There is no simple way, no easy or uncomplicated way, to look into the face of a filthy old woman on the street. We are frightened or saddened or repelled, feel guilty if not resentful, and then we avert our eyes. In a society that disdains old women even in the best of circumstances, we are naturally overwhelmed by those who belong to no person or place, those who, by existing this way, violate every conventional notion of “femininity” and force us to remember death. If the old gal is crazy as well — and so many of them are — we hurry past, cross the street, avoid her altogether.
What follows here is a brief excerpt from Natalie, a book-length account of my relationship with an elderly, schizophrenic “bag lady” who lived for a time on the streets of my central Los Angeles neighborhood. When she first appeared with her shopping cart and miscellany of plastic bags, she drew particular attention because she chose to navigate the sidewalks of narrow residential streets rather than sticking to Vermont or Western Avenue, Santa Monica or Olympic Boulevard. Jogging past her on my daily morning route, I would take to the gutter, relinquishing the entire sidewalk to Natalie as she inched her cart along. If she looked my way at all, it was with anger and suspicion, though I greeted her consistently with a neighborly “Good morning.” Sometimes she’d respond with a stiff wave from the elbow down, not smiling, demanding loudly of the space between us, “What’s her hurry-hurry-hurry?”
From incidental references, I guessed that she had been in the city for many years, having lived variously on the streets, in hotels downtown, and in board-and-care or nursing homes. Homeless and unmedicated during the two-month period I knew her, Natalie was progressively at the mercy of her paranoid delusions, hearing voices and plagued by an invisible male dictator who prevented her from seeking or accepting the help she so desperately needed.
Natalie would have been in her mid-forties when deinstitutionalization began and may very well have been among the patients released from state mental hospitals in the late 1950s or early 1960s. With stubborn persistence — and Natalie’s eventual consent — I was able to arrange her short-term admission to a county hospital, from which she was discharged to a board-and-care home.
Rain on and off for several days, and more is predicted. Natalie keeps her cart against the base of the palm tree, though the fronds afford her little protection. She has spread out a thick sheet of clear plastic to cover all her bags, and she makes her bed beneath it, lying flat on the sidewalk in the middle of her piled possessions.
Natalie is often sleeping when I approach and may be groggy but is not usually irritable at being awakened. I think she tries to stay alert and vigilant at night and so lets herself doze during the day. She claims that the plastic keeps her dry enough, but the lack of air underneath it is creating a thick, sour odor among her bags and on her clothing. The stench rises up and sometimes forces me back a step or two for air before I can give her the food I’ve brought. Her face and fingertips are blackened with grime, and I hate to consider her hair, which is mostly tucked beneath a blue cap.
So far I have taken her eggs, soup, chicken and tomatoes, black-eyed peas and cornbread, pudding, crackers, V-8 juice, bananas and oranges, a bran muffin, and doughnuts. I have never actually seen her eat anything, but I can understand her wanting privacy. She is self-conscious about having no teeth, and sometimes she’ll cover her mouth to smile or laugh.
Sometimes when I approach, I hear her talking softly, even pleasantly, to herself. “What’s happening?” I’ll say.
“Oh, I’m reminiscing,” she’ll whisper. She is always asking me if I remember people or places or events — certain drunken men and pimps, certain hotels and streets, certain stabbings and explosions. She is sure I must have been there, that she knew me “back then,” and she is always surprised anew when I say I don’t remember.
“You look like Martha Washington today!” Natalie says. I think this is a response to my wearing a skirt instead of the usual sweat pants or jeans, but still I don’t know what she means by it. There is no use asking, but I try anyway.
“You know,” she says. “Don’t you know Martha Washington? I had almost given up on you today. I thought maybe you had to go to court.”
“No, I was just a little late getting home from work,” I say.
“Well, I knew you were in court. I didn’t know when they’d let you out, if they ever would.”
I hand her a plastic bag from Von’s Market, and she mentions that it closed, which is true.
“Ann, you remember old Von’s down there at First and Western, don’t you, Ann?”
“Yes!” I say. “Yes, I do! And you’re right, it did close. Now it’s a Korean store.”
“Well, I’m glad you remember something,” Natalie says, more exasperated than pleased, since this reminds her of how much I seem to have forgotten.
She is using my name a lot these days. Maybe she knows it pleases me.
It’s an ordeal to get Natalie to distinguish between her daily garbage and what’s part of her permanent collection. Because she’s staying in one place now, excrement is becoming a very real concern, and I approach her with a plastic bag in hand, in case she consents to let me carry the mess away.
She is sitting up, her legs stretched out beneath the plastic. I wonder how she can stand the hard, damp concrete for such long periods, with only a furry coat lining between her and the sidewalk. Beside her, on the grassy strip near the curb, is a bright pink box of thin cardboard, the kind birthday cakes come in. Maybe someone once brought her leftover cake, but that’s not what’s in the box now — there is brown seepage around the bottom. I coax her into lifting up the box and depositing it into the grocery bag I’ve brought, though she is reluctant to use a brand-new plastic bag for this purpose. The stench is so bad I have to tie up the bag and immediately carry it to the garbage bin behind my building before I can stand to talk to her.
“I can control it most of the time,” she says when I return. “But I don’t get quite enough food, really, and that makes it hard to do. And then if somebody’s talking at you all the time about whether he’s getting more food or you’re getting more food, that can make you somewhat nervous. That doesn’t help to control things either. See what I mean?”
“Maybe you can walk somewhere else when you need to go,” I say. “Find some hidden bushes or grass, so you don’t mess up right where you’re living.”
“You mean just walk away and leave everything?” Natalie looks at me as if this is the most absurd idea she has ever heard. She promptly agitates herself into a violent paranoid fantasy about what will happen if she takes her eyes off the cart, even for a moment; to hear her tell it, the neighborhood is brimming with people who not only covet her possessions but are just watching and waiting to see her destroyed, preferably blown to bits.
“INTO THIN AIR,” she shouts. “CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANYTHING?”
“Natalie,” I say quietly. “Natalie.”
“What?” Her voice descends to the usual pseudo-whisper.
“I have to leave,” I say. “What can I get you? Do you have any water?” This is always a complicated issue. Natalie often claims to have water, but I don’t believe she does, and if she does, I don’t think she drinks it.
“They don’t understand how thirsty I get,” she says. “I get so thirsty.”
“I know why you get so thirsty,” I tell her.
“Why is it?” she asks, genuinely curious to know.
“Because you don’t drink enough water.”
“Well, what goes in must come out, you know.”
“I know,” I say. “And what goes up must come down. What goes around comes around.” We laugh. I know she avoids drinking water in order to avoid urinating.
She digs deep into one of the bags underneath her cart and pulls out a pint-size glass bottle that I gave her water in days ago. She seems quite taken with the name Socco printed in black on the silver lid.
“Socco, Socco, Socco,” she says gaily. “What on earth would you expect it to mean?” She studies my blank expression. “Soc-Soc-Socco. Just like a Socco. They all have their favorites, don’t they?”
“So sock it to me,” I say. “I’ll fill it up for you.”
“I don’t know. Maybe so. Do you think so? Do you think it would work? I don’t think so.” She hugs the container with both hands, close to her heart. “He said not to give Ann that Socco bottle back,” she whispers. “No telling. You say it’s fine, but I’m the one he’s gonna beat up. I hate to be hit like that, just beat to a pulp.”
“Well,” I say, “the hell with him.” I have no idea how Natalie might respond to this. I feel as if I’ve taken a big risk, but she looks pleased, as if I’ve been a naughty girl but she’s pleased with me anyway. “Just give me the bottle and I’ll bring you some water, and the hell with him,” I say again. “You’ll have a nice, fresh drink, and he’ll stay out of the way for awhile.”
She lets out a rather mischievous, snorting laugh and hands over the jar. When I bring it back, scrubbed clean and filled with cold water from the fridge, she unscrews the cap and drinks about half right away — one of the best things I’ve ever seen her do.
“There,” she says, wiping her lips and chin on the back of her glove. “What about it?”
Finally a sunny day, with no more rain predicted. Last week I asked Natalie whether she would wash if I brought her a bucket of water and soap, and she said yes, she believed she would. I am hoping she (or “they” or “he”) hasn’t changed her mind. I decide to get her her own bar of soap; Ivory will be good because it will float in the bucket.
“Do you like Ivory?” I ask.
“Yes, Ivory’s all right,” Natalie says, not looking at me. There is a but here, slow in coming. “I prefer Caress,” she says. “Palmolive Gold is good. But Caress is the best. It makes your skin so soft.”
I’ve never heard of Caress, but the wizardry of American advertising reaches far and wide and deep — there’s brand loyalty even on the streets. At first I think, “Beggars can’t be choosers,” but then I have to laugh. Why can’t beggars be choosers?
Sure enough, the little Mexican market on the corner carries Caress, and when I bring Natalie the metal bucket full of warm water, she latches right on to the soap, pleased and excited.
“Boy, I can use that. Can I use it? But how much was it? I can’t run my bill way up. They tell me not to keep money, you know. They say not to show that money. I have to keep it —” She rolls her eyes at me in such a way as to indicate that she must keep her money hidden inside the front of her zipped-up coat. “They’ll steal everything if you let them. Hide it here, hide it there. You can’t be careful enough, really. How much was it? If my bill gets too high, let me know. They don’t like it when my bill gets way up.”
“Seventy-nine cents,” I say. “Let’s not worry about it now.” I’m afraid she’s about to talk herself out of bathing after I’ve talked myself into it: I have on old clothes and shoes and have vowed not to flinch.
When she is finally convinced that the soap is hers, that her bill is not too high, and that she doesn’t have to pay me, which would involve showing me her secret money, Natalie consents to open the box of Caress and accepts the washcloth I’ve brought. It takes some coaxing to overcome her inhibitions about washing in broad daylight. “He” and “they” seem to be lurking about, threatening and scolding and bossing her, which she tends to verbalize or respond to by muttering under her breath.
“Who do you think you are?” She keeps fussing with the box of soap. “Just who in the hell do you think you are, anyway?”
“Get up and let’s do it,” I say. “Let’s do it right now. It’ll make you feel good.”
Natalie gets to her feet, and I am surprised at her strength when she suddenly lifts the bucket by herself. She stumbles and is nearly pulled over but manages to set it right, close to the palm tree for privacy from one direction. I stand in front of her on the street side. Behind her, across a small yard, is a one-family house with no sign of activity, and on the other side her cart and bags lend at least the illusion of protection. Natalie takes her grimy gloves off, folds them neatly, and lays them on the sidewalk.
“They told me not to take these gloves off today,” she says, testing me for reassurance.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “You have to take them off so you can wash. It’s not going to be a problem.”
She drops the washcloth into the bucket and then hesitates, unsure of what this procedure is going to involve.
“Step out of those shoes,” I tell her. “And then give me your hose. I’m going to bring you another pair.” Natalie is wearing black, knee-high hose, which at this point are nothing more than several giant holes held together by a strip of elastic and a strand of nylon here and there. She looks at me as if I’m being naughty again but complies anyway. Her toenails are revolting, yellow and ill-formed and so long and thick I don’t think I own anything that would cut them. I open up a plastic bag, and Natalie deposits the hose with an air of proud finality.
“Now the underpants,” I say.
She chortles as if I’ve made some impossibly obscene request.
“What’s funny?” I say. “Aren’t you wearing any underpants?”
“What does she have in her mind?” Natalie turns to inquire of the palm tree.
“Come on,” I say, all business. “I’m going to bring you clean ones.”
Natalie gives me a salacious wink and a silly, toothless grin as she bends over and, forsaking all modesty, hikes up her skirt and pulls down the panties, which are brownish-gray from the waistband down and soaked with what has to be fairly recent diarrhea. I manage to act as if I’m not giving this a second thought, hardly a thought at all, really, as they splat into the bag on top of the hose. I close the plastic tight, double-knot it, and set it in the gutter several feet away. With her skirt still up in back, Natalie reaches for a stray piece of napkin that lies on the sidewalk beneath her cart.
“Excuse me,” she says politely. “I have to wipe my a-hole,” which she proceeds to do while I keep my back to her, grateful for the momentary absence of passing cars.
I get the Caress out of its box and hand it to her when she’s done. “Wash your hands in the bucket first,” I tell her, wringing out the washcloth. “Now your face. Do your face before anything else.”
I stay long enough to make sure she’s doing this before I hurry off to the garbage bin and then inside for clean things. I find some pale yellow knee-highs of sturdy texture and some pale green, stretchy cotton panties that I’m sure won’t be too small. I wish I had a suitable skirt to replace the long woolen one Natalie has worn since her arrival. It’s filthy now, as is her jacket, as is the jersey top beneath. I settle for an old burgundy sweat shirt with several pockets.
When Natalie sees what I’ve brought she declares, “You’ve worked hard, and I’ve worked hard. I don’t want you to do too much. It’s too much trouble. Isn’t it?”
“I’m in the mood today,” I say. “Catch me on the fly. Let’s do it.”
“Well, OK then,” Natalie says. She acts as if she’s finished washing, and her face does look a lot better, though there are still small areas of caked black dirt on one cheek. The water in the bucket is murky brown, with bits of grass floating on top. Natalie balances herself against the tree and sticks each foot in to soak for awhile.
“Feels so good,” she says. “Dance with a dolly with a hole in her stocking. Don’t you think so, Ann?”
I hand her the old dish towel I’ve brought for her to dry with, and when she’s done I leave both it and the washcloth in the bottom of the bucket to throw away, once I’ve poured the water down the storm drain at the corner.
“What did you say I owed you for the soap?” Natalie starts to obsess again about the Caress, but she certainly confiscated it while I was gone: it’s nowhere in sight. I just hope she’s keeping it in its box.
She is pleased by the bit of lace on the waistband of the panties. “My, my, my,” she says, and pulls them up fast. Then, leaning against her cart, she somehow manages to get the hose on standing up and, miraculously, avoids causing runs with those monstrous toenails. She slips into her black flats and walks around with a spring in her step, showing me how good she feels.
“You look great,” I tell her. I think I feel happier than she does, actually. Having achieved this much, I wish I could get her really clean and into clean clothes, but she shows no interest even in the sweat shirt I’ve brought. She accepts it politely while rejecting the notion that she’ll ever be able to change her clothes.
“They’ll think I’m crazy,” she whispers. “I have to be careful about wearing a man’s clothes, honey.” I assure her that it’s a woman’s sweat shirt, but she’s not buying this, I can tell.
“Promise me you’ll at least try it on after dark,” I say. “You need to have a clean shirt on now that you’re so clean. We need to get rid of the one you’re wearing. Promise?”
“Well, I promise,” she says, straightening her furry bed on the sidewalk and settling down into her usual niche. “But nobody seems to get a certain point. He’ll be up in my bowel before you can blink that eye, see. He doesn’t like these gloves all over the ground like that.”
I come home exhausted. Oddly it is not the odor of feces or stale sweat that clings to my clothing and hair but the smell of the stuff Natalie has collected, a palpable odor from all those bags that have been under the plastic cover with her for days in the rain. After a bath and shampoo, I carry my own clothes, knotted in plastic, down to the garbage bin, too.
This excerpt previously appeared in a slightly different form in Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women.