Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Some nights are harder than others

When I saw her walking around the parking lot I hoped she was coming to New Beginnings. Her hair was raked up under a trucker hat that sat precariously off the side of her head and her freshly bruised face was not yet the rainbow of colors that it was sure to become. She had the look of a homeless person; her bare feet and dirty fingernails giving testament to the fact that she hadn't bathed or slept indoors recently.

When a volunteer brought her upstairs to me she introduced herself as Tree. Her unsteady gait was likely the result of too much alcohol, but the recent beating could also be to blame. Neither one would have surprised me. I shook her hand and told her I was glad she came.

After group ended Miss Alliece decided our best course of action was to take her to the hospital. She wanted a ride back to New Orleans but agreed to see a doctor about her injuries first. Four of us went to Our Lady of the Lake to see how we could help her. After a substantial time in the waiting room it was finally our turn to be seen.

I went in with Tree to help with whatever I could while the others stood sentry in the waiting room. It can be a long night in the ER, so it's always good to have back up. I helped with the hospital gown, but politely declined the specimen bottle when it was handed to me. I think collecting bodily fluids goes beyond the second mile...although better people than I may well have helped out.

Doctors and nurses came and went. We waited, talked, got fluids, talked more, had CAT scans, x-rays, pain meds and antibiotics. Tree drifted between sleep and discomfort while we talked. The doctor asked her what the man had beaten her with. She said it was only his fists and boots this time.

Tree is 24 years old and lives in New Orleans. For the past 7 months she has lived in a tent, except for the brief time she spent in hospital 2 months ago when she gave birth. Her baby was born premature and is still in ICU. She said she needs to get back to the city to see him.

She was 13 when her mom died, and at 16 she moved in with the man she now shares a tent with. He was in his mid-twenties at the time. For several years they criss-crossed the nation jumping boxcars. Tree told me that trains have no mercy...they'll cut your leg off in a second. She said it with such certainty that I wondered if she'd seen it happen.

We talked about the streets...and what you have to do to survive there. Tree was dancing in a club until 2 months before her son was born, but she's also worked escort and streets. Her boyfriend just got out of jail so he's back in the tent now. He was in for battery. She told me that right now she's not working the streets, other than begging, but now that her boyfriend's back that will likely change.

About 3am the doctor came back with good news. None of the bones in her face were actually broken, just severely bruised. Her CAT scan came back clean so she didn't have a concussion or a brain bleed, and the x-rays didn't show any broken bones in her torso. (They had been concerned about possible internal bleeding because of a rib injury). The antibiotics they gave her would help with both her internal infection and the unsightly black gash on her foot.

About 1:30am we had decided that the team in the waiting room could call it a night. At 3:15am I called Preston (who had probably just gotten to sleep) and asked him to come back so we could drive Tree to New Orleans. I had gotten her a bed in a local safe house but she backed out. We talked about safety; how she wasn't strong enough to take another beating like this right away. She agreed, but said she had a place to go in New Orleans. I asked where we were taking her and she said she had friends she could stay with. I asked if she would be safe, if they had a couch for her to sleep on and if they had a/c. She answered yes to all of them. I don't know if I believed her, or just wanted to.

As I helped her get her clothes out of the plastic bag the stench was near unbearable. When clothing gets beyond dirty it gets tacky; her clothes were sticky. She was pulling her shirt on over her head and said, "Uhg...dirty clothes again." I couldn't guess how long she had been in those same shorts. As she pulled them over her bruised limbs she reached into the pocket and pulled something out. "My harmonica!" she said happily, "I forgot I had this." For a moment she looked like a child on Christmas morning...a new toy held out excitedly for me to see. I smiled at her, but I wanted to cry.

Preston and I helped Tree into the car and headed towards the city. She told Preston where we were going and fell asleep before we were out of Baton Rouge. As we entered New Orleans she woke up but had little to say. We exited by the Superdome and pulled down a deserted street.

"Right here is fine," she said. "Let me out here." I pulled over and parked on the side of the road. There were no houses, no apartments, only a stretch of concrete fading under an overpass into the darkness. She let us pray for her and then got out. I hugged her neck and reminded her that she had our number if she needed anything. She thanked me and walked away, silently disappearing into the shadows.

I got back into the car and just sat there. "So, that's it?" Preston asked. I nodded. "You want me to drive?" he asked. I nodded again. We headed back to Baton Rouge, the sun easing into the sky just before we got back home. Some nights are harder than others.