Claudia Ann Seaman Awards for Young Writers, 2017, Creative Non-Fiction
1st Honorable Mention: Olivia Alger, Lake Bluff Illinois
One night, when we were homeless, a woman invited us into her place for cool water and olives. She had wide hips and crepe paper skin and she was leaning in the entryway to her brick apartment building, a cigarette pinched between two fingers.
“You kids look tired,” she said.
It was midsummer and we’d been walking for hours down cobblestone streets through Boston’s North End, looking at the brick buildings where people spent their lives. We were wandering around with nothing but a pocketknife, change for parking meters, and less than twenty bucks for dinner.
“We’ve got cheap food,” the woman said. From the bottom step we looked up at her at the thick wooden door. She swatted smoke from her eyes and waved us inside.
“Come on. We’re the best place in town.”
Inside, it was dim and cool. Frosted glass lamps hung from the ceiling and yellowed newspaper articles about the neighborhood hung on the exposed brick walls. The floor dipped below the windows and the white drapes were pulled closed, dust motes floating in the sepia toned air. Small square tables covered in white tablecloths were crammed in the tiny room. The floorboards were uneven, and in the back of the room, a checkered curtain separated the dining area from the kitchen. A group of older men and women were huddled in the back talking in hushed Italian, and Frank Sinatra played softly from hidden speakers.
All our belongings were packed in the powder blue minivan; we’d been wandering around homeless the whole summer, guided by people who would let us in. Back in the thirties some relative of ours had built a log cabin out there on a grassy knoll in the White Mountains. It’s a national forest preserve now, but my grandmother stills owns that plot of land, so we headed out there, looking for a place to rest for a while. There’s no heat there, no air conditioning, just the smell of mothballs and pine and the high altitude breeze to cool us during the day.
We stayed there for a week and now we were on our way back to Chicago to look for a home, wandering around and spending the last of our money on nights in cheap motels with smoky carpeting and peeling wallpaper, eating dinner in the basement of an old woman’s apartment. When we got back to Chicago we’d stay in Jimmy’s carpeted basement, on Frances’s second floor, maybe even in Rick and Sue’s garage. A strong network of people had our backs, but still, we were battered with bad luck.
All four of us – my mother, father, brother, and I – grappled with depression, running on parallel tracks of desperation. But we’re optimists. We make the best of everything. Life’s an adventure. We were getting there, trying to bounce back to our carefree selves, but it’s a little hard to recover when you’ve got nowhere to live.
The woman, after slipping behind the checkered curtain, reappeared with a ceramic plate of olives. “Something to take the edge off,” she said. Hanging on the wall beside our table was a framed family portrait of three kids, all with blond hair parted in the middle and denim buttondowns straight from the seventies. The woman braced her hand on my mother’s chair and planted the other one on her hip. “Have an olive,” she said. “Tell me your story.”
We stayed in the restaurant for hours. The woman brought out four heavy bowls of pasta, a bottle of red wine, and three more plates of olives, all with reduced charge. She stood by our table as we ate, asking us about where we were headed and telling us how she had arrived there.
Her voice was smoky and thick, weighted by a heavy Italian accent. That hospitality, that willingness to open up and share life with us, was what kept us going that summer. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember those olives, how real and savory they tasted. We hadn’t felt that comfort in a while.
We wandered to our car later that night, the air dark blue and soft. It was still parallel parked against the curb and still powder blue. It carried the burden of nearly everything we owned, was plastered with bumper stickers and powdered with dirt. But it was home for now. We’d been taken in and warmed up, reminded again of the kindness of strangers and its far-reaching impact on the human soul.
Mr. Davis writes: Olivia’s piece bursts with careful observation, strong description, and storytelling. She makes wonderful use of simile and metaphor, and deftly describes her sense of place and displacement –the feeling that comes with homelessness. Ultimately, she writes of faith in the kindness of strangers and assures us that it’s possible to feel comfort in an often uncomfortable world.