As a social worker for the disabled in Santa Barbara, California I would start each day with office hours in the lobby in what is commonly referred to as a “welfare hotel.” Many of the residents of the hotel were collecting some type of government assistance. “Cheryl” was such a resident. Young. Attractive. She had shoulder length, dirty blond hair, and was petite. She was also smart. She used to come down and talk to me whenever her junkie boyfriend was preoccupied with his dealings and scoring. She had an engaging personality. Personally I never understood what she saw in her boyfriend. But with the passage of time I’ve come to realize sometimes people simply fall into their purgatory without rhyme or reason.
Time after time she shared her deeply felt feelings of ending up in a place such as this. During these conversations she was always careful to skirt the subject of her relationship with her boyfriend knowing my feelings towards him. She was lonely. Trapped on a dead end road with no hope of escape that she could see. Of course I tried to convince her otherwise but she had traveled a hard road and that experience had scarred her. She was also scared. The fear bled from her soft eyes.
The time came when her boyfriend began spending more time around the hotel. Suddenly she stopped coming to talk to me. I always suspected that he abused her and I guess I hadn’t taken much effort to hide my contempt for him. Coming down the stairs together he would glare at me as they passed my desk. She would hold her sight downcast. Then came the inevitable, the morning that I noticed a tale-tell bruise under her eye. Clutching my teeth hard it took effort not to say something to him. I made a mental note to talk to her alone—as soon as I could get her alone.
Arriving at the hotel one morning I was informed that Cheryl’s boyfriend had overdosed. Cheryl was allusive the next few weeks. Then one morning she was sitting at my desk waiting for me. She began by saying just how much her boyfriend hated me. She also told me I wasn’t very good at hiding my emotions, that I could be a pretty scary guy without knowing it. We talked more about him and then her plans. A sparkle, then a strong glint came to her eyes when she told me someone had given her boyfriend a hot shot: A lethal combination of heroine and cocaine. With that said she abruptly got up and left. Outside of my memories I never saw her again.
Life is lived without answers to many of its riddles. In my mind I often see those determined eyes from that morning staring deep into my soul. The question has remained with me after all these years. Was she confessing?
She was pretty. Also very intelligent with an I.Q. measured at 155. She had been a junior in a prestigious university majoring in International Finance. Her future bright till the scourge of drugs ruined it. She fled the east coast and ended up on the streets of Santa Barbara. She soon picked up the nickname, “Jane Mansfield,” for obvious reasons.
I also counseled her at the hotel. Being a social worker one comes to quickly realize that success with homeless mentally ill people and those afflicted with substance abuse is a precious and infrequent gift. My words, my encouragement for her to leave the drugs and the streets behind paled in comparison with the Nirvana that heroin, cocaine and meth had to offer.
The call came from the hospital. Jane had been admitted with an infected heart valve. It is a common occurrence thanks to a particular nasty bacterium that lived on the tips of hype needles. She, like many of the homeless listed me as next of kin for the hospital to notify in case of an emergency. The downtime forced on her while she recuperated in the hospital from a heart valve replacement gave me an opening. I again pleaded with her to make a life-changing move. Finally she agreed to go home leaving the drugs and streets behind. Arrangements were made and a bus ticket bought. Unfortunately before she left she resumed her old habits. She did get on the bus, but either the infection returned, or the damaged heart could simply take it no more. In either event, when the bus pulled into the station, she collapsed and died in her mother’s arms.
What drove her to the streets and the needle was never made clear to me. In the end she simply died of a broken heart inflicted by the human condition.
“Linda,” also lived at the hotel. She was in her mid-twenties, born and raised in Santa Barbara. At one time she had been overweight, but due to heavy drinking, a bad drug habit and a body destroying eating disorder had dropped weight fast. She had the skinniest arms and legs I have ever seen. Muscle mass from her neck and upper arms had been lost too fast resulting in loose hanging flesh. Weekly she would present herself to my desk and I would check her arms for needle tracks. Of course there are many other places to put the needle of death in where I couldn’t check.
Linda had the saddest eyes I have ever seen in one so young. Our conversations would sometimes stall when I began to question myself where all that pain came from. Of course she “promised” to lay off the booze and drugs and to simply eat! The smell of alcohol in the morning, her unsteady gait, the continued loss of weight told another story. The time came, when coming to the hotel I was told that she had died.
Success was often elusive. I was not God. Life was not for me to either give, nor in the end save in far too many cases. The most I could do was share the journey with those who walked a lonely path so they would not, in the end be alone. I was privileged to have been a friend to some remarkable people, including these three women. I can only hope their restless souls have finally found peace.
post on Huffington Post 4-29-16