Who are we, that we can so easily turn away in response to pain and need and sorrow, with the taste of death so fresh in the air?
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, June 7, 2021
“Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.”— Willa Cather writing about Mary Magdalene
I met a woman today who was out of her mind.
She was quiet and tender, a bit like trying to talk to a lost child in the middle of a chaotic carnival. She had the look of someone who was afraid you might hurt her, like many others who had come before. She didn’t know who I was. Hell, I’m not even sure she knew who she was.
I called her Mary, though that’s not her real name.
But now I can’t get the song “Mary,” by Patty Griffin, out of my head. Mary made me think of how we treat those on the fringes of sanity. Those hanging on by a thread. The ones who reside in the skid row motels of places like Rio Grande, New Jersey. Surrounded by liquor stores and despair. Starving to death in the shadow of endless wealth. Shriveled and parched mere steps away from an ocean of water.
In the song, the legendary recording artist Patty sings hauntingly,
Our Mary was born in Montana forty years ago. According to a distant aunt reached by phone, at one time Mary was a functioning member of society, a strikingly pretty young woman who got straight A’s in school, had a good job in the city, who went out with friends. But darkness was never not too far below the surface and eventually it came for her.
Her mother suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, and Mary lived with her in a disheveled motel in what was described as “squalor.” Her father had since passed and after her mother died, Mary who had herself become unstable, became homeless. Her brother, who also suffers from mental illness, kicked her out after she “clogged the drain.”
At some point, Mary was given a bus ticket, presumably to get rid of her, and she ended up in Atlantic City. From there she made her way down to Cape May and ended up on a bench outside of a shop, surrounded by bags. A few locals took her under their wing, and began to try to help her. First providing her with something to eat, or a bottle of water, and eventually building up enough trust that they were able to get her to social services and find her temporary shelter in a motel.
Temporary housing in a cheap motel filled with drunks, addicts, and other mentally-challenged individuals is not exactly a long-term solution for someone like Mary, who appears to be schizophrenic, possibly with a multiple personality disorder, as well as post traumatic stress.
Some of those who have attempted to care for her believe she has suffered from sexual trauma at some point. Her Aunt, who has tried to help her over the years, says that Mary had never had sex to her knowledge, but that she might have been raped while hitchhiking.
Since coming to Cape May County, Mary has lived on the street as well as in a variety of shoddy motel rooms. The last one she was staying in, she left after a large, menacing man who lived next door to her, welcomed himself into her room and made himself comfortable on her bed. She hasn’t been back since and refuses to return. She hides her face when you ask her about it.
So today Mary is sleeping beside the dumpster in a parking lot, on the ground not far from a mattress that was thrown out due to bed bugs. All her worldly possessions fill two shopping carts, a collection of junk only valuable to her. She has no one left in the world. The aunt and uncle that once tried to help have done all they could. Local advocates for the homeless worry that she won’t make it if she doesn’t get help soon. They fear she will be raped and killed. Maybe worse.
I am with Cricket Denton, a local pastor who learned about Mary from someone in her congregation. She asked me to come along. We’ve called everyone we can think of. Everyone says the same thing. If she’s not a threat to others or herself, there’s nothing they can do.
This strikes me as particularly callous and willfully obtuse. If you found a six year old living on the street, would your response be the same? This is more or less the situation we’re in with Mary. She’s a child living on the street and there are bad actors in the shadows and the night is coming.
It seems defiantly short-sighted that the only two criteria to whether or not Mary deserves emergency care is whether or not she is a danger to herself or others. Not that she might be vulnerable herself. If she was a threat, we could do something. Because she is merely in peril, there is nothing to be done.
Mary is legally blind and has been hit by a car twice while trying to cross the street, at least one time, landing her in the hospital. She has food stamps she doesn’t know how to use, and she’s now to the point where she hasn’t showered in days and can’t care for herself.
We are far beyond the walls of safety where money for rent or food can save her. She needs institutional help, medication likely and intense psychiatric care. She needs to be protected from herself, but mostly from others. This idea that the only those who are dangerous need help is pitiful. Where is the good samaritan who will help her? Who is the neighbor who will care for her?
We are out of reasonable options. We are now looking for legal help that will allow us to force the powers that be to do something human to help her. We are now looking at the unreasonable options. What will it take to force our local government run by wealthy businessmen to act? We fear it will be her death that causes them to act. Too late for Mary. Too late for us.
The sun is setting and Mary sleeps next to a dumpster. Help is well within our grasp, but we need hearts that are willing to see her. To see Mary as she once was, a human being with promise, not the discarded body that lies there on the concrete.
If you have any information on how to help Mary, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard