Gloria is hell-bent on teaching me how to sing.
…and the livin’ is easy…she trills, in tune, but with a wispy score. Once upon a time, the petite blonde reaped applause as an opera singer, even sang at the Met, but all the glamour faded after her husband strangled her, crushing her larynx.
I join in, So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.
Gloria sees a chance to repay me for my kindness by offering me singing lessons in exchange for staying in my garage. My old, crummy, windowless, drafty garage. With a fancy Malibu address, yes, but its leaky roof shapes the rain into an indoor waterfall.
Gloria showed up in my life at sunset. Always at sunset. As soon as the sun was about to dip into the Pacific, Gloria’s white mini-van appeared on the cliffs. Her 2006 Toyota Sienna, impeccably maintained bar a few bumps, always parked where I walk my dogs. I fretted over why she had to park just there, in the no waiting zone. She never hopped out, always remained at the wheel, her face craning into the sun through the open car window, seemingly rapt, eyes half-closed. I mistook her for a neighbor who steals a few moments for herself after a long day at work.
After a few weeks, we began to wave and greet each other, “Hi, how are you?”
Until one summer afternoon when she stood in front of her car on the bluffs. “Are these sharks?!” she shouted excitedly and pointed to a parade of grey flippers plowing through the surf. “Dolphins!” I yelled back. She wore white summer jeans, her blonde curls loosely tied back, her naked feet in clean, white sandals.
I remember the day so well because it was the last day I saw her in good shape. From this day on, everything tumbled downhill. After the day she saw sharks.
Now I often find her crying, her eyes swollen red. “What’s up?” — “Nothing. I’m fine,” she deflects. The console of her van brims with stained Starbucks cups and rumpled images of saints from assorted religions. It slowly dawns on me that this van with the blue handicapped placard is her home. She is homeless, one of a half-dozen ever-changing shadows that disappear at dusk into their vehicles alongside Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Everybody in Los Angeles is familiar with these rust buckets and their human content. If a car stops working, the next stop is the damp concrete under a bridge. Increasingly I encounter women, mostly elderly, whose puny pension doesn’t pay for any kind of roof over their head. I guess Gloria to be in her mid-sixties.
But one morning I walk my dogs, and her van hovers on the slope, its hood sticking into traffic. She looks like she hasn’t slept a hot second, babbles incoherently and can’t recall her own name. The battery is empty, in her and her car. For the first time I squeeze behind the wheel to try to start the engine. Behind the tinted windows, the van is stuffed to the roof with dog beds, t-shirts, food scraps. The aroma of urine and rotten fish makes me gag. “Where do you sleep?” I thought she’d at least have a mattress in the back. She points to the driver’s seat, wedged all the way to the steering wheel. “Here.” — “But you can’t even lie down!?” The van is too crowded to fold down the seat. Her legs are blue and swollen to double their normal size.
I call AAA. When she shows the AAA mechanic her driver’s license, I peek over his shoulder: She is 78 years old. 78 and on the street! Her van is equipped with a tail lift for a wheelchair. Until recently, she was wheelchair-bound, due to a broken back thanks to a meltdown of her bipolar ex-husband who threw her down the stairs in front of their kids in a fit of jealous rage.
So, she has kids? Yes, two, but they’re “of no use,” I learn.
I’m alarmed. Recently a senior in our quarter caused three deaths by turning his vehicle straight into the contraflow. When an elderly lady can’t spell her name, she probably shouldn’t hurtle down the freeways in LA. “Why don’t you get some rest?” I hear myself say and steer her van into my garage.
While Gloria falls asleep in her van (on the driver’s seat, she insists), I call the homeless’ help hotline. The deep baritone on the answering machine assures they’ll call right back. Recently a “task force” was established, I read in the local gazette, with half a million dollars in donations. We’ll surely find help there, right?
I now have an old-timer in my garage, a lovely, endearing granny, and not just anyone! When she emerges, strengthened by a cup of strong coffee, black, and a bowl of broccoli soup, she starts unpacking pieces of her life’s puzzle. Her Ma might have been good-lookin’, but her step-dad wasn’t rich. He was only rich in cruelty. She hails from Arizona, where she found fame as a beauty queen, later as a dancer and singer, then a modest income as a yoga teacher and manager of a bed & breakfast. She has worked all her life, but now her pension amounts to $875 — too little to live.
Well, she hints, maybe I should have married Elvis after all.
She rummages in a black briefcase and produces three black and white photos. It’s Gloria, clearly, just 60 years younger. A classic, blonde, blue-eyed beauty, fit for the cover of Glamour. This is how she shone when she met Elvis.
She escaped the hell that other people call “family” by running away with the first best guy who didn’t beat her. He landed a job in Hollywood, a young start-up in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency. Colonel Parker, Elvis’s legendary manager, sent the wholesome young fellow to Elvis, who hung out alone, bored to death, in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, so that the young star wouldn’t tumble into any jiggery-pokery. When the mailman took his Gloria to meet Elvis at the Wilshire in 1956, Elvis fell fast. “You did pretty good with her. I’d like a girl like that.” Gloria says that Elvis tried to talk her out of marrying her soon-to-be-husband and into marrying him instead, but Gloria chose the mailman. It was love.
When she goes to sleep, I scour old archives on the internet. The Elvis-story surely must be a chimera. I’ve already met Jesus and Napoleon on the streets, so Elvis’s love interest is not much of a stretch. But it turns out to be true. I happen across an old interview with her first husband, in which he says: “Every girl he had a relationship with, was a direct copy of Gloria.” The mailman then became Elvis’s fixer, long after he and Gloria split up. “Now I knew the type he liked. Priscilla, Ginger, they looked exactly like her.”
Gloria’s beauty still echoes in her high cheekbones, the full smile, the blonde curls.
I’m not sure marrying Elvis would have made her happier than marrying husband no one, two, three, and four, but I am quite certain Elvis’s ex wouldn’t have spent the last five and a half years shitting in a plastic bucket on the parking lot in front of the local library. That’s where she parked her van next to the other homeless, the crack addicts and street ruffians, the assembly of outcasts society has no use and no homes for. That’s where she decided she couldn’t possibly stay in the wheelchair. “Too vulnerable,” she realized. Once a homeless veteran crawled after her into the van. Twice she was robbed. “So I mustered all my willpower and learned to walk again.” She grew up a Christian Scientist and still strongly believes that praying to God heals all sickness. God will save her. God will get her a beach house.
I round up some friends. The next day the four of us salvage, among other things: nine dog beds, twelve blankets from the One-Dollar-Store, two dozen coffee cups, half-empty tuna cans, moldy bananas, soiled underwear, paper toilet seat covers, many many bags, books, juice bottles, hundreds, if not thousands of crumpled pages with handwritten notes and two knee-high Snoopys who chirp Laura Branigan‘s disco-pop version of Glooo-ri-a at the push of a button.
Glo-ri-a, you’re always on the run now…
Running after somebody, you gotta get him somehow
At least she’s got space to stretch out in the back now, wrapped in my Himalayan sleeping bag.
Never before did I realize that the homeless can suffer from abundance, from having too many things, too many false eyelashes, too many half-empty bottles of nail polish in trendy pink, too many tattered Chanel purses the wealthy housewives of Malibu bequeathed to goodwill. What’s missing: affection, someone who cares, a room of her own.
The dog beds, by the way, have never met a paw. Gloria has no pets. She has perfected the art of rendering herself invisible. In the long nights on the parking lot, she covered herself so shrewdly under the inversed beds that anyone shining a torch into her van only saw black night, no face.
On the yellow pages, lined, she jots down shrapnels of her life. Memories of the dolphin blue beachfront villa she once rented. Of the classic, poppy red Mercedes convertibles she collected in Beverly Hills. Of her escapes to the ashram in India, where she learned to meditate and chant mantras. Her plan is to finish a memoir and buy a villa in Malibu from the proceeds. A book author myself, I don’t have the heart to tell her that only Oprah earns enough royalties to afford an oceanfront estate.
It takes me ten days to notice that I never see her with a toothbrush. “Don’t you have a toothbrush?” Yes, somewhere in the van. I’ve nicknamed the white van “the black hole.” Unfathomable how much disappears into its innards. So she hasn’t brushed her teeth in weeks but is too shy to say anything.
When I ask her what she needs, she waves me off. I buy her diapers for seniors. The next time I take her shopping, I catch her with baby diapers, later with puppy pads, which, of course, both are useless for a grown-up hiney.
Gloria relishes my cooking. Her favorites are grilled salmon and prawns, upscale goodies. When I take her to the organic grocer, she chooses the coconut shrimps at the hot counter for $12 a pound. Her sparkle is worth double that sum. She repays me with singing lessons and anecdotes.
Should I let her move in? Fully? Not only share my apartment and bathroom during the day but at night? Put up a bed so she can finally throw away that disgusting bucket in the van that she fills every night? Would she ever move out again? She’s scared of my big dog, she says, and anxious she wouldn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Thus she wants to stay in the van. I’m relieved and struggle with shame all the same. Relief and shame about my cowardliness beat a double whammy in my chest.
Suddenly I find myself making decisions over the life of a total stranger, decisions only next of kin would make. I search for doctors who take her Medicaid-card, fill out applications for food stamps, impersonate her online to complete forms. Even when we just venture out for a brief doctor’s visit, Gloria insists on pulling her trolly, haul at least one or two blankets, two alternative outfits on hangers, and she balances several incontinence pads in her hands like delicate orchids. The doctor at urgent care diagnoses a badly healed hip fracture, lesions in her spine, complex trauma, dementia. After she loses her checkbook for the third time, I take custody of her checks. I’m a custodian nobody has hired nor authorized. Gloria is completely at my mercy. I could take her last penny, and nobody would stop me.
Finally, the social worker from the homeless hotline returns my umpteenth call. She’s cordial, but fresh out of school and green as a spring shoot. She constantly sets me on the wrong track, because she doesn’t know any better herself. She and one colleague are caring for 161 homeless people. If you’re brave enough to do the math: subtracting the time she loses to the madness of bureaucracy, she has five minutes to spare, per client, per week. Gloria alone is a half-time job.
More than 88,000 sleep rough in Los Angeles alone. A third of the drifters are women. Many homeless charities skim off the “cream,” the young willing to work, who can still turn the corner into a citizen life. Women like Gloria fall through the cracks: too old to stand in line for hours at the soup kitchen; too ashamed to beg for help at the food stamp agency, too traumatized to brave one of the homeless shelters where rape, theft, and brutality are common. (And even if she wanted to, the city has four times more homeless than shelter beds.) She’s also too proud. She huffs at my idea to start a crowdfunding campaign. Gloria insists nobody can detect her homeless status as long as she dyes her grey curls blonde and drapes her t-shirts meticulously on hangers in the van.
Instead of researching my articles and books, I busy myself researching “the system.” How do I erase $900 worth of traffic tickets she accumulated? Where can we get an X-Ray for her broken hip? I call every homeless charity I find on the internet, speak with innumerable amiable social workers, and every.single.one.of.them. ushers me on, to another charity, where I begin anew. If a reporter with a Ph.D., research experience, and a laptop can’t untangle this bureaucracy bedlam, how can a 78-year-old, who’s never been on the internet, stand a chance?
“Stop worrying!” she berates me. “You worry too much! Just be still, and clarity will come.”
But there is nobody else but me to worry about her. On good days she sings and dances on my balcony, pirouetting an echo of the dance routine she once perfected on Broadway. Some afternoons she walks the runway for me (aka my lopsided walkway with the peeled off paint), and models dresses she fished out of the jumble at the thrift store. Her favorite is a tight, plum red cocktail dress with a deep neckline that shows her cleavage. “Well,” I joke, inappropriately, “If you put yourself on the street in that outfit, you’ll surely find a ride.” She laughs her little girl giggle.
On the worst days she never even leaves the van and whimpers in agony. The back, the legs, the joints, the hips. She declines any painkillers, saying she doesn’t tolerate them, not even an Advil.
We bond over our love of music. I take her to the advance premiere of La La Land, the musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. “I have a date with Miss Arizona!” I boast and cringe only slightly when she insists on wearing her dilapidated slippers to walk the red carpet on my arm. She gleams through the entire movie, tears of joy on her cheeks.
These are the moments when it’s all worth it, but she also pushes me to my breaking point. The wee hours are the pee hours when she cheerfully presents her freshly wetted leggings. On the worst days she asks me to scrape off the diarrhea. “Hu hu, I made a boo-boo!” she crows like a toddler. I have never physically hurt a being in my entire life, but I fight the urge to strangle Gloria. When I sacrificed yet another workday to clean her van and her garage, and she announces two mornings later that she “worked all night,” it means that she pulled all the trash out of the garbage again. I suddenly understand how nurses in a senior home can grow abrasive.
For my own grandmother, I was not there when she would have needed me in the last two years of her life. I was a busy TV reporter then and hardly ever managed to drive the 500 kilometers to visit her on weekends. Gloria reminds me of my granny, with her dimples and her endearing habit of pinching my cheek. With every pinch, I’m pinched by the guilt to have bailed on my own granny.
I have never seen my grandma naked. Now I pull down the panties of a stranger so the doctor can inject a painkiller into her spine. I stroke her naked legs while she’s wedged in the MRI machine. I fill hot baths for her and help her wash. I know more intimate details from her life than from the life of my own mother.
When I see Trump and his minions celebrate cutting Medicare for the poor, I not only think of the 22 million people who will lose their health insurance, but the statistic now has a face: Gloria, 78, five and a half years on the street.
Twice the social worker swings by, asks Gloria a few questions, and disappears again. I need help! I repeat on her answering machine. What about the food stamps? She rarely calls back.
Gloria is many Glorias. This tiny person harbors a multitude of personalities. There is the charming, witty Gloria who cracks me up with her anecdotes. There’s the opera buff, who jumps to life when I turn up the volume of La Traviata. The spiritual Gloria has lived in India, like I have, loves yoga and meditation and constantly churns the mantra ring on her finger. There’s the street Gloria who drops her pants in a jiffy, faster than I can turn my head, to pee in a bucket. The diva who once beckoned an armada of servants and easily grows indignant when I haven’t ironed her favorite blouse to her satisfaction. Wrinkles are her enemies. Absolutely no wrinkles! Everything has to be spic and span. The last thing she wants is to be identified as homeless. Therefore she insists she must wear the skiing jacket my friend gave her, even on the hottest days, because it is her only coat without stains. I don’t have the heart to break it to her that she looks homeless from a mile away when she shuffles down the road in her slippers and her skiing jacket. Real shoes are too painful.
For 18 years she lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, third floor, with an ocean view. No wonder the new Russian owners wanted to increase the rent tenfold. I believe her when she tells me how they forced her out of the building by hiring a Russian thug who threatened to rough her up. But their fury might also have been stoked by the fact that they had to hire a professional service for hoarders to clean the trashed rooms.
Our neighbors spot her rummaging through the trash cans at night. One neighbor digs out his keys and scratches his displeasure into the side of my car. The real estate broker across the street boasts she discovered the hiding place of a homeless man and destroyed all his belongings, including his mattress. “I burned it!” she gloats. “That was probably all he owned,” I retort. But the homeless sink the real estate value, sure. Now we still wave to each other, displaying the bare minimum of neighborly courtesy, but we stopped talking.
Gloria’s brother, himself over 70, confirms on the phone from Arizona: Yes, mom died early from cancer, and the stepfather beat the daylights out of the three kids almost daily while plastered. When they were lucky, he only used his fists; on bad days, he cudgeled them with belts, broomsticks, and chairs, whatever came handy. “Gloria had it worst. He beat all of us, but her he raped too.” Gloria saved his life, the brother recounts. The older sister ran away with him before their father could batter them to the grave. That’s typical, the social worker confirms: 80 to 90 percent of homeless have experienced abuse and violence in their childhood, especially the women. She can’t recall a single female client who wasn’t abused as a child, and then again on the streets.
After two months, the nonprofit sends a psychologist, the first step to access the “system.” The young blonde in her high heels and jeans shorts keeps her eyes firmly fixed on her smartphone and rarely looks up from the screen. Blondie asks me to leave my living room, but Gloria clinches my arm as if I were the last lifebuoy on the Titanic.
By now I know the lowest nadirs of this biography. I know that just mentioning her stepfather or ex no 3 terrifies Gloria into a stupor and leaves her trembling, barely able to speak.
But now this young thing drills questions into my Gloria, insists on dates, times, facts of the abuse — as if we were in a courtroom where these details might indeed be decisive, and not in the middle of a psychological evaluation to determine what kind of help she might need. The rapes? When exactly was that? “Since I was little,” Gloria whimpers, “since I remember.”
Upon questioning, Blondie admits she has not yet graduated. She is the intern. Who is being unleashed onto a heavily traumatized, fragile senior. Anybody who knows a little about trauma psychology is aware that most survivors remember faces, expressions, pain, but the merciless demands for precise details, dates, times, flame the traumata into vivid colors. Even after Gloria has long collapsed into a heap on the sofa and sobs, “I can’t go on anymore,” even after I intercepted several times — “Is this really necessary?” — Blondie continues to interrogate without mercy or empathy as if questioning a used car dealer about the number of previous owners.
Under tears, Gloria recounts again how her husband beat her on the head with the back of his pistol, how her daughter wiped up the blood. To which Blondie chirps: “So, how was the family dynamic?“
I keep Gloria in a hug as if I could be the shield that protects her from this goony hail of questions. Gloria talks about her hysterectomy. After which Blondie asks, “Are you pregnant?” Seriously, she asks a 78-year-old woman without a uterus if she is pregnant. “We have to work through the questions,” Blondie urges. Now I urge her too, out the door.
When I complain to the homeless charity about the “psychologist’s” visit, I am told I need to be grateful I scored an interview at all. Does a human really have to lose their dignity when they lose their housing?
At night I bawl in my bed. I wail because I feel sorry for her. Because I don’t do enough. Because these damned bastards ruined her life, and nobody held them accountable. Because I can’t see a way out. Will I fare like the British writer Alan Bennett who towed a lady in a van into his yard where she stayed for 15 years?
After three months I hit a breaking point. I bother the social worker with daily calls until she brings a permission slip for a motel in the valley. Gloria stalls. She does not want to leave the ocean. Because the social worker and I agree that Gloria can’t live by herself anymore, the social worker organizes a place in a senior home in Pasadena. Gloria yells, she’d rather kill herself than rot in some Godforsaken home so many miles away from the sea. I empathize, I really do, but what Gloria wants does not exist, at least not in her price range: a house at the ocean.
I show her the real estate ads: The cheapest beach house is seven million dollars, the most affordable apartment with a peekaboo ocean view still costs several thousand dollars a month rent.
“You shall see!” she trumpets, stubbornly, her eyes searching for signs in the sky. “The birds will help me.“ She talks to the gulls, the crows, the parrots. When they squawk back, she takes their screams as God’s exclamation points.
Then my neighbor, a beauty surgeon on his way to the early shift, opens the garage door at half past four in the morning just while Gloria is taking a dump over her bucket. In a fit of rage, he threatens to rat me out to our landlord. Gloria and I have our first real fight. “I can’t lose my apartment because of you!” I yell. “I’m leaving!!!“ she yells back. Because the van doesn’t start, she grabs her trolly and starts trekking down the road.
I call the social worker on her cell and plead and weep until she comes and collects Gloria from the street. She takes her where Gloria refused to go: the homeless shelter in Santa Monica. The shelter looks almost glamorous from the outside; brand new, freshly renovated with a million dollars in private donations that paid for original abstract art on the white walls, its own movie theater, and occupational therapy including art classes and meditation. A prestige project, the mayor came to cut the ribbon in person. But skirting the rules, Gloria smuggles me upstairs where the homeless sleep: men and women both, without full dividers that block preening eyes. She does not even have a curtain in her metal cubicle, anybody who walks by sees her changing clothes. At night 85 people sigh, scream, snore in the same room. One man yells he will kill everybody. Gloria says she is terrified and can’t find a second of sleep. I wouldn’t either. This is no place for a heavily traumatized woman, but it is the best there is in LA.
Gloria goes on the lam several times. Twice I place a missing person request with the local police, twice I am faced with a bored cop who can barely be bothered. A homeless person went back on the street? Not something that gets him going. It’s a relief when Gloria shows up with her suitcase at my door and wants to move back into her van. When I tell her I was so worried about her I placed a missing person alert, she tears up and breaks down in sobs. “You missed me? You really missed me?” She can’t believe someone really cares about her. I cook her salmon and drive her back to the shelter, with a queasy conscience. She’s already filled her tiny cubicle, barely bigger than her cot, with used coffee cups, puppy pictures, and yellow lined notes, just like her van. Once she throws a bottle at a social worker, a glass bottle! It barely misses the man and shatters on the wall. “Usually we show people the door when they misbehave like this,” the social worker confesses, “but with Gloria….” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but I know what she means. Gloria’s charm has won them over, but they also know what “showing her the door” would entail: Nobody thinks she would survive sleeping on the street for any duration of time again, especially without her van, and I’m not giving her the keys. If she kills or injures someone in traffic, it would be my fault too.
Finally, after five months of tears and tantrums, the social worker gets the application approved. Because of her age, her frailty, and the many years on the street, Gloria will get a subsidized apartment. And not any apartment! Since big developers have to donate a few new apartments to some homeless, Gloria gets the worst apartment in the best part of town: a tiny studio with a view of a wall, but just a block from the beach in trendy Venice. Designer swing sets sway in the lobby; her kitchen counter is genuine marble. I can’t fathom her luck; Gloria gripes she really wants to be in Malibu.
The social workers promise to take care of everything. But when I visit Gloria five days after she moved in, she sits in front of an empty fridge. Seventeen ginormous IKEA-boxes (in which the social workers ordered her basic equipment) block the path to the bathroom. Did they think a 78-year-old would screw together the IKEA bed on her own? Or walk half a mile to the nearest supermarket? She subsisted the last five days on Gatorade and muesli bars from the artsy movie theater next door.
But then Gloria takes me to the roof terrace on the 11th floor of her fancy building, and there it is, exactly how she dreamed it: We see the sun dip into the Pacific, and Gloria glows. “See!?” she triumphs. “I told you everything will work out!”
Summertime,… I hum, and she tunes in, and the livin’ is easy…
Ed. Note: Gloria’s name has been changed for to protect her privacy.