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.”
Something Nancy, before the age of 30, never had to trouble herself with. She married Michael Safonov in 1968, and was supported by him throughout his tenure in the Navy, during which time Nancy, and later their newborn son, traveled with him, until one day in 1975.
“We moved back to Jacksonville, where Mike was stationed, and it’s weird, because that‘s when I started drinking,” says Nancy, picking tobacco off her tongue and, since she has few remaining teeth, giving the lopsided grin of a stroke victim. “We had a garage apartment behind a house that was occupied by four or five different guys, and they were always drinking and partying and stuff, and here I am with a baby, and I said, ’Damn, it looks like they‘re having a lot of fun.’ So I hired a baby sitter one day and bought a six-pack of Budweiser. Took me all day to drink it. And when I woke up the next morning I didn‘t have a hangover or nothing, but I decided beer wasn’t very ladylike, so I bought a bottle of white wine, and drank half of it that night. Still no hangover. By the end of the month I was drinking a lot. Before then, I had drunk nothing to speak of. I was the kind of person who would hold a drink. Mike said, ‘I didn’t know you liked to drink so much.‘ He didn’t say anything more than that. Then I got into hard liquor.”
Mike accepted a teaching post at USC, and the family moved to Los Angeles. “We rented a house in Mar Vista, and then we bought it. We stayed there two or three years. I had gotten alcohol poisoning a couple of times. My husband put me in the hospital twice, and when the second hospitalization didn‘t take, he told me, ’I don‘t feel I have any other choice but to file for formal separation,’ which in California is nine months, ‘and if you haven’t cleaned up your act and stuff, then we‘ll be divorced.’ And that‘s what happened. Did I try to fight the divorce? Sort of, but I never stopped drinking, so it was hopeless. My mom had passed away, so I had enough money and assets and stuff like that, so it didn’t faze me. I figured, I‘ve got money, I’ve got a VW bus, I‘ve got a boat, I’ve got everything that I need — ‘I can drink in peace’ kind of thinking.” She grins the lopsided grin. “That‘s as debauched as I was.”
She got an apartment in Santa Monica, and began several years of steady drinking.
“I’m not what you call a social drinker. I didn‘t really have any friends. It would never occur to me to go to a bar and spend money on drink after drink after drink, when I could go buy a bottle and go somewhere and that’s that. I drank at home. And . . . it just gave me a relief. Relief. I was a lot more relaxed, and happier. The hangovers were bad, though, very bad. I made the money last two years, and then I started to sell things. First the jewelry, then the silverware, the boat, the VW bus. It was scary, seeing all this stuff go, but I just couldn‘t deal with it. Then I started stealing. Stealing booze. I got evicted. I picked up a really bad boyfriend — he was on PCP. We wound up living in his car. I was really badly beaten [by him], and one morning I decided, ’I‘m not coming back to this car,’ so I just kept walking away. Walking, walking, walking, through the alleys; some guy gave me five bucks, he was out gardening. Then the cops picked me up. I had no shoes, no ID, no money, and I‘m drinking. And I was sitting on the storm drain across from the house I used to own in Mar Vista.”
The police picked her up and sent her to Camarillo State Hospital. “I was penniless at this point, and my husband was on sabbatical in England. He met a woman over there, a divorcee with two kids, and they got married and had another child. My son was about 7 at the time. It was . . . okay. I knew I wasn’t really able to . . . I didn‘t really want him. I didn’t want to be a full-time mom, so I didn‘t see him very much. And I disrespected the fact that [Mike] remarried, and they had a child together. I didn’t feel comfortable at all about trying to call or anything. It just seemed the more appropriate way, you know. I needed to be on my own two feet, anyway.”
Nancy‘s third trip through rehab was the charm. For nine years, she stayed sober, kept an apartment, began sporadic contact with her son, and had a series of low-paying jobs, the last of which was at a flower shop.
“And then one night, I was waiting to close up the flower shop. I was looking through a magazine, and there was a full-page ad for Martini & Rossi vermouth, and I thought, ’I‘m gettin’ some.‘” She decapitates another cigarette. “I bought a half a bottle, and the next night I bought a full bottle. Finally, the manager gave me a leave of absence to sober up, and that didn’t work, and that was that.”
P.O.V.: The Husband
“I had no idea where she was until I heard from her social worker,” says Nancy‘s former husband, Michael Safonov, a professor of electrical engineering at USC. His office is on the third floor of the Hughes Aircraft Building of Electrical Engineering, a stark warren whose walls are affixed with Dilbert and Gary Larson cartoons. Michael is a tall, soft-spoken man who emits patience; when discussing Nancy, whom he visited on Mother’s Day, his chest caves.
“It was the first time I‘d seen her in many years,” he says. “It was really a shock to see, not only the injuries, but also other things that have transpired in between. She looks as bad as I could imagine.”
He laughs lightly, almost apologetically. “She was a living on the edge all the time. I realize that . . . I understand that I can’t help her, you know. She can be helped, but she won‘t. She defies help.”
Asked when he first met Nancy, Michael is silent for a very long time. When he does speak, it’s as though a wound he‘s been stanching for many years has hemorrhaged.
“I was just 17 years old when I met Nancy, and she was, too. I thought she was wonderful. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. You wouldn’t believe from [seeing] the person she is now how beautiful she was then . . . She had led an incredibly privileged life. I was raised in Pacific Palisades, so I knew a lot of people who were well-off, but Nancy had that sort of New York, Eastern panache about her. I wasn‘t interested in the fact that she was wealthy at all, but I was very impressed with the way she carried herself, she was quite elegant. And so, it became my obsession to make her my girlfriend.”
He clears his throat, and continues in a tone both sad and astonished. “All the time she was at B.U., projecting an air of confidence, it turned out that she wasn’t doing anything in school. She was turning in no homework assignments, skipping classes. We were staying up all night, you know, just to be together, and then I would work all day on my homework and she‘d go home and sleep.”
He laughs lightly again. “She flunked out at the end of the first year, which was a total surprise to me, because I had no idea, you know? Within a year after that, we married, over the objections of her father, who was always trying to prevent it. I think he probably felt, you know, that I wasn’t aristocratic enough for his daughter. To him, it was very important that somebody should come from a family with money. He didn‘t see that in a kid on a scholarship at MIT, which was what I was, so he fought it all the way.
”In Boston, Nancy worked as an office assistant at various places, and eventually she got a job as a secretary at MIT, in the biology department, working with a Nobel laureate and a Nobel laureate-to-be — Salvador Luria and David Baltimore, who is now the president of Caltech — so she had some interesting company in those days. But it was the time of the Vietnam War, and they were very radical over there, especially in the biology department. Over in the electrical-engineering side of the university, where I worked, people didn’t worry so much about those kinds of things — they were more concerned with research and mathematics and things like that — so it began to build a little bit of tension between us. I didn‘t feel that way about the war. I felt sort of neutral. And when it came time and I got a very low draft number, I didn’t run away to Canada, I didn‘t declare myself a conscientious objector, I signed up to join the Navy as an officer, so that was kind of a blow to Nancy. She stuck by me; she traveled around the Mediterranean while I was on an aircraft carrier there. Then our son, Alex, was born, and she traveled around Europe to be with me, but she had a seething anger about the Navy. It became a crutch, a focal point, a ’You‘re away from me and I hate you for that,’ and she began drinking to help ease the pain when we were separated. a
“She made up her mind, she just wasn‘t going to travel around anymore. She was going to stay in Jacksonville, where I’d been stationed. And apparently she began drinking because she got courage, it made it easy for her to go out and meet people.”
Michael looks out his office window for a bit. “Anyway, she met people, and she took a number of lovers and so forth when I was away. This was the ‘70s, free-love time, sort of these utopian ideas. Instinctively it didn’t feel right, but somehow you‘re supposed to do that, because it’s modern times or something, or seems like it, so I didn‘t make that much of a fuss about it. But she got involved with the most awful people, people in motorcycle gangs and . . . She was caring for our infant son, who while she was off doing things was on his own, and he shouldn’t have been. He was quite neglected, I‘m afraid, while I was off at sea.”
He pauses, and when he begins speaking again, does not stop for 40 minutes.
“Anyway, I didn’t want to see my marriage wrecked, so we got back together again. I had two more years at MIT to finish my Ph.D., so we moved up to Boston, into university campus housing for married students. It was a nice little apartment complex with a playground in the middle for the small children. It should have been really a good place for us to be at the time, but at that point it became clear that she was really having a problem drinking. She would drink almost a bottle of liquor a day. Usually hiding it, you know, because we didn‘t have that much money and the expense would be obvious. She would sell things, my books and silverware and stuff like that, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and she‘d buy herself alcohol. I gather that our son was . . . somewhat neglected. At one point some social workers came around and complained that he’d been left outside in the icy weather without a jacket and so forth. Our son spent some time at a preschool, and they noticed that he was a bit slow learning to speak. I suspect it‘s because he was left alone so much of the time, he just didn’t have anyone to talk to, because he was always locked in his room. Well, not locked in, there was a door open, but he was off by himself most of the time.
”By the way, Nancy‘s father was an alcoholic in a sense. Not a debilitative alcoholic, he just couldn’t keep away from drinking in the evening; if he didn‘t drink, he just became unbearable, nervous and angry. So he was always drinking, but he was always under control, too. In most respects, Nancy was a functioning alcoholic at that point, too, except she didn’t have any function to do. She stayed at home, she didn‘t have to work, she was supported.
“Anyway, when we came to California, over the next few years things really began deteriorating rapidly. She would just consume enormous amounts of alcohol. There would be times I would come home and I’d find her, it was like she had died or something, she couldn‘t move, or be awakened. It was really scary at times. Then she’d get into this routine where every day she would sleep until noon, then she would drink again and become really euphoric by late afternoon, and then a couple of hours later she‘d become an angry tyrant, screaming and throwing things. That would persist well into the night, probably until 2 or 3 in the morning; I wouldn’t be allowed to sleep. She would always be attacking me, throwing plates and knives, you name it, anything she could get her hands on. I‘d finally give up and pack it in and go rent a motel room just so I could sleep.
”Eventually, it became clear something had to be done, and I wasn’t sure what, but I got myself an apartment and moved out. I guess it was about that point she agreed to go into treatment. She spent a month in a hospital in Marina del Rey; they dried her out and counseled her and so forth. I saw her every day. But she began drinking as soon as she got out. She was hiding it. I‘d come into the house and she’d have a tin of soup or something, and the bottom had been taken out, and underneath there was a glass of something. She‘d be drinking all the time, but pretending she wasn’t.
“After we finally split and divorced, she almost immediately remarried an old man who was living in Santa Monica. This old man, who was obviously very poor, managed to persuade her that he was actually very rich and he was going to buy her a Mercedes and take her all kinds of places, when the reality was he was some kind of retired bricklayer on welfare or something. But she married him, and they lived together for quite a long time, and then she drove him off, I guess with her alcoholism, until he left her with his welfare apartment right there in Santa Monica.
”She seemed to remain sober for some time after that. She got herself a job. She worked at a juice place in Santa Monica, where they served fresh-squeezed juices. I saw her there once. Her teeth were deteriorating — they were really discolored, and she really should have done something about it. I tried to persuade her she should, but she wouldn‘t.“
He pauses, visibly discomfited by the next memory.
”Anyway, I remember she lost her job — maybe they thought she was pilfering money from the cash register, that’s what she said — but eventually she found another job, in a flower place. And then she fell off the wagon again.“
Which was over seven years ago, during which time Michael did not see her.
”Somebody called me several years back and said that she‘d been living on the beach, so I’d heard she‘d fallen back into the worst state she’d been in some time. It didn‘t really surprise me that something awful would happen. I had this feeling that something like this would happen to her.“
After receiving the phone call from her social worker, Michael visited Nancy at Harbor Convalescent.
”She was very proud of me when I went to visit her, you know, she obviously had been waiting for me, and our son, Alex. She immediately began introducing us to everybody in the hospital — you know, she was just beaming with joy. ’See, I‘m not really like this,’ is what she was saying to all the people. ‘See, here’s my beautiful son and ex-husband who‘s successful.’ I‘m sure all the people in the hospital just thought she was telling them stories when she told them about us, so [us being there] was kind of a way of proving that what they saw wasn’t all of her. I‘m sure that’s what she was saying to them, because I‘m sure part of her wishes that she still was the person she was before. It’s not just us, it‘s her whole past, her parents, her family upbringing. It’s just . . . she‘s gone so far since then.
“You know, when she was a kid, her home sat on five acres, surrounded by woods, you couldn’t see the next house, it was just . . . To me, I had no interest in that, I was just glad when she managed to run away. Her parents wanted to cut her off. But I thought, I can look after her, she‘s mine. I felt guilty taking her away from that, in a way, at first, and I wished I could have made up for it . . . [But] she’s never been one to assume responsibility herself. When I first knew her, she had very high standards for everybody else. One of the things I found especially fascinating, why I thought she would be good for me, was because she seemed to have such high standards. I had this feeling that she was going to drive me to do great things, you know? But she wasn‘t doing anything herself. She never had self-discipline, she never did assume responsibility for her own actions, not ever. Strange, isn’t it? As long as we were together, she knew how people ought to do things, and knew the right thing to do, but she couldn‘t manage anything herself.
”I would have done anything if I could have somehow made it possible to restore her in some way, that she would be possible to live with. We were together 13 years, though we only ever had two glorious ones. The rest were all downhill. I stuck with her for 10 years, trying to put it together some way, desperately hoping against all odds that somehow I could do something. In the end, I only left because I realized I was part of the problem, that by supporting her the way I was that she was getting worse.
“For years after, even after I remarried, I felt really bad that I couldn’t do something. I felt guilty about the fact that she had become the way she was. She blamed me, too. She always insisted she was an alcoholic because I joined the Navy.”
When Michael stops speaking, one gets the impression he has held this story in for 20 years, and now that it‘s been told, he will not speak of it again. When asked how Alex has dealt with Nancy all these years, his answer is economical:
“Our son has done so much to isolate himself against his mother, because she’s caused him so much pain and angst.”
P.O.V.: The SON
“It‘s kind of interesting that you should be asking these questions, or someone is. No one really has,” says Alex Safonov. “No one really knows how to deal with it.”
Nancy’s son, Alex, is 27 years old. Tall and painfully thin, he wears skate-ratprep attire, a baggy plaid shirt and khakis. He left USC six units shy of getting his architectural degree, and works in commercial animation and experimental video. Drinking a beer in the bar beneath the mid-Wilshire hotelapartment where he lives, he appears wary, leaning so far back in the dimly lit booth it‘s as though he’s trying to disappear into it.
“So, what was it like growing up with her? I don‘t know, it was kind of a nightmare a lot of the time. It really gets me all wound up, actually, thinking about it. So, I don’t know, whatever. I remember things like, I never really had the cool lunch at school like other kids, no Capri Sun and fruit roll-ups, just like an apple and a cheese sandwich. I remember some kid I used to play with, his mom asking me, ‘So, when was the last time you had a bath?’ At that time, I didn‘t care, I’d go, ‘Uhm, I don’t know, a week or something.‘ And I remember that the house was always kind of . . . not nice. It was not a nice house. My bedroom was like a mattress and some Legos over on the side.”
Alex stares at his hands holding the bottle of beer. “I think the best memories I have of hanging out with my mom is, in the mornings, we’d go for walks on the beach, and that was nice. My dad would be out of town a lot, and he‘d leave me alone with her. I was always so glad when he got back; it was always good to see him when he got back. So when they split up [and Alex lived with him], I was more or less happy about that. I remember I used to go hang out at her house on weekends, and that was kind of lame, because her shitty boyfriend would always be there. There was the old guy — he was just an old fart, I wondered why my mom married him. He was pretty benign, but the others were really animals. I couldn’t even believe where she found them, they were lousy motherfuckers, man. I think at some point, eighth or ninth grade, I just said to her, ‘Fuck it, I’m not talking to you anymore.‘
”Maybe it wasn’t the nicest thing for me to do, whatever; kids don‘t always know how to be nice, but I saw the way she was living and I just got disgusted with her. I was like, ’How can you live like this?‘ Maybe she was working at Orange Julius and living in a halfway house or something, and her clothes were all secondhand. I wanted her to be kind of normal, and she wasn’t; she was just like a total recovering fuckup, and I didn‘t really have any pity for it. It was embarrassing. I remember she wanted to take me to see movies on weekends, so we were in Westwood, and we saw a bunch of my friends from school, I mean, I just got so embarrassed, and I told her about it. I said, ’Aw, Mom, it‘s kind of embarrassing, the way you dress and stuff,’ and she got really offended and she stomped off. And I was kind of relieved, almost. I felt a little bad, but then I was like, well, it‘s the truth; she’s a weirdo and it‘s embarrassing. And she went one way and I went the other, and I was like, cool.
“I actually did live with her for a while when I was 17. I was fighting with my dad a lot, so I went and moved in with her. My mom was sober then; when she’s sober, she‘s a real nice person. That was the summer before I went to school at USC. I stayed in touch with her pretty much all the way through school, until she fell off the wagon, which was about fall of ’94.
”I was driving around with her when it happened. She had a job at the time, working at this flower shop, and we‘re driving in the flower truck, and she stopped at the liquor store, and I was like, what? And she went in and got some booze, and I just . . . I didn’t know what to say. I was kind of winded . . . I remember being kind of sickened by it, but things hadn‘t really gotten that bad for her, at that point. She still had a job and residence and everything. The thing is, though, she’d inherited a lot of money, and that‘s basically what pushed her off the edge, because she didn’t have to work. So, when she didn‘t have to work, I guess she just figured, fuck it.
“When she inherited the money, she said to me, ’You know what? I want you to have it all, because I have a lot of creditors that would be after it.‘ I said, ’Well, okay.‘ My dad thought it was a bad idea, but he didn’t really tell me exactly how bad an idea. So, I just gave [money] to her whenever she wanted some, but she just kept asking for more and more, and she was drunk all that time. I was on Venice Beach one time, and she came up and asked me for change. I was by myself, and I was like . . . I didn‘t know what to say to her, man. I said I couldn’t really help her. She asked me what happened to all her money, and I told her I‘d given it to her, that she’d had it, and it‘s gone. And she just ran away horrified, and I was horrified, and I ran away, too.
”For a while, I thought, maybe I can try to help her, you know. I’d help her get into a rehab thing, and she‘d just check herself out, and I was like, this is making me sick, too. She hung out with such creeps, man, goddamn, fuck. They were mostly drinkers, I think, they just were such roustabout lousy motherfuckers. One night, when I was all jacked up on speed, me and my compadre, he was a much bigger guy than I was, called my mom’s house while she was still in rehab, and I said to this guy that was staying there, ‘Oh, hey, dude, why don’t you be at my mom‘s apartment at such-and-such a time, because we’re bringing her home and we want to make sure someone‘s there.’ But we weren‘t bringing her home, we just wanted to go kick his ass. He was asleep. I just straight walked in, kicked him, and said, ’Get the fuck out. Give me your keys and get the fuck out,‘ you know? I’m sure it scared the crap out of him, and it was very satisfying to me; I was maybe 21. He split, but when she got out, she just let him back in anyway.
“Actually, during that whole time, I was really into amphetamines. I finally quit it around fall of ‘97. It was driving me crazy, the whole scene was driving me crazy. I said, fuck her, fuck speed, fuck everything, and I just started taking care of my life. We were kind of doing the exact same spiral. She went way further than I did, but it was very similar.”
Alex orders another beer, and moves to a well-lit table, where his voice rises.
“The day I find out about her [accident], I hadn’t spoken to her for a while. I was pissed off when I first heard about it. When my dad first called me, I was like, god damn her, what the fuck! Now this fucking fuckup has to go ahead and do this, has to get run over by a car? I got so pissed off, I almost said no, I‘m not going, I’m not going to go see that fuckup. But I did. We went and visited her, which was . . . pretty horrible. I hadn‘t seen her for a while, and when I see her she’s missing an eye and most of her teeth, and she has this bandage on her head. I was like, oh, Jesus Christ. It‘s like my dad said, she looked like she was 80 years old, and she’s only 52.
”After my dad dropped me off [at home], I just had . . . I kind of had this panic attack, this whole thing threw me off, and it felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest, oh my god, what the fuck, the whole thing just horrified me. I don‘t see how she can go any lower than this. I’d like to think that at some point I‘d be making enough money that I could at least give her some. I’d like to be able to help her, like a good son should. A lot of people have to take care of their parents. They may not when they‘re as young as she is, so maybe I just have to start a little earlier than some kids should. I mean, she’s a fuckup, but at this point she‘s so old that she’s just such a mess. Who else is going to help her but her family? I think that partly she got the way she was, maybe she didn‘t have enough family to help her, I don’t know.
“I sort of know I come first. If she wants to die, fine — I gotta live. That‘s why I said to hell with her before. Honestly, I hate to say this, this is a shitty thought, but I think she’d be better off dead. Honestly. I mean, I thought, why couldn‘t the accident have just killed her? Fuck, man. Why must she hang herself around my neck like this, like some kind of albatross? It’s a drain. Parents shouldn‘t be there to drag you down, they should be taking care of themselves. You can fuck yourself up, but don’t make other people take care of you.
”And my dad . . . he never really gave me any good advice about how to deal with her, either. He knew what she was like, that‘s the thing that kind of pisses me off sometimes. When she fell off the wagon the second time, around fall ’94, he just didn‘t warn me, he didn’t say, ‘Look, it’s not worth your time,‘ or ’You oughta step back, don‘t get involved with it.’ He didn‘t say shit to me! He knew, though, because he had gone through the same thing, but he didn’t tell me anything. That fucker. I‘m pissed at both of them. I mean, he’s such a cold fish; he‘s a fucking robot, that’s how he can be so good at what he does. He only hears the voice of the equation, not a million voices like a lot of other people. Fine. He‘s very well-respected for what he does, like the Chinese have translated his texts so that they can study from them. He’s damn good, yeah. But he didn‘t protect me. No, he didn’t, he did not! He left me so open to that, this monster. He just, fuck, man, fuck . . . He wonders why I am the way I am, why I went fucking nuts when I was 17, like it‘s, ’Oh, it‘s a mystery.’ He just doesn‘t, ahhh, whatever . . . if he doesn’t see, he doesn‘t see. It’s all water under the bridge.
“People ask about my mom sometimes. I say, ‘She’s nuts, I don‘t talk to her anymore.’ I keep it brief, or else it invites a lot of questions I don‘t want to . . . I don’t know. It‘s just not fun to talk about. You’re the only person who really has even got this close to the situation, so maybe you can understand, but no one else does. No one in my family ever asked.”
nancy and mack
“They‘re for Mack,” Nancy says of the two ham sandwiches and container of cottage cheese she holds in her lap during a drive in early July to Rancho Los Amigos, where her boyfriend has been receiving care for the past six months. Mack was sleeping next to her on the night of the accident, and was paralyzed from the chest down.
“I met him on Thanksgiving Day. There was a group of us gathered in what we call Cactus Park, near the pier. We were waiting for people to bring turkeys and things. He winked at me, is what happened, and that was that, I just forgot about everybody else. We were together one year, one month and a couple of days before it happened. Except when he was in jail. He likes crack cocaine, which will land him in jail occasionally.
”We were pretty much dedicated to each other. We kept, you know, a routine. Somebody would always watch the bedding and clothing, while the other one went out and did something or other to get money. I did most of the panhandling. He didn’t like to do it; I put up with that. I averaged about $20 or $30. Sometimes I was in the mood, sometimes it was drudgery.“
As for the smashup that separated them, Nancy is fatalistic.
”The accident was so freaky. It could have happened to anybody. More than Mack and I had used that slab to sleep. It‘s a concrete porch in front of a city-owned utility building that has to do with monitoring the chlorine that’s sent into the sewage pipe that goes down to the Hyperion plant. There was a concrete porch about this high, and the car came from the north, I guess. She had to drive the car onto the concrete. It hit the wall of the building, and in the process of doing all that, she ran over my leg, which made my body go up, and my head connected with her bumper. I knew I went blind instantly, I knew it. I called out to Mack, I said, ‘I’m blind!‘“
Nancy wheels herself around the spinal-cord injury ward, looking for Mack. He’s not in his room, nor in Occupational Therapy, where a young quadriplegic on a respirator is having his hand squeezed into a ball over and over by a nurse.
”My goal is to look for a place where Mack and I can live under the same roof. I‘m not talking about the same convalescent home, but a place where we can make it possible for him. I mean, he’s a quadriplegic, he needs incredible care. You have any idea what that entails? He can eat, but he has to have a suppository twice a day. He has to have what is called range of motion, he has to be exercised. He has to be turned. He has to have a Heparin shot, which is a blood thinner, to prevent blood clots. All kinds of different things. He‘s a diabetic, he has to keep checking his blood sugar. It’s complicated. The state will help with a nurse up to a certain number of hours, and the rest will be up to me. Ideally, I‘d like to be able to find somebody who has a guesthouse. An arrangement is what I’m looking for.“
Nancy finally runs into Mack in the hallway.
”Hi, Mack,“ she says, coyly lifting her eye patch.
”Where you been?“ asks Mack, a very handsome black man who, were he able to stand, looks to be a good deal over 6 feet. Their respective wheelchairs make an embrace impossible; Nancy reaches out her hand, but does not quite touch him.
They go to the cafeteria, where Mack asks a visitor to position an elastic band around his left hand, in which she‘s instructed to stick a plastic fork.
”This is how I eat,“ he says, as a visitor lifts the lid on his lunch tray; a steamy gravy aroma rises from the chicken leg and canned peas. He eats peas, bits of which stick to his cheeks, as he half-listens to the plans Nancy has.
”I’m hoping someone might have a guesthouse on their property that we could wheelchair-accommodate,“ Nancy says, ”and we could live like that, without having any interference from the rules and regulations of HUD, a which say you have to be married“ — she is misinformed on this — ”which even though, I mean, they‘ll come out and perform that, but . . .“
”I’m fixing out to a nursing home, trying to get closer to where my sisters at, that‘s Fontana,“ says Mack. ”My social worker trying to get me as close as I can to them.“
Hearing this, Nancy deflates. ”I’m gonna go out and have a cigarette,“ she says, wheeling past the young man from O.T., who is being fed lemonade through a straw.
Mack‘s life story, which he tells in exhaustive detail, is laden with bad decisions: knocking out the windows of downtown L.A. department stores before the age of 10; burglary and car theft; two-thirds of his 55 years spent behind bars in juvenile halls, Soledad, Jamestown, Paso Robles, Folsom; and a 30-year relationship with crack cocaine, which he does not consider a factor in his misfortune.
”I was going to jail way before I knew about cocaine. It hadn’t had nothing to do with me, ‘cause see, I never have been busted for drugs in my life.“
He asks a visitor to butter his bread, and then does not eat it.
”They got me for running on parole, ’cause I would not come up there and [drug] test — I stayed dirty a lot. Last time I got discharged, I caught the bus and went to Santa Monica. I met Nancy on the beach. She say I blinked at her,“ he says, watching Nancy wheel back in. ”But I didn‘t like that beach. At first I used to say to Nancy, ’I don‘t know how you can do it, I got to get the hell away from here.’ It was too cold, rain. But she tough, she‘s been out on the streets. She goes out and do her thing, getting the money every day. I mostly be sitting. That was basically it. She’d bring the food to me. Nancy‘s good at panhandling. She wasn’t ashamed of what she was doing.“
He looks at Nancy, looking at him. ”She can get them people with that look, I guess they was feeling sorry for her.“
Nancy exhales a mirthless ”heh heh“ and shrinks in her chair.
Nancy and Mack go back to his room, where the TV is already on. An occupational therapist comes in and applies a hot pack to Mack‘s shoulder.
”That feel good, this here,“ says Mack. ”Since I been injured, I try to deal with it. I don’t even really think about it. I try to take care of my needs.“ Mack closes his eyes as the O.T. manipulates his right arm across his chest. ”Mmm, that‘s a good stretch when you come this way, all up in the socket. Feel them tingles. Oh, I passed some gas.“
Nancy and Mack sit in silence for 10 minutes, watching TV until it’s time for Mack to go lift weights. Nancy says goodbye to Mack; again, they do not touch.
Nancy is depressed during the drive back.
”He‘s never gonna walk. That would be a true miracle if he regained that ability, but I doubt it. And all this talk about his sisters, and wanting to be more where they live, which is more toward San Bernardino. I want to go back to Santa Monica.“
She stares out the window.
”What I want to avoid is being stuck in a board-and-care where you have people who are in la-la land. You’ve seen people who just rock back and forth from the Thorazine and other medications, or they sit there and they kind of have a dead, glazed look? I don‘t want to be in that kind of situation, or where people are talking to themselves, or where they get violent and act out, things like that, uh-uh. That’s one of my options, or maybe a sober-living situation, which would mean of course sobriety. It might mean not being able to go back to Santa Monica. I really just don‘t know. Ideally, I’d like to go back there, sure I would. And so does everybody else.“
Duane Bartsch, a lawyer, is suing the city of Santa Monica for $1 million on Nancy‘s behalf, claiming the parking lot should have been closed; the case has yet to be heard. Mack has been moved to a nursing facility in Claremont, where he recently underwent the amputation of his lower leg. Nancy is still a resident of Harbor Convalescent Hospital, and is trying to decide whether to be transferred to a board-and-care or wait for a Section 8 apartment or go back to the streets. She’s been taking Access Paratransit once a week to Santa Monica, to panhandle.
”It‘s good, though not nearly as good as when I was in the brace and wheelchair,“ she says, the fixator having been removed several months ago. ”I used to force myself to stay out and make $20 a day. Now, I’m getting about $10. It just depends on Lady Luck.“
Has she been drinking?
Does she want to?
”Now and then, I want to.“
Does she think it will be hard to keep from drinking, should she wind up back on the streets?
”It‘ll probably be harder not to, yeah,“ she says. ”But I could live there, if I have to. I’d have to go to Sears and get a sleeping bag and everything. All I know is, I could live there. I know how to stay out of trouble.“ She laughs the scorched laugh. ”And I also know how to get into it.“