An Oral History of Myself #11: Ashley

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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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Ashley – Artist

I put myself in the group home. I was in the therapist office with my mom and I said, “I give up. I’m not going to try anymore,” meaning getting along with my mom, and he suggested the group home. To me it was a terrific idea.

Whatever relationship I had with my family wasn’t positive for me and wasn’t going to change. So my mom drove me to the group home. I had a sleepover so I could see how it was. My primary worker was Melissa and there was a meeting with all the girls and staff and there was a girl threatening the hell out of her. You know how the group home is. There were rough edges. I was seventeen.

When I first moved in everybody was telling their story and why they were there and it made me think maybe my situation wasn’t so bad. But the moment I moved in was like this huge thing off my chest, like a new beginning. I remember Mike Block saying that I didn’t belong in the group home. He said I talked different. But I felt very comfortable there. It doesn’t mean the group home was great, it was just better than where I was.

I met you at a holiday party in the Rosenberg independent living group home. I was eighteen by then and you were sixteen. You were with Pat, outside smoking. You had crazy hair.

The time after that I was at your house with S. No one liked S. You guys came in and made some comment like, “Why are you here with him?” You meant he wasn’t as cool as you. But he played the piano and I played the piano. He said he wrote a song for me but it turned out to be a Billy Joel song. Something about burning the candles at both ends. Somebody told me later he committed suicide.

You were already sober when we met. You used to do readings at the open mic night at the No Exit Cafe every wednesday, which I thought was really cool. Your poetry had to do with drug addicts, drugs, and a little sex. You were sensitive, but you didn’t want to show you were sensitive.

I played piano at the No Exit once. I played something I wrote for Deanna, but she was outside with John somewhere. You were there. I was wearing a hat and you said, “I like you better without the hat.”

I didn’t realize Deanna was the love of your childhood at the time.

I lived on the first floor at Rosenberg. I was private and there were two other girls that were private. We were all Jewish, probably the only Jewish girls there. There were two pianos in the basement and I used to play down there all the time. The group home was like a sorority house, constantly going up and down stairs and talking talking talking. Except with a lot more violence. Though I don’t think Rosenberg was that bad. I loved it. That maybe says something about where I was.

One of the girls, Colleen, was a lesbian. Colleen and I went to an Indigo Girls concert and she saw a staff member there and they made out. She felt like she should tell what happened and that person got fired.

A lot of the girls needed a mother figure, maybe I needed a mother figure too, but their weren’t any. The staff wasn’t that much older than I was, mostly in their early years in college. Some of the girls were really challenging authority and needed a role model. You don’t necessarily get that in the group home. The group home isn’t a solution, it’s just better than being on the streets or in other places. I was in the home two years but I would have stayed longer. They told me I had to go because I was 19. My welcome was expired.

Anytime I was thinking that I might die you were usually around. After I moved out of the home I was with you and Deanna and we went to the beach. Deanna didn’t swim so she stayed on the shore. It was around 11 at night and we went a little further than we should have and got caught in an undertow. I didn’t realize what was happening at the moment and you said, “Ronit, start swimming back,” and I couldn’t. I started freaking out and you were very calm. You picked me up from my waist somehow and threw me. Then we must have been holding hands or something, you were pulling me back. Deana was waving and smiling. She thought we were having fun and I was saying, “No, no. Help!” There were buildings and their were lights up and I saw some people looking out. I was waving and screaming and you said, “Why are you asking those people for help? They don’t see you.”

I moved to Rogers Park and I continued with Columbia College. I had a scholarship but I forgot to hand in some paperwork. I was a kid and I didn’t hand in something that was supposed to be handed in so I took a hiatus and started working in an antique mart. I met a guy there and he put a ring on my finger made out of a twenty dollar bill. He was 50 or 60 years old and said if I would go out with him once a week he would pay for my apartment. I did go out with him one time. We went out for dinner and he got so drunk he couldn’t walk. I told him I was not going to go home with him, I was going to take a cab, and he gave me $100 and that was the last time I talked to him.

After the antique mart I started working at Creative World, where I met my husband Jonah. We were together four years before we got married. We got married on the beach and you gave us a bag of weed for a wedding present, but somebody stole it. We’ve been together seventeen years. I feel lucky to be in a strong relationship. My favorite place in the world is next to Jonah.

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