I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
Her name was Marcella Brooks, but everyone called her “Granny.”
I would see her sitting in her wheelchair in the doorway of a boarded-up Walgreens on Market Street near San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, a ragged brown-and-white dog named Missy sprawled across a yellow blanket in her lap. Granny’s eyes would be closed, mouth open a crack. She wore tennis shoes and at least three socks on each foot. Long underwear showed beneath the hem of her dress, and a wool cap covered her gray hair. The handwritten cardboard sign around her neck — Help the Homeless — made passersby pause. A downward tilt at the corners of her mouth even in sleep suggested that Granny disapproved of those who stopped and stared. Some dropped change in a cup by her feet, unaware that she received a thousand dollars a month in Social Security benefits, money she spent renting four storage lockers. Engulfed in a heavy winter coat, Granny looked smaller than she was and gave the impression that at any moment the damp, hard winds rising off the bay might whisk her away.
At the time I knew Granny, in the early 1990s, I was the director of the Tenderloin Self-Help Center. We were supposed to serve San Francisco’s homeless mentally ill, but really we assisted anyone who walked through our doors. Most of our clients — “participants,” we called them — were alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless Vietnam and Gulf War combat veterans. All of them could probably have said they had a mental illness of one kind or another: schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or some problem that defied categorization. They had been triaged out of most social-service agencies because they required too much effort, effort that most likely would not have resulted in a positive outcome to share with potential donors. They were difficult, cantankerous, and at times violent. They had burned through most available rehabilitation programs. They weren’t going to find jobs, and, if they did, they weren’t going to keep them and would spend what money they earned on booze and drugs before they ever paid the rent. They had big hearts and wanted to be liked and to be useful, but they believed failure was the inevitable outcome of any endeavor, so why even try?
Despite all this I hired many of our participants to work at the Center and signed up many more as volunteers. My reason was simple: they knew the bureaucracy of the city’s social-services system better than I did and therefore were the best ones to guide other homeless people through it. I like to think that they derived a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from this task before their lives spun out of control and I never saw them again. The Center was a place people entered, found solace in for a while, and then left. At some point, I knew, I’d leave too.
Every morning Granny came to the Center for coffee. She used her wheelchair like a walker, standing behind it and pushing it through Civic Center Plaza and uphill toward the Center, the dog in the seat, stuffed plastic bags bouncing against the chair’s worn wheels. Seeing me, Granny would stop, shake her head, and let out a long breath as if to say, Isn’t this something?
One day climbing the hill proved too much for her. At first none of us realized anything was wrong. She pushed her wheelchair into the Center and parked it by the front desk, as she always did. The front-desk supervisor, “Poppa” Ron, asked her to sign in, but she said, “Shoo. Everyone knows me.”
Ron grew up in the Ozarks and always wore a floppy leather hat and cowboy boots. He’d fought in the Korean War and had come to San Francisco after being discharged from the army. He called his glasses “spectacles,” said “y’all” and “I declare,” and thought billboards spouting scripture were as natural as trees. Ron got the name Poppa from the homeless teens he helped. He gave them a dollar here and a dollar there and sometimes let them crash in his battered 1970s station wagon, sagging on bald tires in front of the Lyric Hotel, where he lived. But he never let the kids into his room, where he drank and passed out. Ron wasn’t a predator, just an old man who wanted to be needed.
“Get you some coffee, Granny,” Ron said.
Granny wagged an arthritic finger knotted with three silver rings at her dog, telling her to stay. Free of her wheelchair, she moved in a kind of forward-leaning, jittery shuffle that picked up speed with each hesitant step and gave the impression of an impending fall. She passed through the drop-in center, a combination waiting room and hang-out area for people who were between appointments or had no other place to go. Men and women were eating day-old doughnuts and shouting back and forth to one another as if they were miles apart. Finally Granny made it to the small kitchen where Doug, a volunteer, asked how she wanted her coffee.
“Black,” Granny said, breathless, as if she had run a block.
Doug reached for a styrofoam cup on a shelf above the coffee machine. He received a monthly disability check and rented a studio apartment in the Tenderloin with his brother, Paul, also a volunteer. Like Granny, Paul shuffled rather than walked. He was perpetually stooped over and looking at the floor, and saliva hung from his protruding lower lip. Paul suffered from ongoing stomach ailments that gave birth to farts so prodigious they would raise him to his feet if he was sitting down. He seemed oblivious to the effect this had on anyone near him and didn’t understand why the others had dubbed him “Napalm.” One time Granny walked into the restroom after Paul had used it. The door had no more closed behind her when it opened again, and Granny trundled right back out holding her nose and shouting, “Paul has the dysentery! Paul has the dysentery!” — an exaggeration to be sure, but close enough to the truth that people sometimes left the Center to relieve themselves on the side of the building or in Civic Center Park rather than be exposed to what Paul had wrought.
Paul stood behind Doug and mopped the floor as Doug poured Granny some coffee, careful not to spill any on his clothes. He liked to dress formally in black pants and white button-down shirts with starched collars. He dyed his gray hair a bright orange-red and combed it back from his forehead, parting it in the middle. He even wore a metal name tag he had paid for himself. To anyone who asked, Doug explained that he was not just a volunteer but the kitchen supervisor, but because he had a speech impediment, he pronounced supervisor “stupivisor,” and no one gave him the respect he felt he deserved.
“Here you go, Granny,” Doug said, sliding the cup toward her.
Granny opened her mouth but said nothing, her chest heaving with effort. She leaned on the counter, lowered her head, and sunk to her knees.
“I can’t breathe,” she whispered.
The paramedics knew Granny by name. “Hi, Marcella,” they said. They asked about her spot on Market Street and if she made much money.
“Enough,” she told them.
The paramedics spoke loudly, and Granny protested that she wasn’t deaf. They tugged on plastic gloves and peeled back her coat and layers of sweaters and T-shirts and listened to her heart. They looked through the plastic bags hanging from her wheelchair and examined some pill bottles with faded prescription labels, including one for heart medication. Granny could not say when she’d last taken her pill. The paramedics made some notes on a chart and asked her age. Seventy-eight, Granny said. They loaded her on a gurney. Granny protested, worried about her dog. I asked Terry, a floor supervisor, to call around and find a kennel where we could board Missy until Granny was released. Terry picked up the dog and went to lock her in a back room.
“She has lice,” a paramedic whispered to me but loud enough for Terry to hear, and she dropped the dog, who yelped and ran behind the wheelchair and peed.
“Jesus!” Granny gasped. “What are you doing to Missy?”
“Not the dog,” the paramedic said. “Granny has lice. Head lice.”
I looked at Granny, who was holding her cap in her hands, gray, sweat-dampened hair plastered to her forehead. She scowled frightfully as the paramedics wheeled her out.
Terry found a kennel and asked Poppa Ron to take the dog there. Terry had been at the Center about a year. She was short and stocky and wore an army fatigue jacket and military-style boots. When she wasn’t talking, her mouth settled into a perpetual frown. During staff meetings, she would cross her arms and lean back in her chair. She reminded me of one of those inflatable punching bags that always bounces back, no matter how many times you knock it down. She said she had been an army nurse and had served in Vietnam, but whenever any of us asked her a health question, no matter how simple, she would refuse to answer. She claimed that, as a retired medical professional, she could be sued if she gave incorrect advice. We took her no more seriously than we did Doug.
Shortly before Granny began coming to the Center, Terry had announced that she had stomach cancer. She had not been diagnosed with it; she just knew, she said, because of her medical training. She began seeing doctor after doctor. Each told her she had an upset stomach, nothing more, and recommended an antacid. But then her abdomen began to swell, and it was unlikely Terry was pregnant at the age of fifty-eight. A doctor finally ran some tests, and, to everyone’s surprise, she did have stomach cancer. Terry began receiving chemo and lost her hair but continued to work, dying slowly on the job.
I was in my office talking to Julie, one of my volunteers, when Granny returned from the hospital three days later. A social worker had given her a bus token and referred her to us, recommending that we place her in a homeless shelter. Granny leaned on a cane by the front desk until Doug helped her into the drop-in. She carried a plastic bag full of medications and had on clean clothes: a white button-down shirt too big for her narrow frame, corduroy pants held up by suspenders, clean sneakers, and a windbreaker. Her shampooed hair floated about her face. Granny asked for her wheelchair and her dog. Doug yelled to Poppa Ron about picking up the dog, then got the wheelchair from a padlocked closet. Granny sank into it, exhausted. She stared into a corner with that isn’t-this-something look on her face and then closed her eyes. Julie stood up to help, but I waved her back to her seat.
Julie’s real name was Manuel. He was a hulk of a guy who believed he was a woman. He often wore a pink blouse, a red skirt, and a pair of scuffed red heels. Old track marks lined his arms and calves, and his weathered, rouged face looked as if he had gone twelve rounds with life and lost. When he spoke, he took cavernous breaths, summoning the words from somewhere deep within him. His voice would not sound feminine no matter how hard he tried. He wore a blond wig that slipped off when he was in a hurry, and stray lipstick spotted the stubble on his chin. The day of Granny’s return, Julie told me he needed to take time off to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Jackson, Mississippi. He wanted to know if the Center would help pay for his bus ticket. I told him I’d check our petty-cash fund.
I asked if he was going to the funeral as Manuel or Julie.
“I haven’t decided,” he said. “I’d like to go as the woman I am.”
“If I were you,” I said, “and I didn’t want to be buried with my grandmother, I’d go as Manuel.”
“You’re not me.”
As Julie left my office, I glanced at my watch. Almost five. The Center closed in an hour. It had originally operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Then our funding had been cut. We remained open seven days a week but for only nine hours a day. I looked at Granny asleep in her wheelchair, wrapped in her windbreaker, the rise and fall of her chest barely discernible. Then I stood and looked through her plastic bag and found three pill bottles and a note explaining that the medications were for her heart, blood pressure, and pneumonia.
Pneumonia. Outside, a rolling fog descended. I shouted for Poppa Ron to call some homeless shelters.
All the shelters with beds for women had dealt with Granny before and told Ron they would have nothing to do with her, pneumonia or no. The reasons varied: She insisted on sleeping in her wheelchair. She would not take a shower. She had a dog.
Granny was, as Ron would say, “ass out” of options. We could do nothing more for her. Julie gave her a blanket to keep her warm on the street at night. I watched her tuck it around Granny’s lap. Then I stared out the window at an abandoned car and a homeless guy talking animatedly to a parking meter. The owner of a burger joint across the way was standing in his door, sipping a soda. When he’d first opened, he had allowed my staff and volunteers to run a tab for their lunches. I don’t know how much money he lost before he wised up and became a cash-only business, and my staff went back to the soup lines and raiding the Center’s canned-goods donation closet — until I wised up and put a lock on it. I listened to the whistling wheeze of Granny’s breathing. The evening light, filtered by fog, shaded the planes of her cheekbones, the sunken hollows of her jaw. I had turned a lot of homeless men, women, and families away. “We’re full,” I’d explain. Or, “We’re closed now. Here’s a couple of sandwiches. Come back tomorrow.” I had always been able to shut down a part of myself and rationalize that I had no other choice, that I could only do so much.
But I couldn’t justify throwing out Granny — not an old woman with a bad heart who a few days earlier had looked as if she might die in front of us. As difficult as Granny could be, I found in her stubborness something life affirming and admirable and worthy of effort on her behalf.
I turned back to Ron and told him we’d put Granny up at the Center.
“Here?” Ron said. “She can’t be here alone.”
“I’ll stay tonight.”
“We’ll figure out tomorrow, tomorrow,” I said.
I told Granny I had conditions: In exchange for staying at the Center for a while she would need to use her Social Security check to rent a room or a small apartment instead of blowing the money on storage lockers. There were places with subsidized units she could afford. I would help her empty the lockers. In addition Granny would work at the front desk every morning, signing people in who needed to see our benefits advocate. “You have to earn your keep,” I said. Granny imitated my stern look and then laughed, her face crinkling into dozens of lines. I told her to be serious or I’d pair her with Napalm at the front desk, and she stopped laughing.
Ron shut off the lights except the ones in the drop-in, where Granny would spend the night in her wheelchair. I would sleep in my office. But first I ran across the street and bought two hamburgers, an order of fries, and two Cokes. When I returned, Ron got up to leave.
“No fooling around,” he said, and grinned.
“Don’t forget to pick up the damn dog,” I told him, and I locked the door behind him.
Granny and I sat at the counter and ate. She thanked me for the burger and asked where in San Francisco I lived. I told her I didn’t live in the city; I rented a house on a hill overlooking vineyards in Sonoma County. Some neighbors raised horses, and one had sheep that he let enter the house. Granny made a face. She popped a fry into her mouth and said she’d grown up on a farm. Her family had kept chickens. I told her my mother had raised chickens when she was a girl, and my older brother had once had a pet duck named Quacker.
“A duck is not a chicken,” Granny said.
“Thank you,” I said.
She told me her childhood home had stood where the Civic Center Plaza was now, and that she was a member of the Brooks family for whom the Brooks Hall exhibition center was named. She’d been personally invited to attend the grand opening.
I asked what it was like.
“Who was there?”
“All the famous people of the city.”
“All of them,” Granny said.
“When did it open?”
I stopped asking questions. We finished our burgers and fries, and I went to my office. I didn’t believe Granny was related to the Brooks family any more than I was. Then again, I hadn’t believed Terry had cancer.
In the morning Granny had coffee, and Paul brought her toast and oatmeal from Saint Anthony’s soup kitchen. She sat at the front desk, and when we opened, she told the stream of people pushing through the door to “sign in, God damn it.” When the initial rush was over, I asked Granny to show me her storage lockers.
She rented three on Turk Street and one off Van Ness Avenue. I suggested we check out the Van Ness locker first. We walked several blocks to get there, Granny pausing from time to time to catch her breath, leaning heavily on her wheelchair.
When we opened the Van Ness locker, I saw a kitchen table set with plates and silverware and a yellow rug beneath it. Boxes filled with tissue-wrapped cups and glasses and cutting boards were stacked against the concrete walls. Sheets covered a red mohair sofa and a gray lounge chair. Some of the furniture, Granny said, had belonged to her parents. Some of it she had bought when she’d cleaned homes in Pacific Heights.
Granny and I spent another night at the Center, and the following day we walked to the Turk Street lockers. These were filled with boxes of old newspapers, magazines, rusted cans, broken pieces of furniture, and frayed clothes, some green with mold and looking as if they had been pulled from a dumpster. At first I thought the newspapers and magazines might contain stories about the Brooks family, but I found only dead mice between the gnawed pages. It was as if there were two Grannys: the methodical, organized woman on Van Ness, and a junk-gathering bag lady on Turk.
I started clearing the Turk Street lockers, since they appeared to contain nothing of value. I wore a scarf around my face and filled garbage bags with worthless scrap. Granny wrung her arthritic hands, her face wrinkled with worry as I discarded one pile of magazines after another. Finally she couldn’t stand it. When I took a break, she started emptying the bags back into the lockers.
“Granny! What are you doing?”
“Ooh,” she said, reaching into a bag to withdraw a wrinkled Life magazine between her thumb and forefinger as if it were a gold nugget. “Can’t get rid of this. No, no.”
“This is very old,” she said appraising the magazine with a cocked brow and then placing it deliberately in the locker, careful to disturb only cobwebs.
I gave up on clearing the lockers that day and suggested she consolidate, moving a load of things she felt she had to keep to the Van Ness locker. Granny agreed.
But the torn magazines and other odds and ends did not fit with the dollhouse tranquility on Van Ness. Without any urging from me, Granny discarded the items we had piled in her wheelchair and pushed over from Turk Street. She looked morosely at the trash bins spilling over with her garbage. I asked Granny what she was thinking.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m tired.”
Sometimes Granny and I stopped at a small restaurant on Golden Gate Avenue for lunch. The owner was obsessed with salads. He screamed, “Salad!” when we walked through the door and brought us two whether we wanted them or not. In addition to the salads, I ordered two BLTs. Granny asked for a glass of red wine. She watched a waiter pour it, and then she sipped it, her pinkie in the air. She closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and swallowed. I could tell that she had left me for a moment then, and I never asked where she went.
After lunch I walked Granny back to the Center and then left to attend meetings. Whenever I was gone from the Center longer than Granny preferred, guys on the street would tell me, “Your grandmother’s looking for you,” and laugh. When I’d get back and ask Granny what she needed, she’d have little to say other than that she had cleaned my office or had put a quarter in the parking meter, saving me from a ticket. Sometimes, as I was leaving the Center, she would shout my name. If I was in a hurry, I’d say, “Not now, Granny, not now,” but she would continue calling, “Malcolm!” her voice cracking and then getting louder, “Malcolm!” primordial in its insistence.
At night Granny and I sat in the drop-in and listened to the windows tremble from trucks rumbling past and watched the shadows move across the walls. We rarely spoke. I’d hear water drip somewhere, the creaking of pipes. Men and women drifted by outside, shrouded in fog, hazy reflections of who they had been during the day. I felt the solace of the empty building, released from the echoing demands of needy people.
One night I cracked open a can of beer I had bought at a corner store.
“What’s that?” Granny asked.
“Because I’m thirty-five and unmarried and spending my nights with a seventy-eight-year-old woman.”
Granny got a kick out of that.
Once, I asked if she’d ever married.
“Oh, I had plenty of boys,” she said. “Went out with one in the afternoon, another at night.”
“But were you ever married?”
She shrugged. I let it go and watched her begin to fall asleep, the dog curled on her lap.
“Where’d you get Missy?”
Granny opened one eye and rolled her head toward me. “Found her,” she said, and then she closed her eye, keeping any further information to herself.
About a month after Granny began staying at the Center, Terry requested a vacation. She said she had family in Florida she wanted to visit. Terry had no vacation time coming, but I gave it to her because I sensed what lay behind her request.
Terry left for Florida on a Wednesday, just after our weekly staff meeting, which she attended in a wheelchair with a brown suitcase at her side. The chemo had shrunk the stomach tumor and Terry too. Her clothes hung loose from her body, and her skin looked ashen. She wore a red beret to conceal the bald patches on her head.
I went over schedules, shift changes, budget reports. When I’d finished, I asked if anyone had anything they wanted to bring up. Terry raised her hand and withdrew a sheet of paper from her pocket. Unfolding it, she read our names and what she liked about each of us. She included some gentle criticism: Poppa Ron was too nice and allowed participants to take advantage of him. I attended too many meetings. Doug should brew stronger coffee. Granny needed to bathe her damn dog. Then Terry folded her list and put it back in her pocket.
“That’s all I have to say,” she said. “I’m leaving for Florida.”
We stood up and one by one hugged her.
Poppa Ron drove Terry to the airport. She died in Tampa three weeks later.
I remained with Granny overnight at the Center for eight weeks. I lived with a girlfriend at the time, but our lives had begun moving in different directions, and we often argued. Staying with Granny provided me with an excuse not to go home and let me avoid the inevitable confrontation that would likely end the relationship.
During those eight weeks, Granny finished emptying all three of her Turk Street lockers. I helped her put the money she saved into a bank account, and we began filling out housing applications. Sometimes Poppa Ron or Julie spelled me and spent the night with Granny. Tommy, one of my counselors, filled in too. He was an easygoing, beefy guy with a rambunctious laugh and a clownish sense of humor. He worked the front desk alongside Granny in the morning and called her “Miss Marcella.” Beneath his humor, however, was a paranoia that made him question the motivation behind any kindness. Tommy was convinced I was helping Granny clear her lockers only because they held objects of value. My nights with her, he thought, were interrogation sessions during which I tried to get her to relinquish her treasures to me. I told him I was more than happy to let him take over and help Granny empty her lockers. He returned to the Center one afternoon holding a wooden coffee grinder that Granny had given him. She said it had belonged to her mother. After work Tommy stopped at a Mission District antique store and sold it for fifteen dollars. The next morning he showed me the receipt from the sale.
“I got mines,” he said.
The newly opened Turk Street Apartments had several government-subsidized units available. I met with the landlord, who put Granny on his waiting list. About four weeks later he called and offered her a studio apartment. Her rent would be just six hundred a month. I sat with Granny as she signed the necessary forms. Poppa Ron picked up her furniture from the Van Ness locker and delivered it to her new place. I visited the next day and was impressed by how quickly she had arranged her living space. Plates and cups filled the kitchen cupboards. The sofa stood on blue carpeting against one wall. The round breakfast table and four chairs took up a corner. Sunlight filled the room and illuminated a painting of a red barn that Granny had hung on the freshly painted white walls. Missy stood on a deck overlooking Turk Street and barked at the pigeons. Granny wore a bright yellow dress, a white apron around her waist. I told her I was proud of her.
“Shoo,” she said, and blushed.
The following morning, Granny walked into the Center pushing her wheelchair and wearing a fur coat, rouge, and eye makeup. She took off her coat and threw it at me, then laughed at my astonished look. She kicked up one leg to show off her high heels and then reached for her wheelchair to stop from falling.
“Lord, what having a home can do to some people!” Julie shouted.
A week later Julie left for Mississippi as Manuel. He called once to tell me the funeral was beautiful, “but, Malcolm, I forgot how hot Mississippi can be!” He had met a wonderful man — “a big ol’ bear of a man, Malcolm!” — at the reception afterward. He didn’t elaborate, didn’t call again, and didn’t return to San Francisco.
My father called me at the Center about that time to tell me my uncle had died. This uncle had helped me after college when I was living in New York City and supporting myself through temp agencies. He was one of the few family members at the time who had not fretted about what I would do with my life. “Do whatever amuses you,” he'd told me. I followed his advice and traveled around the country, working temp jobs in Idaho, Utah, Minnesota, and Texas until I landed in San Francisco. I volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul Society’s homeless program. Within three years I’d worked my way up to shelter director. I also returned to school and earned a master’s degree in social work. A month later, I applied for the Center job.
After I got off the phone with my father, I walked around the block to shake off the shock of my uncle’s death and wrestle with the regret of not having kept in touch. I must have mentioned my bad news to someone on my way out because when I returned, Granny said, “I heard about your uncle. I just want you to know I know.” She reached for my hand. “I want to give you this.” And she wrapped her hands around mine.
That was it. But it was enough.
Three months after she moved into the Turk Street Apartments, Granny began amassing what I can only describe as garbage: discarded newspapers and magazines, pieces of broken metal, wooden boards, even twigs. Someone had given her two cats. She also kept two pigeons in cages that she never cleaned. Circular stains began to mar the blue carpet. The apartment reeked of cat piss and body odor, and Granny set the thermostat on high, exacerbating the stench. She would not let me or anyone else clean her place and bustled around in a frenzy at the mere suggestion: “Don’t touch anything! Don’t touch anything!” Other tenants began complaining. Granny said people needed to mind their own goddamn business. When I suggested that her neighbors had reason to be concerned, she told me to shut the hell up. She quit paying rent and began staying in her old spot on Market Street. The landlord tossed her furniture and charged the Center a thousand-dollar cleaning fee. I released the pigeons and kept the cats.
Granny continued coming into the Center for coffee, wearing several layers of clothes and smelling of wood smoke from the homeless encampment where she spent her nights. She drank her coffee and then made her way to Market Street, avoiding me.
One afternoon I saw two paramedics attending to her. I stopped and asked what was wrong. Someone had called 911 about an old woman in a wheelchair who appeared dead, they told me. “I was asleep,” Granny said, but she appeared to be having trouble breathing, and the paramedics put an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth and told her they wanted her examined at San Francisco General Hospital.
“She has lice,” they said. “Do you know her?”
I did, I said, and told them where I worked.
“C’mon, Marcella,” they said.
I took Missy.
Granny remained in the hospital for seven days. She had suffered a “mild” heart attack. I visited her one afternoon. She was as pale as her white hospital gown and complained about the food. I went across the street and bought her some spaghetti at an Italian restaurant. She twined the noodles around a plastic fork, spattering her chin with red sauce. “Why can’t the hospital serve food like this?” she wanted to know. Her gown drooped off her right shoulder, and I noticed a large tattoo snaking down her back. Granny saw me looking at it and pulled her gown up.
“Got that in the navy,” she said, her mouth full of spaghetti. “Dubya-dubya two. Australia. With MacArthur.”
“Wasn’t that the Philippines?”
“He came to Australia after the Philippines,” she said. “Terowie.”
“Terowie,” she said again.
I stopped at the public library on my way back to the Center and looked through histories of World War II. Women, I learned, did serve in the navy then and called themselves “WAVES,” short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. And General Douglas MacArthur, after being forced out of the Philippines by the Japanese in early 1942, had ended up in Australia. It was in the small town of Terowie that he made his famous speech in which he said, “I shall return.”
I left the library no more certain about Granny than when I had entered. She could have heard about Terowie in any number of places. And she could have been in the WAVES too. In the end it didn’t matter whether she was speaking the truth or making up stories. I’d still be looking after her when she was discharged from the hospital.
And, sure enough, another hospital social worker gave Granny another bus token, and she walked into the Center with another note recommending we find her shelter. She was smaller and more gaunt than I remembered. I told her she could stay at the Center until we found her another place to live. The same rules applied: She would have to volunteer. In addition, when she got a new apartment, someone from the Center would help her maintain it, and that would mean tossing anything she brought in from the street. Granny agreed. I fully expected a replay of what we had just been through, but I had no idea what else to do. Despite her contrary nature, I had become fond of Granny. The mysteries of her past intrigued me. She might sabotage all my best efforts to help, but I could not abandon her. The Center was meant for people like Granny.
“You’re killing me,” I told her.
“Shoo,” she said. “I’m your ticket into heaven.”
We found Granny a room in a government-subsidized residential hotel not far from the Center. The twelve-by-twelve-foot space had nothing more than a bed, a dresser, a closet, and a mirror. Poppa Ron, Tommy, Doug, and I visited Granny regularly and threw away newspapers and magazines and anything else that began to accumulate. I expected Granny to object, but she was strangely passive and watched us scour her room without complaint. “Well, here I am,” she would say, that isn’t-this-something look on her face. She used an inhaler now, and her breath rattled in her chest. She stopped coming into the Center except for one afternoon to tell me that Missy had died. I walked with her back to her room and found the dog stretched out on the floor. Rigor mortis had begun to set in. Granny knelt beside Missy, balled her hands in the dog’s fur, and wept. I had questioned much of what Granny had told me about her life, but at that moment I had no doubt about her sorrow. When she stood, I wrapped Missy in a towel and told Granny I would bury her. On the way out I noticed a cracked metal bucket filled with dirt, twigs, and feathers that had spilled across some yellowed newspapers. I cleaned it all up and carried it out with Missy.
Two months later Tommy found Granny dead in her room, seated in her wheelchair, head drooped to one side, eyes closed, and a blanket across her lap. The hoarded secrets of her life were hers forever now. A box in Granny’s closet held her birth certificate, a high-school diploma, and a yellowed black-and-white photo of a young woman who looked very much like her. According to the birth certificate, Granny was ninety, not seventy-eight as she’d told us.
I spoke with the San Francisco Coroner’s Office about burying her, but since neither I nor anyone else at the Center was related to Granny, her body could not be released to us. Instead it would be held for twelve months. If no family member claimed it, the body would be cremated and the ashes scattered. A priest, the coroner said, would be present.
The year Granny died, 1994, my girlfriend and I split up, and I left the Center to run a Sonoma County program for undocumented day laborers. Months passed. Then a year. I never saw Tommy again. Poppa Ron died of lung cancer. Doug and Paul left for the Midwest, where they had family. In 1997 I accepted a job in Philadelphia. The Center remained in the Tenderloin but was relocated to a larger building. Strict new rules required people seeking help to develop a “stabilization plan.” They had to be actively trying to find a job and a place to live, or they’d be expelled from the program.
On my last day of work in Sonoma County, I saw an elderly, stoop-shouldered woman sorting through discarded bottles and cans by the side of the road and tossing them into a plastic garbage bag she dragged behind her. For no good reason I stopped what I was doing, went outside, and joined her. I picked up a bottle and dropped it in her bag. She heard it clink against the other bottles.
“Oh,” she said, her eyes wide.
She continued searching the ground. I walked beside her. Her lips moved, forming silent words I was unable to decipher. She took furtive glances at me, as if I made her uncomfortable. I offered her another dirt-encrusted bottle. She reached for it, and we held it between us. Her mouth twitched into a smile before she put it into her bag and hurried away.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
J. Malcolm Garcia