In Providence

In Providence: The Queen of Providence

She didn’t want me to write about her.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me.  She gave me permission, but she had no interest when I pitched my idea to her.

The Queen of Providence

“No, no,” she said, “That’s not me.  That’s not who I am.”

I assured her that I’ve gotten used to disguising the identity of the person I’m talking about. But you’ll probably know who she is if you know who she is. We’ll call her Mrs. D.

She lives on the West Side of Providence, right near the Columbus, and while I would never be so rude as to ask a woman’s age, she offers it up anyway–

“I’m going to be 82 next month,” she says. “Don’t ask me if I feel it. I certainly do feel it. Been feeling it for a while now. But I’m all right. Glad to be here, glad to be anywhere.”

She has a way of speaking that makes her sound like a Catskills comedian who’s bombing and doesn’t seem to mind.

Mrs. D lives on the second floor of a three-family house that reminds me of the house my grandmother lived in when I was growing up. My grandmother had the third floor, but Mrs. D’s apartment has more than a few similarities to hers, including a drawer full of nothing but pens and a warm light that seems to emanate from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

The floor throughout the apartment is multi-colored fading carpet, including a kind of off-mustard in the living room where she has me sit on the most comfortable couch I’ve ever sat on in my entire life.

I have a biological reaction to being in this place where Mrs. D has lived since she was 21 and newly married. I feel as if I’ve not only been here before, but that I’ve been here all my life.

“I try to keep a comfortable home,” she informs me, as she hands me a plastic red bowl of orange slices without asking if I’m hungry. “You’re home all the time so you can’t be crawling out of your skin. You have to be able to settle in. A lot of people settle in here. I’m used to having company.”

She’s underplaying it.

Her apartment is one of those wonderful transitory places that hosts just about every kind of person you can imagine — and some you can’t.

While writing this piece, I spent several evenings with her on the recommendation of a mutual friend who told me there was this woman I had to meet, because she’s “a real f***ing character.”

Mrs. D laughed when I told her how she was described to me.

“That sounds about right,” she said. “Never met a lot of people like me.  Thank god for that.”

She invites me to check out every nook and cranny in her apartment except for her bedroom — that was off-limits. But there was another bedroom — a guest room — that she was happy to show me.

“I have lots of people stay here,” she says, patting the baby blue comforter. “This was my son’s room.”

When Mrs. D was 58, she lost her husband to a heart attack. A few weeks later, her only sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away within a matter of months.

Her only child — a son — became a fixation for her. The focal point of her life. He had been addicted to drugs since he was 15, but somehow, he’d hung around for years, seeming to beat all the odds. He got clean — with a lot of help from his mother. He relapsed. They fought. He left. She didn’t see him for over a month. He came back — worse than when he left. She helped get him clean again. This time it stuck.

A year after that, he went to sleep one night and never woke up.

“That was a long time ago now, but it doesn’t feel like it,” she told me. “Doesn’t feel like it at all.”

Mrs. D. saw a lot of kids like her son over the years. She was a public school teacher for her entire professional life, and she tells me that the “bad” kids were always her favorites.

“I should have known something was wrong with me. The good kids? The ones who did like they were told and got good grades and did their homework? I never cared for those kids too much. I knew they didn’t need me. I was drawn to kids who needed me. Who didn’t have a good home or parents to really love them. Those were the kids I kept coming back to. The ones I thought I could save.”

She saved quite a few.

Against what I presume is every rule about teacher-student relations, Mrs. D. would take in a number of students over the years after they were kicked out of their own homes for a variety of reasons. That was how my friend met her. She was his teacher, and when his parents kicked him out of the house because he decided to start identifying as a man, Mrs. D told him he could sleep on the most comfortable couch in the world for a few weeks until he graduated.

And that’s what he did.

“My sister wanted kids more than anything. Never had them. She could never understand how people — these lucky people who had kids — they toss them out when the kids aren’t just what they want them to be. Broke my sister’s heart when she never had children. I’d tell her that I was seeing all these kids whose parents didn’t want them anymore and she could never understand that. I couldn’t either.”

I asked her if she would have been fired if anybody had found out she was housing runaways, and she said a few of her co-workers did, and they would give her old clothes or extra food to help her help the kids.

“One of them — I had this girl — I won’t tell you her name. But she — this was back in the ’80s. She got herself in trouble. But she wanted to have the baby. I helped her out. I had another girl come to me and she — she didn’t want her baby. Her parents — both their parents — they were very upset. They didn’t want anything to do with their kids after that. One girl stayed here until she could get her own place. She had the baby. The other one didn’t. She stayed here for almost a year. I let people stay here for whatever reason they want. I have room. If you have room, you share it. That’s how I was taught. We were a family around the table. And there was always room at the table. You hungry? I feed you. Because I can. You understand that? Because I can.”

The runaways are few and far between these days. Mrs. D’s been retired for years now, but it hasn’t stopped guests from stopping by for dinner and late-night talks about everything from politics to the president to good movies to bad movies to what things used to be like to how they’ll never be again.

On one Saturday evening, two guys covered in exquisite tattoos and a chain-smoking woman with burgundy lipstick were all sitting at Mrs. D’s rickety kitchen table picking apart a rotisserie chicken while she fussed around them like it was Thanksgiving and they were college kids home on break.

“She takes good care of us,” the woman said in between cigarette puffs. “She takes good care of everybody. You wouldn’t believe some of the people who walk up those steps. Celebrities and everything. She had the governor here once.”

Mrs. D. clarifies that it’s not the current governor, but yes, once upon a time, the most important person in the state was sitting at the same table I was eating her tuna casserole and telling her it was the best they’ve ever had.

She offers to make me that same tuna casserole and when I — as politely as possible — tell her I don’t like tuna casserole, she just laughs at me.

“That’s because you haven’t had mine,” she says, with a confidence that tells me her tuna casserole would end up being my new favorite food. “I know everybody says that, but trust me, you’ve never had mine.”

I ask her how she feels about being a sanctuary for so many people. I counted 12 who stopped by in just a few hours that Saturday night — not counting the three I shared a chicken with while a shopping channel played in the living room.

They weren’t all memorable, but then again, one of my faults as a writer is that I sometimes fail to recognize what makes someone memorable.

But Mrs. D?

She’s unforgettable.

It’s not just a sentiment.  It seems built into her DNA.

A man came in and she asked him about his divorce. He started to say something to her, but immediately got choked up. She pulled him into an embrace, and helped his head onto her shoulder. The man had at least a foot and a half in height on her, but he collapsed down into her as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

She was facing me while she consoled the man, who was whispering something to her about his wife and his young son and how hard things have been, and when she looked over at me, I motioned to her, indicating that I was going to sneak out and let her have some privacy.

“It’s all right,” she says, seemingly half to me and half to the grown man in her arms. “You don’t have to go anywhere. This kind of thing happens all the time. Nothing to be ashamed about here. Nothing at all.”

The man stayed right where he was — in the middle of an 81 year old’s kitchen on a Saturday night trying desperately to stand on his own, knowing that until he could, he would be fully — and unconditionally — supported.