Helga came to the US after WWII. Aracely's mother came from Mexico and now cleans hotel rooms. They meet in a Los Angeles jail cell.
Eydie Gorme Was a Little Spanish Girl
There was no more romance in LA and they’d kept her for hours and she’d never been a patient person–never! and her hands hurt, swelling in the plastic cuffs. Who were all these people? A man she couldn’t see somewhere in the back said, “They’re taking us to Guantánamo!” People laughed.
“I went to Havana,” she said, “back when everyone went,” but now it was different and no one answered and the bus was parked outside the police station and there she’d sat since they transferred her from the back seat of the black and white and left her with her bags on her lap.
A cop came up the steps.
“Officer! What is this delay?”
“No room at the inn,” he said, “not till they process through some felonies.”
“Officer!” Helga usually spoke the plain, blunt, even vulgar English words, but in such official company, guns, uniforms and all, how could she put it? “I must make water,” she said. “Now.”
He ignored her but then the woman came, name on the badge--Ortiz and Ortiz said “I’m not supposed to,” then nosed clippers between the plastic and her skin and cut her free. Before Helga could say thank you, Ortiz did. “Thank you for what you’re doing.”
“You are most welcome,” Helga said.
“Those people deserve a union,” said Ortiz. “They should have had one years ago,” and so Helga realized the thanks had not been meant for her.
“Leave your personal items,” said Ortiz like a flight attendant and led her inside the building and to a door and unlocked it. More than a dozen women there. The ladies room, always the same.
“What are you waiting for?” said Ortiz.
For the toilet was not in use. There it was, stainless steel, in the middle of the room. The indignity of it. But the birds make do with a fountain or a dirty puddle, she thought. So: Down with the panties, the first use of her freed hands. Then, no soap, no paper towels, just a sink.
“This is not sanitary!” she said and someone said “Careful!” but too late. She turned on the faucet and like a fire hose, a hydrant, cold water shot full force across the room. Helga was soaked.
Then she was taken back to the bus for her bags and then to a place like a garage or polling station and sent to the young man at one of the tables. Young enough to be her son, her grandson, great-grandson if she’d ever had a child. Badge: Rodgers.
“I’ve been waiting hours!” she told Rodgers, and thought, without fear, without pride, I’m being booked!
“So, Mrs. Meinke...”
“Helga. Please call me Helga. I am not married.” Don’t feel sorry for me, she thought, I was a mistress many times. But she couldn’t say it, he looked so innocent, and look, a wedding ring, and surely a cop could not afford a mistress.
“You ever have hepatitis?” he asked.
“Could I have a towel? To dry myself, please.” His eyes darted, alarmed. Not in his script. Very well. “No. No hepatitis.”
“VD?” and he answered this himself. “No.”
Charming, the archaic term, but how presumptuous. “Do I look careful to you?” she said, “or celibate?”
He blushed, eyes lowered over the form.
“I have no STD,” she said.
More questions, how nice the give and take.
“So, uh, who do you like?” he said.
“The Dodgers in three.”
“No,” he blushed again. “You like men, women, or both?”
“Oh, you mean sexually,” Helga said. “Men,” she said loudly and yet, even she could tell, without conviction. “Not all men. I guess...write there men.” That tattooed man was kind, but most men? “Most men these days I do not like at all.”
“Look,” he said, “it’s just for housing.”
“You mean I go in a cell with men? No, I think I am here to be punished, so if I say men, you put me with women?”
“You’ll be with women tonight, until you go to court or get bailed out. You’ll be all right. Don’t be afraid,” he said.
She smiled, cheerful, reassuring. “Ach, I know what is a police state. This is not. Yet....So tonight, even if I like women, or men and women, tonight I am still with women?”
“In the holding cell. Don’t worry,” he added. “They’ll put you with the protestors. Or the misdemeanors. No one violent. Have you ever escaped from custody?”
“I have never before been in custody.”
“Have you ever assaulted a police officer?”
“You mean sexually?”
He was bright red even before she winked.
She was shown down a flight of stairs and to a seat. A row of chairs. There were women wearing red armbands and some wore yellow. In the dark bus she had not been able to see this. And stuck on their clothing some had stickers: I am a human being. Or, some: Soy un ser humano.
A cop said “What exactly were you protesting?”
“Not a thing!” Helga said. Unless this. “I protest that feeding the poor birds is now a crime.”
“I have nothing against demonstrations or liberals per se,” the cop said. “I hate the paperwork.”
They all had an opinion. Well bully for them. An older one said, “Working this division, you’re dealing with the worst of the worst, earning your pay. You people? Public nuisance, failure to disperse. You’re not worth what the city’s paying in overtime.”
A woman at the end of the bench complained. “You can see how they enjoy having power.”
“Will we get jumpsuits?” someone asked.
A cop said, “Only if you’re wearing something with a drawstring, something you could use to hang yourself.”
That made the women laugh.
Someone said, “At least they’re not putting us in goggles and hoods.”
The old Mexican-looking woman was shackled to a bench. Was she dangerous? No, it was the diabetes, someone said. They think prisoners escape faking illness.
The women held their booking sheets inside plastic covers. Helga held hers. It looked fine but the girl in overalls was angry. “What the hell does this mean? Race: O? What is that? Other? Oriental? What kind of racist crap. If they wanted to know what I am, why didn’t they ask?!”
A blond with dreadlocks made a fist. “White? I am not white!”
Caucasian, that’s what hers said, and Helga could have been mad–not Caucasian, but German! Her address in Beverly Hills–correct. It said she wasn’t suicidal or mentally ill. Rodgers could tell so much just by looking! Public nuisance, is what it said and some numbers. As though she had done wrong. Who told that place, that café, that they could take a public sidewalk and place out there the tables and the chairs! Out comes this man, so-called, in short sleeves and bow tie, this metrosexual.
“How dare you!” she said to the man. “How dare you call the pigeons dirty!” He was stamping at them, waving, scattering them, making them coo and burble amid the beating of their lovely wings. “Leave them alone! If they had toilets, they wouldn’t have to shit where you don’t like.”
He shoved her. She shoved back. But the police arrested her.
She’d felt sorry for the cop, a young Chinese-looking cop. Wang. They were all so young these days.
“You were warned,” he said. “More than once.”
“Oh, sir, officer, have pity on my gray head!” Which would be gray if she didn’t keep up appearances and she was trembling, her accent came back with a stutter because she watched the news, she knew all about the LAPD–brutality!–but it occurred to her she had hurt the man’s feelings. How must it make him feel to be so feared as he cuffed her, she was shaking so!
Poor men, poor little men, she thought, to see how a helpless woman fears them. Just hours before her arrest–my arrest, she thrilled--a Chicano or at any rate, some kind of Latin, approached her unless he was just approaching the corner. All those tattoos! She knew don’t stiffen, don’t show unease though after so many years in the United States she still didn’t always know how these things played. Black men were said to be very sensitive about women who clutched their purses tighter. But if I don’t hold these bags tight, they will drop, she thought. And maybe it was different for Chicanos or whatever. Maybe they never stopped to think about it or maybe when they happened to be gang members, understanding of course–she tried to be fair always even in the privacy of her thoughts because she knew how these things could get out of hand, understanding, she underlined the point: not all men of Latin American descent belong to gangs, but when and if they did, maybe they found it gratifying to see civilian pedestrians exhibit fear.
She’d stepped off the curb when the traffic signal said WALK and the tattooed man grabbed her by the back of her sweater as the SUV ran the red light and he pulled her just in time out of harm’s way.
Her bags dropped and she cried out.
He handed them to her. “Bird seed,” he said.
“Yes, I feed the pigeons.”
“Ah...” He smiled. “I had pigeons.”
And evening came and she was in the police car and in the rearview mirror she saw the golden sky. The Chinese cop Wang was driving. He put the handcuffs on her, no, not even cuffs, something plastic, like the tie you would use on a big bag of trash.
A Mexican-looking girl took off her sweater. “Here. Dry yourself.” How kind. “Were you with us?” the girl asked.
With us or against us. Isn’t that what they always say these days! She had her own way of judging. Helga wiped her skin, dabbed at her damp clothes. Do you have a heart? That was what mattered. Some do and some don’t–no matter who, no matter where they come from. Sometimes she saw these very hard men in business suits, wealthy men, but if you follow them, there! you see they are feeding the birds. A big fat black man–you see him feeding the pigeons. A very serious Asian. The Mexicans. Like this kind girl beside her on the bench, maybe.
She returned the sweater. “Where are you from?” Helga asked. “I come a long time ago from Germany.”
“I’m from here.”
“I mean before...Mexico, am I right?”
“Well, my mother...” said the girl.
“You see, I know. You people sing about the birds. How does it go, that bird that’s all alone like me.” But the pigeons lived in flocks. And this girl with not quite an accent, so young with her serious dark eyes. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’m a citizen.”
“Sure you are. I mean in jail.” When I came here, Helga thought, the people in jail belonged there. “It used to be different in this country.”
The girl answered her, “That’s what they say.”
“Thirty-five years ago it was all romance.” Fifty, actually, but she was used to saying thirty-five. “You meet a man and the next weekend he flies you to New York and you stay at the Plaza Hotel and dinner at 21 Club and dancing at Mocambo.” The girl probably never heard of these places. “Have you been to New York?”
“One of these days, I hope–”
“Not worth it now. Then– when romance was always in the air! I got to hear Eydie Gorme. You know her? I love her. She sings in Spanish. I was so shocked to hear that. Eydie Gorme turned out to be a little Spanish girl!”
The little Spanish girl stared at her.
“I am Helga.”
“Aracely,” said the girl.
“When I was young like you, I cared nothing for animals,” she said. Hard to believe. Sick animals should be put to death, she said right to his face, to the veterinarian who took care of Wilbur’s spaniels. Wilbur loved those slobbering dogs. Always jumping, ruining her stockings. And the vet? He just smiled. Her accent so strong in those days, maybe he didn’t understand. Sick cannibals, maybe he agreed sick cannibals should die. “In time,” she said, “we learn to love.”
“Were you with us?” asked the girl. “At the Hilton.”
“The Plaza! The Plaza! In New York City. What’s this about the Hilton?”
“My mother works there.”
“No, no, no. No good. She must tell the man to rent her an apartment!”
What was that in the girl’s eyes. Watch out! That Latin blood.
“My mother cleans the rooms.” Each word sharp. “Non-union.”
“Your mother came to Los Angeles to clean rooms!?!?!”
“She’s a humble woman from the countryside.”
“My sister married a famous producer and what was she? A silly little peasant girl from Germany!” The German directors in LA, they saw, they knew. Which one was it told her? America has never been a classless society. It’s merely that Americans don’t recognize real class. Yes, in those days, in spite of the war and the camps, all the wealthy men--even the Reds, even the Jews--thought that’s what a German girl on your arm gave you, like driving a Mercedes, a touch of class. “Of course,” she allowed, “we were blond.” But Eydie Gorme was just a little Spanish girl, and breasts also count and the girl, Aracely, had them. And her skin. A lovely brown without visits to the tanning booth or fear of melanoma. She had assets, yes, but tough luck now there were thousands in Los Angeles just like her. “This was once the land of opportunity.”
“I’ve had many opportunities to make a sacrifice,” said Aracely. “Until today, it was an opportunity I hadn’t taken.”
The girl was so earnest, it was a wonder her own thoughts didn’t make her sleep. “My dear, my dear,” said Helga. She wanted to shake her, and not gently. Wake up! “Where’s the pleasure in that?” she said. “When I was alive–I mean when I was young, life was fabulous.” All the big Hollywood stars, she thought, and directors and producers in Beverly Hills. Wealthy men, married thirty, thirty-five years and they get bored. It’s natural. They meet you and fall in love! “You know what love is? When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!”
Aracely smiled. “The fountains play that song at The Grove.”
“One man gave me a T-Bird,” Helga said. “The next man says, Did some other man give you that? Yes, what of it? So he says, Sell it and keep the money and I’ll buy you another. But men today!” she said. “And your father?” The girl didn’t answer. Probably had none but that was nothing to be ashamed of. “My best girlfriend had two children by Tony Quinn. You know him? Mexican.”
I have seen this country change, she thought.
This cop, badge Anderson, stood over them. “Strikes only hurt workers,” he said. “I used to be a member of the Teamsters but they went on strike and I was out of work for six months and lost my home and my savings and I ended up joining the Police Department. Take off your shoelaces.”
Angry, cranky, maybe he was just tired. She was tired. Hours now, but at least the cuffs were off. She rubbed her bruised wrists. She said, “I love this country. I have had a very happy life.”
Now she wore a plastic bracelet like in a hospital with her name. They took her bags “Will I get them back?” Her birdseed, held for evidence? They took her fingerprints with ink.
Then a room with a sticky floor and heavy glass windows filled with chicken wire and cold air blasting and there she was in still damp clothes and there were women complaining and shivering and most of them tried not to laugh when some young thing panicked and knelt by the door to shout through the slot, “Help! Someone help! We’re locked up in here!”
She wasn’t sleepy but there was a kind of empty fatigue at the back of her head, from being up half the night already–how she missed it, staying up all night, but not like this!--or maybe it was the bad air and the A/C emanating from somewhere in the holding cell, this chill that wasn’t alive the way the wind is or a breeze or the agitation in the air when the pigeons beat their wings all around you when they come to you in joy and excitement and that thrill just before they land. She would tell this story someday and tell it properly. To someone on a bus bench most likely, or on the number 20 heading west on Wilshire home to Beverly Hills. Sometimes you met nice people, sometimes you didn’t.
Where was Aracely? That’s how it went these days. You meet someone, then they’re gone.
“Officer! Officer!” The girl was shouting now. “You have to let me out! I have to get to class!”
The door opened. An angry cop said, “Don’t you understand? You’re in jail.” Then he pushed another young woman in. Everyone cheered.
She began to cry. “Who are you people?”
“We’re with the union. We thought you were one of us.”
She cried harder. “DUI.”
Problems with the drinking don’t mean you don’t have a good heart. A person can be selfish–I know I am, thought Helga, and still be good.
“There are hundreds of us! We blocked the street! It was an exercise in nonviolent civil disobedience!”
A black woman took off her shoes and began to do yoga exercises on the sticky dirty floor.
Someone said, “No better place to raise consciousness than in jail.”
Low wages. No health care. Organizers fired. Unpaid overtime. The working conditions. “It’s heavy labor now. Kingsize mattresses, triple-sheeting, duvets. Do you know how much these things weigh, having to do so many rooms on a shift?”
“I know,” Helga said. “I had a cat and when I go away for the romantic weekend, she pees on the bed. If I go away, I must wrestle with that mattress to put on the rubber sheet.”
“Who is feeding your cat while you’re here?”
“The cat is dead.” She’d forgiven Lulu for making stinky so many mattresses, but cats kill birds. A natural thing, but still....
“Let’s keep up our spirits. Let’s sing,” someone said.
“Lovely,” said Helga.
Union songs. No one knew. Freedom songs. No. Motown. We are all different generations, you see. The one with dreadlocks and tattoos who said she wasn’t white, that one said, “The Sound of Music!” and there they were Do, a Deer, My Favorite Things, those silly von Trapps they make such a fuss of who made it out during the war instead of like Helga and her sister afterwards.
The one with diabetes didn’t know the words.
“La paloma!” said Helga. “Sing with me!”
“No, no! If the police hear me sing in Spanish they will send me to Tijuana.”
“Dinner!” A pleasant woman cop gave out sandwiches in plastic wrap but look at it! Tri-color meat–striped white, brown, and green. She would not eat this. Not even a flag comes in such colors! Some of the women were vegetarians, or pretended to be, and the nice cop came back with power bars and apples.
“Don’t be pigs,” Helga said. “No waste on the floor!” But where else? No receptacle. Plastic-wrapped half-eaten sandwiches. Apple cores. Plastic cups of juice still frozen as the women shivered in the A/C. Her teeth were chattering. Notice, she thought, at my age, my own teeth!
The door opened. “Meinke! Fingerprints!”
“Fingerprints you already took.”
“These are electronic, for Sacramento, to make sure there’s no outstanding warrants.” But the machine was in use and they would have to come back.
“When do I get out?” she asked.
“In the morning, after court. Unless someone pays your bail.”
Who? She had no lawyer. “Do I get a phone call?”
They put her in a different cell. With Aracely? No. She wasn’t there, and wouldn’t it be funny if the tattooed Chicano–the man who saved my life--maybe he was her father. Her brother.
This cell had a phone. There was a sign with many rules about phone calls, but it turned out you could just make any local call for free. Not to a cell phone, though, ha ha. And at such an hour, , who could you call?
A pretty little college student used the phone. “What are you doing?...Sleeping? Guess what? I’m in jail!”
Then they were chanting: El pueblo unido, no será vencido! We’re united! Together as one! United!
Helga sighed. Always a fantasy. “Cuando salí de la Habana,” she sang. “¡Válgame Dios! Nadie me ha visto salir.”
“Stand up against the American Empire!” said someone.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” said Helga but no one paid her any mind. Oh, where was the child, to say there he is in the altogether! If there’s no empire, there’s no emperor, it’s just a lot of naked people parading around. I’ve never been ashamed of my body, thought Helga, good thing, as again I have to pee, but I don’t understand what’s become of the world.
“My work,” she announced, “has always been about beauty. Always something lovely. I was a fragrance model.”
“I’m a plus-size model,” said a girl.
“I thought you were a student,” another girl said.
“I am. To pay for it.”
“I didn’t need the money,” Helga said. “Only for fun. I was bored.”
But they weren’t listening to her.
“You’re too small to be plus-size.”
“In modeling, Size 6 is plus.”
“I wasn’t really a model,” said Helga. “I’m the one in the store who when you pass offers you the sample, spritz! spritz!”
A firm hand rolled her fingers on the scanner.
Then: “Look right at the light.” Her mug shot! She smiled. My own teeth. Then profile.
Aracely! And the woman with diabetes. We are reunited! In this new cell with strangers, neither with us nor against us, nothing like us at all! The pregnant woman pacing around the cell muttering, the almost naked woman rolling back and forth on the bench and moaning. Two filthy women sprawled on the floor, one in what looked like expensive though dirty shoes and clothes, the other in shit-smeared jeans with sores up and down her bare arms. Probably her legs too if you could see them.
Ach! To be like this in such company when one is accustomed to more exclusive society. Exclusive--still such a pleasant word, she thought, but she knew, she should know better even though she had been very very young in Germany, you start with exclusive. Next come the little inconveniences, then the uncomfortable scenes. Then the violence and the party’s over.
And she remembered: “The dog starved at the master’s gate, predicts the ruin of the State.”
The woman on the floor–not the one with sores, but the one with nice if filthy clothes sat up, glared. Then her eyes narrowed. “You calling me a dog?”
She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud. And Rodgers said there would be no one violent. Was she, even at her age, foolish enough to believe a young man’s word? “It is merely a couplet,” she said, “from when poems still had rhymes. A man I knew used to recite it.” A man I used to know. Which man? It was something Wilbur should have known, he of the spaniels, but it wasn’t Wilbur. Most of the others ran together in her mind. Which meant, she supposed, she’d never loved them. Romance, always, but not love.
She knelt beside the woman amid apple cores and plastic wrap and the smell. “You are most certainly not a dog. But how do you become like this? When a man gives you a gift, you must convert this to cash and you save this for your future.”
The woman spat in her face.
Sick animals, she thought, should be put to death.
The diabetic Mexican began to sob and hid behind Aracely.
“Stop crying!” Helga said. “All those people went to jail for you!”
“For her?” said Aracely.
“Doesn’t she work at the hotel?”
“No. She heard about the protest at church. She just wanted to help.”
“Some help!” The pregnant woman stopped pacing. “I should be going to court on the bus but they’re too busy processing all of you. I’ll be held over till Monday! Monday!”
They squeezed together, Aracely, Helga, and the diabetic. There was no room because the pregnant woman was pacing again and each time coming closer to them and the naked woman was on the bench and the two sprawled women took up most of the floor.
Helga thought, in here I will catch my death of cold.
“I am a happy person!” she announced. “And you! Stop moaning. Just make up your mind!” America gave me everything, she thought. And now I’m tired.
The only place to sit was on the toilet. Helga sat.
The pregnant woman snarled. “I need to shit.”
Helga rose. “What keeps me going is every time I see there are still people with a good heart.”
The pregnant woman paced and snarled.
“Do you know what it is to be a child in a war?” Helga said. “Well, I suppose in a way you do. But I knew, I knew through it all that someday I will have an easy life.” I was born to be selfish, she thought, and I don’t blame this on the war or Wilbur or anyone. I pursued the pursuit of happiness! Here, where you can indulge because you believe everybody can. You take what you want and believe it’s fair.
She thought it’s no good to say you didn’t know.
The door opened. They could see the clock: . So much for the bus. The cop let two more women in, one of them barefoot and shaking. He beckoned to Aracely.
“I think they’re going to let you out soon. There’s no reason for you to be in here. And you, Señora,” he said.
Aracely said, “What about Helga?”
“Is she with you?”
Aracely lied, “Yes,” but not a lie depending on what you mean by "with."
The prerelease holding cell–as good as the Hilton. Plenty of benches to lie on.
Meinke! Helga Meinke!
So many years in this country, why didn’t I change my name? Helene Manning. Holly Morgan. Heidi – no, too German.
Meinke! Is she here?
Aracely shaking her shoulders gently: “Wake up!”
Then they lined up against a wall and an officer read out the charges.
“Meinke! You’re being released on your own recognizance. Do you know what that means?” He didn’t wait for a yes. “You’re called to appear in court on October 19. You don’t show up, you’re subject to arrest.”
She signed something. They gave her back her bags. A cop cut off her ID bracelet.
“You want to keep it?” he said. “As a souvenir?”
“They’re not tourists,” said the other cop. “Throw it away.”
Someone said, “You’re free.”
Free, but disoriented. There were tunnels and several flights of stairs. The front lobby. She just stood there. Where to go? Until a cop pointed to the front door and she walked out into the morning.
So much mist in the air, Helga stared at the sun thinking it the moon full in the sky.
“Do you need a ride home?” It was Aracely. “The union is sending a van.”
“No, dear. I have my senior bus pass.” The lovely girl. “Wait!” She searched through her bags. “Here, I have samples. Perfume. Hanae Mori.” Poor little Mexican probably didn’t know that name. “Hold it straight up! Like this! Not on its side. Wine on its side. Fragrance straight up.”
“Thank you,” said Aracely. “Danke schön.” She giggled. “Auf wiedersehen.”
I’ve been to jail, Helga thought. How extraordinary.
Dry clothes. That’s what she wanted. And my Lalique! A sudden memory of all her crystal. Had she sold it? All of it? Do you have any idea today what you must pay for Lalique!
Then out the door came the young cop, Rodgers.
“You’ve had a long night!” she said.
“Ach! Wasn’t so bad,” she said.
“Me, I can use the overtime. We want to buy a house.”
His wife was going to pick him up. He stood beside her, waiting.
She reached into the 99-Cent Store bag. You’ve been warned, she thought. More than once and not just that–you’ve been to jail. But right in front of Rodgers she threw a handful of seed and at once they came–her husbands, her lovers, always happy to see her, the birds.
“Hey, look at that one! It’s beautiful,” Rodgers said. Russet and white. “I never seen a pigeon that color.”
“I’ve seen them all,” she said. There, the one with the ruffled collar. The red eyes. The white one with black banded wings. The one who looked so ordinary till he pouted out his breast. Birds gathered around her, their bodies warm and winged like Cupid.
“Stay out of trouble now,” said Rodgers. He got into the car driven by his wife.
“Wait!” she said. “Hanae Mori!” That should have been it, Hanae--her American name. “For your wife! A gift!”
The car didn’t wait and young Rodgers didn’t wave. Auf wiedersehen, young Rodgers! You have a good heart! The pigeons scattered but no matter, in a moment they’d be back, all hunger and gratitude, all flutter and coo at her feet.