The Women’s House of Detention
THEY said the woman had escaped during the night, squeezed herself through window-bars, shimmied down the building and run. They said you could still see some drops of her dried blood on Greenwich Avenue.
After school we rushed over. Yes, indeed, there were some dark red stains on the sidewalk. It was thrilling. A prison outbreak, one block from our very own P.S. 41; maybe she was even hiding in the neighborhood.
I had never paid much attention to the Women’s House of Detention, except to be aware that it was ugly, with barred windows and sharp angles, an out-of-proportion insult to the small brownstones and townhouses nearby. There was a high chain link fence around a cement courtyard, not a tree or a plant in sight. You instinctively crossed the street rather than get too near it. Now I stared at it frequently, before and after school. Once while I was looking, an arm emerged from a window, and a hand waved at me. There really were people living inside, “detained” women. What, I wondered, did you have to do to be detained? What was the next stop on their journey?
Sometimes, during the next year when we all moved on to junior high school at P.S. 3, I dreamed about her, the woman dripping blood on the pavement as she fled down Greenwich Avenue in the dark. Was she a murderer-murderess sounded too British—or just “loose” like Patty Esposito, who had B.O. and wore lipstick and Capezio ballet flats and put her chewing gum under her desk and wore wide black elastic cinch belts and see-through nylon blouses with her slip and bra clearly visible underneath the skimpy ruffles in front. Once in the Girls’ Room I heard her talking about “making out” and I tried to imagine what that might be, but my imagination failed. I did know, somehow, that the women in the dank and decrepit House of Detention had probably “made out” when they were teenagers, and I was not anxious to join their rank and file. Patty also smoked. The sweaty armpits of her amply-filled angora sweater and the stale smell of tobacco on her breath hinted at a life more complicated than worrying about a report on Geography and Culture of the Fertile Crescent. I never wanted to be in Patty’s shoes; I didn’t want to be sent to a house of detention, much less a real prison.
A prison was a thousand, a million times worse. A prison was a building like Sing-Sing, the fortress in the town of Ossining, that my mother and I passed by in a taxi on the way to visit my little sisters, temporarily living in a foster home. Blank walls, small windows, people in cages. Why did they call it Sing-Sing? Nothing about it suggested singing, or musicals like the ones my own dad took me to. And why couldn’t my mother find an apartment and a job, and have all her children at home? Especially someone who had invented the word “Togetherness” and been an important editor at McCall’s magazine. What was a nervous breakdown, and why did my mother have to have one? When would she be through having it? When she was ready to bring the twins home, did that mean her nerves weren’t all broken anymore? I looked for signs, any signs at all. But we just kept taking that train ride.
When we arrived back in Manhattan after those long trips to Ossining, I never felt like singing. Nor did I feel like crying. I just felt numb. I wanted to erase the image of bare tree trunks, and the long empty streets of Ossining in December, and the faces of my sisters looking out at us from their foster home window when the cab arrived to take us back to the train station. If only Patty Esposito was a friend of mine, a good friend, we could go for a smoke and find a couple of guys who knew how to “make out.”
From the next room, where she sat reading the Saturday Evening Post and eating a Milky Way, a few tendrils of smoke curled forth and I knew by her silence my mother was feeling pretty much the same.