Anything But Ordinary
I am a writer.
Regardless of how many times I say it or in how many reviews I read "William Northrop Bradshaw, author," I never grow accustomed to seeing my name accompanied by that title. Those words are instead my link to a time and a place far removed from book tours and the minor literary celebrity that comes with publication.
I'm not sure how that gossip columnist discovered my "dark secret" of a hidden, lost summer spent in partial confinement at the Liberty Street Home for the Elderly and Infirm, but the story--or at least versions of it--have found their way into print. Now I am forced to confront not only my past, but also the myths that have evolved. Some have speculated that I was a delinquent, a miscreant in want of firm parenting. Others write that I was a sociopath barely diverted from a subversive lifestyle by the heavy hand of justice. One intrepid if somewhat creative reporter suggested that I was a murderer.
All of these things, these "facts," are false. Yet, in some subtle way, I admit that they are all true. Regardless of which version of the truth you choose to believe, the fact remains that, were it not for a fateful day almost twelve years ago, I might never have been a writer, diverted by chance or necessity to some other career, perhaps a shopkeeper or a bureaucrat or a teacher.
My story doesn't begin with a bang, a letter from a publisher or even with a brilliant idea. Instead, the march that led me here began in a city so fantastic, so foreign, that to a boy of twelve, for three short months, magic was still possible. The summer of 1990 marked the passing of the final vestiges of my innocence and childhood.
The extraordinary people I met during those brief months took the blank conscience of a young, frightened boy and molded into him the ethics and values they had spent six lifetimes perfecting. I might never have known the people of Hall B, might never have become what I am today had I not made a single mistake over thirteen years ago, a mistake that cost me a summer and gives me this story that I have, until now, refused to share. Long before I was William Northrop Bradshaw, author, I was Billy Bradshaw, convicted vandal.
This is my story.
Someone once said New Orleans is a city comfortable with her age. Modern conveniences weave themselves into the tapestry of the city, turning her trolley cars and Jazz funerals into anachronisms. ATMs and coffee shops dot the corners of the French Quarter paths through the Vieux Carre and into the Garden District where, by some miracle, my mother found the money to send me to an exclusive, private school. So, each day after class, I set forth on a crosstown trek that took me through the heart of the city to the tiny apartment Mother rented a block or so from Esplanade and the antebellum crown jewels of New Orleans.
Summers in New Orleans aren't hot. They swelter. So it was with much reticence that I stepped off the bus and started the final hike of the school year down Esplanade, bolstered only by the promise of a lazy summer under the air conditioner. About two blocks down, I came to the boarded up Georgian, her fluted columns growing darker with grime each day.
The tropical jungle back yard of this abandoned wreck backed up to the parking lot of our apartment complex and, for the last nine months, had made an easy shortcut from one world to the other. After so many treks through the overgrown boxwoods and too-tall hibiscus, I knew by heart the way to the solarium at the back edge of the property. On this particular afternoon, the sun beat down in that particularly brutal way it always does in the first heat of summer. Gold rays bounced off the glass, momentarily making it gleam before the grime showed through. I came to a stop, squinting against the reflection.
I don't know what came over me, standing there on that day, but it was a feeling that began at my feet and grew upwards. Nearby, part of a branch had fallen from a dying tree. It was heavy, the bark worn smooth, but still solid. In my hands, it was transformed into a Louisville Slugger. A couple of chunks of paving stone, pried from the walkway, became hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs. There, in that backyard, I became a New York Yankee.
"Now up to bat," I blustered in my deepest announcer voice. "Number thirty-three, Billy Bradshaw. He checks the bases, all good."
I tossed one of the stones into the air and swung. It landed at my feet with a thud. "Strike one. Bradshaw takes a minute. The runner on second has a pretty serious leadoff. Here's the pitch."
The second rock ricocheted off a cast-iron column and flew into a nearby bush.
"Foul ball. He's not doing well, here, and there's a lot on the line. Bottom of the ninth, two strikes, bases loaded. This is what it's all about. If Bradshaw can pull it off, come through, knock a homer, the Yanks take the series," I said. "Here's the pitch!"
The stone sailed through the brief space between the solarium and me, cut through one of the panes and continued traveling, taking with it glass on the other side. I throw my hands into the air, yelling in jubilation, "Home run! It's a home run! Yankees take the series!"
I slowly turned in place to the direction of the voice. Perhaps, in the years since, he's grown in my imagination. Or perhaps I've remembered it correctly and the police officer standing behind me was nine feet tall. Either way, my feet had grown roots into the soil and simply would not follow my brain's instructions to run.
The juvenile court judge stared down from the bench across the bridge of his glasses. My mother sat beside me, impatiently tapping her foot. Since our arrival at the courthouse, she hadn't said a word. The judge glanced back at the file before him, then back at me. He heaved a sigh and tossed his glasses onto the folder.
"If I were your father, Billy, you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week. But I'm not. So listen here. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this summer you will report to Liberty Street Nursing Home. They will be expecting you at eight a.m. tomorrow. If you miss so much as one day, I'll send you to juvie for a year. Got it?"
"Yes sir, Mister Spurgeon."
"Your honor," he said sternly.
"Yes sir, your honor. I didn't mean anything," I said.
"Miss Bradshaw, I trust that you understand the seriousness of this matter?"
"Yes, your honor."
"I'll need to see you and counsel in chambers, Miss Bradshaw. Billy can wait here."
To this day, I do not know what Judge Spurgeon said to my mother, but when she returned, she took my arm and led me from the courthouse in silence. The only thing she said to me that night involved what bus I would take the next morning to get to the Liberty Street Home for the Elderly and Infirm.
Her name badge told me her name was Camille Roberts and that she was the director of nurses for the Liberty Street Home. But the manner with which she greeted me told me that Liberty Street was her show. She read the letter from Judge Spurgeon again before handing it to her assistant. "Ain't this just the damnedest?"
While the assistant read, Camille studied me again. "Vandalism huh? I ain't got any room for vandals in my home. Ellie, what am I going to do with this?"
"Miss Camille, seems pretty clear to me that Judge wants him back on the Row."
"I know that, Ellie. I can read, same as you."
Ellie leaned over the stack of files on her desk and winked at me. "Don't pay her no mind. What's your name?"
"Billy. Billy Bradshaw."
"Nice to meet you, Billy."
"Don't get too attached," Camille said. "I'm sending him back. I can't put him on Hall B. They'll eat him alive."
"Miss Camille," Ellie said. She laughed, but it didn't help set me at ease. The thought of going back before Judge Spurgeon, telling him that they sent me away, and then being shipped off to juvie was enough to send me into a panic.
"I'll do anything you want me to. Just please don't send me away."
Camille read the letter again and heaved a sigh. "I swear, that man--fine. Leon!"
An orderly appeared in her door, the mop in his hand leaving a trail of suds into her office. When she growled at him, he propped the mop outside the door. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Would you mind taking Billy back to Hall B for me? I'll phone Emily and let her know you're coming."
"Yes ma'am, Miss Camille," Leon said. Camille eyed the suds on the floor and Leon nodded. "I know, I'll clean it up when I get back."
Leon started out of the office. When I didn't follow, he stopped. "You coming or not?"
The halls of the Liberty Street Home stank of mothballs, disinfectant and urine. Most of the residents were confined to their beds or reclining in chairs. Behind half-closed doors hid dressers piled with old photographs, unmade beds in need of fresh linens, televisions tuned to soap operas. One old man sat on a roll-away toilet by his bed while an orderly changed the recently-soiled sheets. The man sobbed, repeatedly apologizing for dirtying his bed again. The orderly ignored the man, his attention instead focused on the music blaring through the headphones covering his ears. A woman padded down the hallway, her left hand clutching the safety rail. Her gray house shoes slid across the floor in six-inch increments.
Leon waved. "Hello, Mrs. Toddman."
"Hello, Clifton." She motioned us over. "How are the children?"
"They're fine, Mrs. Toddman. Growing like weeds. See you later!" Leon started off, but she stopped him. "I have something for you in my room, Clifton. Come by later."
She shuffled off down the hall, chuckling.
"Your name isn't Clifton," I said. "It's Leon."
"So? Mrs. Toddman thinks I'm her yardboy from two gazillion years ago. Mrs. Toddman thinks that this is her old mansion in Pittsburgh and that Ellie is her long-lost daughter." Leon laughed and continued down the hall, but I didn't follow him.
I felt sorry for Mrs. Toddman, for her confusion about where she was. I also wondered how anyone could ever mistake the halls of the Liberty Street Home for a mansion in Pittsburgh. When he realized I wasn't behind him again, he stopped.
"Look, kid. It's because she's old. There's a man over on Hall C thinks we're in an army barracks in World War II. Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
He pointed down an empty hallway. "The Row is at the end of this hall and through the double-doors on the left. Tell the girl at the station who you are. Her name is Emily. She'll tell you what she wants you to do."
The hallway leading to Hall B was dark, and the echoes of activity from the other end of the Liberty Street Home barely found their way to the steel doors separating Hall B from the rest of the building. Even the rancid smell of nursing home had faded, leaving the air almost breathable. As I crept toward the doors, the muted sounds of a trumpet tickled my ears. There was music playing somewhere on Hall B. I pressed my ear to the door. Someone laughed. I cracked the door just wide enough to stick my head inside.
Just as Leon had promised, a girl sat behind a small desk reading Cosmopolitan. Bleached blonde bangs protruded from beneath a baseball cap embroidered with Greek letters. Oblivious to the five people seated around the table only a few feet away, their laughter and the jazz blaring from a stereo in the corner did not prevent her from answering the ringing phone. "Hall B? Hey baby. Take me to the movies tonight. I want to see that new Julia Roberts movie. Okay? See you then."
Before she could return to her magazine, she saw me in the doorway. "Can I help you?"
I eased through the door. The hydraulic closure yanked the handle from my hand and slammed the door behind me. I froze under the sudden scrutiny of six pairs of eyes. "I...Miss Camille said I should come back here?"
"Billy, right? Come on in, and I'll introduce you to everybody. I'm Emily, by the way."
The people at the table watched with hawkish curiosity as I approached. Emily's voice strained under the burden of condescension. "Everybody, this is Billy. He'll be spending some time on the Row with us. Billy, these are the residents of Hall B. This is Miss...." The phone interrupted Emily's introductions. She sighed.
"I'll be right back."
"Don't rush yourself, dear," said the woman Emily had been about to introduce. With Emily's back turned, she grabbed the pink scarf around her neck and mimed hanging herself.
The man to her right snickered. "Be nice, Anne." He stood, offered to shake my hand. "You'll have to excuse our Emily there. She's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but we manage to keep her in line."
I shook his hand, then turned to the woman in the scarf. She smiled. "Anne Moore, sweetie. Call me Anne. That's Louise Kearney. The Louise Kearney," she said, indicating the woman across the table from her as if the name warranted recognition.
As it quickly became obvious I had no clue who her friend was, she shook her head.