I moved to the East Side of Providence in 1977. This was during an economic recession. It was the first time I discovered how cold an apartment could get when you needed to save money on heat. I was young, inexperienced, but learning.
I had to make it on my own in many ways. No college dorm transition to independence. Lived with my parents when I went to Rhode Island Junior College (nickname — ReJeCt) and graduated broke but debt-free.
I was just getting started living in my own rented room on Waterman Street. There were still some fine old businesses on Thayer Street before the chains pushed them out. There was a diner with a guy who wore a paper cap and called everyone â€˜Champâ€™. He was at least 103 years old and way cool. He served greasy coffee in plastic cups.
I was just getting started in my adult life. I had no phone, couldnâ€™t afford one. They still had pay phones on the corner then. I called my Mom and she said —
â€œI have bad news.â€?
This is the preamble to the announcement of a death in the family. This time it wasnâ€™t a death. My tough, cigarette-smoking, hard-working widowed grandmother had been raped in her home by a housebreaker.
The spring that was blooming around me, the spring of my life turned dark.
Anyone who has had harm done to someone they love knows what it is like. Itâ€™s like a death.
My grandmother survived that awful crime. She didnâ€™t lose her health or her mind, just her house and her place in the neighborhood. My aunt and uncle built her a basement apartment, with everything except a separate entrance. Which she said she didnâ€™t want anymore.
While she was in the hospital, the housebreaker came in and stole the gun that my grandfather carried when he was an officer in the Providence Police. The old neighborhood had changed. Housebreaking and rape were the signature crimes of the decade.
I discovered fear. I had always believed that Jesus would protect his own, but now I was faced with a dilemma. Either there was a god who knows when every sparrow falls, but turns his back on the unsaved sparrows, or my sense of specialness was an illusion. To stay under the wing of Jesus, I would have to conclude that my grandmother was cast to the whims of fate because she clung to her Catholic religion. She wasnâ€™t saved. If she was, Jesus would have raised his hand to protect her.
This was my rough entrance into the reality-based community. Siding with my grandmother — sharp tongued, Irish, always with a cigarette and something to read. If a god will sit up on a cloud in heaven, and watch this happen to her, because sheâ€™s not the right religion — thatâ€™s not my god.
So now I had to face the world godless.
I read the Providence Journal police report like it was the weather. If I knew where the storm was predicted to strike I might avoid it. Rape, assault, threats, narrow escapes. The Providence Journal kindly refrains these days from publishing the names and addresses of rape victims. If you get roughed up by some bullies on the street, you report it to the police at your own risk. Our one local newspaper will helpfully tell them where you live.
The weather report in 1977 was turbulent social change with an 80% chance of being insulted for being a bra-burning libber and a 40% chance of being frightened by imminent violence and erupting male rage with a 10% chance of violence getting major and physical. These predictions increased in severity as your social status decreased, but affluence did not guarantee safety.
Nearly every woman I know has had some experience of threat, because sheâ€™s a woman. Being young, you feel it. Without the sense of social validation you get from being half of a couple, without the knowledge that someone would miss you if you were three hours late getting home, you feel it.
I left the rented room and moved in to another. The house was bought out and everyone was evicted. I moved in with some Brown kids, but couldnâ€™t blend into the household. They lived on assumptions of safety and privilege that astounded me. It was like we spoke a different language. I left that place and moved in with a couple of guys in a place in Fox Point.
Right after I got my stuff into the third bedroom of the apartment lightning struck in the neighborhood. A young couple who had bought a house to fix up were broken in on. The invaders beat and robbed them, and raped the wife in front of the husband.
One of my new roommates knew the accused. â€œThey were nice guys,â€? he said.
That was one of the enlightening moments of my life. Of course they were nice guys. To him. To the young couple they tortured they were the face of hell.
When a person suffers a serious wound, the power of life being strong means they will probably heal. If they have the love and help of other people to speed their recovery they will heal faster. But a scar is not the same as undamaged skin. It is marked, and more fragile than skin that has not been injured. So trust can grow back, but you canâ€™t undo the past.
Nice guys. To other guys, when it worked for them. Regular guys who always had someone to speak up for them. Who would believe nice guys could do this?
Itâ€™s human nature. No one wants to believe that the nice guys have another side. If they are good to you they are good by you. The guys must have been drunk. Maybe the urban homesteaders were flashing their wealth. Any excuse to evade the truth that this is part of human nature, to favor your friends and rip off strangers. It works if you donâ€™t get caught. Those guys got caught pretty fast.
This all happened around the time Roman Polanski fled to France. Now heâ€™s knocking on the door again. A nice guy. Lots of friends. Didnâ€™t hurt anyone important. Just a child. Just a mother. Just a woman.