While I was working at the needle exchange, there was a couple I still cannot get out of my mind. They were in their early 60s, homeless, and they had come up for the warmer weather. They liked Massachusetts best, but they wintered in Florida.
Snowbirds. That’s the expression people have for those who have a condo in Florida and then another condo in the Northeast. Unfortunately, this couple had no condo in either place; they just traveled and camped. They didn’t have children, so when they stayed at a shelter they couldn’t sleep together.
Love can be tough even for people who have money and a nice place to live. Try to imagine, if you can, love thriving in poverty—living only in the heart and spirit but having no roof to keep out the rain or the snow.
But their love survived.
Life on the streets: It can be tough for anyone, but for a woman it can be downright dangerous. A fairly decent-looking woman can always find a place to sleep—for a price. That price may be higher than she thinks, but often she’ll pay it anyway.
In my early recovery from heroin addiction, I shared an apartment with two other folks—a man and a woman. It was unique for me to have my own bedroom, and the thought of becoming homeless again scared me. I’m 67 years old now, and I don’t have the energy it takes to haul my ass from one end of town to another carrying all my belongings.
I have never forgotten what it was like. I remember meeting a young woman on the streets, all tattoos and rings ‘n’ things, while I was working as editor for SPARE CHANGE NEWS. She was only 14 years old and had been on the streets for about six months. I’ll call her Radio.
It was getting cold. Radio and I were chatting in the pit at Harvard Square when she mentioned that she and her girlfriend needed a safe place to stay that night.
I figured I’d help out for a change and let them sleep in my room, and that I’d sleep on the couch in the living room. They were thrilled. Now let me say I had known Radio for a few months and we had talked quite often. I knew things had happened in her life that had totally traumatized her.
So they came to the apartment I shared with two other people. I showed them my bedroom and told them they would share the bed and I would sleep on the couch in the living room right next door. They kind of freaked a little because they expected to have to “pay a price.” Usually, when a man brings a woman home from the streets there’s a sexual favor involved. It’s never nice when you have to have sex with someone you would never have sex with if you weren’t forced to by circumstances.
Women on the street pay that price all the time. Radio and her friend kept me company in the kitchen while I cooked us supper and then we chatted for a while. Then I said I was going to bed and they looked at each other.
“No, no, I meant what I said. You get the bedroom; I get the couch.”
They couldn’t believe it at first; they thought I was putting them on. Then they realized I was straight-up with them. They used the bathroom to clean up. A hot shower in a clean tub is a real luxury when you’re living on the street. After they bathed, they went into my room and shut the door.
I lay down on the couch and had a great night’s sleep.
The part of the story you don’t know is that I have a daughter and son, and I had no idea where they were at the time. I looked at Radio and her friend the same way I would look at my own kids. If they were homeless, I would hope someone would take them in and not ask anything of them.
It was 1995. I had no idea that in 2007 my daughter Jasmine was going to contact me by email and chat with me for a while to see if I was safe. Turns out that I was. And now I have my daughter, two granddaughters, and a son-in-law in my life. It is very precious indeed. My son is also entering my life—much more slowly—and he knows I’m there. I hope one day he will come around completely. I always keep in mind that I did the damage by disappearing from their lives—first as a fugitive, then by serving my sentence for drug crimes. Finally, I kicked heroin and rebuilt my life.
But let’s get back to Radio. Over the years she and I built a friendship that was very precious to me. It was all because I did the right thing way back in 1995 and treated the two young women like daughters instead of street trash.
There is no street trash. There are only people who treat street people like trash, and those people are totally misguided. Am I being hard on them? Maybe they just don’t know any better.
When I met a woman, Mary Esther, who was close to my age, we fell in love and got married. Radio used to come over the house on holidays and have dinner with us. Then, one night, Radio was found dead in a small apartment she had rented after going through a recovery program. It appeared to be suicide.
I will never forget her. Radio was a talented artist with a beautiful website. I tried to save it on my computer, but one day that computer crashed and I lost it all. But I didn’t lose as much as Radio.
There’s always what they call a “tell” when someone’s been traumatized. Radio’s was a tattoo on the back of her neck: “DEAD GIRL.”