I walked in the door and down the hall to the office to check in. This was procedure. The woman who was in charge of the operation regarded me with disgust as I meekly entered the office, saying nothing to let her know I had arrived.
“Against the wall”, she said dismissively. “Let’s see what ya got.”
I knew this would be a full search and that I was already busted with the cigarettes I had acquired. A half a pack of Winston’s, from a “bum”. His home was one of the parks that I often frequented while taking the day off from school.
The woman moved her face close to mine; ruby lipstick sank in the cracks of her dry pursed lips; her eyes told me she was angry at something on the wall directly behind my head. Her hand slipped down the front of my jeans, cool and malicious on my skin. She grinned vindictively upon feeling the foreign object I had hidden there, in my panties.
“Cigarettes!” she said triumphantly.
There would be hell to pay, but that was every day, and I didn’t care, because I knew one thing she didn’t – tomorrow, I wouldn’t be there, and if I wasn’t there, I could never suffer their improvised consequences for smoking cigarettes.
My fellow “inmate” Risa and I had already concocted our scheme. We would meet at school and leave from there. A simple plan for simple girls. The next morning, I ditched all my books in a stairwell outside the school and snuck over to the AM/PM to meet Risa. From the start, she seemed worried about where we were going. I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought of anything except getting back to Johnstown to find my “boyfriend”. He was one of those kids who preferred wayward girls over the kind that had homes and parents and bedrooms, and frilly curtains. Well, it may not have been entirely due to preference.
He was 17, I was 14, he was white trash and so was I. Neither of us called anywhere home. We didn’t like the homes we had to call home. He was free and I was always locked away. Escaping to join his freedom had become habit for me. I never really had a phone number for him, and I never really worried about that; I would always manage to find him. That’s love at fourteen.
Risa and I had attended our respective home room classes in the morning; our names spoken during roll call, coupled with our responses meant we were present, as far as anyone knew. We ran from the store, across a golden field of sun-drenched weeds, and onto a fairly busy street. It wasn’t long before we were offered a ride. The guy looked like Axl Rose from Guns and Roses, and it was the early nineties, so we readily accepted, making ourselves comfortable in his giant Buick Skylark.
We went to his place and hung around for a bit. He had a life-size poster of Axl Rose on the landing of the staircase. I had no understanding of narcissism at the time. He didn’t have much food, so I ate a pickle. It wasn’t long before the police showed up. When we heard the knock on the door, I immediately ran to the bathroom to pull the ol’ bathroom window escape. I couldn’t believe how quickly they had found us. I felt a rush of self importance. Why would anyone even be sending police to find us? We couldn’t be that important could we?
Outside the window, I worried that the officer had backup with him, and if I darted directly ahead, a fellow officer might see me. Just to my right, there was a porch, with a dark crawl space underneath. I crawled under it and waited for what seemed a long time before I heard footsteps. I didn’t budge, I could almost smell the leather of the officers boots as they walked by, kicking up morning dew. I slowly drew in my breath and held it momentarily, and slowly exhaled, without sound. I was a fugitive!
I decided to wait as long as I could stand it. What I really wanted was a cigarette. Had I waited long enough? It seemed like hours. There’s really only one way to get cigarettes in this situation and that is, of course, the five-finger discount.
I hadn’t been paying attention to various things, or anything, on the way in with Axl, so I wasn’t sure which direction to head. Then I realized it didn’t matter; eventually there would be a store. In the early nineties, cigarettes were not yet kept behind counters. They were produce for all anyone cared. Very handy for teenagers with no money. It was still possible for a parent to write a note for a child to purchase cigarettes at this time. It was also possible to purchase a pack of smokes for $.99.
I went directly to the cigarettes, not even bothering to pretend I was out for anything else. I surveyed my choices and for whatever reason, chose a pack of Bristol’s, soft pack. I had a choice of anything I wanted and here I had made the worst possible choice! Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know that until the next time I lifted the same brand of cigarettes.
As I attempted to leave the store, a manager grabbed me, and escorted me to a little green room. The walls were pine trees, the carpet, moss. The ceiling fan was green with envy over the fact that it wasn’t quite ivy. Inside this room stood my accuser. He had been deciding on a method to give himself mouth cancer when I had noticed him earlier. I had mistakenly believed that he had not noticed me.
As a result of my arrest, Risa and I both ended up back at the group home where we started. To keep us from leaving, we were required to wear orange jumpsuits. I attempted to convince Risa: “Who cares if we are in orange jumpsuits? They’re warm! Plus, it is October, we’ll just say we are dressed up for Halloween until we get some clothing. I’d steal from a Goodwill box to get out of here!”
Off we went! I had to pee, and we were in someone’s backyard. It was nighttime, and I remember thinking how comfortable the house looked. The curtains were wide open, and golden light reflected off of comfortable living furniture. I saw the residents inside, and mistakenly believed that they couldn’t see me. They could see me, and they didn’t ask us any questions directly about why we were wearing orange jump suits; people in such comfortable houses let the cops ask those sorts of questions. We were, once again, taken back to the group home.
This time, probation officers, case managers, and headmasters got together and decided that to keep us from running away again, we would be required to sit in our rooms wearing nothing but our underwear. All of our clothes including shoes had been removed from our rooms. Risa and I were separated only by a partition and so could still talk to each other.
“Bet our clothes are down in the laundry. Maybe we could get out through the laundry chute and get our clothes on the way”. Risa went to check.
“I don’t think we can fit, and anyway, I’m scared.”
“I’ll go down”, I said. “We’ll wait until Jane is on shift. She wouldn’t chase us even if she does see us go.”
“Jane’s already on, she started early today.”
I looked at my bed. “Fuck it” I said, “I’m going now!” With that, I proceeded to get a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom and passed the laundry chute on the way back. I knew then I wouldn’t be going that route. It was far too narrow, and, not being familiar with the building’s schematics, I had no idea if there was actually an exit once in the laundry room. I raced back into the bedroom, with the toilet paper. I swiftly pulled the sheet off the bed, wrapping it around my lithe figure and Risa did the same.
“C’mon, let’s go, Risa.” Risa followed me as I raced out the back door. I remember Jane yelling for us to stop and then she said:
“Fuck it, if they wanna run away that badly, let ‘em”. Exactly as expected, and I knew we were free. We cut through some lawns, a cemetery, a grocery store, and finally arrived on the PA turnpike. “What should we do now?” I heard Risa say behind me.
I positioned myself on the side of the highway with my thumb out. “I’m gonna hitch us a ride”. The first truck sped by, but the second came and I put a little more effort forth, waving my arms about while trying to hold up my sheet. As he began to slow, I looked back and winked at Risa. When he stopped, I yelled above the noise and heat of the truck that we needed a ride. He said something but I couldn’t hear him. “What??” I yelled. He motioned with his head for me to climb up the truck to get closer. I did so and explained, still in the same volume, that my friend and I needed a ride.
“Okay, hop in” he said, and I was glad it was so easy.
“There are two flannel shirts in the closet, in the back. Go ahead and put those on, and I’ll see what I can do about some jeans for you two.”
We thanked him and now we wore flannel shirts with sheet skirts. He popped into a truck stop to purchase jeans, which they didn’t sell. They did, however, sell cigarettes and he gave me a pack of Marlboro’s along with a twenty-dollar bill when he came back to the truck.
We hadn’t driven very far, I was seated up front and Risa in the back, and he was already talking about how we could come up to his cabin in Vermont. “I’m scared”, Risa whispered, even though the truck driver could certainly hear her. “All right ladies, I’m gonna have to drop you off here if you don’t want to go any further”. Risa twisted her face at me, and I thought maybe there was a better way to get around. One could only imagine what this trucker had in mind.
“We just need to get to Johnstown. I have family there.” I paused. “They are expecting us.” He pulled the truck over. “How about if you ladies just get out here?”
We exited the truck, only to realize that it was our lucky day! Directly in front of us loomed none other than the Pennsylvania State Mental Institution! There we were, shoeless and pantless, in front of the nut house. Nearby, about a football field’s length away, was a warehouse or perhaps a factory. We cut through a bunch of brambles and thorns, cutting our feet to shreds, until we reached a barbed wire fence. I climbed over rather swiftly; proud of my agility. Risa followed and as she straddled the fence at the top, her panties caught on the barbed wire.
“My panties, my panties! Oh ow! ow!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. I admonished her. “Be quiet, Risa! Holy shit, you want them to come with the white coats, or what?” Too late! Two gentlemen from the warehouse had run to the rescue, and why not? “My panties! My panties!”
After one of the men retrieved Risa from the fence, we walked down over a slight embankment to the parking lot of the warehouse. I asked one of the men if we could use the phone inside. “Yeah, well, let me go inside and ask”, he said. Several other men came outside to join the two outside. They formed a semicircle around us as I described to them how we had been at a Halloween party that didn’t have a happy ending and we wanted to call my parents. I assured them that we were not escaped from the nut house, but when I noticed a car moving toward us I became certain they didn’t believe me. The officers didn’t believe our story either, and being detectives, they were able to quickly determine where we actually belonged.
They cuffed Risa first.
“Can I least finish my cigarette?” she pleaded.
“No ma’am, you cannot” the officer said as he cuffed my friend. As he did so, Risa’s sheet fell off. “Oh, please put my skirt back on” she begged. I couldn’t help but laugh with the realization that, to her, the sheet had actually become a skirt, even though we all knew it was a sheet and nothing more.
When the officers cuffed me, my thoughts were with the twenty spot I had tucked away in my bra. I didn’t want them to confiscate it or worse, bear the accusation that I had somehow earned it. Once we were seated in the car, I began working furiously to remove the cuffs. Squeezing my hand, I was able, to my surprise, to slip out of the cuffs, remove the twenty and fold it up really small to fit it in the back of my mouth. I’d have it for my next escape!