Public Breakdown: Throwing Beer, Provoking Bitches and a Teenager

I’m in the shoe aisle at a Ross store on the cell phone with my daughter, who’s home alone on this Sunday afternoon. Do you need a new pair of tennis shoes? “No, that’s okay,” she says. “But, mom, something weird just happened.” I hear vulnerability in her voice, an emotion she rarely reveals, and I become apprehensive. I put a pair of red tennis shoes back on the shelf, and sit down on a fitting room bench to listen. By the end of her story, I’m alarmed at what could have been and relieved that she’s dodged one of life’s arbitrary bullets.

Nico, who is 17 and had spent the night at her friend Olivia’s house, was dropped off a few houses away from our house. As Nico walked on the sidewalk, a woman driving a dark blue VW bug pulled up along the street’s curb. The woman opened the car’s driver’s side door, and quickly stepped out. She then rushed around the back of her car, across the parkway, stomping towards Nico. The woman was holding a medium-sized paper coffee cup, yelling loudly and gesturing angrily. “You fucking bitches be provoking me!” she bellowed, looking at Nico, who had never seen the woman before that moment. When the woman was about three feet away from my daughter, she threw the contents of the coffee cup, which turned out to be beer, at Nico’s head. Nico turned away just in time so that the beer missed her face, but landed on the back of her head, and splashed down the back of her jacket. Her apparent goal accomplished, the woman stalked back to her car and drove away.

When I get home Nico says she’s okay, startled still, but all right. She’s a reticent girl, and not given to expressing emotions in conversation. To soothe my anxiety and think, I take our dog for a walk, taking my usual route which leads past a new low-income apartment building. Incredibly, I see a dark blue VW bug parked on the street outside the building. And there’s a woman sitting inside yelling loudly. Two teenage girls with backpacks walk by the car and the woman shouts at them. “Excuse me? Is there a problem?” one of the girls says defensively to the woman. The girls keep walking. I’d been behind the girls, and now I walk by. The woman is still yelling, but she appears to be talking into a phone. When I get home I describe the woman to Nico. She says it’s the same one who threw the beer.

The next day, the VW is still parked on the street and I write down its license plate. I had planned on filing a telephone police report that day, but Nico was in school until late afternoon, and when she got home she was sweating through an overdue Hamlet essay. I let it go.

My co-worker with whom I drive home everyday lives in a townhouse next to the new block-long 73-unit “affordable” apartment building. What was once an open field with a small used car lot on the corner is now Sherman Village, a $24 million, three-story development. (Two-bedroom apartments rent for as low as $559 a month, according to a state tax document). I admit my friend and I both felt some bitterness towards the building’s tenants. L.A. is an expensive place to live. We both work full-time jobs to pay the bills (as a single mother, she actually works two jobs to pay her rent). No one is cutting us any deals.

When people moved into the building last September, my friend predicted the tenants would soon destroy its pristine looks. I didn’t argue against the prediction. I had never seen such new and stately low-income housing. When I told friends about the beer-throwing incident and that it appeared the woman lived in the new low-income apartment building, they shook their head knowingly. The tenants were life’s rejects, they said. People who couldn’t make it on their own. I didn’t disagree. It was for prison paroles, recovering drug addicts, immigrants who “knew” how to play the public-housing game, or single moms living on their children’s welfare checks. In my own mind, I conjured up images of loitering young men in baggy pants and the building quickly being made ugly by rough and careless use. But none of this has come true. There’s not much going on when I pass the building except routine daily life. There’s no one hanging out, the sidewalks are clean, and the only loud sound is from the children using the playground. The city must be in deep need of these types of places. There’s a 1,200 person waiting list to get in.

I’m still not sure if the beer-throwing woman lived in the building or was visiting someone who did. I saw her again, though, a few weeks after I saw her shouting at the two teenage girls. This time, she was in one of the driveway entrances to the apartment building’s gated  parking. A boy, about 9 years old and dressed in a school uniform, had gotten out of her car. The parking lot gate, which is opened with a remote key, was still down. I don’t know if he went into the building alone and she left, or if he was going to get the gate opened. When I saw the blue VW bug it was usually parked on the street, but once I did see it in the parking lot.

Then one evening a week later, walking past the building I saw her VW bug parked on the street. She was not inside. What I saw on the car made me stop and take pictures. On the car’s back window, someone had used neon-colored window marker to write a personal and public message. A phrase that the beer-throwing woman had yelled at my daughter was written in the message. The sentences were legible, but they distinctly conveyed that the person who wrote them was in distress and not thinking clearly.

The message on the beer-throwing woman's car.

The message on the beer-throwing woman’s car.

The message is addressed to “Mike,” but his name is crossed out with an “X.” “Mike” is also written three times at the bottom, but, again, it’s crossed out. “You talk about Jeuses. So I know you talk about me. Keep on provoking me. You spend a lot of time fucking with me. Go take care of your kids. Lowlife. Get your life. B. Mind your own business it’s the best way Bitch. You mad. always Been. I’m not going to entertain you.”

Once at home, I look at the pictures, studying the writing on the car. This woman is mentally ill, I conclude. Prior to this, I had thought her assault on my daughter was due to drunkenness. When I saw her yelling at the teenage girls, I thought she was in the midst of a personal crisis. Now, I believed she had a drinking problem, was facing an ongoing personal crisis and had had a mental breakdown. The realization that this woman was seriously unbalanced, in addition to being drunk when she attacked my daughter terrified me – even more than I originally had been. I thought of the mentally ill woman who pushed a man in front of a train in New York. The thoughts of how bad the attack on Nico could have been nearly make my heart stop.

I thought about calling the building’s management to report the beer-throwing woman’s assault, and warn them that she’s acting bizarrely in public. But I don’t. Instead, I double my feelings of gratefulness that my daughter was not physically harmed. I touch her hair more often. I more frequently tell her and my husband that I love them.

It’s been almost two months since I saw the beer-throwing woman’s message scrawled on her car. I haven’t seen her or her VW bug since. I don’t know if she moved from the building, or if the people she may have been trying to see or knew moved from the building. I wonder if she is okay. I wonder if the boy that was with her that one day is safe.

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5 Responses to Public Breakdown: Throwing Beer, Provoking Bitches and a Teenager

  1. justmonika says:

    Bravo, well done! Marilyn, you have such a gift for communicating thoughtful and provoking (okay, uncomfortable) subjects with eloquence and style. Ultimately, living in Los Angeles means you will have a brush with the mentally ill that live among us at some point along the road. You certainly voiced the inner thoughts that most of us grapple with (I know that I struggle with) — the discomfort, the fear and yet compassion for our less fortunate neighbors. It doesn’t help when one of those “less fortunate neighbors or homeless” end up on the evening news due to a violent altercation. We have to be sober, vigilant and alert (yet strive for compassionate balance.) You’re a great mom and writer – good combo — hope to see more!

  2. briandeagon says:

    A good story, Marilyn. You provide us snapshots of life in LA. Keep writing and I will keep reading.
    Brin

  3. Goatsong1 says:

    I took the liberty to add the comment of my friend David Rutherford, who wrote his response on FB;
    Your piece underscores the growing need we have to address mental health issues at all levels. It’s not just a problem in LA. I see mentally ill people all the time in San Bernardino where I work. Most there are homeless veterans.

    My younger brother is mentally ill (paranoid schizophrenia) and was institutionalized when he was younger. For the last 12 years he has lived independently in Long Beach. He doesn’t drink but he does get into it with people, with his political and religious views.

    I’m his legal conservator for one reason: if he is picked up and taken to a temporary mental facility, he’s on the street in 72 hours. With the conservatorship, i can have him held there longer until I’m able to get out there, pick him up and take him home.

    In order to reduce costs, the courts are letting more of these people live on their own if they can demonstrate an ability to function independently. My brother is fighting his conservatorship. In the past, a judge has denied his appeals because he refuses to take all of his prescribed medications. Now he wants a jury trial and the judge has told us he functions well enough on his own that he could convince a jury.

    My worst fear is that some day he’ll have a confrontation that will end tragically, simply because someone didn’t understand his disposition.

    For years, I’ve been trying to get him back into a permanent facility but the mental health system is strained to the point where, unless they have committed a serious offense, they are out on the streets.

  4. Goatsong1 says:

    FB comment from Megan Martinez Gann: I applaud your ability to control your emotions during what would have been an emotional moment for any parent. To think before reacting is a very mature attribute a majority of people never receive. Also I appreciated how you saw and expressed both sides of the poverty spectrum when it came to the people who can’t and the people who won’t when it comes to government assistance.

    Keep tagging me in your posts! I love reading your blogs

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