Author Archives

How I Became ‘Rich’

Illustration by Homestead

Stacy Torres | Longreads | June 2019 | 11 minutes (2,629 words)

On my first two trips to Hawai‘i I photographed things people who live there might consider mundane: red dirt along a paved road, sunlit hibiscus draped over a parking lot wall, blue-faced Zebra Doves so calm I almost tripped over them because they didn’t skitter away like the nervous pigeons back home in New York City. The only palm trees I’d ever seen before appeared on postcards, television, and luau-themed party decorations. In Hawai‘i I wasted no time filling my camera with pictures of real ones: swaying palms against a light-filled morning sky, baby palms trees in the midday sun, and full-grown trees wrapped in twinkling lights under an aspirin moon.

The first trip, in 2009, happened by accident. At least it felt that way. My then-boyfriend wanted to go somewhere tropical. I wanted to go somewhere interesting, though I had no inkling of the plan he was hatching when I mentioned Hawai‘i. I figured this discussion was just another of the fantasy trips we often took in our heads after watching the Travel Channel. Neither of us had passports or much money. But my boyfriend’s job as a New York City public high school special education teacher had wrecked him. For the past few years, half the teachers at his school left by year’s end. C. stood on the verge of quitting too. Instead, he started drinking on the train ride to work in the mornings. Then he took his tax refund and booked us a trip to paradise.

At first he refused to tell me where we were going. “Block off a week,” C. said. I’m going to need you not to be interrupted.” I pressed for details. After about age 12, I’d stopped liking surprises. By then I’d learned they could herald sudden bad news, such as when I awoke to find my mother applying antiseptic to a knife slice on my father’s temple after he got mugged coming home from work. Worry grew about some emergency lurking behind his request, a not unreasonable idea given the last few rocky years. Only after several days of persistent badgering, he divulged, “We’re going somewhere.” I grew more fearful. Where were we going? Why?

We didn’t go places, except the occasional day-trip to Philadelphia on a $10 round-trip Chinatown bus ticket. Sometimes we hopped an Atlantic City casino bus out of Port Authority. We got most of the bus fare back in a cash voucher to be redeemed at Harrah’s, but we dumped that and a few more bucks into the penny and nickel slots. Lucky Lemmings was our machine of choice. We always fooled ourselves into believing riches lay just one more pull away, and cheered when we hit a bonus game. The cute animated lemmings delighted us when they dived from the cliff, or trampolined off a lavender walrus’s back into caves marked with different credit amounts. If we got really lucky, the machine rewarded us with a lemming stampede, and they continued jumping in and out of the caves, green bills swirling and swooshing in their tracks, and manic jangly beeping ramped up as we racked up more credits. We never knew when to stop and usually returned home losers.
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The Admission

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Stacy Torres | Longreads | May 2017 | 26 minutes (6,472 words)

 

I didn’t go to Bellevue because I worried that’s where the real crazies went. Anytime you read about a gruesome crime in the papers, like a person pushing someone in front of a subway, the suspect was always “taken to Bellevue.” No thanks.

Years before, my mother had brought me and my three little sisters to Bellevue every few months, when she filled out paperwork for the government vouchers that gave us free groceries like milk, cereal, peanut butter, and tuna. We made this journey across town for five years, until my youngest sisters aged out of the program. Even then, the place smelled of desperation. Late mornings hordes shuffled in and out of the massive public hospital. My mother steered us through wide corridors where throngs of doctors, nurses, sick people, and other harried mothers dragging whiny children like us passed by in tidy procession, making the flooded hallways seem both chaotic and orderly. The WIC office sentenced me to hours of studying grubby floor tiles and floating dust particles, made visible in the sunlight streaming through the tall windows, while I squirmed in my shiny blue plastic seat, flanked by my mother and younger sister Erica. Every few minutes one of the twins broke up the monotony by flinging a bottle from their titanic double stroller onto the floor. Though I’d armed myself with a half-filled coloring book and errant Barbie, boredom always struck too early, leaving me to focus my mental energies on willing the clerk to call my mother’s number.

“No one gives out anything without wanting something back,” a heavy Black woman once grumbled to my mother halfway through one of our marathon waits.

“That’s right,” Mom said sympathetically as the woman refastened the army of pink plastic barrettes on her daughter’s head. With each tug of the brush her daughter winced, and she ordered her, “Stay still, girl.” What other choice did we have?

When I checked myself into a psychiatric unit almost 15 years later, at age 20, I went to Roosevelt Hospital. Roosevelt stood a block from my college and Columbus Circle, where my mother had worked years before, at the torn-down New York Coliseum building, as a secretary for a life insurance company. I’d gone to Roosevelt for childhood scrapes and falls, a broken collarbone when I was 5 and a hairline foot fracture at 11. John Lennon died there after being shot in front of the Dakota. His assassin went to the Bellevue prison ward. The day of my admission, my college sociology professor came with me, and together we slogged through the heavy, wet snow that had blanketed the sidewalks overnight. Fat flakes still fell as we walked the block from Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus to the emergency room. Read more…