When she opens the door, her life is written on her face. The bruises around her eyes. The off-white, puffy skin. The frightened look, which she tries and fails to hide with her forced cheerfulness.
Her name is Judy.
She lives in a motel on Grand Avenue. It’s the kind of place in the kind of district (not a neighborhood) that looks sleazily picturesque as you drive past, the July afternoon sun flattening itself against the clapped-out buildings and parched courtyards.
But it’s different if you have to live there.
I pull into the motel courtyard and park my car. I go to the reception desk, but nobody’s there. I know Judy’s room number, so I walk around in the heat until I find it.
It’s on the ground floor. There’s a beat-up car parked outside it. I knock on the door, and Judy opens it.
I’m here because Judy had called me up to say she had a story.
It’s a bleak one, and it doesn’t have an ending.
She’s 38, but is so worn that you’d believe she was a little younger or a lot older. Her voice is high and childlike, with a perpetual wheedling, cajoling tone. It’s the voice of someone used to being powerless, to having to ask and persuade in order to get what she needs.
“Hi,” she says, stepping away from the door to let me in. Once I’m inside, she formally holds out her hand to me, and then asks if I’m me. I tell her I am.
There’s a guy sitting on a bed. He’s probably in his 40s, tough and wiry-looking, with a mustache and a humorless face. He says nothing, just sits there and looks at me.
“This is my boyfriend, Jose,” Judy tells me.
”Hey,” I say.
He just looks at me.
“He’s a reporter from the New Times,” she tells him nervously, and I realize he didn’t know she’d asked me to come over.
“I don’t care,” he says.
”Don’t mind him,” Judy says to me. “He’s mean. He doesn’t like anybody. Sit down.”
I sit on a chair and open my notebook.
This is her story.
Judy is from California originally. She moved to Arizona seven years ago, with her husband, who’s from Tempe. They’re separated now, and their 7-year-old son lives with him. She was a director of a preschool for five years, but quit last year.
“It was just too much pressure,” she says.
Last September, she met Jose and moved in with him. He has a job that pays $10 an hour, so she hasn’t had to work. Not that she has it easy, though. He beats her.
“Well, he used to,” she says. “He’s stopped it now.”
”When did he last hit you?” I ask her.
She thinks about it. “Ten days ago.”
”So what makes you sure he’s stopped?”
”I don’t know. I hope he has.”
On July 20, she called the cops on him because he was hitting her in the face. Calling them turned out to be a mistake. She had two outstanding warrants—she hadn’t paid fines she’d received for shoplifting in March. She’d been caught stealing beer. Why did she do it? “I’m a longtime alcoholic. I needed a beer before Jose got home from work.”
The cops took her to jail.
”I had a broken ankle at the time,” she says. How did she break it? “I fell off a curb.” I’m not sure I believe that’s how it happened, but I don’t argue. “I went to St. Joseph’s three times. They put my leg in a cast.” Was it still in the cast when she went to jail? “No. It was supposed to be. I’d been to the hospital, and they took the cast off and they were going to put a new one on, but Jose made me leave.”
At Madison Street Jail, she claims she wasn’t fingerprinted, read her rights or charged with anything. “They put me in a cell, and I kept screaming that I wanted to know what I was being charged with, and the guard kept ignoring me. I told him I had a broken ankle, and he said, ‘I don’t care.’ He called me a fucking piece of crap, then he just ignored me.
“So I poured water on the floor to make him pay attention. About five guards came and put me in the restraint chair. One of them said to the other ones, ‘I have to watch this piece of crap.’ I said my ankle was broken, and they squeezed it hard with the strap. I said I needed to go to the bathroom, and the guard said, ‘Sit in the chair and piss on yourself. I don’t give a shit.’” She pauses. “They shouldn’t talk to people like that. They should be professional.”
She was moved to Estrella jail. “There were maggots in the showers. There was no air conditioning. All the women were laying around in their underwear. They bring you water once a day, in this big brown container.”
Judy suffers from seizures, and takes medication to prevent them. She was denied her medication. “I had a seizure and hit my face,” she says. “That’s how I got this black eye.” Again, I’m not sure about the source of the bruise.
“I saw another girl have a seizure. She fell off a bunk bed onto her face.”
After eight days in Estrella, she went up before the judge. “He gave me time served, and they let me go.”
All of this I will find out later. I don’t get the story as I sit in that crummy motel room. Before I can ask her any questions, her boyfriend starts to yell at her.
“What the fuck you talkin’ to him for?” he says, pointing to me. “What the fuck’s he gonna do?”
Judy cringes. “Jose,” she pleads.
”I’m gettin’ out of here,” he fumes.
”Are you coming right back?” she asks.
He starts toward the door, then stops. He turns and looks at me. “You better leave,” he says.
“Jose!” Judy says, actually coming close to raising her voice to him.
”It’s okay,” I tell her. There’s nothing to be done. It’s his place as much as hers. Maybe more, since he’s paying for it. But she’s paying in a different way.
“Are you okay?” I ask her. She doesn’t say anything. I stand up. “Take care,” I say. They both stand and look at me, him with hate and her with the pained calm of one who’s long since accepted her helplessness. I walk out into the heat.
Outside, I stand for a moment and listen to them yelling. I wonder if he’ll hit her. If he does, I don’t hear it. I walk to my car, wishing she had a car she could walk to, wishing she’d take that walk anyway. Knowing that even if she did, she’d probably just trade one bad situation for another.
An ordinary story of life in this boom town. A story about people who can’t function or cope, and the choices they make. What they’re given —restraint chairs, humiliation, fists. Jail cells and grim motel rooms, full of the ghosts of people who’ve led the same life.
The reason Judy called me in the first place was to tell me about her experience in jail. She said she wanted to try to stop it from happening to other people. But her life is not that much different on the outside. She’s not in jail now, but she’s still a prisoner.
It’s 3:30 on a July afternoon in Phoenix. Nothing unusual has happened. I get in my car and drive out of there, leave it behind. I wish Judy could do the same.
Phoenix New Times, 1998