Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Customers: Anna

I went on vacation last week to the Bay Area for a friend's wedding. While there, I had a chance to reconnect with some old friends from undergrad, and I got to telling them about the blog. One of them asked me a little more about my relationship with the soup kitchen customers. I tried to find a good analogy to define it, but couldn't think of one at that moment. Later on the plane ride back, I figured it out. My relationship with the customers is like that of a prison guard to his inmates. I'll never be friends with any of the customers, but if they behave themselves, we can have an interaction that almost borders on friendship. I've gotten to know most of the regulars as close as I can, but there are a few that I will never really understand. One of them is Anna.

Anna looks to be in her late fifties. She has a dimunitive stature which is further embellished by scoliosis. Anna is Chinese and from the few words she says, I gather that she was not born in the US. Whenever she ventures into the kitchen, she has a disheveled look about her. Anna is one of our customers that I see around town often. It's really hard to miss her- she wears the same fading blue winter coat (no matter what temperature it is), and pushes around a worn shopping cart that contains, to the best of my knowledge, all of her possessions.

One more thing: Anna is schizophrenic. And I don't mean that as an adjective to describe her behavior, she has actually been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Unfortunately, she rarely takes her medication...which can make for some interesting incidents.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the dining room only holds 10 people. The rest stand in line or sit down in a waiting area that has a few chairs and couches. The waiting area can be a pretty combustible zone. A lot of the customers are big and physical, and a small argument over sports or bus tokens can explode into a fist fight pretty readily. (We try to do what we can to police this, but with a limited number of volunteers, some stuff inevitably slips past our eyes.) Add a few women into this already volatile situation and you have the potential for even more problems.

One of the worst transgressors is a regular I'll call Leroy. I should mention that when someone really acts out, they get banned from periods ranging from a few days to a couple of months. Leroy has been banned several times from the soup kitchen for starting fights or harassing women. It only takes most of the customers one time to realize they DO NOT want to be banned. Leroy is just...let's say a little more stubborn than most.

One morning Leroy was walking around the waiting area, complaining that the line wasn't moving fast enough and announcing his hunger to the whole world. Apparently, he made the mistake of rummaging through one of Anna's handbags, hoping she wouldn't notice him taking a candy bar. Unfortunately for Leroy, Anna did notice. The 10 inches and 150 pounds Leroy had on Anna was of no consequence. I wasn't present for the initial attack, but from speaking with the people who did see it, Anna just FLIPPED OUT. She started out by biting Leroy hard on the wrist. Hard enough to break through the skin and draw blood. She then started screaming at him in a mixture of English and (presumably) Mandarin, and dug her fingernails into his arm. It was at this point that Leroy made what was, no doubt, one of the smarter decisions of his life- he ran...out of the waiting area and through the dining room, into the office to talk to Gus. It went something like this...

Leroy: [Expletive]!! Give me a [expletive] bandaid! Owwww....[expletive]! I need a [expletive] bandaid Gus! [Expletive]!!!!!!

Gus: Calm down. What happened?

Leroy: I'm [expletive] bleeding!! You see this [expletive]!?!?! She bit me! Crazy bitch bit me! Awww [expletive]!!! This hurts like a mother [expletive]!!

Gus: Who did this??

Leroy: That [expletive] [racial slur] bitch! [Expletive]!!!

Gus: Anna?

Leroy: [Expletive]! [Expletive]! [Expletive]! Where that [expletive] bandaid at?

Upon hearing the commotion, Ruth and I rushed into the waiting area to see if Anna was acting out. And there she was, calmly sitting in a chair as if nothing had happened. And maybe in her mind, nothing actually did.

The other guests filled us in on what happened. Since Anna was provoked, we don't ban her. She behaves the rest of the day without any further incident. Leroy, upon hearing that Anna won't be banned, grabs a sack lunch and leaves. (I've never seen him go within 5 feet of her since...)

Later as we clean up, Ruth and I get to talking about Anna.

"I feel bad for her. You know she has a Ph.D?" Ruth says.

"Yeah...wait! What? Are you serious?" I think Ruth is messing with me. She has before...

"Yes I'm serious, she has a Ph.D. She was one of the first women to get a Ph.D in her field here." she says.

"You gotta be kidding. What field is that?" I ask.

She tells me. I chuckle and forget about it, still not quite believing Ruth. A few weeks later, I have to run an errand in the building in which Anna's supposed former department is housed. I think about what Ruth said. Curious, I go to the library in the building and talk to the librarian. She points me in the right direction. Knowing Anna's full name and estimating her period of study from a guesstimate of her age, I start flipping through the departmental archives. I go through a few years and find nothing. I'm close to giving up, but then decide to skim through a few more years. I soon find what I'm looking for...

The bulletin is from the early seventies. It announces Anna's doctorate. She's not exactly one of the first women to get her Ph.D from this university, but she's most assuredly one of the first international women. I skim further and Anna's face jumps out at me. She's younger, not so hunched over, and has her hair in a ponytail, but the face is unmistakably hers. She carries the same blank stare as she does now. It seems to be the face of a woman who takes in the world, but doesn't quite comprehend what she sees.

Her age was in the late twenties then, which makes her in the early sixties now. I look for more details and the article offers none. I now search frantically to find out what happened after that. I find nothing. I take a stab with a Nexis-Lexis search, and still nothing. I ask around at the soup kitchen, and no one knows anymore about her past.

I start to forget about it, but every once in a while that picture pops up in my head. I just can't get over the fact that her eyes, that gaze was the same then as it is now. Is it possible that she was sick then but it just wasn't diagnosed? When did her symptoms start overwhelming her? Was she living a normal life with a job, and then somehow her disease got worse? More and more questions start flooding my mind...Does she have a family in the US? Does her family in Asia know about what happened to her? Maybe she was sending them letters, telling them about her wonderful life in the US and one day the letters just stopped? Maybe they think she's dead...I wonder if they've ever tried to find her?

I want to ask Anna all these questions and more. I tell Gus about this, and he informs me that others have tried without any luck. It's hard enough to get a straight answer out of her on simple questions (do you want soup?), but on her life it's impossible.

I guess that's one of the things I've learned working at the kitchen- there are some things in life you just can't change and have to accept, as unfair as it seems. Anna seems happy enough. She may not be in perfect mental health, but as long as the kitchen is around, she'll never go hungry. Instead of feeling sad about Anna, I choose to feel happy. Well, maybe not happy, but I just think of Leroy, screaming and writhing in pain as Anna just sits peacefully unaware...and I smile.


Blogger Steve said...

Another cautionary tale about the dangers of graduate school. I feel better. Thanks!

8:46 AM  
Anonymous katie said...

you always have to make me cry with these stories, don't you?

9:39 AM  
Blogger Ya Looblue said...

sometimes parts of people's minds are locked until you ask the right question. maybe asking her something about her former life might dpark something interesting.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Ya Looblue said...


2:52 PM  
Blogger n said...

steve: luckily, she was in a different department than ours...although it's pretty close.

katie: i do what i can!

ya looblue: good suggestion. a few people have tried extensively, and i've even tried a little myself. anna is just unresponsive most of the time. i suspect she will be continue to be this way until she starts up her meds again, but sadly she has an aversion to pills and no one can force her...

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Immanual said...

I came across your blogs accidentally. You really do write wonderfully. Keep up the writing and the good work. God bless you and all in your team.

11:40 PM  

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