Once a Woman of Quality: Portrait of a Survivor

“I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civilized.”


There was one painting that Nancy was hoping to find. And that was, as she described it, a small Watteau in which the painter had created a forest of gigantic trees, then placed in a clearing at their base a tiny man playing a violin. Her recollection of it was vivid, although it had been many years since she first saw it hanging here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So we circled the corridors of European masters, checking this canvas, then that one, like a pair of darting fish.

In doing so, we drew curious stares from other browsers who must have concluded that Nancy was an eccentric old aesthete with her niece in tow. Had she been alone, she might have elicited a more reproving scrutiny from the guards because her ap­pearance was odd, like that of a gnome from a New Yorker cartoon. She was bun­dled in a fake mouton coat tied with a maroon sash from some unrelated gar­ment. Pulled down around her ears was a peaked red wool cap and from under its edges extended an unruly haze of hair brindled from tinting. The sourness of her face, which bore a general disgruntled expression, was quite unintentional and de­rived from the mouth, which had sunk over toothless gums. She was shy and smiled infrequently. She also had a nervous habit of squinting, but when she was at ease those muscles relaxed, revealing a most remarkable pair of blue eyes. She was old, in her mid-sixties, but her cheekbones were still high and round, her skin still Celtic pink, hinting at some beauty that this strange ruined woman must have been.

Earlier she had listened while I told her of my own fondness for museums. Nothing changes there. While friends and lovers pass in and out of one’s life, the marbles and oils ensconced in the halls of a well­-endowed gallery are constant. She did not reply to that. So I felt a little embarrassed when at length we could not find the Wat­teau. (There is, I later learned, a canvas picturing a clown playing guitar in the forest, but it has been retired to storage.) Nancy took the disappointment with equanimity, as though finding it as it had been pinned in her memory was too much to expect. And in letting go of that she went on to cultivate new favorites, particu­larly Rodin’s bronze Adam, whose neck was arched in a most excruciating posture of guilt. Nancy loved Adam instantly and ardently. It is this quality in her that I most admire, the capacity for spontaneous pleasure. And I suspect that it has been the secret of her survival.

That Nancy has survived at all, let alone with sensibilities intact, is amazing. That she has gone through some hell is clear, though the full scope of it is not. The details of her passage are blurred by her own imperfect recollection. Some episodes are quite solid, others smoke. Some, I suspect, she obscures intentionally be­cause she does not want me or anyone else to think she was a “bad woman.” From time to time throughout her 60-odd years, Nancy has lived on the streets of New York, in doorways and train stations. She has spent time in public and private shelters and she now lives on federal as­sistance in a charitable SRO on Times Square. It is a most precarious existence, since any change in her circumstance — a small increase in rent, a lost check — would send her back to the streets.

I met Nancy at a shelter called the Dwelling Place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was there doing research on the homeless — more particularly look­ing for one old woman who had, I was told, studied music at Juilliard and still played classical piano. My intent, partly profes­sional and largely personal, was to discover how a woman with considerable gifts could end up on the streets. I never did find her. She did not exist or she had disappeared in the flux of women who wash in and out of the Dwelling Place.

The Dwelling, a five-story walk-up, is run by four Franciscan sisters whose char­ity is boundless and whose resources are limited to 14 beds for homeless women. About 12 more can sleep sitting up in the living room, if they prefer, and many do. Beyond that the sisters offer breakfast and dinner to anyone who needs a free meal. The Dwelling’s founder, a casual blue-­jeaned nun named Sister Nancy, helps them fill out forms for welfare.

The sisters’ facilities are nearly strained to bursting, particularly at the end of the month when government checks have run out. Then one sees in this tiny microcosm the entire range of homeless women. It is something one does not find in the city’s shelters, where paperwork bewilders and frightens the most disturbed women, who prefer to hide from society in corners of Penn Station. Those same women, how­ever, seem to gravitate naturally to the Dwelling Place, which keeps no records and allows them to rest undisturbed. They sit side by side: the filthy deranged who mutter lunatic monologues to the air and an assortment of more composed, de­pressed, and embarrassed women, some in their twenties or younger, who for some reason have found themselves needing a bed or a meal.

The more ordinary the reason, natu­rally, the more unsettling. One heavy Ital­ian woman in her mid-thirties professed to be a schoolteacher who took her dinners here because she was having trouble making ends meet. She discussed Italian li­queurs with a strong-willed blonde woman in her early forties who said she had spent some time in Rome when she worked on a NATO base in southern Europe. She was receiving a welfare check now and her check had been interrupted. She occupied a bed at the Dwelling until she could untangle the red tape.

Sister Nancy pointed out to me the elegant old women whose careful grooming and alert kohl-rimmed eyes indicated they must at one time have been women of quality. They had lived in expensive old hotels and been pushed out by con­versions. Now, unable to accept the com­paratively shabby accommodations at the Times Square Motor Hotel, where the sis­ters try to place their chronic homeless, they will check into an expensive hotel and spend their entire Social Security checks during the first few days of the month. Then for the next few weeks they must check into shelters or sit up in stations, postures erect, trying to maintain the il­lusion that they are still ladies of quality waiting for a train.

What is strange is that these women in their helpless confusion can be so frighten­ing. One can’t approach them easily. The classic “bag ladies” hovering in doorways might prick the conscience, but they can be dismissed as the Other, species of subhumans who must somehow have brought about their own decline. When they are en repose at the Dwelling, they must be reckoned with like Ghosts of Christmas Future who presage something menacing — that one could end up just like them, elbows resting on oilcloth in the Franciscans’ kitchen. I am afraid of it. And in the weeks surrounding my visits to the Dwelling several well-fed, well-clothed, and safely housed women I know confided that they too fear ending up homeless and broken. It comes, I think, from a feeling that everything is ephemeral and that no matter how one tries to build a dike against chaos, everything — a good marriage, a bank account, friends — may be ripped away. That in the end, one is really entitled to nothing. It is probably a middle-class indulgence to ponder so excessive a ruin. During the Depression there were people who lost everything but did not lose their faculties and disintegrate on the streets. One psychiatrist who had studied the women at the Dwelling Place observed that many prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were stripped of everything and still managed to maintain their essential hu­manity. It is difficult to distill those quali­ties peculiar to survivors. But they exist in the complex person of Nancy Pomeroy.

Nancy came to the shelter in the spring of 1978 looking for a bed. After a time she was resettled in a cheap hotel room on Times Square. She now comes only for the free dinner, generally macaroni and peas or hash and eggs. It was after the paper plates had been cleared away one night that Nancy, whom I had not noticed, leaned across the table and said to me, “I’ve been admiring your beauty.” She went on to clarify that it was my hair, the angle it made at the jaw and the auburn color that she liked. Tendered as it was so matter-of-factly, the compliment was af­fecting. It was a rare overture in a milieu where I had been struggling to elicit revel­ations from women too damaged or embarr­assed to speak. So I turned to study Nancy Pomeroy. She wore an immaculate black tent dress with red and white daisies on it, neat nylons, and little black shoes with tassles. She was smoking a small Dutch Treat cigar. I asked her where she had come by this critical appreciation for color and line.

Nancy replied in precise declarations. She was not quick but deliberate. (She is a Libra, she explained, and Librans always aim for balance, although they might never achieve it.) Many years ago as a girl of 17 she had studied art, she said, at a place called the Grand Central Palace School. Her first semester they had given her a black portfolio with white paper and char­coal and set her to drawing figures of clas­sical statues. She had not realized that art might involve some tedium, and she grew bored with the white torsos. Had she stuck to it she would have moved on the next semester to oils, where the colors might have held her interest. But she dropped out after two months. She recounted this with some disgust and reviled herself as a dilettante. The outlines of Nancy’s past emerged gradually, from anecdotes drop­ped by her in conversation. She did not like to be questioned too closely. Later I found a few people who had known her family. Their memory of her was not dis­tinct but helped somewhat to flesh out her origins.

Nancy was born October 15. She will not divulge the year, but events she claims to have witnessed would place it around 1916. There is no birth certificate on rec­ord under her name. She was apparently adopted and grew up as an only child in the Queens suburb of Forest Hills Gardens. The Garden, as it is called, was a self­-consciously quaint community of English Tudor buildings modeled after the London suburb of Kew Gardens. Conceived origi­nally as an experiment to house blue-collar workers in comparative elegance, it was quickly taken over by writers, artists, and wealthy professionals. During the early part of the century it was a stronghold of Republicanism, where denizens were al­ways on guard against the twin evils of communism and flapperism. In the Gar­den a few old families comprised the aristocracy: Stowe, Marsh, Keller. The Pomeroys apparently were not part of the inner circle although the family was said to have had a good deal of money. One neigh­bor recalls them as “splashy.” Nancy’s father, who had been an officer in the war, returned to civilian life as a copywriter for an ad agency. Nancy recalls that when the war ended her father’s men gave him a silver tray with his name on it because, she said, they loved him so much. Neighbors said he died when Nancy was in her teens. Mrs. Pomeroy, who had a rough time ad­justing to widowhood, became a successful real estate agent. She and Nancy moved into one of the Tudor houses in a place called Pomander Walk.

Nancy invokes the name of Forest Hills as though it were Eden. Before her fall from grace, she grew up there in comfort among “nice people.” She was, by her own account, a “passable” beauty with clear pale skin. One of her contemporaries, later the wife of the local Episcopal canon, re­calls that she and Nancy were in early grades together at what was known as the Little Red School House. They took danc­ing classes in the foyer of the Forest Hills Inn.

She was not an extrovert but was in­trigued by “glamour.” She admired the great screen stars of the era, chiefly Joan Crawford. Every Saturday she would come into Manhattan with her mother to shop at B. Altman and Lord and Taylor. Then after “luncheon” they would catch the vaudeville show at the Hippodrome. Shapely swimmers dove into a pool sunk in the center of the stage. It was all so lovely, she told her mother she wanted to become an actress. Mrs. Pomeroy said that was fine but it took discipline.

Nancy never understood discipline. She seems to have wandered through events as a sightseer, stopping now and then to focus upon some exquisite oddity. That was apparent in her recounting of a trip she took to Europe when she was 23. Mrs. Pomeroy, having apparently despaired of persuading her dreamy daughter to go to college, thought she might benefit from travel. Nancy had come into a small inheritance when one of her aunts in Massachusetts died. So Mrs. Pomeroy booked Nancy on a tour of Europe for young ladies escorted by two old dowagers. Europe itself was in the earliest throes of World War II, but the dowagers’ tour was a civilized affair con­sisting of playgoing and teas in London townhouses. Nancy allowed herself to be carried along, not much impressed by the ostensible highlights. The passion play in Oberammergau she found a tedious spec­tacle. All that stood out to her of Venice were the orange peels in the canals. The thing that excited her was a boat excursion on Lake Como in Northern Italy to the chateau of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. In one of the upper rooms was a glorious orchid and chartreuse rug. She stood look­ing at it for as long as time allowed. It was the high point of her trip.

She did regret never having made it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and that is how our excursion came about. I asked her if she had been to the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and she said once, 10 years ago. (Nancy, I learned, had no accurate sense of time’s passage. She pegged every salient event at multiples of five years.) I asked her if she would like to go with me to the Metropolitan. The prospect of that excursion to the museum aroused con­siderable anxiety in her. She was eager to go, but impediments loomed in her imagi­nation. She did not have the “car fare.” That, I assured her, was no problem. I could take care of it. But that offer struck her as charity, and she was very proud. She insisted that she would pay me back when her check came in.

But the real barrier was less material. The Metropolitan, only a 20-minute ride by subway, must have seemed as distant and unapproachable as did Moscow to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Nancy is at­tached to her territory and apparently ven­tures infrequently beyond Times Square. She shops for sundries at the Walgreen in the Port Authority. She will browse through the bookstores in the terminal, Sister Nancy told me, putting art books on layaway. Sometimes, particularly at night, she will just sit in the terminal absorbing the scene and waiting for a “fiancé” to whom Nancy claims she is to be wed next year. No one seems to have seen this man, and Nancy herself confesses she does not know where he lives. At any rate, Times Square is Nancy’s world, and for her to venture beyond it took some courage.

On the day we had set for the excursion, I went to the Woodstock Hotel where Nancy now rents a room. The Woodstock, once an elegant old hotel with an ornate stone facade, had fallen to ruin and was inhabited by pimps and prostitutes until the mid-’70s when it was taken over by a private nonprofit charitable corporation called Project Find. It is one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels left in New York, and certainly one of the few where the elderly poor can find a room for $150 a month, the maximum their fed­eral entitlement checks allow them. But there is no place for the Woodstock or its fragile tenants in the grand development scheme of Times Square. It is, in Nancy’s words, “not much of a hotel.”

Nancy does not have a phone in her room so I could not ring up from the lobby. Curious at any rate about her accommodations, I took the elevator to her floor and knocked on her door. She opened it a crack and I could see nothing of the room, only that she was pale. She had an intestinal ailment. A friend had told her that it was probably because her room had been without heat for three days. Anyway, she could not get out and about.

I asked her if there was anything I could get her. She said she would like some Kaopectate but that she had no money. So I went to Walgreen and bought Kaopectate, stopping on the way back to pick up black coffee with sugar and some hard rolls. Nancy seemed pleased with the coffee but said she would have to soak the rolls in water or they would hurt her gums. The following morning I went to see her again, and this time she was bundled up and ready to go. Her jaw was set and she was very quiet on the subway.

Once inside the museum, she needed a cigarette. I cringed at the thought of her smoke permeating the canvases of the Eng­lish masters before whom we happened to have parked ourselves. I was also embarrassed at the thought of being chastened by an unimposing female guard standing at one of the doorways. But I said nothing. Nancy shrewdly noted the guard, weighed the risks aloud, then decided the prospective pleasure was worth taking a chance on. She lit her Salem and drew a blissful puff before the guard moved in with an admonishment to snuff it. Nancy did so without resentment. I felt a little embarrassed at having been cowed by the authorities here, and figured that in this respect, at least, Nancy must have an ego made of rawhide.

Once she had relaxed, she was drawn naturally to certain pieces. Her observa­tions revealed a considerable amount of reading. She had read Hendrik Van Loon’s fictional biography of Rembrandt and a couple of “scholarly works” besides. She had bought books on Gothic architecture and antique glass, but a malicious couple who lived across the hall from her in some SRO long ago had broken into her room and thrown her books out the window. It was raining and the books lay wet and ruined in the alley below.

Beyond whatever eclectic expertise she had gleaned from books, she responded instinctually to various works. She sur­prised me, while gazing at human figures on the bas-reliefs of an Egyptian tomb, by observing that the sculptor had not learned to portray his subjects in profile. And that was true. The rows of rigid courtiers were cut with faces in profile, but their bodies were shown straight-on because artists of the time, Nancy explained, hadn’t learned to foreshorten the shoulder.

In the gallery above, she made a beeline for a marble sculpture of children lan­guishing around the feet of an old man whose face wore an expression of anguish. She discovered from reading the inscrip­tion at its base that the man was a Pisan Count named Ugolino who was imprisoned and left to starve with his sons and grand­sons. At learning this Nancy recoiled and muttered that she wished she had never seen it. Being hungry was an awful thing.


It was not until this Ugolino episode that Nancy had made such a visceral re­sponse to privation. She had alluded to living on the streets and mourned the loss of “good food” she had known as a child, but the dark side of her experience she considered a private and shameful thing and she kept it to herself. I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civ­ilized.

To my chagrin I had taken a voyeur’s peep at her unsettled interior the day be­fore. Nancy was in the bathroom down the hall taking the Kaopectate I brought her. And I, left alone in the hallway, pushed the door of her room open to take a look inside. What I saw frightened me so badly that I quickly shut the door. Nancy’s little room was awash with clutter. Shopping bags, newspapers, old magazines, old clothes covered everything. The bed was so laden with this monumental debris that it could not have been slept in for some time. There was no clear space on the floor where one could safely tread. When Nancy padded back down the hall, her lips chalky from the Kaopectate, she found me looking guilty and anxious outside her door. As she did not invite me in I could not ask her about the chaos. I was not, at any rate, eager to talk about it, as it seemed danger­ous.

One night about a week later I went up to Nancy’s room. I knocked and there was no answer, but the light was on and I heard a soft rustling of papers. I called her name but there was no response. I imagined her treading back and forth across the debris, doing what she called “involved thinking” and surrounded by dark memories.

It is not clear how Nancy first came to be beleaguered by the Crooks. They did not exist in Forest Hills, that’s for certain. But she holds them responsible for her fall from the Garden. From comments she dropped over successive encounters, I surmised that her descent was gradual. She did not get along well in grammar school because she never understood math. Her father assured her that she was “not stupid, just slow,” but she was so in­timidated by algebra and terrified by the thought of being left back that she drop­ped out of high school after her freshman year. Later she dropped out of art school and, abandoning notions of becoming an actress, she decided she wanted to become a singer. So she auditioned for a big band leader at one of the Manhattan hotels who told her that “with training” she could amount to something. He gave her a letter of introduction to a voice teacher, a bald­ing, brown-eyed man named Raul Querze (she took pains to spell his name for me) who had a studio at Carnegie Hall.

Querze agreed to teach her at reason­able rates and Nancy, who had apparently determined to make it on her own, got a job in stenography at the McAlpin Hotel. She was embarrassed by this menial work. Throughout her studies with Querze she did not learn to read music and was plagued by terrible stage fright. After a year, she became ill. “Just an illness” — that’s all she will say about it. She had to enter a hospital. When she got out, the house on Pomander Walk had been sold. That sale was recorded in 1944, around the time, says a neighbor, that Mrs. Pomeroy, who had been suffering from a palsy, died.

Nancy does not believe her parents are dead. She concedes only that they were “sick.” As years went by, however, she came to believe that they had been kid­napped by ubiquitous scoundrels whom she called the Crooks. One of them, it turned out, was the man with whom she had lived for many years. She met him, she says, in the hospital. He was a rogue, a “nut,” whom she later came to “cordially despise.” But at the time she thought she loved him and she agreed to live with him because he said he wanted to marry her. He broke that promise and many others. She was so ashamed of living in sin that in corresponding with a friend, a Spanish woman living in Atlanta, she maintained the fiction that she was happily married.

He worked intermittently as a carpen­ter and sign painter. But when his asthma flared up, he was more often than not unemployed. She worked as a salesgirl in the basement of Macy’s, selling cheap net gowns. Then she sold jewelry at Korvettes and later designer dresses at an expensive boutique. But those jobs were apparently short-lived because she didn’t move fast enough. She was a very deliberate person. And her man was jealous of her working. He couldn’t control her, Nancy surmised, if she had money of her own.

They never had a proper home. They would check into a hotel, then be kicked out because he got into a fight with man­agement or because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then they would spend nights on the streets in doorways. Next morning they would get coffee at a restaurant and she would use the bathroom to discreetly wash herself in the sink. She was a very clean person. They were together for many years. Nancy says 10, it may have been longer. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she said she tried. But some­times when you’re right in the middle of a situation the answers don’t seem so clear. She left him several times but always re­turned because she had no money except the dividends from a small trust fund her mother had set up for her. That was next to nothing, and being with him was all she knew.

Her man became involved in increas­ingly nefarious dealings with some blacks in Harlem. Nancy professes not to know the nature of it, but it apparently had something to do with shaking down prostitutes. Then one night he abandoned her in Peon Station with only 10 cents to her name. She never saw him again, and al­though she had warned him to leave her parents alone, he joined the Crooks who had kidnapped them.

So in the spring of 1978 — she was in her early sixties — Nancy Pomeroy took up res­idence in Penn Station for three weeks, not as a festering grotesque rolled in rags on the restroom floor, but as one of those women of quality sitting up all night wait­ing for mythical trains. The dignity of these women often fools passersby. It isn’t apparent how many “normal” people mil­ling and sitting about the stations are ac­tually homeless until one studies the crowd. I went out one night to the termi­nals with the city’s pick-up van. One of the social workers said, “You can always tell by the shoes. They are run down because they always have to be on the move.” The police, of course, can spot them and prod them to move along. So not even a lady of quality can get a good night’s sleep. Just an hour here, two there. Pretty soon a narcotic confusion settles over the senses and even those whose personalities were whole begin behaving strangely. If this goes on long enough they lose their pride and slip into purgatory, retrieving bagels out of trash bins to survive.

Nancy had begun to slip into a stupor. The police harried her, one rapped her on the hand with his club, so she found a place near Madison Square Garden where she could hide and sleep uninterrupted. She was vulnerable to muggers; she has been robbed 14 times over the years, she says. She put aside her pride and began to beg — she never took money, she said, without promising to pay it back — and when she had enough she bought bagels and cream cheese. She had already begun to de­teriorate physically and life in the terminal hastened it. The clear skin she had been so proud of as a young woman became in­fected. It had become a problem sometime earlier when “the nut” had checked them into a room where the sink was clogged and there were no handles on the shower so she couldn’t bathe properly. In Penn Station she would go into the restroom at some early morning hour, pull her dress and slip off of her shoulders, and try to wash the sores that were ulcerating her arms and chest. But an attendant once threatened to call the police so she abandoned her toilette.

It is difficult to imagine that there is no one from her privileged past upon whom Nancy could call. If there were relatives who had escaped the clutches of the Crooks, they were not in evidence. She had briefly checked in to the city shelter on Lafayette Street, but she became fright­ened when they proposed sending her to an adult home in Far Rockaway. As she was unmarried and had worked so erratically, she had no apparent claim to Social Secu­rity. The city sent her uptown to apply for SSI, a federal entitlement for the poor and unemployable, but she made a mistake on the forms and her benefits were delayed. She could most likely have prevailed upon the officers who held her small inheritance in trust at Citicorp Center to give her a loan on the dividends, but in her confusion she could not figure out how to get across town. She did not understand the protocol of dealing with banks and governments. The logistics of helping herself were too abstract.

Nancy cannot be coaxed to reflect on Penn Station except to say she thought she might go insane from the shame. Her de­cline was checked by a suggestion from one of the other “ladies” at the terminal that she might try the Dwelling Place. The nuns took her in and gave her a bed, and one Sister Liz, fearing that Nancy’s lesions might be scabies, undertook to supervise her bathing and massage her afflicted flesh with calomine lotion. The sainted Sister Liz eventually left for Bolivia to work with the lepers. But not before she got Nancy set up in cheap room of her own on Times Square with a small income of federal as­sistance and dividends that came to less than $300 a month.

The nuns continued to give her what help they could. And two years ago when a Hollywood casting director called the Dwelling Place looking for a street woman to work as an extra in a feature film, the sisters suggested Nancy, because they knew she could use the money. Fifty dollars. So she went to Soho one cold night, stood on a street corner before whirring cameras and pretended to be in love with a shabby middle-aged man smoking a cigar. I asked Nancy and the sisters the name of the film, but no one had bothered to find out. Shortly thereafter I was invited quite by chance to the screening of a silly romantic comedy called Soup for One. Nancy’s gnomish form appeared on the screen in a wordless sequence of short takes. Her name did not appear among the credits.


I invited Nancy to dinner at Stefanos, a basement restaurant with a deluxe diner menu several doors west of the Woodstock. She appeared in the lobby turned out in an amazingly chic maroon felt hat. Its brim dipped over one eye à la Garbo. I admired it enthusiastically and she seemed at once bashful and pleased. As a girl she had been a stylish dresser, she said. Back then she had had more money and more time. The parts of her arms and chest left exposed by the immaculate tent dress showed faint rosy scars of the now healed sores.

There was a chance, Nancy said, that her fiancé would join us at Stefanos. He was a psychologist, she said. They had known each other for about six years. So we took a booth that would admit at least one more and ordered seafood. I, red snap­per and Nancy, deep-fried scallops. She ate slowly, savoring the food with the same submissive bliss as she did the cigarette at the Metropolitan museum. We had white wine, which she sipped moderately. And for dessert she ordered ice cream, which she spooned into our respective coffees.

I noticed on the third finger of her left hand a jade band. She said it was a gift. From previous conversations I knew that “gifts” were not something given her, but rather tokens she had purchased for her kidnapped parents. She had an odd idea about sacrifice. In fact she once had a vision in which Christ appeared to her, his brow covered with a blue drape, and he whispered “sacrifice.” She had taken to buying and hoarding gifts — rings, per­fume, portable radios — to bestow on her parents when they were finally released. She felt guilty because of the money they had spent on her and she, after all, had wasted those opportunities.

Nancy was plagued by mischievous per­sons who masquerade as her mother or father. She once ran into one, it’s not clear which sex, in a coffee shop, and she was duped into paying for its meal before she realized the fraud. This obsession under­standably wreaks havoc upon her delicate circumstances, as her entire monthly in­come — dividends and government check­ — leaves her about $140 after rent. The nuns once tried to help Nancy manage her money but she declined. Sensible budget­ing didn’t accommodate her obsession with sacrifice.

Nancy therefore spends most of every month with no money, bumming cigarettes and taking her meals at the Dwelling. There is an unfathomable gulf between having no money and one dollar, as Nancy herself revealed to me in a dispassionate recounting of what had happened before she found her present room at the Wood­stock. Late one afternoon she was thrown out of her room at the Times Square Motor Hotel for nonpayment of rent. She bought coffee in one restaurant, nursed it as long as she could, then bought hot chocolate in another and drank it until dawn.

As I could not imagine the prospect of being even without one dollar, the inequity of our positions was embarrassing. I gave her a bill I had in my purse. At first she demurred, saying she could not pay back, but I told her that it had been a good year for me. Perhaps next year I would be broke, and she would be on a streak and she could help me out. It was a feeble little fiction but if there was anything Nancy could understand it was the fluctuating nature of fortune.

During that meal at Stefanos, her fiancé did not materialize. We did not mention it. “Nancy,” I asked her, apropos of nothing. “How did you get to be so tough?” She was offended by “tough” and I had to amend it to “resilient.” “Well,” she replied in her deliberate way, “I went through hell but I loved beauty.”

When I asked Nancy to accompany me once more to the Metropolitan so that she could be photographed among the art, she agreed, seduced by the anticipation of see­ing her beloved bronze Adam. But Adam was no longer there. He had been taken off his mounting to be prepared for an imminent exhibit called “The Gates of Hell.” Not even marble and bronze stay constant. They go the way of the Watteau. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 19, 2020