Sunday, April 19, 2015

Millicent and Her Cockroaches

I met "Millicent" in my office at the Archdiocesan Vocational Services of NYC Catholic Charities where I was in a transitional job from private school administration to the vast ocean of Fortune 100 mile-high culture.

Millicent's outward appearance and demeanor hid the fact that she lived on the streets of Manhattan.

Our office counselled people and helped them find jobs. I never guessed this pleasant woman was just using us as a warm dry place to hang out. She looked normal. Her English was fine. She was polite and pleasant, even had a sense of humor. She often smelled, but so do some of my most elegant friends at times!

After a couple of sessions it dawned on me that maybe she could use a decent free meal. So I treated her to lunch. Then this became a weekly ritual.

After a few weeks I realized this was not so good. We did not have the budget to offer clients regular meals—but I didn't have the heart to turn her away.

After about a month, Millicent started talking about her son, a grown man who lived in a single room, somewhere on the lower east side.

And she began to tell me about his cockroaches…

As a former Girl Scout in the southern swamps, I had dealt with bugs—mosquitoes, etc. as well as water moccasins—but the idea of roaches in a Manhattan bed terrified me!

At first, I tried to change the subject at the lunch… but each time Millicent brought her conversation back to the cockroaches…

By then, I realized the lady might not be a serious job hunter…

Our little office on East 52nd street was warm, cozy and friendly. We dealt with a lot of walk-ins, so anyone could come in and be served by one of us.

We had become Millicent's security blanket, I was beginning to see…

When I checked her application form, the address, phone and references all sounded fine.

But after some light detective work it was evident that " Millicent" did not really exist. But the woman did come in weekly to work on a job search.

Only the help she sought was not for a job…

I finally took my concerns to my boss, a devoted churchgoing Irish Catholic from Westchester. (I'll call him Kevin)

After listening to my situation he looked at me with a kind smile.

"I've known 'Millicent' for some time", Kevin said quietly. "The cockroaches are real—but only in her mind. Her name isn't really Millicent. I'm not sure we know her real name."

I stared at him, aghast. Unable to speak.

"You wonder why I let you work with her, " he said. "This woman came here to be accepted as a human being, not to hunt for a job. She could not hold down a real job for one day.

"When you offered to take her to lunch, my superiors and I thought, not only was it a kind gesture, but it might really help her to live a small slice of life like a real person. If only for a little while."

I was angry and stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I stammered. "I'm not just some dumb kid." I blinked away the tears.

"You were a person willing to see this woman as a regular human being," Kevin said. "We'll never know if Millicent is alive now or not… but for a few weeks she felt like she was a real lady. Who was invited to lunch," he added softly.

Sometimes, I look back and wonder what happened to Millicent. And her cockroaches…

And wonder, at times, who else in life is the person we meet in some group or life situation… a Millicent… looking only for validation as a human being… and a little invitation to lunch…

Did you ever meet a Millicent?

If so, did it change your life? Please share it with us here at Crime Writer's Chronicle.

Warmest wishes to you, dear reader.

Thelma J. Straw

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