By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
age 19, wedding day
On December 12, 1948, Nancy Schorn was born into privilege. Her father was the chief financial officer of the plumbing conglomerate American Standard, and her mother was active in charitable work. The family lived on a five-acre estate on Long Island’s North Shore, in Cold Spring Harbor, a town not unlike Daisy Buchanan‘s West Egg: Nancy was a member of three yacht and country clubs, and, like Daisy, was considered by one admirer to have been “the most beautiful person I had ever seen . . . she had almost an aristocratic air of confidence and elegance.” She attended the college-preparatory Westover School for Girls, and later enrolled at Boston University, where she met and married an MIT engineering student who would go on to an esteemed career at USC. She lived in Europe. She had a son. Upon her parents’ deaths, she inherited a great deal of money.
On December 29, 2000, Nancy was sleeping adjacent to a parking lot near the Santa Monica Pier, where she was run over by a first-time driver who claimed she swerved to miss a cat. Nancy suffered a compound fracture of the right leg, a crushed skull and the loss of an eye.
Nancy was sleeping by the beach because she‘s homeless, and she’s homeless because she‘s a chronic alcoholic. For the better part of 20 years, she’s been one of Santa Monica‘s indigent population, one of the thousands of panhandlers you might pass by and think, What a dirtbag or, if you are feeling charitable, There but for the grace of God. While even the ungenerous among us understand that people wind up on the streets for myriad reasons, we do tend to distinguish them, perhaps in a bid at self-protection, as organically different from ourselves. The filth, the aimlessness, allow us to objectify them as “other” at best, disposable at worst.
To most passersby, Nancy is little more than a fleeting sidewalk annoyance -- toss her a quarter and forget about her. But what about those who don’t have the luxury of forgetting? Those who live with an intimate awareness of her past as well as her present? Those who tried to save her from herself, and who were abandoned by her? The pain Nancy has visited upon herself is exceeded, perhaps, by what she‘s visited upon others.
“You don’t have a few bucks on you, do you?” Accepting a cigarette instead, Nancy tears off the filter while taking the summer sun in the concrete courtyard of Harbor Convalescent Hospital. At 100 pounds, she‘s a tiny thing, swimming in the only clothes she has, a pair of cut-off sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt with flowers on it. Seven months after the accident, she’s still in a wheelchair, her leg immobilized by an external fixator, the bones held in place by steel pins driven directly into her shin and thigh. Through her lank gray hair, one can see a road map of stitches.
“My scalp is like the Rocky Mountains.” She cackles lightly, her voice scorched with nicotine. “My cheekbones are supposed to be parallel. I don‘t really have much of a mouth left. I lost teeth.”
Nancy’s remaining eye, an intense ice-blue, is engaged and animated. When asked about the damaged eye, she lifts the black patch. It‘s a puckered hole.
“It’s dead, there‘s nothing they can do about it,” she says dismissively, waving her hand. “I don’t need very much. The treatment for [the leg] is dumping hydrogen peroxide on it, that‘s it. I get a minimal amount of painkillers here, Tylenol 3s. Not enough.” Nancy draws deeply on her cigarette, and her eye takes on the mischievous cast of a little girl who knows she’s asking for something naughty. “What I want is Percocet.”
What she really wants is a drink, preferably E&J brandy. “I drank for about two weeks here in the hospital. It was easy. Just ask someone, ‘Are you going to the store?’” She cackles again. “But I got caught, and threatened with being outed, outsky, out, out, hmm. So I quit. Now I got about 54 days.”
A spooky ululation comes from a corner room. Nancy shakes her head.
“That woman right there will make that sound if anyone touches her. She doesn‘t speak; she’s fed through a tube. She‘s been here six years.” Nancy glances at the only other people in the courtyard, two young men in wheelchairs, one with all his toes amputated, the other attached to a portable dialysis machine and a Walkman, which he listens to with his eyes closed. “The company here is bad. I have two roommates. One is Alzheimer’s, and the other is a Mongoloid. It‘s impossible to communicate with them. It’s hell.”
While a place to sleep and regular meals in a fairly nice facility paid for by Medi-Cal might seem utopian compared to the streets, to Nancy, hell is being cooped up.
“I got used to living outside,” she says with a shrug. “They say if you don‘t get your butt off the street in a year, it starts getting to you. It’s true. I decided to do it for one more year, then one more year. You don‘t want to leave; you don’t want to be under any restrictions; you‘re used to not having any bills to pay, and no real responsibilities. The weather of course you learn to deal with, and food and all that isn’t a real problem unless you make it one. Clothing‘s easy. All that basic survival stuff is no big deal. The real problem is money, always money.”
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