First Person: A Waif at My Door | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

First Person: A Waif at My Door

She's a neighbor of mine, she says. She's never asked for help before. If she doesn't get $46 for diapers and formula, they'll take her baby away.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

"Villard de Honnecourt: Medieval Architect." I sit at my dining room table surrounded by index cards, overdue library books, and yellow sheets of legal paper scrawled with false starts. A crude drawing of a lion from Villard's 13th-century sketchbook of architectural details glares at me with a too-human smile. Although Villard claims to have sketched it from life, scholars suggest he may never have seen a real lion. I believe them.

The doorbell rings. I hate dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses and subscription salesmen, but I'm looking for a diversion. I buzz the unknown visitor into the building and wait on the third floor landing. The footsteps stop a floor below me. This is typical for this six-flat. Often anxious proselytizers ring every bell, and once inside approach the first open doorway. I stand on my landing and eavesdrop.

The voice of a young woman--quiet, whimpering. She says she is a neighbor who lives around the corner. "I wouldn't normally be doing this, but I don't know what to do!" I can't hear everything, but pick up the words "baby," "money," and a street name, "Balmoral." Tammy, the tenant downstairs, says she has no money. The stranger is sobbing. I lean over the banister; she's sitting on the stairs. All I see is the top of her head--greasy black hair tied back with a rubber band--and large circles of filth on the knees of her corduroy pants.

"I wish I could help you," says Tammy, "I don't even have a couple extra bucks." She explains that she was balancing her checkbook when the doorbell rang, and discovered she would have to borrow again from her parents.

The woman finally understands. "Thank you for being so nice." She retreats down the stairs.

I'm not sure what motivates me, but I call out, "Wait!" The footsteps stop. "Wait!" Am I just curious? A little bit. Altruistic? That, too. But I also like the drama of calling out, "Wait." Maybe I want to feel morally superior this morning, or perhaps I'm just intrigued by a story that may be more interesting than Villard de Honnecourt's.

She looks worse than I expected. Half her teeth are missing; her translucent skin stretches across her cheeks over a network of pale blue veins.

"I'm a neighbor of yours." She says it like a question. "I live around the corner, on Balmoral. I never borrowed from a stranger before, but I need help." She says she needs $46 to buy her baby formula and diapers. This sounds like a lot, but since I have no children, I'm not sure. Tammy, who has followed her up the stairs, is totally convinced. "I really wish I could do something to help you. Too bad Ginny isn't home--I'm sure she'd let you borrow some diapers."

Tears are streaming down the woman's cheeks. "If that social worker comes Monday and sees I got nothing for my baby, she'll take him away!"

Bureaucracy is unfair; her story seems valid. "I don't even have no food in the house," she adds. I'm still not willing to part with any cash, but I can get rid of some unwanted food. When I invite the woman inside, Tammy gives me a conspiratorial glance. Although she is barely an acquaintance I understand that she wants to come inside also--perhaps to protect me, but more likely to watch.

The girl attempts to be polite; she makes sure we introduce ourselves--her name is Margery Davis. She asks if she can smoke, but only after she's lit a Marlboro. "All I've had in three days," she says in a southern drawl, "is cigarettes and Mountain Dew."

This amuses me. I think of the old advertising campaign--a bearded, grizzly hillbilly shouting "Yah-hoo, Mountain Dew." Besides, I have a case of the stuff in my refrigerator; it's all my roommate, Tom, will drink. I give a can to Margery. She slugs down the contents in less than a minute.

I find emergency rations under the sink--about a dozen cans of chop suey, crunchy Chinese noodles, and generic tomato sauce--food my mother wouldn't let me refuse.

"I can't eat that stuff 'cause of my teeth," says Margery. She points to the crunchy noodles and wiggles her two front teeth. With dirty fingers she moves them forward, backward, and side to side. They are the only top teeth I can see.

"I have macaroni downstairs!" says Tammy. "You can cook it real soft and pour the tomato sauce over it."

Margery ignores her. "My husband did this to me--beat me up real bad before I had the baby, made me go into premature labor. I was bruised all over. But the baby, he came out OK. I'm still sore from the cesarean." She rubs her stomach.

I imagine the husband charging up my stairs any moment. But Margery explains that she left him for good this time, back in Calumet City. She speaks in quick, nervous bursts between cigarette puffs. She describes what happened when she discovered she was pregnant. She returned to her husband to tell him and found him in bed with another woman. Since the husband had not closed his apartment door (they were separated at the time), Margery just walked in. Her husband beat her for "sneaking around." I ask her, was this the time you went into premature labor? She answers, yes. This seems unlikely, but Margery continues her constant flood of words--and woes--leaving me no time to think. I figure she's one of those poverty-stricken, physically and emotionally abused people who can no longer remember incidents or their order properly. Punch-drunk.

Margery tells us that she came to Chicago so her husband couldn't hurt the baby. A women's advocacy group let her stay at their shelter for battered women and helped her find this "real nice apartment." Now she risks losing her child--unless, of course, one of us gives her the $46 for formula and diapers.

"Did you try the Salvation Army?" asks Tammy.

"They're closed on Saturdays!"

"What about Catholic Charities?"

"I went there and they couldn't help me; they wanted to give me a crib, but I already have a crib."

The front door opens. Margery jumps up from the kitchen chair. "It's only Tom," I say. She eyes the back door. Tom enters the kitchen and greets the three of us. I quickly explain the situation to him, as best I can with Margery there.

She backs away from him, saying, "Please don't be mad at her--I didn't come looking for no trouble."

"Don't worry," Tom says, "she does what she wants; I never get mad at her." Tom kisses me on the cheek and leaves the kitchen to hang up his coat.

Margery whispers, "I don't want him getting mad at you 'cause of me. I know what it's like when my old man gets pissed." This takes me over the hurdle. I have decided to give her the money. Tom gets a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator. I tell him that this is Margery's favorite soft drink, and they begin talking. I lead Tammy into the dining room so I can get another person's approval for what I plan to do.

"What do you think?" I ask.

"I just wish there was some way we could help her," she replies. "I'd give her the money if I had it."

"Do you believe her?"

"Well sure, don't you?"

Margery wanders into the dining room. I tell her I'll walk with her to the Jewel and cash a check for her there. She says she'll pay me back as soon as her welfare check comes in--cross her heart and hope to die.

Until today Tammy and I have only exchanged greetings in the hall. Now she grabs me with both arms, gives me a rib-crushing hug, and says, "You've restored my faith in humanity!" When she lets go, Margery hugs me, smelling of stale cigarette smoke and gasoline. Finally, Margery and Tammy hug each other. Tom watches in the background, suppressing a laugh.

I start to collect some of my unused groceries for Margery, but she doesn't want to take the food back to her apartment. She explains that earlier this morning she asked some other tenants in her building for money. One of them complained to the landlord. He threatened to evict her if she bothered anyone else.

"Where will me and my baby go if he kicks us out?" she whines. I offer to pose as a friend, since it isn't the landlord's business what a friend carries into her apartment.

"But he knows I got no friends!"

This arouses my sympathy, though I'm not sure I want to be her friend.

"I'll come back for the groceries," she says, adding with a burst of excitement, "I'll bring the baby! Wouldn't you like to see my baby? He's so cute! You'll just love him."

"But you can't carry all this and your baby!"

"I'm a strong woman--you wouldn't believe all I've been through."

Suddenly I realize what's missing. How could I have forgotten the most basic question?

"Where's your baby now?"

"With a sitter."

I fake an air of concern. "How can you afford a sitter when you're so poor?"

"She does it real cheap--'cause she's still in high school. And I'm friends with her mother."

I realize now she is lying--how much I'm not sure--but I'm convinced she's expanding on a very real hard-luck story. Perhaps she has left her baby alone, and the sitter is an invention to cover her neglect. Or, she is merely pretending to be without a husband, so I will sympathize with her. I imagine him as a brute who throws away their money on drugs, leaving nothing for food and the baby.

As we walk to Jewel, Margery asks me what kind of art I do--Tom told her that I was an artist. But she keeps right on talking, saving me the trouble of an answer. She tells me she loves to draw pictures of little Scott Thomas. I should really come over sometime and see her pictures--especially the one she's got taped to her refrigerator--that's her favorite. We pass the building where Margery says she lives.

"Why don't you show me now?" I ask.

"We have no time--I have to pick my baby up from the sitter's before one."

"Your sitter's not at your apartment?"

She tells me the sitter lives in a motel on Lincoln Avenue. I know the place--it's a haven for transients and prostitutes. Margery explains that the sitter's father will be mad at her if she's late picking up her baby--this alleged sitter will miss a class. I don't know how to ask Margery why the sitter lives at this motel, just as I don't know how to ask her why her coat is so grimy, or why she's lying. I also don't know how to renege on my promise.

As we approach the Jewel, Margery asks me to guess her age. She looks a year or two older than me, 35 maybe, but I lie and say I can't guess ages. She tells me that she's "my age," 25, but looks older because of the hard life she has lived. "I used to have skin like you," she says, "until I got married." I stop thinking about backing out.

I'm writing a check at the Jewel's cashier window. Margery lights a cigarette, never letting the silence last longer than a few seconds. "But welfare's gonna pay for a whole new set of teeth--I think. And as soon as I'm full-time at the restaurant, I'm gonna go off welfare. But I can pay you back Friday, when the welfare check comes in. Or even Wednesday, if the restaurant pays me." I hand Margery an even $50, and she leads me toward the exit.

Somewhat confused, I ask her, "Don't you have to buy formula and diapers?"

Margery explains that she must buy these supplies at special stores in the area--a discount store for the diapers, a health food store for the formula. Her baby is allergic to regular formula, he can only drink goat's milk.

We arrive at the corner of Balmoral and Lincoln. I give her my address and phone number. She promises I will not have to wait past Friday. "I'm an honest person," she tells me. "Like my mother always said: 'A liar is a thief.'"

She is still in view, a half a block away, when I realize my foolishness. I imagine she is off to buy some heroin. Why didn't I think of this earlier? Although her details lacked credibility, I never doubted Margery's desperation. She wasn't an actress trying to get rich quick, she needed that money. I thought she was afraid of physical abuse, or the loss of her child--not anxious for a fix. But I am familiar with junkies and their compulsion to lie. My brother was chemically dependent. He died five years ago. His friends were addicts--I remember stories about one married couple who would sell their food stamps to buy dope. They had two preschool children.

Later that evening I am home alone, writing about Villard de Honnecourt and his drawings of things he did or didn't see. How many people did he fool? Margery never showed up to pick up the groceries as she had promised. I create new excuses for her--she had money left over and bought some cheap bread and peanut butter. She didn't want to burden me by visiting with the baby. I actually wonder if she is OK, or if she has been beaten by her husband, drug dealer, pimp--or perhaps by someone who is all three. I wonder if there is a baby. I wonder where she really lives. I wonder if she really is an addict, or if I'm only suspicious because of my brother. I wonder if she will overdose on the drugs she bought with the money I gave her.

It's difficult to concentrate on medieval cathedrals, so I decide to take a walk to clear my mind. I also want to pass the apartment building where Margery claimed to live. It is a balmy summer night, about 9:30; the sky has just turned pitch black. I enter the lobby of the big corner building--there is a Margery Davis listed on a mailbox. I feel relieved. I walk past the building slowly, trying to peek past curtains, searching for baby things. I turn the corner and see a porch full of young ruffians--burnouts--men and women. A young man is playing with a baby no older than three or four months, swinging it by its wrists over the railing.

About 1 AM I am lying in bed, unable to sleep. Tom consoles me with things like "She had me convinced," and "Don't worry, junkies have nine lives."

Days later, Tom tells me that because I am a feminist with a "grudge" against men, Margery pushed the right buttons. "You're not stupid," he says, "just a sucker for that abusive husband thing." When I tell other people about Margery, their responses vary. I hear "There's one born every minute," from some, and "I wish I had $50 to throw away" from people who own condos and BMWs. I remark to a socially conscious friend that Margery's story was perhaps too convoluted to be true. She responds, "People like that have complicated stories."

A week later I meet Margery Davis--the real Margery Davis, who answers the bell at the building where the stranger claimed to live. It is eight in the morning; she is wearing a housecoat over a slip and pantyhose--electric rollers in her hair. I begin explaining why I am at her door. Before I finish she yells for her roommate. "Hey, Debbie, you gotta hear this!" I tell the story to Debbie, while the real Margery delivers a never-ending chorus of I-told-you-so's. Apparently Debbie was at work in a real estate office last Saturday when she got her pitch from the fake Margery. Debbie had cash at home, and since it was near lunchtime, took the fake Margery back to her apartment. By the time the stranger approached me, she already had a new alias and $30 in her pocket.

I return the macaroni to Tammy, and tell her how I discovered "Margery's" story was a fake.

"Are you sure?" She is shocked. I ask her if she likes canned Chinese food and generic tomato sauce. She is surprised that I'd give them up. She asks, "Are you sure?"

Two weeks later a friend at work tells me that her sister gave $20 to a haggard young woman who approached her office with a story about a baby, diapers, formula, and social workers. And my friend Betty also tells me of a woman matching Margery's description who collected over $75 from the people at her office--four miles away from my home.

Through a series of phone calls, I learn that the Salvation Army in Uptown does give out diapers and formula to needy women--but only Monday through Friday. "Margery" was right about this. Catholic Charities is also closed Saturdays, providing formula (not diapers) during the week. I was told that they would never offer a crib to a woman who needed more necessary provisions. The Department of Human Services is closed Saturdays, but does have an emergency number. Although it only provides formula, it will refer a person to a hospital for cloth diapers.

Three weeks later, grades are in--my paper about Villard de Honnecourt, medieval liar, earned me an A-. Tom and I are going out to celebrate the end of the quarter. Our favorite Cantonese restaurant is within walking distance. It's the magic hour, not dark yet, the sky a cobalt blue. Perhaps I'm just imagining it, but I think I see "Margery" walking ahead of us. We walk a little faster; I can see her greasy black ponytail in the twilight. "Margery!" I shout, as we catch up. She swishes around, inhales a gust of air, and exhales: "I was just at your house--you weren't home!"

I find that all I can do is play along. I figure a liar will never admit she is lying.

She walks faster. Begins a slow jog. We try to keep up. "I can't talk now," she says, "I'm late for church."

"Wait a minute," I say. "How's the baby?"

"He's just fine," she says, quickening her gait. "He's already gained seven pounds."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzeberg.

Add a comment