Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Duck Lady

For years, Duck Lady was the most famous homeless person in Philadelphia.

During law school, in the late 1970s, I worked as a pharmaceutical operator in Smithkline Corporation, at 15th and Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia, on the second shift. I used to finish work at around 1:00 a.m., buy an Inquirer from the loading dock behind the Inquirer building, then walk down 15th Street to the Market Street Subway entrance across the street from City Hall, and take the eastbound subway to Northeast Philly.

One cold, rainy January night after work, I bought my Inquirer from the guys on the loading dock, walked down 15th Street to Market, paid my fare, and sat on the bench on the subway platform. There were about 15 people waiting for the same train, standing and sitting around me. I opened my Inquirer, and began reading. I don't know how much time passed. Suddenly, my reading was interrupted by an awful smell of urine and feces. It smelled like the inside of a toilet bowl after a bad meal. It was overwhelming. Shocked, I looked up, and everything had changed. On the subway bench next to me was the world famous Duck Lady, quacking, quacking, quacking, jerking a bodily jerk with every quack, she was the world's most famous Tourette's Syndrome case.

Duck Lady was wearing a translucent pink nightee, dirty with urine and feces, and worn pink slippers on a cold, wet subway platform at 2:00 a.m. I panicked and looked up. Everyone on the subway platform who had been standing or sitting around me a few minutes before had retreated to the far end of the platform, about 100 feet away, staring with fright at us, wondering what I would do.

At first I nearly jumped up and ran away, as I looked at this frightening shaking, quacking, toilet-smelling human garbage dump. But then, as I breathed her smell and became involved in her Hellish little world, I was struck by the contrast between her bizarre fate and that of the people at the other end of the platform, and I suddenly felt ashamed of my desire to run from Duck Lady. I thought, "If I get up and run, I will be declaring that she is less than human -- a monster. It would be so demeaning." So, for the sake of her dignity, I forced myself to sit there and breathe her urine and feces.

As Duck Lady quacked and jerked, she pulled off one of her slippers and held it out toward me. I thought, "What is she doing?" I saw a few dirty dollar bills in her slipper and I thought, "Oh! That's her 'bank'! She's begging!" I took out my wallet and gave her the last of my money -- only a $5 bill."

How did Duck Lady respond to this? Stripped of everything by her fate except dirty, pissy, shitty night clothing and slippers and a few smelly dollars on a cold, wet subway platform, Duck Lady EVANGELIZED to the big guy in his warm coat.

She said, "May our Blessed Mother watch over you!"

Then she went back to her jerking and quacking.

Just then our subway train pulled up and the doors opened. I jumped up and ran inside. Away from Duck Lady, I realized with a shock that my face was drenched! Apparently, I was so enthralled by the desperateness of her horrible situation that I had not realized that I was crying as I dealt with her! I also realized that I should have given her my coat. This idea did not occur to me because my internal mental connections to the plight of the needy were not very good, then.

You can see Duck Lady mentioned a little bit on-line, here...
...The Presbyterian minister there handled his encounter with a LOT more aplomb than I did.

Someone else -- one of my heroes -- did a lot more for Duck Lady than I ever did, in my warm clothing and protected state: Sister Mary Scullion.

Mary went to St. Martin of Tours School on Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia. She was in 7th grade when I was in 8th grade. Sister helped to set up a shelter for the homeless in Philadelphia in 1976. She began to walk the streets and to boldly familiarize herself with the homeless and their plight. She found all of their hiding places, bringing them food, clothing and blankets. For awhile there another one of my favorite people, Judge Lisa Richette, crawled around cardboard hovels and subway tunnels with Sister Scullion to serve the homeless.

Sister Scullion, I read at one point, managed to "re-mainstream" Duck Lady. She hunted her down, established a relationship with her, talked her into coming to the shelter, washed her, clothed her, fed her, got her medication to help control her Tourette's Syndrome, and finally helped her to get into an apartment!

So, I now understand that the thing which smelled so bad, that cold, wet night on the subway platform, wasn't Duck Lady, but my own foolish disconnectedness with humanity.

Be a Sister Mary Scullion, folks.

I am dedicating this little piece to my Vietnamese "daughter," Nhu.

I hope that someday you read this, Nhu, and remember how I used to tell you the story of Duck Lady when your mom and dad let me tuck you in at bedtime.

1 comment:

  1. The Duck Lady, God bless her soul, gave me a story that I have told a number of times.My experience was similar to the experience of the Presbyterian pastor you linked to.In or around 1973, my girlfriend at the time (Kathleen Webster) and I were walking by the McDonald's at 40th and Walnut. The Duck Lady asked us for money. We presumed she would use it to buy alcohol, so, instead, we offered to buy her food at the McDonald's.She accepted.Her"table manners" were the exact same as described by the pastor.However, like the pastor's experience, she was (amazingly to us) completely coherent. But the line that created the lifetime "story" for me was her following statement: "Have you noticed I've been quacking less lately?". We were floored. At the time,no one had ever heard of Tourette's syndrome.If only. She's in a better place now; no more quacking. Got bless her.