Can You Give Until You Break?August 11, 2015
Angela was chauffeured to our place by way of a federal probation officer. Hmm—what did that fact signify? Some would think that she was “from away”—another ex con, freeloader, coming to the “nanny state” because of all our rich and easy benefits. Many would cringe and feel trepidation. And don’t miss the federal probation part—she was a convicted bank robber. Now ask yourself—would you want to rent an apartment to a convicted felon, one who had done federal time? Would you think of befriending her? Lucky for us who work in a homeless shelter, we’ve had enough experiences with people to know that the advertising labels, good and bad, are frequently wrong.
Angela was born in the County—Aroostook County, to those truly from away. Her home town remains one of those places that has you feeling you’ve traveled back in time. With fewer than 500 residents and more than 35 miles from the nearest “city,” available work is mostly physical (woods and farms), there are no streetlights and only one stop sign, and Drake’s Hardware is where the different groups hang—old men early mornings, high school kids late afternoons—so it’s a place where everyone knows which couple just broke up, whose aunt was just diagnosed with cancer, and where the Higgins family may have lost their cat. So while Angela came our way more from Manhattan than Northern Maine, and arrived with the categorizing and damning baggage of having done federal time, she was more a wounded country girl than a human detonator.
That is not to say that Angela didn’t have her own history of having done unto others. But the average person, if given access to her complete story, the one with the angry father and submissive mother, the one with that night of too much alcohol and Jimmy Dion’s rough hands and mouth, and the one having an accurate description of Angela’s intelligence and good heart and her need to get away and find some place with more and different people—the average person would not have found her to be contemptible in any way.
Angela was young and bright and just needing to get away when she left Maine and took up residence with three other women in a two-bedroom apartment in the least desirable part of Manhattan. After a couple of years of temp work and waiting tables, she managed to secure a decent position with a good firm in the import export business. And within another two years, during which the company’s leaders occasionally watched her in action and followed up by reading her evaluations, Angela was promoted to Chief Training Officer, responsible for seeing that all those in the company’s front lines communicated professionally and productively. She could now afford a decent apartment, a wider range of suitable clothing, and at least some of the activities that NYC offers. What she and thousands of others did not realize was they were about to be given a front row seat to the smoke and fire, chaos and loss that was “Nine Eleven.”
Angela found herself walking around late that morning, surrounded by sirens and dust and ash and fear and misery. She had to help. She had to do something. Over the course of the next few days she couldn’t go to work and she couldn’t stay inside the apartment—she had to keep walking the streets. She started seeing notes and photographs attached to everything, all over the place. “Call this number if you know anything about my son, Sam” (with a photograph—almost every announcement had at least one photograph). “Help me find my daughter—please!” Has anyone seen this man, my father?” Angela took action and started giving her money away to anyone who seemed to be hurt, lonely or bewildered. When her purse was empty she returned to the little stash in the cookie jar and took that to the streets. When that was gone and surrounding her was a staggering amount of pain that needed healing, her sore and tired feet took her to the nearest place she could get more for helping—a bank. She to this day cannot clearly recall what she said to the teller, but this was just a few days after we were attacked in a way never before experienced, and all nerves and systems were on highest alert. And so Angela went to jail. And in jail, Angela got traumatized some more. And finally she was allowed to come back to Maine.
I do not know how to predict what Angela’s quality of life will be. Some have judged her for what she did—indeed, our system judged her harshly and saw that she was seriously punished. I do not know how I would have fared if I had been in her shoes. There is little doubt that she suffered.
About a month after she found her own housing she came by to pay us a visit—dressed to the nines in professional, chic Manhattan workday clothing. She approached the counter, enjoying the jaw drop looks on our faces, and said, “I just wanted to give you a glimpse of what was.”
Angela has lived quietly, safely, appropriately and charitably in this region for almost a decade.