photo: Cornelia Kopp
When I was in my early 20’s, strung out and living in Las Vegas for the second time, I met a girl named Carol. A homeless prostitute from New Jersey, she was sweet and funny in a gruff, streetwise tomboy sort of way. We met through the circle of transient addicts that I was spending my days with at that point, and formed the fast bond of street-siblings that often occurs among the desperate and the damned.
I liked her. She was rough and crude, but with a dream still left inside her. She would get excited about simple things; a few extra bucks from a generous client or a nice outfit scored from the discard container out behind the Savers thrift store, and her face would light up with a smile and a contented laugh. Sometimes we’d talk about our lives before the streets and she would seem happy, recalling projections of her past the way she wanted to remember it. Skirting the conversation around most of the treacherous dark water and clinging giddily to the highlights, the times of carefree independence and joy. There was a kind of knowing sustenance in it; we would breathe life into the present by repurposing our transgressive past.
Most of the people I knew in the streets were like that, actually: frayed and weary, but vital and possessed of a particular kind of survivor’s optimism. Many of us had put ourselves in the position to be there — we didn’t want to work, didn’t want to try, didn’t want to grow up and participate, but preferred instead to scuttle around the edges of society, pilfering what we could to survive and protecting our drug-lust like a sacred idol no matter what the cost. But there were so many others, too, who were out in the cold through no fault of their own. The sick, the crazy, the shadow dwellers — all those who had slipped through the cracks while no one was looking, who had gone untended or unseen while the neglectful mechanics of the civilized world were playing themselves out in homes and schools and institutions all across the many cities and states and towns that reared them. Yet even these poor souls would flash a cragged smile and their eyes would light up with life if you took the time to talk to them, to share something as simple as a conversation and a hand rolled cigarette or a 39 cent taco from the stand up the street.
I was staying in a shabby apartment house a few blocks off the strip, which I was paying for by way of a succession of manipulative, guilt-laden phone calls to my mother who had not as yet figured out how to ignore my narcotic insanity. Carol and I struck an arrangement in which I would let her sleep and take shelter at the apartment in exchange for contributing money for food, drink and drugs. We quickly found an easy rhythm — I’d spend my days out hustling and scavenging with the homeless junkies and Carol would spend her time turning tricks for the various Johns on her roster, then we’d meet at my place where she’d shower and get cleaned up while I made some sort of beggar’s meal. We’d get high, eat, and talk a while before nodding off next to each other on the cheap full-size mattress that was included in my weekly rent.
We were never physically involved. It was a relationship of emotional proximity and guarded vulnerability that allowed us to share in a measure of solace, each clinging to the ballast of momentary companionship as we struggled to survive the madness our disparate afflictions. She was a child of abuse and violence, and I one of willful self-loathing and faithless defiance. We were, truly, a gift to one another. In that time and space, each was the only one who really “saw” the other, and in that we were afforded a reminder of our humanity in contrast to the monochromatic pallor that hung heavy as a shroud all around us.
Often in the night I would wake to hear her grappling with the carnivorous demons of her dreams. She would jolt and thrash, protesting in a low moan and muttering echoes out of her past.
“No, no, Momma, stop it!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be bad, I won’t do it anymore!”
I would lay there, horrified and helpless to assist, holding the fragility of these unseen traumas in my mind and heart. I dared not put an arm around her for fear of sending the wrong message or triggering a physical outburst, but my every instinct was crying out to take action, to help, to console; to fix. And there was my own fear and emptiness to contend with. I was also weak, longing for relief and understanding. In the absence of a means by which to truly alleviate this turmoil, my divergent sadness seemed to suggest that physical comfort was the only token at my disposal, that if I could open my arms and absorb her pain in some way I could somehow show her that it was ok, as if I could protect her and we could both be safe and free from the tyranny of our fermenting grief.
These thoughts came and went quickly, and they troubled me. I pushed them away, recoiling from the impulse and knowing that it wasn’t the right answer, that you can’t fight a chemical fire with an electrical fire, but still feeling that I should do something.
As I lay there in my paralytic state of sympathetic existential uncertainty, I somehow found the space to contemplate the greater scope of the moment. She was caught in the psychic damage of her experience and I was drowning in a deluge of emptiness and there we were: lost, human, together. Who was I to say that she needed to be saved? Or that my instinct to exchange comfort was to be rejected as necessarily wrong? What value judgments was I placing on things that were beyond my control or understanding, and why did I feel compelled to rush to action? Here were two fragile, wounded people trapped in the shadows of our dereliction and living outside the frame of normal society in a fugue of fear, pain and isolation, and we knew each other. Did that knowing require an attendant solution? I was her witness and her safety, and she mine. Perhaps silent recognition was all we had been called there to provide.
For a brief time we found something between us that was greater than the sum of our fears. In our own peculiar way we became family, lending to one another’s survival.
There are any number of meanings I could extract from my experience knowing Carol. I will most likely never know what became of her or where she is now. In the years following I would think of her from time to time, wonder if she made it out and found a life she could live with as so many I knew during those years did not. I have also thought of my own shift in that experience, traversing the spaces between the purgatory of fearful isolation, the conflict of polluted empathy, and the acceptance of powerless solidarity.
When I began to transpose these experiences onto my current life, and onto the realm of coaching and leadership work in which I now find myself, they at first seemed an ill fit. In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort coaching myself to overcome the idea that I don’t belong in this new world, that a person with my background could hardly be one to make a meaningful contribution to a field populated with such experts as I have encountered in the realm of business and leadership, people who really know how to create, manage, and sustain success.
But given a space of objective curiosity, I began to see that the core values and operating principles I assimilated during those long dark years were frequently absent in the professional world I grew into after my emergence. There was often little in the way of shared purpose or mutual support beyond the essential task at hand. All too often I would encounter results being sought to the exclusion of a drive for sustainable principles, or a lack of attention directed to deepening the connection between the passions and attitudes of the individuals and their ability to lead, thrive and contribute to the greater picture.
Sometimes the work of leadership is to look inward. Sometimes the work is to join. Sometimes the work is to witness. All these require us to continuously develop our capacities to listen, to learn and to concern ourselves, to make ourselves available – in the right way at the right time – to those who might be carrying a weight which we can not feel, can not fix, and can not comprehend.