She was one of the kids in the group home cum therapeutic community I worked at when I was 21. I liked her. There was nothing very special to like or dislike but, for some reason, I liked her. She was quiet. She was meek. She behaved most of the time when she was there. She was almost 15, homely in a too-hairy-swarthy Mediterranean kind of way, not too bright, a user and an abuser who likely came from the same kind of environment. And she was a hooker.
She suffered from low self esteem, the file said.
It was bedlam at the centre every day and somedays it got even crazier. Literally. We all used to call it Alma House, Crazy House. We had about twelve kids at any one time in residence and they were all bad actors. The odd one was evil or soon to be but most of them were just messed up. They had been classed the worst of the worst, the most delinquent of the delinquents and no other facility would have them. We took them in at the centre, a huge old Shaughnessy-style home located at 2nd and Alma and the staff tried out their version of Gestalt therapy. It was a gong show.
Looking back, I think the problem was ignorance and naivete on the part of Children’s Aid. This was still the beginning of the drug era and no one save X-Kalay had much of a handle on what kind of multi-headed monster of a problem that was about to become. We didn’t.
The therapeutic idea was to manifest some kind of family, albeit hugely artificial, while the so-called family was kept totally unstable by revolving rosters of staff, changing faces amongst the kids and the madness of what we took to be counselling sessions. There was clearly too much acid being dropped and dope being smoked and that statement applied to some of the staff as well. It was around 1970 or so and I’d estimate that there were ten staff and, looking back, I think maybe half were sane.
Lilly and I used to talk. Usually when I was on kitchen duty. Sometimes when I was herding the kids into their bedrooms getting them to sleep. Mostly it would be just her an me. I was busy. She was the quiet type. We kept it short.
“So, Lilly, I heard that you gave all the kids record albums. That was nice. But, I have to ask where you got the money.”
You aren’t turning tricks again, are you?”
“Geez, kid. That’s not healthy. Worse than that, it can be dangerous.”
“No, it’s not. I just go to a private gambling club in Chinatown. Do some of the old guys. They have small dicks. I’m only there for an hour or so.”
“Shoot. That sounds pretty bad to me. What do you charge?”
“$4.00. Sometimes five. I leave when I get $75 or 80 bucks. Then I go shopping. I’m home before dark.”
“Lilly! That’s crazy. It is wrong on so many levels I can’t begin to explain. And I should be struck dead for saying this; you are a very bad businesswoman.”
She thought that was pretty funny. I was horrified. Still am, actually.
Ten years later, I was running the clinic in Skidrow. A wrecked and strung out mess of a woman was dragging her emaciated, unhealthy self through to the doctor’s office. She looked late forties. Hair was thin and falling out. She had that no-teeth, yellow-grey look. She looked like death. It was Lilly. We talked. She was much the same person but less so. I took her for lunch after the examination. I didn’t ask what was wrong. It was obvious. Heroin. Disease. Malnutrition. She was pretty much done. She died within the next few weeks.
I did not know too many like I knew Lilly and I really did not know her all that well. We had a bit of a connection is all. But there are at least a few dozen who would belong in that same tragic file. Maybe three dozen. And they all surprised me with the end of their story.
One small girl was arrested with two huge black guys robbing a bank in Seattle. Shotguns and bullets and the whole Dog Day Afternoon thing. She was 16 or 17, maybe 100 pounds. Strawberry blond hair. Cute as a bug’s ear. And the list just goes on and on.
You can see how that kind of life burns out the players and it doesn’t take long to burn out the rescuers, either.