The Lady in the Tent




THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE TRENDING ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO. 30.
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I.

I’M IN LINE at the Brentwood farmer’s market waiting to buy organic kale and avocados (I realize at this moment that I’ve become one of those people) when I see her.

Most people don’t acknowledge the woman holding the sign, or her army-style utility tent — it has just enough room to lie on your belly and escape from the elements, like a soldier in the battlefield — nestled between two overgrown rose bushes. It’s spring and the bushes are starting to sprout pink roses, perky and beautiful, their petals open and ready for their coming-out party. But most people in this neighborhood don’t acknowledge the flowers, either — they’re too busy talking on the phone, packing their trunk with overpriced food, making happy hour plans, heading off to pick up their kids from private school. The life concerns of folks in a neighborhood like this.

When it’s my turn to pay, I throw in an apple, a bag of cashews, and an Evian. My car is parked near the lady in the tent. I assume her sign has something to do with food, and I prepare to hand her the apple, nuts, and water. But I’m wrong. Her sign doesn’t request food, or work, or even money. I squint to get a better look:

MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS, PLEASE.

I pause and mentally review what’s in my purse. Like most women, I have a secret compartment with a stash of tampons, feminine wipes, and Midol. I say hello, and hand her the stash. She thanks me, her face morphing from concern to relief, though she won’t make eye contact. I give her the food and water.

“If I’d known, I would’ve gotten you some chocolate,” I joke. She smiles and finally meets my gaze. A woman pushing a dog stroller walks by and watches us disapprovingly; she reads the homeless woman’s sign but chooses to ignore it, like so many others before her.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

She hesitates. “They call me Missy.” She says her name as if it’s not hers, and I imagine it probably isn’t.

Missy’s eyes drop to my purse, which is one of those ridiculous and rather poorly made designer handbags, and I’m embarrassed by my materialism. Her eyes shift to Dog Stroller Lady, who’s still glaring at us. Missy thanks me again, says goodbye, and quickly disappears into her tent.

I drive off and try to go about my day, but I’m unable to stop thinking about Missy. And it’s not because she’s homeless — the homeless population in Los Angeles is staggering, and tent encampments have become commonplace — it’s because she’s a homeless woman, alone. She doesn’t know it, but I understand how she feels and what she’s going through more than she will ever know, or ever believe. When I was homeless, I never thought to ask for menstrual products, though truth be told it’s one of the worst aspects of being an unsheltered woman.

I see a Target and impulsively pull into the parking lot. Thirty minutes later I leave with several bags of feminine products and provisions, including some Dove chocolate, and a couple packs of underwear and socks — the most requested items in homeless shelters are underwear and socks. I go back to the shrubs, armed with the care package.

It’s too late — Missy is gone.

II.

It’s a fact that an overwhelming number of homeless women end up that way because they’ve suffered some form of abuse. The women I knew when I was on the streets were there for that reason, and I was there for that reason, too. It wasn’t just that I’d suffered a disturbing amount of abuse — it was that I was desperate to escape it. I was willing to walk away from everything, even the basics of human survival, to escape it.

I should’ve seen it coming, but I didn’t. Or maybe I did but didn’t want to believe it would come to pass — after all, he did have one of the worst tempers and shortest fuses I’ve ever witnessed. But I was 18 years old, it was my first serious relationship, and I was so determined to show my family that dropping out of high school and running away to Las Vegas to be with a man I’d met just once before in a casino bar (as you do) wasn’t a bad idea. I was willing to put up with anything to prove I hadn’t made an epic mistake.

Five years later when I found myself living in my car (and sometimes a tent) near Fremont Street, I formed a group with several other homeless women who roamed the area — we called ourselves the Woe Luck Club (you will never find a person with a better sense of humor than a homeless person). Some of them were exotic dancers at the Glitter Gulch or, like me, they simply scavenged to survive. We would share liquor and stories of how we ended up there, and our “first times” — first time dumpster diving, first time asking a stranger for money, first time coming up with an innovative way to deal with our periods without proper products, first time darting through a casino draining discarded cocktail glasses until security eighty-sixed us. Then we’d laugh at our shenanigans, like a pack of neighborhood kids who’d just been told to get off the neighbor’s lawn.

We also shared stories of our first time being abused. For many of us, it was the first time — another first time — we’d verbalized the experience. Mine was when he was trying to teach me how to use a stick shift. After a disaster of a driving lesson, we went home and he threw a suitcase at my back. I felt silly when I told the girls this, because it seemed so tame compared to some of their first times. It wasn’t that there was a “best stories” competition, or that we were trying to one-up each other. But some of them had been scarred, even disfigured — one of the girls had been shot in the face and you could still see the evidence on her cheek — right off the bat during that first time, and those were just the wounds you could physically see.

Almost every single one of us had developed a drug or alcohol problem as a result of the abuse we’d suffered. For many of us, that abuse had gone on for years. By the time I ended up calling my Honda hatchback home, I had experienced other kinds of abuse outside of the relationship I was in from men I worked for, men I worked with, men I considered to be friends, men who came to performances, “normal” men, strange men, random men. The funny thing is that in many ways I felt safer living in the underbelly than I had living in the real world — here, it was easier to hide, to be invisible, to disguise myself as a man, to achieve a level of unattractiveness that would deter any man from ever violating me again. What I didn’t realize at the time is that abuse isn’t about sex — it’s about power, and control.

Though I had nothing to my name, those were two things I finally felt like I had over my own life.

III.

Like Missy (I suspect), the girls and I all had a “street name.” I chose “Cleo,” because in better times I’d played Cleopatra at Caesars Palace. The homeless rarely share their real names unless they absolutely have to. It helps you separate yourself from your real identity, like this isn’t really you. No — this is simply a role you’re playing, much like the queen of the Nile and all the other roles I’d played during my time as a showgirl. The street is a stage of a different sort, but a stage all the same.

Looking back, I’d been role-playing long before I arrived in Vegas. This is true of many girls like me, including my Woe Luck Club sisters, who were raised in the 1980s on Disney princess movies and fairy-tale culture; this was long before Tiana, Merida, and Mulan. Like so many of my friends, my dad’s nickname for me growing up was “Princess.” I was brought up to believe that women should be docile, demure, feminine, slender, clean, smiling, uncomplaining, nice-smelling, well mannered, put together, a slave to pink and purple, and, of course, beautiful. And if you weren’t all of these things at all times, well, then, shame on you!

As a teen, I remember hearing one of my dad’s friends say once that, “Women should poop in packets.” I pictured someone scrambling around to pick up after me like a dog-walker with compostable bags and a pooper-scooper. I learned from a young age that burping like my uncles, farting like my brothers, or having a Dumb and Dumber moment in the bathroom was something I and every other woman was forbidden to do.

When I started working as a model for a Las Vegas talent agency at age 18 and later as a performer, it seemed that this princess had, after a rather long period in adolescence as the homely and awkward Cinderella stepsister, started to blossom into Cinderella herself. At first, I loved the attention, loved being paraded around, loved being the embodiment of female “perfection”; I loved all the potential princes (and, in fact, I actually dated Prince for a time) hovering around wanting to “court” me.

The fairy tale eventually became a cautionary one.

When I found myself homeless — when I was no longer any of those things I’d been raised to be — the failure I felt as a woman was remarkable. I now have to defecate in public — could I even still call myself a woman? The conflict between wanting to make myself unattractive because of what I’d been through and mourning my former hyper-femininity occupied my thoughts almost as much as figuring out what I needed to do to survive the day. I was supposed to be a damsel, after all; I was supposed to be the lady in the tower waiting for a man to come and rescue me.

No one ever told me what to do if I ended up the lady in the tent instead.

IV.

In the end, it wasn’t a man, or anyone else who rescued me from the tent. In the end, I had to rescue myself.

I was lucky, because I had a family to turn to, particularly my mother, who, once I was ready to get help, took me in no questions asked. She didn’t know the extent of how low I’d been, and she sensed not to ask. Until recently, no one knew. I honestly believed that being homeless was a period of my life I’d never speak of, ever. Women are pressured, even bullied, to take so many painful secrets to the grave, and I thought this would be another one of mine.

Many years have passed since I was on the streets, but that failure I felt — not just as a woman, but as a human being — is still very much alive in me. Our culture has been conditioned to interpret and portray such life events as a failure. Your alcoholism and bad decision-making is what landed you there — don’t blame it on anyone else! It’s true that I and everyone else in the world should take responsibility for the choices we make — I truly believe that. But in reality, the situation is much more layered than that, and goes well beyond the scope of an essay. Every homeless situation does. Many unsheltered individuals don’t have a choice, or feel they don’t have one, or can’t make one.

Homelessness is one of the major crises this country faces, and the pandemic has underscored the reality that life on the streets is often just one (small) decision or disaster away. It can happen to anyone, at any moment. It can happen to the person you least suspect. You probably know someone who has once been or is currently homeless and don’t realize it, because to admit it is to face criticism, incredulity, shame, gossip, pity. Historically, homelessness has been discussed in a way that focuses on the homeless themselves as the root of the problem, that they “messed up” to such a degree that losing everything was inevitable, even deserved.

The lack of empathy I see, hear, and feel when the national conversation turns to homelessness is unnerving, as is the lack of direct voice the homeless and formerly homeless are given. Yet so many believe they have the authority and knowledge to speak on our behalf. It’s one thing to look at numbers and statistics and costs, and to focus on the “inconvenience” of people like Missy. It’s quite another to imagine the people and human experiences and suffering behind these numbers.

Women are especially vulnerable. We’re paid less and promoted less; it’s more difficult for us to get ahead, especially single mothers. We’re are the biggest targets and victims of abuse, rape, violence, crime, and murder, particularly poor women, homeless women, and women of color. At the same time, the burden on women to “hold it together” and to “be a lady” at all times is enormous. The diversity of pressures we face is astounding, and the lack of support and resources we often face is, too.

I still think about the members of the Woe Luck Club and wonder what happened to them. By the time I left Las Vegas in 2005 and moved back to my hometown of Los Angeles, most of the group had scattered. Some of the girls went to shelters. Some, like me, were able to get help from family. We were able to begin again, to go to college, to become a teacher, to pursue a PhD. Education is what saved me, and has made me feel like a true “princess.”

Like Missy, some of the girls — too many of them — vanished. When I think about them, I remember them as real women, as human beings with histories and feelings and desires and dreams, not just ladies in tents. These women are daughters, mothers, wives, aunts, friends. These women are your fellow citizens, your neighbors. These women are you.

Please stop ignoring the signs.

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Kristen Brownell is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles. After escaping and recovering from domestic violence, substance abuse issues, and life on the streets, she went on to earn her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of California at Riverside and is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the Claremont Colleges, where she specializes in teaching second-language learners. She has recently completed a memoir, Lost Vegas, about her wild ride from high school dropout to dishwasher to dancer to down-and-out to doctor.

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Banner image: “20140831 05 Brentwood Farmers Market” by David Wilson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been darkened and cropped.

 

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