Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Woman and the Wino

This story was based on a real-life experience told to me by an HR person working at a Digital Equipment plant in the bad part of Boston. I took the basic premise of a wino who maintained his dignity then developed Lorna totally from my imagination, who is nothing like the HR Person. Still, I let the HR person read the story before I had it published in Moments in Time in France in 1996.


The screech of metal wheels against metal tracks hurts Lorna's teeth as the Boston T spits her into the ghetto of her working world. She compares, Ashanti loves Malcom and Fuck you carved into the seat in front of her to the graffiti she saw last night at Grendal's Den in Harvard Square. It said,Vita Sackville-West loves Virginia Woolf.

The subway lurches above ground carrying her further from her Cambridge condo. Its deliberately exposed brick is warmed by Marimekko hangings. In the one lit tenement window she can see exposed brick where plaster has fallen away. She shudders.

What is Lorna Eastman, a product of middle-class suburbia and Boston College, doing on the Green Line at 6:00 a.m.? She asks herself that every morning after prying herself from bed to go to her current assignment. Item No. 5 on her job description reads, "Integrate urban poor into corporate culture".

Unuse to failure, she feels as if she has failed in packing away her stereotypes. She has decided when she hears, "How's it hanging, you motherfucker you," without cringing she will have won.

The first six months she drove. Twice her tires were slashed, once her radio was stolen. Finally, her car vanished forever. After weighing the advantages of car ownership, she banked her insurance money and settled for public transportation.

Northampton Station is raised above street level. A half building offers limited protection from the snowflakes pelting her face. Tightening her hold on her briefcase she checks for possible danger.

Walking through the station she sees a bum lying on his usual bench. Sunday's Boston Globe covers him. He fondles his German Shepherd resting under the bench.

"Morning," he mumbles.

She ignores him.

"Whasa matta, ya think you're too good to talk to me, Lady with a Briefcase?"

As Lorna continues toward the stairs, she remembers the Christine Lavin's concert last Saturday. The folk singer did a song about every bum once being somebody's baby. She turns back. "Good morning," she says to the man that was once someone's child.

Smiling, he lifts his head to doff his knitted, torn cap. Alcohol mixed with wet wool assails her nose. The dog thumps his tail.

As Lorna begins her three-block walk to the plant the rising sun throws an eerie glow, a sure sign the snow will get worse. She's afraid. Footsteps behind her increase her fear. She speeds up. The footsteps match their pace to hers.

She breaks into a run, hoping she can make the plant. There is no place to duck. The one open spot, a rubble-filled lot, was the scene of a rape last week. Drivers went by oblivious to the woman being ravished behind a refrigerator.

"Hey, Lorna, wanta ride?" Her savior is Mike, the plant shuttle driver. He pulls up next to her in the company green Voyageur.

Lorna runs to the van and hoists her skirt so she can climb in without splitting a seam.

"I sure didn't like the way that dude was followin' ya," Mike says.

Lorna swallows her terror in little mouthfuls.

"What ya doin' out so early? This area ain't safe for any woman."

"I like to get in before the phones start ringing."

As he turns into the company parking lot he says, "Maybe ya should come later."

"It's just as bad later in the day."

"Then I'll meet ya at the station mornin's?"

Lorna's heart rate is almost normal. "I can't let you do that."

He swings the car into the parking spot marked -- Company Van Only. He goes around and swings Lorna down from her seat as if she weighed nothing.

"Mike, I'll treat you to what the caf staff pretends is coffee." They pass from the interior decorator designed reception area into an hangar-like open space with exposed metal beams and neon lights. Work benches are aligned from one end to the other.

The cafeteria at the other end is as cosy as the rest of the building is institutionalised. The many-shaded brown carpet hides stains and muffles noise. Each round table, seating four or eight people, has a bud vase.

Gracie, wiry and energetic, stuffs holly springs into vases. The 300-cup percolator's chugs overpowers the Muzak. "Big pot's still brewing. Help yourself to ours." She points to the 10-cup pot the staff uses. Coffee from both smells wonderful but will taste awful.

They sit close to the cash register, waiting for Gracie to finish so Lorna can pay. As each stirs Half-and-Half into the black liquid, it changes to tan.

"I didn't get a look at the man, did you?" Lorna asks.

"I just remember seeing ya run, and he go after ya. When I called, he took off."

Lorna thinks, maybe he should shuttle all female workers. She picks up her Styrofoam cup. The corporation is philosophically opposed to closed offices. Lorna despises the mouse-maze half panels.

Entering her cubby with its stark walls except for a production schedule, she feels more out of place than usual. She keeps her work space impersonal, because she doesn't want to reveal herself to her coworkers by putting up posters or even inspirational sayings like, 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade'.

Lorna wants to run away from the ghetto, from this job, from not feeling competent. An hour later she still sits frozen, unable to tackle her work. Inertia is alien to her. Even in college, she'd foregone the almost obligatory identity crisis. She thought her friends, revelling in theirs, somehow indulgent.

Jean, her secretary who long ago admitted defeat in the battle of the bulge, pokes her head in. "Hey boss, what's the matter? 'Tis 10 and you've put nothing in my box." She drops a production report on Lorna's desk.

"I can't get it together today," Lorna says.

"Got anything to do with this morning?" To Lorna's surprised look she says-

"Grapevine". It’s the plant's best communication tool. When the company needed to get a policy change out and was afraid people would misunderstand, Jean deliberately left a confidential memo, explaining the reasons, in the copy machine. The true story crossed the plant in an hour. "Let Mike pick you up."

"You've five kids. Why mother me?" Lorna asks.

"'Cause you need it. We all do at times."

As Jean starts to leave Lorna says, "I'll let him pick me up. Jean. "What makes a man a drunk?"

Beats me. My dad was one, you know. " Jean takes the briefcase off Lorna's second chair, a trick discouraging drop-in visitors from staying too long. "He wasn't a mean drunk, my dad. Not like the horror stories about drunks beating up their wives and kids. He'd sit, drink and smile. My mother nagged. He'd drink more until he passed out. Why do you ask?"

"I was thinking about the wino I see almost every morning at the station."            

"The one with the dog?"

"Do you know him?"

"Not personally. The dog's fat. I bet he buys him food before he buys booze."

When Jean leaves, Lorna okays the report without looking at it, the first time she had ever done that and starts another. At 5:30 when Mike drops her at the station the wino is gone.


The reverse commute improves her mood. Lorna buys carnations from a Park Street Station vendor. She hopes it's not a Moonie. Musicians play carols for the crowd waiting for the train. A child sings, "O, Come all ye faithful," with the musicians.

When she unlocks her door the lights are on and a fire burns in her fireplace. Jerry,  her professor lover, sits on her couch, his feet propped on her coffee table watching her television.

"Hi," she says.

"Hi, yourself. I bought stuff  to make us a taco salad. It's in the fridge."

She drops her keys in the wicker basket next to her front door. His unexpected appearance kills her plans for a quiet evening. While he watches John King report on the latest U.S. invasion, she starts dinner.

Standing at the divider between the kitchen and living areas, she watches and spins lettuce.

"Can't you do that more quietly," he asks.

"Sorry."  She gives the lettuce dryer a viscous whirl.

Dinner goes badly. Jerry chides her for forgetting the cucumber. She wants to talk about her day. He wants to watch the news special. After the dishes are done, they decide it's better he go home.


The next morning Lorna calls Mike from her portable phone as she gets out of the subway. She finds herself looking for the wino and his dog. He isn't there. A week passes before the wino is back. She spots him leaning against the wall.

He tips his ribbed cap. "Hello, Lady with a Briefcase." He follows her down the stairs and stands next to her.

"Does your dog bite?"

"Nah, Bruno's a lover, not a biter."

As she pats the animal, he leans his head into her hand to take full advantage of her attention. The van pulls up beeping.

"He's back," Lorna tells Jean.


"The wino and his dog."


Lorna and Jerry go to an old, old French movie  at the Brattle Street Theatre. Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard team up as slapstick detectives. She and Jerry hold hands as snow falls lightly as they walk home.

"I like snow," he says.

"That's because you've spent the last ten years in Florida. The novelty will wear off."
A drunk staggers up to them and asks for a quarter. Jerry ignores him.

"Why didn't you give him money?" she asks.

"Are you crazy. He'll only buy booze," he says.

"It might keep him warm."

He launches into a lecture on alcohol and the body's metabolic rate. He shifts to a secondary lecture on moral weaknesses of the lower strata. The word pompous flashes through Lorna's mind, and she thinks of her wino and Bruno.

Lorna has dated Jerry five months. They'd bumped into each other,  literally, at the Museum Fine Arts Store. She'd scooched down to look at a ceramic tile on a bottom shelf. He was examining a puzzle of Van Gogh's Sunflowers above. When she stood, her head hit his chin.

An apology lead to dinner at Joe Tecce's in the North End. A gaggle of plaster cherubs watched them eat spaghetti. Between mouthfuls they discovered mutual interests: music, French movies, the Boston Symphony, sailing, golf, tennis. A violinist took Lorna's red hair as a reason to play When Irish Eyes are Smiling.

Do you believe in equal opportunity?" Jerry asked. Without pausing the violinist swung into Fiddler on The Roof.

Jerry wears on Lorna, not like a well-loved slippers but like shoes that pinch even after weeks of wearing. She becomes increasingly annoyed at his speaking ex cathedra. When she asked him to switch off the light she had to listen to the history of electricity. She turned off the light herself. He forgot.

For all his verbal liberalism, she has observed his tolerance is reserved for his own tight little world. She found herself defending her coworkers as he made fun of people at her office party. She fumed when he expected her to smile as his department's chairman felt her up at his holiday bash.

She considers breaking off, but there's positive things. He's convenient, good in bed and doesn't demand an emotional investment.


Between Christmas and New Year's there's a skeleton crew. Lorna wears jeans to work. Jean is stuffed into pants, too. They rearrange files. Jean orders a pizza for lunch, because the caf is closed. As she pulls at strings of mozzarella she asks, "Have you seen your friend lately. You know, the wino."

"Almost every morning. He struggles to his feet and waits until Mike comes. In a strange way he's kinda nice."

Lorna considers giving the wino money but fears hurting his pride. That he still has pride, she's sure because he's so polite. One morning she pulls a huge bone out of her briefcase. The wino looks at it and says, "And all the time I though you had la di da papers in there."

"I've got those, too. Ooops, here's my ride."
"See ya tomorrow, Lady with a Briefcase."


Lorna tries telling Jerry about the wino, but he won't listen.

After Martin Luther King day the wino is missing. A week later when he's back, they greet each other with old-friend smiles. Bruno thumps his tail.

"You weren't here," she says.

"Went to the Salvation Army shelter. Kicked me out because I smuggled Bruno in." He pats the dog. Some kids shove and push each other. "Stay close to me Lady." He tilts his head toward the kids.

As Lorna tells Jean later, "I doubt if he could help, but his heart is in the right place."

Throughout January the wino walks or staggers to Lorna as soon as she gets off the trolley. He's never there at night, just mornings.

Valentine's Day brings a thaw. The wind, instead of eating at Lorna's skin caresses it. The wino hands her a yellow rose. "For you, Lady with a Briefcase."

"Thank you. I love roses." She gives Bruno lamb scraps from last night's meal. There's an extra chop in case the wino wants it for himself. "Give this to Bruno later," she says leaving the choice to him.

In March she decides to offer money. First she asks, "What is your name?"


"Harry, don't take this the wrong way, but could you use some money? I don't want to insult you or anything."

"Heck, Lady with a Briefcase. I'm not insulted. I don't even call it charity."

"What do you call it?"

"Protection money. Who knows what could happen if I didn't wait with you."

"You're right. I feel better knowing you're here." She gives him five dollars.


The relationship goes into summer. Sometimes she brings food, sometimes money, sometimes nothing. The wino accepts with a thank you, but never asks for anything.


She applies for a promotion and transfer to Colorado Springs. Jean encourages her to go for it. Jerry says they'll never select a woman. Jerry is wrong. Lorna delights in telling him.

Her last day at the inner city plant comes. Saying goodbye will be easy. The two locations work closely together, and she'll be in regular contact. She steps off the subway carrying packages.

"What's this, Lady with a Briefcase?" The wino asks as Lorna hands him the three gift-wrapped boxes.

"Going away presents. I've been transferred."

Harry sits down. He doesn't say anything.

"Open them. The small one first."

Harry sighs and fumbles with the ribbon. "It's a collar."

"For Bruno."

"Didn't think it was for me. Come here Bruno." He slips the rope from Bruno' neck and fastens the collar. "He looks majestic." Bruno scratches a flea.

"Open the others," she says. Harry does. One contains a pair of pants, the other a striped short-sleeve cotton shirt.

"I hope they fit. The salesman looked as if he were about your size and they fit him."

"Why did you do that, Lady with a Briefcase?" A tear streaks his cheek.

"To thank you for protecting me. I'll miss you." She puts her hand out. He takes it. Then she leans over and kisses his cheek. His beard scratches. His body odor doesn't seem important.

"Goodbye, Lady with a Briefcase.

"Goodbye," Harry."

As Lorna walks toward the company van, she doesn't notice a kid calling another a mother-fucking son of a bitch .

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