LARY ANN WILLIAMS is a friend of mine. We work together as ushers at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Lary Ann is 25, 5' 4", 142 lbs., and black. Today I went to her place to interview her--room 206 of the Longacres House (for women only) 317 W. 45th St. I had to get there early because she needed to be at the Employment Agency at 8:00 a.m. Lincoln Center is closing this week until October; Lary Ann will be unemployed, with no welfare and no money in the bank.
At 7:00 a.m. I arrive. She takes me up to her room.
"You can look around all you like. I've got to excuse myself for a few minutes, and then take the trash out."
The room is small, but clean. Considering Lincoln Center only pays $54.00 a week, this is a nice place to live. There is a bed, a chair, and a bureau--the bureau graced with an artificial daisy placed in a real flower pot. Also on the bureau are hairspray and perfume bottles, 3 bottles of pills, a bottle of nail polish, a container of Finast black pepper, and a large cylinder of Diamond Crystal salt. There's also a blue china dinner plate with a snapshot of a baby on it. As I'm looking at it, Lary Ann returns.
"Oh, that's Mandy, she's my youngest. I have three children. John Paul, he's four going on five. Mandy, she'll be three years old next month. And then there's Eugene, he'll be eight on his birthday. I used to have pictures of all of them. But they were taken. I was robbed. I didn't have money to get new ones. It was a little over a year ago."
"Are you married?"
"Oh, heavens! No!"
"Where are your children?"
"Well the two youngest are in a foster home in Queens. The third one's down home with father."
SHE SHOWS me the closet, with its peeling plaster and decayed odor. Inside is one dress, two pastel sweaters, and a blanket. She closes the closet door and confides--"I've just lost about 30 lbs. I didn't lose that much in the top. I just went on a diet and started starvin'. Starvin'. No, really I got ill and that helped me a lot, my appetite with food. I used to weigh 175. Uh, I want to get to between 120 and 125. That's my normal weight. I have low blood pressure and I have to weigh that anyway, so I might as well get there now. I don't eat breakfast, not usually. Lunch, I eat usually when I'm hungry. It's not my diet, it's just me. I can lose a couple of pounds a week.
"We better leave no 'cause I got to go." We walk to the New York Employment Agency on 36th and 7th. It's 7:45 and pouring. As we walk and dodge other people's umbrellas, she continues our conversation.
"I was born and raised on a farm in Mississippi. Then our whole family moved to Jackson when I was 5. Oh yes, I liked livin' in Jackson. I started being a maid/companion when I was about 9. My mother got a better job and she gave that one to me. I straightened up the lady's house, gave her breakfast, washed her, and got her ready for the rest of the day. Miz Buice, I worked for her for 5 years. Then I had other jobs. I was dish-washer at night. I was 14 then. I didn't have any boyfriends. I quit school at 11th grade; I was goin' to have a baby at the time. At first I planned on raisin' the baby, then my father took him over.
WE REACH 36th St. The employment office isn't open yet, but already lines are forming. We decided not to wait in line in the the rain, but to go have a cup of coffee and come back when the office opens, at 8:30. At Cobbs Corner we sit down with our coffee regulars, and she resumes.
"There was 18 kids in my family. All 18 not living though. 15 are livin'. 12 girls and 3 boys. I'm the 4th oldest one. My mother was in nurses' aide training before she passed away a couple years back. My father was in an accident when I was very small. He's disabled."
"Don't be. He's better off this way."
"Well if he hadn't had that accident he'd probably end up bein' dead by now. We have our own house. We rent it for about $35 a month and we got about 8 rooms. It's not expensive. It's nice down here. We used to make our own ice cream you know. You can't get ice cream up here like that.
"I wanted to come to New York and I had a chance to so I jumped at the chance. I was 17. I didn't know anyone when I came up here. I came up here through some people by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. People put us up.
"First job I got was workin' in W. 4th St. I was on my 18th year when I went to Lincoln Center. I lived with a girl friend so I didn't have to pay no rent. Then I was livin' alone. I had John Paul in 1969, and Mandy in 1970.
"I'm not gonna have any more kids. No thanks I don't need any more."
"Do you want to get married?"
"Probably. But I don't know about that yet."
"Do you want to go back home? Do you have any plans for the future?"
I THINK I might go back down there to visit but I wouldn't go back down there to live. For one thing I've grown out of it. I'm trying to get into nursing right now. Well, I have put in at the hospital and you train and at the same time you get paid. I wouldn't usher then, 'cause I wouldn't know if they'd want me day or night. A practical nurse, that's what I want to be."
"How do you live on $54 a week?"
"Well, rent that's $31.50. How much do I spend on groceries? That question's a little bit hard to answer. I'd say about $5.00 a week. That's now. I used to spend more than that. Lately, the last couple of months, I just been havin' one meal a day. I walk by places and find bargains. It takes me about 3 or 4 hours and I like to do that. I find the cheapest place that's a good place and mostly I buy meat. I buy livers and fish. They're the cheapest things you can buy right now. Clothes? I hardly ever buy those. I have about 3 dresses now. I just bought one to wear to work; one of them with long sleeves for the wintertime. I gave one away to the Salvation Army, when I moved into this place. It seemed like what I should do.
I used to go out with my girlfriend to nightclubs. But I don't do that no more. Drinking makes me gain more weight. I found that out. At least I don't go that often. I used to work at a nightclub. I was a door lady. I done a lot of things here.
"You sure you don't want nuthin' to drink? I'm going to get another coffee. I used to drink a lot of coffee but I was told it didn't help any. Now I'm trying to cut it down."
SHE COMES back with another cup. I ask her if she spends much money on movies.
"I used to. When I was having my babies, I went to the average of 2 movies a day. I went to 42nd St., where you can see 2 movies for the price of one. Girly shows? Well I used to. They used to let me in for free. Because I was going to have a baby. I guess they felt sorry for me. I mean it's hot and you don't have anything to do, so I would go to the movies. But not much anymore. I don't see the point anymore.
"Now I'm just tryin' to save my money for my children. I want more than anything in the world to have my babies back here with me together.
"I get to see my children about once a month. I go see them in the home. John Paul was 18 months when he was put in; Mandy was about 3 weeks old when she was put in. I hope to get them back this year. Eugene? I don't worry about him. He's fine. He's with my father. He's in the third grade this year.
"My two youngest, they don't call me Mommy. John Paul, he's gotten so he calls me Lary Ann. And Mandy, she just looks at me. She doesn't call me anything. At first it upset me. But than I realized that that meant they had more. They had 2 parents. They had to call one of us something else."
It's now 8:25 and we go back to the employment office. As she goes up to the counter. I say "good luck." She smiles back at me with a smile that can only be described as condescending. After signing in, she rejoins me to wait for her turn.
"What kind of job are you looking for?"
"Let's see. Mostly they just have ticket takers and matrons. But I'll take any job; any kind of job in New York I bet I worked in."
"Any kind?" I ask. "You've never been a prostitute, have you?"
SHE LAUGHS. "You don't really call that a job. I don't really have a name for it. If I come up with one, I'll let you know. Some people like to earn their money that way, and I say hooray for them. It's not my type. My mother was a Baptist."
"What were your parents like?"
"Well, my father was her 3rd husband. And with him she had 18 children. When she married my father she was in her early twenties. She had 2 pair of twins in the family. One pair lived. I was told I was a twin. Can you imagine a boy lookin' like me? My mother was a hard worker. The only thing I can remember about her was when I used to run away. I wouldn't ever go that far. I used to run away all the time. That used to be my other name, besides bookworm. My mother never knew it because she was working during the day. But I always went home in the evenin' when I got hungry. My mother used to wait until I was asleep in the bed and then she'd beat me for running away.
"My first love when I was coming up was books. I used to read all the time. Fairy tales, what else? My brother came in--from Utica, he was the oldest--and he brought home dirty books--You know adult books. I used to play hooky from school and get his key from under the mat and go in his room and read those good-lookin' books. I tell you I really thought I had it made then."
IT'S HER TURN. She disappears through the door, and is gone for an hour. She comes back discouraged.
"They want somebody who speaks Spanish, you know? Another language. I just speak English. That's enough for me. I got to find some day work (as a maid) or somethin'. I don't have any money past this week."
We leave for Roosevelt Hospital, where Lary Ann plans to apply for a position as a nurse's aide. It's almost noon, time for me to leave. As she goes up the stairs, and I leave for the bus, she tells me,
"I want to do something important with my life, you know. I think maybe if I won't be a nurse I'll be a writer second. I want to do something important so when I'm old I can look back and say I did it because I wanted to and not because I had to."