Sunday, December 03, 2006

Deloris' Punch Line

It was rumored that Robert Allen Parker had been a professor of mathematics. It might be true. It might not. I know that he was an older man who always carried a higher calculus book in his arm and was always making notes in it. He was a gentle guy and we had a special relationship. He was very concerned about two things above all: Nuclear Weapons and Gambling Casinos. I was never sure which had priority.

His mental illness took the form of repetitive statements which I came to believe were used more as a shield. His most famous segway was, “As a gentleman and a scholar…” and then go into what ever point he might be trying to make. He had a pension and he kept a room but at the end of every month he would ask Mary Ellen (who was in charge of the community’s finances) for a short term loan. He did not ask directly, he would say his leg was feeling kind of rough. He always paid it back and he always had to borrow it back at the end of the next month.

The first time I realized he was a lot more together than he would even admit to himself was the time his landlord tried to evict him. He took his landlord to court and won. But living on a fixed income meant he needed to eat at the soup kitchen (this one was in D.C.) and he had to rely on people who he knew cared.

A lot of what he said was rambling but I felt it was a psychological smoke screen. At one point I showed him some of my artwork and it impressed him so much that he turned to me and we had a rational conversation that lasted for about five minutes before he slipped back into his defensive rambling.

Much later I went up and lived in Boston for a couple of years but came down often to visit. Every time I did he would ask me to inquire about a chair for him at Harvard.

Now we get to Deloris. Deloris was mentally ill. I just did not realize how much.

It is 1978[I must correct this error. It was 1979.]and I was running an overnight shelter for women in D.C. with five other people. The five of us lived in the same house. In case you are wondering, two men and three women. But Deloris had to live there as well. She was just unable to be out there alone and survive. I walked in the door one day and she was at the top of the stairs.

“Deloris does not like you but Stacy thinks you are cool. Cynthia could not care less but Sylvia wants to see you dead.”

This was quite the conversation and I was not even participating. After a while she went into one of the women’s rooms and I went looking for some mental floss.

The problem with the overnight shelter was this: we had forced the District of Columbia to open it (more on that in another chapter) and they wanted us out. So what did they do? They sold the land the building was on to the Canadian Government so they could build an embassy on it in 1984 on the condition that they tear the building down immediately.

Neat, huh?

We had fifty homeless women staying each night. They evicted us. What could we do? We could have called it a day. We could have gone off and pursued careers as bankers or drug peddlers or fashion models but no. We decided to have the women move in with us. In our four bedroom two story rental. No problem.

You have to understand some things here. Homeless people have to carry everything they own. Women in general (having observed my mom) keep everything. We had a basement which was shortly filled to the brim with bags of clothing, personal keepsakes and in some cases out and out worthless things found on the street.

Oh, but I was talking about Deloris. Deloris had been living with us and had had relative privacy. Now she was sharing a very crowded house with fifty other women who were literally sleeping in each other’s laps.

Solution? Burn down the house. And that is exactly what she did.

Thankfully she did it in broad daylight.

No one was hurt. She just went down into the basement and set the bags on fire. All of them.

So at first we ended up in a Catholic grade school for about a week. The problem was we interfered with their bingo games so we had to go.

The landlord of the house we burned down found us a large first floor apartment and let us move in. (I would tell you his name but it might jeopardize his chances of being canonized.) It had two very large rooms and two small rooms. We made bunk beds with lumber. I slept on the back porch and our most remarkably crazy resident who I may talk about later moved under the back porch with her imaginary friend.

Very cozy. Thankfully it was summer. Of course someone screamed to high heaven about the fire codes (makes sense considering our recent history) so the fire department came and inspected. They decided that if the back porch had steps leading down to the ground (considering there were three other existing exits leading out of the apartment) that it would pass code. Then they went ahead and built the steps for us.

Nice guys if you ask me

It just so happens that this apartment was a mere block down the alley from our soup kitchen. We were in the 600 block of M Street N.W. and the soup kitchen was in the 600 block of L Street N.W.

But I was talking about Deloris. Yes she is still here. But someone had a brilliant idea. They did not consult me they just sort of went ahead and did it. They put her on a bus and sent her to her mother’s house in Connecticut. That worked really great until we got the phone call. Apparently Deloris’ mom knew her daughter. The conversation between Deloris and whoever answered the phone may have looked entirely normal on this end. On the other end it involved a State Trooper standing outside Deloris’ mother’s house with Deloris and her mom’s telephone while her mother was safely barricaded inside the house. We sent up money so she could get back on the bus.

Sometime later Deloris walked up and punched me right in the face. A real round house. What some people would call a sucker punch. I gently put her on the floor and told her while sitting on top of her that if she ever did that again I would punch her back. Then I let her up and she scrambled away.

The next day Robert Allen Parker happened to stop by and was on his way to the soup kitchen as was I. We walked down the alley together and Robert was half conversing and half rambling in the way he did. He always gave being coherent an honest shot with me but I could tell it was hard.

Deloris was following two steps behind me. At the end of the alley she confronted Robert while pointing at me. She was livid and stuttering, “He! He..He threw me on the gound and sat on top of me!”

Robert was visibly startled, “Why did you do that, Michael?”

“Because she punched me in the face.”

Deloris was flabbergasted, “You…Your…You’re not supposed to tell him that!”

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