Street Smarts
B.P. Skinner



     I found myself in the middle of yet another dilemma. What was my civic duty as a homeless woman to an heiress to a fortune? So, my dog mauled her dog. By the way my name is Melissa. Folks call me Missy. I was supposed to have been locked up in the loony bin, Girl Interrupted for good. The laws changed and so now the Cuckoos nest out under the sky or in some church basement. Out here I can make choices. Whether to take my pills or not, whether to sleep at St. Mark’s or out at Cooper’s Cove where the box house village is. I have friends. I have a life. I have addresses. I suppose most adults in this country, anyway, have a choice whether they will live like I do, from shelter to shelter, or in some big fancy Hollywood mansion like Ms. Barbie Legs and her dog, the one Underdog had a run in with.
     One afternoon in early Spring I was checking out garbage containers behind a restaurant for scraps for my friend Underdog. Underdog is a middle sized mixed breed. He has wiry fur and a big black spot on his back like a saddle. His ears look like flags. They go up and down depending on what he hears and sees. His tail has a semi circle bend in it. It looks like a Clydesdale stepped on it. The day we met his eyes told me that he, too, was choosing to live free out on the streets, but he’d be happier with a human. I was happy to oblige.
     On the day we were garbage picking a lonnnnnnnnng white stretch limousine pulled over to the curb. A lady dressed to beat the band stepped out of the limo. She had on those heels that if they got stuck in some sticky goop, and you keep walking you walk right off of them and break your neck. No offense or anything, but she looked like her dog. Her hair was air blown and spun like cotton candy, and it was a color out of a bottle that had been sitting in the back room for at least a hundred years. Her lipstick was so much and so bright I blinked. Her legs, well they were enviable, Barbie’s before women’s liberation. Her dress could have fit Underdog if he wore dresses. Her left hand was a virtual rock garden of red, white, and blue stones. Her right little finger curled around a thin silver leash. On the end of it was her twin, a Bichon with fur the same color as Barbie’s hair. If you can believe it the dog wore an outfit that looked a lot like hers and his nails were polished the same color as her lipstick. The collar was studded with something that looked like diamonds, but could that actually be? Truthfully, now!
     As he’s inclined to do, Underdog took off right for the jugular of Cotton Candy Hair’s Foo-Foo. Underdog was no slouch. He had scars to vouch for an extensive military career. I was laden with bags of scraps and pretty much all of my earthly possessions and my dog was attacking Imelda Marcos’s only child. Imelda screamed for Jacob, the chauffeur. I sort of screamed, “no, Underdog, no!” and faked pulling real hard on Underdog’s makeshift leash which broke. White powdery fur and kinky brown fur mixed together like ice cream swirl. A sorrowful high-pitched howl indicated that Foo-Foo had raised the white flag. Underdog backed off and crawled on his belly to my feet, looking sheepish and proud. For once Underdog was Top Dog and I felt proud of my little soldier. The white dog was now a heap of matted hair with a red stream running off his neck onto the pavement. Beside herself, Barbie Legs swept her precious heap off the ground.
     Her name was Patricia Mansfield Donellson. Her dog’s name was Juno. She was the daughter of the man who assisted the chemical engineer who, one fateful day in the lab, mixed the wrong chemicals. It was Dr. Mansfield’s job to salvage this grievous mistake .Like two Betty Crocker’s spilling the honey into the cottage cheese ---oops!---a new recipe was born. Sticky Notes.
      That explains the limo, Jacob the driver, and the Fourth of July on Patty’s left hand. Also, that explains why she looked at me like a piece of gum stuck on the bottom of her $300 silk satin bubble gum pink platform shoes and now she was down to only 367 pairs. I thought to just run but I admit I was stuck in the gum of my own fascination with Patty’s bizarre pink and white world.
     Patty yelled, “Jacob, let’s get out of here---Juno!” Then, “My people will call your people.”
     I couldn’t imagine who “my people” were but old Chuck sitting drunk by the trash barrel watching the fire at Cooper’s Cove, or Katie curled up in a fetal position under her cardboard roof, or Sally and her two kids huddled by the grate outside the front door of the Cathedral on Madison. My people. Hah! She made darned sure to make no contact with me the leper as she handed me her business card. It had her name on it, “Patricia Mansfield Donnelson, Better Homes Interior Designer.” And the other vitals for contacting her, like I would.
     As her car rolled away from the curb I offered, “My people can be reached at the Mission at the corner of Third and Monroe, if you want to get hold of me. Hey, Ma’am, I’m sorry about your dog, I really am. I’ll pray for him.” And I meant it.
     I could tell that her overly powdered face was cracking into a sob. I heard her say ,“Oh my God, Jacob, what is it all coming to?” And the stretch limo’s window sealed her off into her coffin-like world of leather, controlled air, and a kind of panic that was there long before we met that day.
          Patty’s people never did get hold of mine at the Mission. Curiosity was killing me to find out how Juno made out. The more I thought about Patty M. Donnelson the more I imagined that life was uncertain and hard for her too. What had become even a larger dilemma was that I couldn’t get Plastic Pink Patty off my mind.
     “You see, Father McNamara, all my life I believe I’ve seen things, known things, heard things that are messages from God’s angels. The skeptics want me to believe that these thoughts are a part of my illness, but sometimes I think the skeptics are more comfortable with their labels than they are with the extra-terrestrial.” I could always talk to Father McNamara over at St. Mark’s.
    Basically, Father McNamara said, “Trust God. You’ll know what to do about this Miss Fancy Pants, I believe you call her?” And he went on with his obligatory Bible lesson about how money is not the root of evil, but the love of it is, and how we’re all children of God, equal in Her (he hated when I called God “She”) sight. After we prayed I felt a deeper resolve to take the angels at their word: “Go see Patty. And stop calling her Miss Fancy Pants, and Miss Cotton Candy Hair and…. She needs you!”
     Was there any way to greet a person other than to walk up to their door and knock on it? Patty lived in a Better Home over in the Hill section of town. How come the rich and the dead always get the best real estate? Up high. A nice shelter volunteer lent me a couple of bucks to catch the Number Twelve out to Hadley Avenue, transfer to the Number Six and walk from the end of that line to the Hill, 1209 Sycamore Avenue. She gave me an extra five to go to the Best Buy Basement to buy an outfit nicer than jeans and t-shirt, with some slicker looking shoes than my old Nike’s. I pressed the cotton flowered skirt as best I could with my hands, found a nice yellow knit blouse with a conservative cut, some fake pearls and earrings to match. Damn if I didn’t look Non-Homeless. And off I went, praying for the angels to come with.
     The walk up to the house in the red shoes was a nightmare. I kept collapsing over the sides of the shoes and banging my ankle on the pavement. My heart clamored for housing in my throat and there I was, on the front porch of a house the size of three missions combined. Two of the missions in town were formerly hotels. So, you can see what I’m seeing. Better Homes. The doorbell rang like church bells. I prayed I would hear a dog barking and that it would be the Bichon. Through a glass pane by the door I saw Jacob, the driver, approaching with a bad limp.
     “Excuse me. But I wondered if Patricia Donellson is in?”
     “And what might your business be?” He wasn’t being mean, thank goodness.
     “My business would be, well, uhhhh, the business of angels.” Oh my God! It just came out that way. I wanted my medications. I felt dizzy and disoriented. I thought I would faint right there at Jacob’s big feet.
     “Angels, you say?” Jacob scratched his chin and smiled a mysterious smile. What was he thinking? Was he recognizing me? He turned to leave, his hand on the doorknob, the door closing. He was chuckling. I panicked.
     “Jacob. Please, wait, let me explain.” He turned quickly, surprised that I knew his name. I put out my hand to him. He reached back. Clearly he was a gentleman and I posed no immediate physical threat. And this time I didn’t look like I had leprosy.
     We shook hands and I said, “Jacob, I’m Melissa Culversen. We met, or didn’t meet, the day your employer’s dog was attacked by my dog, over in Centerville.” Jacob had the good graces not to visibly appear horrified, but I knew he was taken aback.
     My ESP was moving in strong. “Jacob, I know you’re wondering what you’re going to do with me, the Bag Lady. I know you’re thinking how you’re going to protect Mrs. Donellson from an embarrassing and awkward encounter. I know…”
     He interrupted me. “You’re right. How did you know? Do you read minds or something?” “Well sort of. I just know that Patricia, Mrs. Donellson, has been on my mind constantly. Like she’s in some sort of trouble, in a state of great suffering. And I felt moved, beyond reason, to come and see her. And I’ve felt awful about what Underdog did to her dog. As I stand here I don’t even know what to say or to do. I just know I had to find this house, knock on this door. I know it sounds crazy. But can you understand?” I was amazed by my calm, and by his gentle openness to hearing my story.
     “Miss, what did you say your name was?” Jacob seemed suddenly taken.
     “Melissa, but you can call me Missy. Everybody does.”
     “Missy, can you just wait here a minute. Don’t go, please.”
      I had to relieve myself something awful. So bad, that I crept off into the high Boxwood hedges behind a gigantic sycamore and lifted my skirt. Awful, I know, but with the scene I had to face in the next minutes I figured I’d better do it on an empty bladder. Just as I was straightening my skirt and climbing up the front stairs out from the huge French Doors rolled a wheel chair. It was her, Patricia. I took a double take. The legs I had envied, Barbie’s legs, were gone. I tried desperately not to appear completely stunned and confused. I prayed for calm.
     “Missy, is it? Hello, I’m Patricia Donnelson. Please come join me on the West porch.” Her entire demeanor was altered. No cotton candy hair, no big lipstick. No pink shoes. No feet. Just a woman with regular house clothes, elegant, comfortable, and way toned down from the day our dogs met.
     “Hello, Mrs. Donnelson. I’m pleased to meet you. Thank you. I’d be right pleased to sit with you for awhile.” It felt now like I was on track. This moment was perfect.
     Thus began a conversation that lasted for hours and hours and days to come. She talked, I listened, then I talked and she listened. We laughed and we cried. Two women as different as the Hill and the Mission, two women as similar as longing for understanding, hope, intimacy, love, and joy. Patty accepted right away that I was, in fact, on a mission from the angels. Because, since her accident, she too was having those knowings, those extra sensory flashes of insights and intuitions. She said she had a hunch she would hear from me.
     She told me how she and Jacob sped off to save Juno who was failing in her arms. While stopped at a stop sign a bus, unable to stop, piled into the rear of the limo. For months she was critical. Losing her legs was a small concession, given that her life was spared. Her husband, afraid he would be left with nothing for a wife, made off with another woman, filed for divorce and claimed custody of their daughter. Although with Mt. Everest to climb to resume some life of normalcy, Patty told me she believed she was alive for a reason. My going to her house that day was the beginning of her understanding why she was given precious time.
     Now I am writing in a cozy room, all my own, in a Single Room Occupancy manor house in Centerville, with Patricia Mansfield’s name over the front door. She chose to leave off the Donnely to honor her parents. I have dresser drawers and a special place to store hand cream, baby powder, some make up, and my medications prescribed by a doc who is a specialist in my area of mental illness. I even have a big overstuffed chair I write in. On the walls hang pictures of my parents and me and my sister, and a son I lost years ago. One, too, of Underdog and Chuck out at Cooper’s Cove. Underdog is allowed in my room. I have plenty of bus tokens that get me out to Patty’s where I do some light cooking and housework Jacob insisted that I work on his shift as his underling. But it appears we are now equals because when he puts his hand around my waist I know it’s not sexual harassment. The act is purely by mutual consent.
     So you see, a dilemma can be something that becomes just what the angels ordained.



Copyright © 2001 B.P. Skinner
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