An Oral History of Myself #10: Jenni

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In 2005 I began interviewing people I grew up with. Because I left home at thirteen and spent four years in group homes, my social network was significantly wider than most people of that age. What’s most interesting about these interviews turns out not so much to be the things we remember differently as the things we remember the same. Read the rest of the interviews here.

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Jenni – Patient Account Representative

I treat people the way I’m treated, with the same respect. I’m not worried about your feelings.

To me you guys were a dime a dozen. My brothers had so many friends. You were pretty much faceless, annoying people that were coming in and out of my home. You were my oldest brother Pat’s friend. But you were Brian’s friend too. All you guys just melded together. You were just a neighborhood kid.

I would hear stories about you sleeping on roofs, sleeping in people’s closets. I had a concept of you being homeless but I was so young. It was at the same time Dave’s parents died and he’s living with his grandma and getting hit by the cops. You get desensitized. I grew up thinking there’s a system but it’s not going to help you.

My earliest memory of you, I’d have to say I’m like ten. We’re driving down Pratt Street in the middle of winter and I hear my dad say, “Goddamn it,” in his usual frustrated tone. I’m like, “What?” I couldn’t see out the window because I’m pretty short. And he’s like, “It’s goddamn Stephen Elliott. He’s staggering shirtless in the middle of the street.” He stopped the car and you staggered across and he mumbled, “I should have put him out of his misery.” When we got home he told Pat you were out in the middle of the street and he should go do something. My dad thought you were going to be dead, that you were never going to make it.

We started interacting later. I was twelve and you were sixteen. You played basketball at Chipewa Park, which was just across the street from my house. You guys would play and I would go over and watch because I had no life. But I didn’t really care because I can’t stand sports.

When you were done playing you would come sit with me on the bench. You would talk to me about your girlfriends. It seemed like you were always dating somebody new. You never really used names. You would say, “So there’s this chick” or “So there’s this older woman.” You gave me hypothetical situations that weren’t really hypothetical. They were just stories you’d tell me, which always felt odd. I mean, why are you asking your buddy’s little sister? What kind of response did you want from me? I kind of thought you were a jerk when it came to women. But I liked you as a person. Not many of my brother’s friends talked to me so the ones that did were pretty damn special.

We’d talk about poetry. I started reading you my poetry because you wrote and would read me some of your stuff. You had to really pressure me to read. Not many little girls want to read their poetry to their brother’s friends who are older and have the air of mystery. I didn’t want to read my sixth grade poetry to you. And then I’d start reading and you would critique it. You would try to convince me to read at the open mic. I went once to see you. I had to sit through a lot of bad poetry to hear you read. Everybody that read got a round of applause. I decided those people were too into themselves.

You were ahead of your time in one way. You started going to school when most people were disillusioned by education. That was different for our neighborhood. I’m from a long line of dropouts. Pat dropped out the year he was going to graduate, which was asinine. Brian dropped out at seventeen. I succeeded all their dreams by dropping out at fifteen. But Brian was a hard worker. He got jobs. Pat never got a job. He was a lazy fuck.

There was this one time you asked about my boyfriends and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll date you when you’re sixteen.” Like you were going to do me some kind of favor. Like maybe I was never going to get a date. Later, when I was sixteen. I thought it was funny to say, “Well, I’m sixteen now.” And you were like, “Oh my God! Did I say that? I meant 18! I meant 18!” So I had the idea you would keep going with that.

I was sixteen when my dad died. All you guys that used to hang out in front of the house could finally get in. It progressed to this state where people I didn’t even know were drinking and doing drugs in my house. It was like if you knew somebody that knew somebody that knew us, you were OK to do as much drugs and drinking as you wanted. And if you knew that person you were OK too. There were so many people coming in and out, I couldn’t tell if someone was visiting for the day or if they had been there for a week.

I used to have other friends but after my dad died I couldn’t relate to them. You were all so fucked up that I felt normal. That’s when I met Dan. I really needed a father figure because I had to take care of myself and I didn’t know how. Someone who told me what to do, how to do it, what things were good. That was the type of person Dan was. I totally took to it. He was twenty-one and I was sixteen. I wondered why people didn’t say anything. But they didn’t say anything about Brian being raped either.

I remember being in your apartment in the other room with Dan. You and Sonja were having sex in the bedroom and I’m a virgin, lying with this older guy, listening to you and Sonja going at it. I thought Sonja was a very beautiful woman, but for different reasons than you. I think you see beauty in anger. I can’t understand that quality of you. You were always inconsistent in your affections and romantic relationships offered even more opportunity for betrayal. If things weren’t crazy for you then it was uncomfortable. Security was uncomfortable for you. Nobody ever felt that you would settle down.

Sometimes my mom would come over and be pissed that there were all these drug addicts flopping at the house. Of course she was a cocaine addict herself. She’d come over once a month and bitch. Or we’d call her once a month and tell her the electricity was out. Once a month my crazy drugged mom would complain about all the druggies in the house then go away. She died of cirrhosis of the liver, which will happen when you are an alcoholic drug abuser for many years.

There were drugs involved in my father’s death too but it’s kind of complex. He had a congenital heart defect that was complicated by the use of drugs. He was a drug addict but if you looked at him and you looked at my mother, well, there are functioning drug addicts and there are non-functioning drug addicts. My father made sure the bills were paid, that his kids were going to school. Then, after his arm got paralyzed from his second stroke, things went downhill. He got depressed and much more into cocaine. Before that he was really just into pot. My dad had the best pot in town because he worked for the government. My brothers always used to steal his pot.

The house got really run down after my dad died. Nobody had any money, nobody worked, they just came over. We would get a check from the government for maybe $200 a month and we would feed all these people. We would get the cheapest stuff and somehow feed everybody. I always thought it was screwed that the $200 I got for my father’s death, that my brothers got, was feeding a bunch of drug addicts flopping at my house.

One time John and Deanna got in the worst knock down drag out fight. It takes a lot for me to say that. John and Deanna went upstairs and locked the door so nobody could come in. They started screaming and yelling and hitting each other. It was slug for slug, hit for hit, and some of the worst things I’ve ever heard someone say to another person. And downstairs were like six or seven really dysfunctional people cowering in fear. These are really seasoned people who had all kinds of terrible things happen in front of them and usually weren’t phased by stuff. It seemed like they were remembering their own mom and dad and they didn’t know what to do. They were twenty, twenty-one years old and I remember thinking, this is fucking crazy, why isn’t anyone going in there and breaking up this fight? I had never seen these people act fearful. I think it brought back a lot of memories for each of them. Eventually the door opened and Deanna stormed out of the house. I don’t think I ever found out entirely what happened.

It went two or three years, until I was eighteen. It only ended when the house had to be sold because nobody was paying the mortgage. That was a good thing. People had to go their separate ways.

People came to that house to be taken care of and not judged. Where else can you do that?

You would be gone for periods of time, you would just kind of disappear, but you usually made the big events. When Pat married Lorianne everybody in the neighborhood was there except you. Everybody was like, “Where’s Steve?” Roger said something happened, but wouldn’t say what. It was ridiculous because there were only so many options: Steve’s dead or Steve’s sick. It’s not like you had better things to do. Everybody knew you were doing heroin. And then we found out what happened: Steve’s in the hospital. He can’t walk. People were talking about it. We were really concerned but it’s one of those things. Everybody knew not to talk about your personal life, because they knew you wouldn’t forgive them. You were a very unforgiving person and you expected absolute loyalty from your friends or you would just write them off. So it was fucked up but like everything else we were not that impressed. You almost died. It was upsetting that people would do all these terrible things knowing somebody could die at any time and no one was there for them. But nobody could talk about it. I couldn’t talk to you and say, “Look Steve. You really shouldn’t be doing heroin. It’s bad for you.” That’s not a conversation one had with you or anybody else in the neighborhood. It wasn’t appreciated and it was not received kindly. If you did bring it up you were a hypocrite, or judgmental, or the person would reply, “You don’t know me.”

If I told anybody else my experiences they would think I was fucked up. But I was less fucked up than you guys. I got to see all your mistakes. I never wanted to be like you. I became so rigid. I wouldn’t smoke, drink, or do anything. I couldn’t see anybody balancing life, having a drink socially and being a normal person.

I remember when you were going to leave for college. You came over and made this big thing. You got all these people together and said, “I’m going far away and when I come back who knows.” I didn’t really get it but you made it out like a really big deal and I wasn’t going to see you for a while.

I remember the time you tried to wash a toaster by dumping it in a sink full of water. You were intelligent but you were dumb as a stump.

Don’t’ be scared. Look at all of us who survived. That’s the thing you have to appreciate about your past. Some of these people, they get married, they have their lives, and then something small happens. They lose their jobs and they freak out. They kill people. But you can experience setbacks and be OK. We’ve learned how to survive. It can be a curse or it can be a gift that gives you the foundation to be an extraordinary person sometimes.

It’s true.

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Image cropped from an illustration by Laurenn McCubbin and is not an accurate representation of Jenni.

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Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books, including The Adderall Diaries. More from this author →