Esther Altshul Helfgott: The Homeless One
Ellen came yesterday at 7:30 pm.
I gave her $3,
and she didn't ask for more.
She didn't look good.
I pretended I was an American spy
making peace with the world by being both
a Russian spy and an American spy.
In school I learned of the Berlin Wall,
saw the pictures in Life Magazine.
Was fascinated by people wanting out of Berlin.
In 1st grade, we had bomb drills.
The preoccupation with Russians
and missiles and spies affected my fantasies,
the voices I hear.
My friend, Jean, tried to jump out the window
of her room in the adult care center,
thought the room was on fire. She's on haldol.
The doctor had just adjusted her dose,
some place between zombie and total sleep.
I pointed to the ceiling near the door to her room,
said there's a smoke alarm to warn of fire.
She wasn't impressed
and asked me to take her home
or get in bed with her.
I didn't get in bed with her or hold her
or rub her back. I just stood there,
said: Dear, Dear.
When I tried to lie still, when I tried not to rock,
I imagined I was a prisoner. I read all the time:
National Geographic, Mark Twain,
Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe,
The Pit and the Pendulum.
I read by flashlight when I was very
Jay Neugeboren, Imagining Robert, Henry Holt, 1997.
Theodore Isaac Rubin, Cat, Ballantine, 1966.
Ellen watered my porch plants again, darn it.
I've asked her not to, but with the warm day,
I suppose she thought it necessary.
Yesterday, when Morgan was here
installing my new scanner,
Ellen rapped on the door.
He told her to go away, that if she didn't
he'd call the police. She asked for me.
He said I was busy.
She came at 9:15 tonight.
I didn't answer and felt mean.
She came earlier, around noon
just as I was having tea
and about to read.
I didn't answer the door.
Flyer: Homeless writers finding a voice
Open Mike: Celebrating African American Women
Featured Readers: Tracie Hall:
recipient of Artist's Trust award & Jack Straw fellow,
1998, & Ruanda of StreetWrites & Noel House
Sunday, April 11, 1998, Noon-3 pm
at Real Change: 2129 Second Ave.
Free brunch served,
Call 441-3247 for more
I have re-established rapport with Ellen.
I worried about her and had $3 ready in my pocket.
While I was watering the grass on the south side of the house.
she turned up on the front porch and called to me.
I dropped the hose, went to her and gave her some money.
She was grinning, but she sounds like she has walking pneumonia.
She went to North West Hospital for shots for a couple of things.
She complimented me on my hat and departed in good humor.
I'm glad you've made up with Ellen. Sounds like you feel better.
Your neighbors have good intentions, but you have the best instincts.
If people with schizophrenia have at least one normie,
as Crysta calls us, to count on in some way, their lives might be easier,
even help them function better in the outside world.
This doesn't mean you should tolerate threatening behavior,
and it sounds as if Ellen knocked on the door threateningly last night.
Did she apologize for banging on the door like that
or did you just give her the money?
Did either of you mention the neighbors?
Re: Ellen s knocking: I don't think it was threatening,
just insistent. We didn t mention my neighbors telling her to go away.
We just operate in the moment at hand.
I did ask her what she was going to have for dinner.
She mentioned a frozen meal,
so she must have access to a microwave
Hugo House: 2nd Annual Cultural Inquiry: Shelter:
A Festival. Oct. 2, 1999. I watch women
of StreetWrites and the Church of Mary Magdalene
perform their poems. They have all been homeless.
Or are homeless now. When I come home,
I want to burn my house down,
go live with homeless women. I kiss the walls,
the floors, the windows ...
Ellen looked better today in a good mood
and didn't ask for more than the $3.
She was wearing her long coat
but said she was cold.
My hearing aids help me hear her better.
I haven't quizzed her but aim to, gradually.
I can't stand it. I beg for medication.
You beg for medication?
I thought you hate medication.
I do hate medication,
but sometimes the voices get so bad
I absolutely know the alternative is suicide.
That time, I was curled up in bed.
I couldn't go out, couldn't do a thing.
I had thrown all the medicine out.
I called my doctor, begged him
to call the pharmacy; otherwise,
I knew I was going to commit suicide.
Meant to tell you about Sunday's encounter with Ellen.
When she banged on the door Saturday,
I was busy and didn t answer.
I realized she was broke and waiting
for her first-of-the-month check
so when she came Sunday I gave her $3,
and when she asked for more,
in a burst of I don't know what, I gave her a $5 bill.
She could hardly stand it! Thanked me profusely
but hasn't turned up since.
So I think she's on her usual schedule now.
Oct 6th: Crysta s message on my voice mail:
I'm in West Seattle Psychiatric.
I'm all right though. Don't worry.
I didn't even burn myself,
but I've been committed to stay here 72 hours.
If anybody calls, tell them I'm all right.
Ellen hasn't come yet since first of the month.
Poets from StreetsWrites read at It's About Time.
They tell stories of no homes and poor housing.
Some in the audience feel alienated.
I watch their faces.
In view of the warm day, I must water my roses.
Ellen keeps watering out in front,
even though I've told her that I want to do it myself.
Yesterday evening she left a black plastic bag
full of who-knows-what on my front porch,
and had done some watering.
I've put the bag on the grass beside the front walk,
and when I see her again will tell her not to water.
Commenting on It's About Time Writers
Let me say how much I enjoyed the last It's About Time.
The StreetWrites Poets and the women from Mary Magdalene
gave me a whole new look at "homelessness" and recovery,
and led me to realize how restricted my thinking has been
about folks who look different from me (not just ethnicity).
When you consider it, we are, most of us,
in various stages of recovery
so their message has a wonderful universality to it.
Ellen came yesterday, first time this month,
smiling and wearing high-topped light brown leather boots
which she got from a country thrift store for $1.59.
She also got some hiking boots cheap.
Marie James, (As Told to Jane Hertenstein)
Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady
Cornerstone Press, 1997.
Jonathan Kozol. Rachel and Her Children:
Homeless Families in America
Random House 1989.
Lee Stringer. Grand Central Winter: Stories From the Street
(Foreword by Kurt Vonnegut)
Seven Stories Press, 1998.
Ellen came Wednesday night at 6:30.
I gave her $3. She asked for more.
I gave her four quarters.
In a few minutes she knocked again
asked for another $2.
I protested but went to the desk drawer,
fished out the two. That made $6.
The next day when she knocked
I didn t answer the door. She persisted,
but I refused to answer. On Friday (yesterday)
I gave her $3. I have another 3
waiting for her by the door for today.
She always asks for more
toward the end of the month.
I'm enjoying my thoughts
and the high I'm on listening to the voices.
Are they your friends today?
They are not necessarily friends,
but they are entertaining.
And they are good company.
But then they turn bad.
When I hear voices,
they are not always good voices.
Ellen came at 12:20 p.m. smiling broadly.
I gave her the $3 that was awaiting her.
She thanked me, muttering something about You Angel.
I noticed that she wasn't wearing socks.
As it was cold and raining, I commented on it.
She said she just hadn't bothered.
She was wearing smooth leather shoes
that covered her feet quite well.
WTO meetings begin today.
Tents for homeless set up in town.
50,000 outside protestors. Anarchists.
A homeless man on TV says
he doesn't want them around.
Crysta's apartment's in the center of town.
She calls, says:
The FBI's outside my building.
Where she walks in the garden.
It's closed down.
Ellen came three times today.
When I asked her why she lives as she does,
she seemed depressed. After giving her the $3,
and another 2, and still another 3, I said:
Well, Cheer up, pretty soon the sun will come out.
She said, I like it misty.
Copyrightę2003, 2004: Esther Altshul Helfgott
originally published by Kota Press, Seattle, WA. 1999, 2000
Cover graphics and design by Harry Jones
Webdesign: Rudolf Suesske: June 2004