Esther Altshul Helfgott: The Homeless One
Where the fuck is she?
She's supposed to be home now.
She better get out here, damn it.
As of last Monday, January 11th
Ellen returned for her regular handouts.
Yesterday she came at 5:30,
just as I was having dinner.
I shoved the $3 at her.
Today I'll try to be more civil.
Crysta, how come the voices
don't interfere with your poems?
I don't know. I tried to kill myself.
Poetry was the only thing that kept me alive.
I wrote poetry in high school,
kept a journal. My father wrote poetry.
Ellen came at 5 o clock
just as I was about to go for a walk.
I gave her the $3, and she asked for more.
Said she wouldn t come tomorrow.
So I gave her another 2.
As I was about to go into the alley
and on up to the stores, I ran into Edward.
He asked if Ellen had been around.
I told him, yes, just a little while ago.
He told me she thumbed her nose at him,
and that when she was hollering
in the middle of the street,
Quincy, another neighbor, told her to go away
and quit bothering me.
Madeline asked us to choose 25 words we d take with us
if we had to go to a desert island.
I chose words like hope, love, dream, parents, childhood.
Then I reconsidered: If I'm to finish this poem,
I'd have to take words connected to homelessness
and schizophrenia; so here are the words
I chose to take with me:
7th Floor Inmate
Headshrinker. Doctor. Waxy
rigidity. Shapes. Bugs. C.I.A. Piss.
Faces. 3-point restraints: ankle, wrist,
waist. Bedpan. Cigarettes.
Normies. Waves. Delusions.
5-point restraints: both arms,
both legs, waist. Hallucinations.
Voices. Atavan. 7th floor:
Edward says I should quit giving her money.
But I have a friendly feeling for Ellen.
I appreciate the things she has given me,
that she has artistic talents and a sad background
and no family. Who better to give money to
than a stranger in need? Besides,
she's not so much a stranger anymore.
Jubilee Women's Center
Dedicated to the Prevention of Homelessness
since 1983 620 18th Avenue East
Seattle, WA 98112
Screams pound the nursing home walls.
Mother is yelling I don't have a home.
Where is my home?
This is supposed to be one of the best nursing homes
in the country. When I reach her room,
I hear a nurse's aide say:
This is your home now, Darling.
She speaks in that patronizing tone health care workers adapt.
Mother screams anyway: What did I do? she begs.
I hold her until we rock.
The nurse's aid returns to the television room.
She sits with residents in wheel chairs, a row of heads
slumped onto chests, soap operas blaring.
Another kind of homelessness. And meanness.
Ellen hasn't been here since Sunday evening
when I didn't go to the door.
I had given her $5 on Saturday,
and she said she wouldn't come Sunday.
She either forgot or hoped I would.
I haven't seen her today, and it's already Tuesday.
Maybe because she has her monthly SSI check.
Carobeth Laird, Limbo: A Memoir
About Life in a Nursing Home
by a Survivor,
Chandler and Sharpe, 1979.
Naomi Feil, Validation: How to Help Disoriented Old-Old,
Edward Feil Productions, 1992
Paula, a Jubilee Resident:
Where would we be
if not for Jubilee?
Hungry and cold
as well as alone
If not for our home,
Battered and bruised,
tattered and torn,
if not for Jubilee.
Ellen has been coming regularly
after the week of no-show. Valentine's Day
she brought me a stuffed red heart for the front door.
She left a card saying:
You are one of the best people in the world.
Genevieve is eighty-six. She was born Feb. 24,
1913. We go for a movie and birthday dinner.
When we return to her house,
Ellen is pounding on her door and yelling
unintelligibly. Genevieve introduces us.
I extend my hand toward Ellen.
Her hands are wrapped around her body.
She pulls one out and shakes mine.
Council to Homeless Persons,
Homelessness is a broad concept suggesting lack of shelter,
but also encompasses many people who have shelter,
albeit only on a temporary basis. It also includes
those who lack many of the essential family, social
and material supports that most of us take for granted.
Eighty-six seems incredibly old.
I tell myself I can't avoid being old,
but I can do something about being fat.
Hence, Weight Watchers.
They have many gimmicks now.
Like a bookmark when you've lost five pounds,
and a pin for reaching your declared goal.
For dinner, I'll have broccoli
or a Weight Watchers frozen dinner.
She scared the hell out of me,
banging on Genevieve s door like that.
You only have 41 cents.
You always only have 41 cents,
Genevieve says in that disgruntled tone she gets.
I'm lucky if I have a nickel, Ellen tells her.
I'm down to nothing.
That's what you always say. I'll get your $3,
Genevieve says. I stand on the porch with Ellen,
ask her how it's going. She shrugs her shoulders,
says: I need a cigarette, but I stopped smoking
years ago and don't have one to give her.
Ellen was just here, black make-up
around her eyes, raccoon like.
The back of her hands above the knuckles were dry.
She had cuts on both of them.
I took my tube of A&D ointment out to her,
rubbed some on the worst areas. Gave her
a tube to take with her. Along with a $5 bill
which pleased her greatly. Before she took off,
she put her arms around herself
made hugging motions towards me,
grinned, rocked back and forth.
I think she has a place to live, Gen.
and this is what she does to make a living.
She has her beat, and you're on it.
I'm glad you met the homeless one.
I meant to show you my 3x5 index cards
on which I record her visits (I keep the cards
- a stack of them - by the door)
but I was so excited you were getting to meet Ellen,
I didn't stay at Genevieve's more
than a few minutes.
When I walked off her stoop,
I looked up one side of the street
and down the other.
Ellen was already gone.
in 1999 the City of Seattle will spend approximately $9.1 million
on services for homeless people including over $5 million
for emergency shelter, $1.4 million for emergency food services
and $1.4 million for housing related social services; and ...
She seemed to think she had a right to access,
a right to Genevieve s house,
to Genevieve herself.
Meal of Fortune at Clean Start
Women and children only
Mon.-Fri 5:00 - 6:30 PM
You sit down at a brightly-covered table
in an attractive room
and are served on real plates
with real knives and forks,
by cheerful friendly people
who will also sit down and eat with you.
The sense of community is as important
as the food - which is excellent.
The food is prepared by Boomtown Cafe.
the City of Seattle is committed to addressing the needs
of people without homes, as exemplified by the amount
of resources annually allocated by the City to provide housing
and services to homeless people; and...
She sure is felt on Genevieve's block.
Coming every day,
banging on the door like that.
Ellen came this morning at 7:30.
I gave her the $3 and asked how her hands were.
They looked all dry.
I asked her if she still had the A+D ointment.
She said yes, but isn't using it.
I commented on the storm and told her
to look out for downed power lines.
She was carrying a large umbrella.
She went off in good spirits.
Temple De Hirsch Sinai Women's Shelter
Instructions to Volunteers: It sounds obvious,
but always treat the women with respect.
If one of them is sitting or standing by herself,
ask if you can come closer and talk,
but if she is upset, do not touch her
or invade her space.
We're in my kitchen.
The rocking makes me crazy.
I ask her to stop. I beg. She stops
and again and again.
So I rock too
and we laugh and rock
we rock and laugh non-stop
Ellen didn't catch me today,
but she did come yesterday.
Wore a red-fringed bandana
and a green jacket.
She took the $3,
grinned, said, God Bless You,
Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke,
Two Accounts of a Journey through Madness,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Mary Barnes with Ann Scott,
Something Sacred: conversations, writings, paintings,
Free Associations Press, 1989.
Crysta Casey, Heart Clinic, Bellowing Ark, 1993.
Ellen came at 4 pm and again later.
I ignored her, as I had given her $5 yesterday
and she said she wouldn't come today.
It s only the 12th of the month.
She usually isn't this insistent
until the last week or so.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted,
Turtle Bay Books, 1993.
Margaret I. Little, Psychotic Anxieties and Containment:
A Personal Record of an Analysis
with Winnicott, Jason Aronson, 1985.
Carol North, M.D., Welcome, Silence:
My Triumph Over Schizophrenia
Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett,
The Quiet One: A Journey
Out of the Torment of Madness,
Warner Books, 1994.
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