THE POSTER ON THE WALL
When I was young I didn’t have a clear vision of a future for myself; or maybe I just didn’t care about what was going to happen to me. There are several reasons why I didn’t keep souvenirs—keepsakes is probably the right word—that would remind me of the bittersweet time, a year and a half, August, 1974 to January, 1976 I spent living alone on a shabby street in South Oakland. I don’t have any regrets about that time, in fact, I look back with satisfaction and pride, but I used to wish, until recently, I had cared enough to save a poster, the poster, that I bought on my first evening alone at 3450 Ward Street-- the portrait of a woman, the one that watched over me.
I had been dumped along with some second hand kitchen ware, a set of sheets, and seven boxes of books, by my parents, my mother and step-father to be exact, on the doorstep of my two-room apartment. I had been hanging around their house in the suburbs for a year, a newly-divorced young woman of 24 with few job skills and no plans. It was time for me to leave. I had been offered a job as file clerk in the basement of Mercy Hospital which would pay the rent and telephone bill with enough left over to buy groceries.
After my mother and step-father left, I unpacked and had nothing to do. So I drank most of a bottle of cheap red wine an acquaintance had given me, and not feeling intoxicated (which surprised me), walked along Forbes Avenue to the University of Pittsburgh. There was an art exhibit going on; that is where I found the poster, the portrait of a woman, the one that watched over me. I rolled up the poster, brought it home, and, using cellophane tape, stuck it onto the wall facing the couch where I sat (and slept when I pulled out the bed.)
It was a painting of a slightly plump young woman with red hair. She wore a tight black dress and she wore black shoes. Sitting at a tiny table on a sidewalk, alone, writing in a notebook with a fountain pen, she looked overwhelmingly French. People sat at outside tables in countries other than France, I knew; however, her expression, slightly world-weary, introspective, was the kind of look I imagined a French woman would have. I wanted to be like her. She was alone, so was I. She was removed from the whirlwind pull of life, then I would be also.
It would have been a year and a half of perfection of a certain kind except that I loathed my job. So I thought about this woman on my wall, what would she have done? She would never get stuck trundling along loaded trolleys of patient charts waiting to be filed. So I decided not to live while working in the damp basement at Mercy Hospital; I was a body filing charts, that would be all. I would come to life and be the woman on the wall at 4:30 PM, weekdays, and of course on weekends.
I decided to embrace my solitude. I couldn’t even think about meeting any men or having friends. My mother and I were going through a period of exhaustion of sorts, the exhaustion of having tried to be mother and daughter and failing resoundingly. I had my telephone for several weeks before calling my mother with my new telephone number. Solitude was a closed door, something to be feared, and avoided most of all. But the woman on my wall was alone so I opened the door of solitude and found, not monsters or devils or pain, but a kind of soft white light where I was weightless and clean.
Human relationships made me feel dirty. Look at what happened between me and my ex-husband, Mark? We had been such devoted and rebellious lovers and students and now look at us. It was not that I hated everybody and was looking for escape; that was negative. I just wanted to be by myself for a while and lick my wounds.
When I think about the small apartment on Ward Street and see it in my mind’s eye, I can see bright sunlight coming in through the front windows. That was my plant window. My aunt Maxine wove macramé plant holders and had given me several; the plants thrived there, almost blocking the view. Also, I remember a white door in the kitchen leading out onto a fire escape; I mounted a large piece of cardboard there and wrote out my favorite quotations so I could see them every day.
To remove myself further from the world I knew, I wore men’s bluejeans and over-sized shirts. I resisted the urge to go on a diet to lose weight, to become slender and attractive to men. Grocery shopping on a Friday evening became an enjoyable rite, and I made certain that I had all my favorite foods available; the two rooms and a bath on Ward Street I kept clean and welcoming for myself as if I was the guest. Saturdays I roamed around Oakland, looking at records in the music stores, sometimes buying myself a present of a new album. With a rent of $135 a month, a tiny telephone bill, no car, and groceries for one, I could afford presents. I would also, with a voluptuous pleasure, arrange my finances so that I could go out to a nice restaurant for dinner. The women who seated me at these places always said, “Just one?” “Yes,” I would answer. “One. Not just one.” I would smile brilliantly as I followed along to my assigned seat, carrying a novel by D.H. Lawrence tucked under my arm to read while I waited for my dinner to be served. I relished the thought that DHL would have been proud of me. I was like one of his heroines, dissatisfied with modern life, weary of sterile relationships, living in solitude bravely while waiting for something or someone authentic to come to me.
It was exactly the way it should have been. I have had periods, as we all do, of feeling that I could have done better than working as a file clerk, could possibly have gone back to school, etc. But at this age of 60 I know better. When I visit Pittsburgh I always drive or walk along Ward Street and give 3450 a loving glance. My heart warms and vibrates, bathed in the memories of myself at that time, alone, valiant, a true pioneer.