<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> If She Hadn't Been Evicted
   
   

 

 

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If She Hadn't Been Evicted, She'd Still Be Alive

A remembrance of Mary Jesus from a friend who gave her refuge on her last night on earth.

by V. Vale

Photo by Lydia Gans of the apartment building where Mary Jesus was evicted.

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I'm known as a punk rock book publisher in some circles; and for this reason Mary Jesus called me up, out of the blue, back in 1999, wanting me to publish a book by her. She called late at night and we talked for several hours. She told me she had been a hardcore punk rocker starting at age 15 when she ran away from home, and began telling me anecdotes about the punk underground scene.


She was very intelligent, witty, charming and acerbic - absolutely full of ideas and opinions on everything wrong with society and the world. So I listened. Every couple months she would call me up, always late at night, and we'd talk for hours. She was very entertaining.


Mary Jesus continued to call me every couple months. When she first called me, she had told me that she lived in an apartment building in Oakland, and that she was the manager of the building. Her apartment was her refuge from the world and she almost always stayed at home. The only place she could normally afford to go was the public library.


We finally met in person in June 2001. The S.F. Art Institute hosted a book release party celebrating my new book, Real Conversations, featuring Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jello Biafra, and others. The event was so hectic I could only spend a couple minutes with her. She asked me to sign her book, which she had splurged on for the occasion.


At some point, her beloved apartment building was sold to investors or real estate speculators who apparently terminated Mary Jesus as manager, but I didn't find this out until last year when she started telling me her about tenancy problems.


Around August 2004, she told me she was in danger of being evicted: "My new landlords want to evict me because I've been here a long time and they think my rent is too low - they think they can get two or three times what I'm paying."


But she was intelligent, proud, and literate; and she told me she was confident she was going to win if things went to court, because she was in the right, and because she had started spending weeks at a law library learning the laws, and was determined to get a jury trial for her case. She believed in justice and her own honesty.


If I had life to live over again, I would have immediately said, "NO! You need to get a lawyer right away. There are pro bono (free) lawyers." But I just listened to Mary Jesus and silently applauded her determination to argue her own case in front of a jury and judge.


Later, after the case had progressed to her appeal, I tried to help her find legal representation. It then became obvious that if your case has already gone to court, no free lawyer will touch you with a ten-foot pole.


When she finally called, she said, "If I'm evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go. I live on permanent G.A. (about $336 a month) and am classified as 'totally disabled.' It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees."


I invited her to stay at my place. She said, "But I love my apartment - I've been here 13 years. It's full of all my beautiful things. I can't start over. I just can't."


Finally the day came, December 8, 2004, when Mary Jesus called late in the afternoon and said, "I'm in the loony bin. Last night I set fire to my apartment and tried to hang myself in my closet." She seemingly joked, "It's not so easy to kill yourself." But I was just on my way out, and couldn't talk to her then, and just quipped back, "At least you have a place to stay tonight." She left a phone number - the pay phone in the ward, which netted no answer the next day.


But that afternoon Mary Jesus called while I wasn't home, and talked to my wife Marian. Mary Jesus asked if it was still okay if she stayed with us. Marian said, "Yes," and Mary Jesus turned the phone over to a hospital administrator who merely asked for Marian's name and address, then handed the phone back to Mary Jesus. She apparently released Mary Jesus to her "custody" - oddly early, in retrospect, after a suicide attempt.


Mary Jesus came over and spent the night. Foolishly, I assumed she had gotten "suicide" out of her system, and had no idea that when she left for Oakland the next morning, she would throw herself off the Oakland Tribune Tower, or I wouldn't have let her leave. She left with a list of errands we had helped her plan out the night before, in order to get her life back on track: cashing a money order at the post office, putting in a change of address notice, getting a new G.A. card (all had been lost in the staged fire).


I learned another lesson: If someone threatens to commit suicide, you had better take the threat ultra-seriously, and do anything you can to make them feel 100 percent safe and secure. I wish I had told her, "Listen, whatever it takes to get you into a new apartment, we'll take care of it. Don't worry about not having money. We'll take care of it." We can always find money for what has to be done.


When somebody kills herself, especially someone smart, intelligent, sarcastic and funny, it makes you feel very disturbed. I felt I knew Mary Jesus quite well through our lengthy phone calls over six years, yet had spent almost no time in the same room with her, ever. If she hadn't been evicted, I feel she would still be alive today, living a mostly reclusive life in her beautiful apartment-refuge, and hopefully writing her manuscript.


If indeed the act of eviction killed her, then something is wrong with the social system that inadequately protects low-income persons from being evicted from apartments they've inhabited a long time. Maybe a mandatory legal defense procedure with a tenant defense lawyer must be instituted? I don't know. But there is something very wrong with this picture.

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STREET SPIRIT
1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612
spirit@afsc.org

© 2002-2005 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee
Editor, Layout, Design:
Terry Messman