicile, even has its own bag lady---albeit, often seen carrying Gucci.

She's been a friend of mine for several years now, as a periodic alcoholic with a wet brain, she's gone down the tubes, after her trust fund was disloyal to her. When it ran out, so did her homosexual mouch of a husband. The line of descent in seedy rooming houses, with a summer spent "on the boat" here and there, occasionally brought her to my house, sometimes for an entire season. Once, I found her sleeping in the Episcopal Church. I was glad she had the instinct to go there, picturing her stretched out on a pew. But no, she said, she slept on the bathroom floor because she could lock the door and not be startled in the morning.

She has always worked--her term for volunteering in thrift stores, and an appropriate self-description in the context, as she began to need---and take---more of the resources intended for others. Given the almost unimaginable stress of her life, I see her as heroic, as she still managed to dress divinely, and keep her hair its best under the circumstances. You could cruelly joke her poverty left her thin, but it was her background, and with effort, that she kept her figure.

Her "society" behaves appallingly towards her spectral presence. I remember once a blue blood reporting to me that she had asked if she could stay, and he "gave her a twenty," to get rid of her. Once I invited her to accompany me to a local wedding, where I felt like Saint John the Forerunner feasting on locusts and honey, so otherworldly was the effect she had on the gathered. Shamefully, for the community, not her, she's been on our local "page two," charged with shoplifting.

I help as best I can. In better days, rescuing jewelry she abandoned in the repair shop---in poorer times, getting her clothes dry cleaned and feeding her. But she might as well as have had her feet bound as an infant, so ill-equipped to deal with life is she, and so great is her need. After an extended bout of her you could scream. She once called her sister in France person-to-person, because she knew no better, and a $30 call cost me $500. There is only so much Lovey Howell a working Gilligan could take. But then she'd disappear for a spell, and I could regroup.

She has a son living in modest dysfunction on a skip-trust in the Midwest. I drove her there once, 27 hours straight through, on what I privately referenced as my "raccoon, trap and release trip," but she nearly beat me back home, as the son splurged on a $1,500 one-way ticket, and a $500 cab ride to unload her.

She had all the bona fides: the year of school in Switzerland, the stone house on the coast in Maine, and although she was a disaster, I must say, I got stuff in return. The thing I most appreciated was being privy to all the class shibboleths I was too embarrassed to learn elsewhere. Never exhibiting an ounce of self-pity, she just pretends that all is the way it used to be and goes about her day, with the community allowing it.

In one of the worst examples of the system failing her, after she was admitted to the local hospital for malnutrition and dehydration, her discharge plan released her on Holy Thursday of Easter week with only the phone number of a rooming house in hand. When the owner called me, I vouchsafed her, as she waited in a cab outside. Then both the woman who was renting the room because she needed the money and I took a hit.

This is a picture of her father, dressed in his role as one of the top admirals in the Canadian navy during World War II. We shall remain nameless here.

Her gay ex-husband once confided in me that his former father-in-law, standing six foot, three inches in height, was well-formed, and "what they all wanted to be like"--the class archetype in aristocratic bearing, demeanor and the effect of his power. But even with lots of old 19th-century mill money still lying around to pay for therapy, a dysfunction began to take its toil on the offspring in the following decades.

That ex from her Maine years shall go down in history as the owner of the bar in Kennebunkport where young George W. Bush got his first job---and his first firing for drunkenness, I am told. Later, with the help of a program, he dried up, but stopped short of any spiritual transformation. Nonetheless, in, or should I say, because of that state of stasis as a "good influence," he remained a Bush-family loyalist, and his most cherished possession is a notebook of letters and memorabilia from the family, such as long, handwritten notes from Barbara Bush. He's around somewhere, sleeping in his car most of the year.

I am in possession of this photograph, and the beautiful ornamental sword on which he rests his hand and gloves, depicted in it. I can't recall why I have it, probably as collateral for some forgotten loan, maybe in safekeeping for her son. But I know on some level I've gone the extra mile more for him than her. I've fantasied about meeting him on the other side, and getting a pat on the back, which I wanted to be earned and well-deserved. But this icon of manhood and culture has shifted in my mind recently. I've begun to see the social construction as something fraudulent, the bearing and demeanor as suspect---a deadly aspect, as I witness what it is he has sown, and the world left behind to us by the "greatest generation." Poppy Bush is but a pale, bounding shadow of this man, but Poppy is still with us, and I'll always love a man in uniform.

Blessedly, she is stable this winter, staying in a wonderful 18th-century Captain's house nearby, owned by a bed-ridden widow whose son is charged with manslaughter in the death of her third husband. There are raccoons in the house as well. I stay in touch every week.

On edit, the close of 2008: In what many are calling a miracle, after 10 years of slip sliding away, she finally got it and cleaned up her act! Her supposed wet brain, now just occasional daffiness. An ability to rejoin life only slightly tinged by a continuing convalescence, but much boosted by an old Volvo station wagon. And I must say---all that breeding really does show. Another sign of hope in the direction we are heading.

The widow's son had the charges dropped too, for what its worth.

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