Call Me Pookie
My neighborhood is euphemistically called transitional, which means middle class families are living on blocks with restored brownstones and poor families squat in government sponsored “Section 8” apartments on another. The neighborhoods are catty cornered with a grocery and a liquor store as the ground between.
I’ve lived in a brownstone in this neighborhood for a few years. I’ve tried to get to know people, including the alcoholics who hang out on my front porch. My porch is the closest sitting spot to the liquor store. In the spring and summer it is shaded by a twiggy, Charlie Brown looking tree. When I come out my front door in the morning, I walk toward the train station to my corporate job in the city. The alcoholics are going in the other direction, towards the liquor store, where they’ll buy vodka in clear plastic bottles or glass bottles of beer wrapped in paper bags.
One old man with a shock of white hair and deep set bloodshot eyes calls me honey when he passes me in the morning before he gets hammered. When he’s sober, his eyes are bright and focused; he smiles easily. I’ll see him later when I get home, sitting on my porch, his jaw muscles slack and his eyes glazed. At those times there is no one home – no one to call me honey.
I first met Shirley on my porch; she’s a fifty something black woman. She was sitting there talking to a junkie named Angel. They were figuring out how to get their next bottle. I noticed Shirley was different from most people I met on the street. Even when she was drunk she had her wits about her, and she was a bit happier than others, like she knew a secret. She was missing some teeth in the front, but she bathed regularly, combed her hair, wore clean clothes and kept herself together.
She was a den mother for the younger junkies. She’d whisper to them trying to get them to go straight even though she didn’t set an example. The kids would listen to her out of respect, even though they weren’t going to stop getting high. They recognized she had been at the game a lot longer; it meant something to them.
I was walking home one day and she was ahead of me on the sidewalk. She was always pleasant to me, but today was different.
“Hi Shirley,” I said.
“I’m mad at you,” she said as I approached.
We walked along the sidewalk together towards my house, or for her, in the same direction as the liquor store. I couldn’t tell if she was drunk.
“Why is that?”
“Because you keep calling me Shirley; I told you to call me Pookie. Now your neighbor think he know me, and when I sit on his porch he say ‘Shirley, you can’t sit here.’”
“I didn’t know you wanted me to call you Pookie, you never told me. And if you told me to call you Pookie, I would have been fine with that. Why don’t you want me to call you by your real name?”
“Shirley my government name. On the street everybody call me Pookie. I don’t want everybody knowing my business.”
“Your government name? You mean for when you get checks in the mail?”
“Well, from now on I’ll call you Pookie. But you know, I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me your government name. I’m sorry if I caused a problem for you,” I said.
“I always knew you was different,” she said. “When I met you, I thought, you ain’t like the others. Not like that damn bastard who live next door to you; he think he all high and mighty just ’cause he know my name.”
We stood awkwardly for a moment in front of my house with her leaning against my porch railing and me looking at her.
“I have only one wish for you,” I said.
“Yeah,” Shirley said, “you wish I’d stop getting high.” She laughed hoarsely at her own joke.
“No, that’s not it.” I knew wishing she’d stop drinking was a wasted wish.
“You mean it?” She looked at my face to see if I was telling her the truth or conning her, like everyone else she knew on the street.
“Yes. I mean, you make your own decisions. You’re going to do what you think is best. I just want you to stay healthy.”
She nodded, then she hugged me. I was so surprised I stood there. I did my best to hug her back.
“You know, I got two grown kids,” she said. “My son, he a chef. And my daughter going to college now.”
“You have a lot to be proud of if you’ve got two kids who are both doing well. It’s not easy to raise kids. I hope you give yourself some credit for doing a good job with them.”
“Yeah I do, but times are tough for me right now. I was living in this apartment for the last twenty-two years, and my landlord, she just threw me out.”
“She raise the rent, even though she knew I couldn’t afford it. So now I sleep at my cousin house.”
“If you lived in an apartment for twenty-two years you must have furniture and other stuff. What did you do with all of your things, put them in storage?”
“Nah, I gave everything away.” She shrugged.
“Why did you do that?”
“My cousin asked me the same thing,” she said and laughed. “I didn’t need that stuff anyway, may as well give it away.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how you managed it. I don’t think I could do that.”
She laughed again as she walked off. “You okay cuz; you okay.”
I continue to see alcoholics on my porch. Many of them jump up when I approach to move out of my way. They assume I’m going to chase them away. I think I’m the only person on my street who says, it’s okay, sit, don’t get up. They seem to appreciate this and scoot to the side so I can get to my door. They look too tired to do anything, even to find another place to sit, and I feel sorry for them. They feel sorry for themselves too.
But not Shirley. She’s got two grown kids, both doing well from the sound of it. After she told me she gave up all her possessions, I think of her as a Zen master of alcoholics, wandering the streets talking to the kids and doling out advice to people who, like her, never made it out of the neighborhood.
Filed under: Blog post, Creative Non-Fiction, New Jersey | Tagged: alcoholic, alcoholism, Call Me Pookie, creative non-fiction, Jersey City, junkie, neighborhood, urban living, writing, zen | 7 Comments »