I’ve made it a rule as part of my weekly blog about Boy At The Window to not mention the names of folk who serve as character in my manuscript (family and the deceased are generally the exceptions that I’ve made). Today I’m breaking this rule, for no other reason than the fact that the person in question may in fact already be dead. I don’t do this without some internal conflict — I would prefer for my characters to remain anonymous. But one way or another, I need some answers around this missing person.
Her name is Brandie Barrie Weston. She would be thirty-eight years old, an African American woman about five-seven and overweight. She would also be severely mentally ill, homeless, and missing for the better part of the last five or six years. During the course of Boy At The Window I attempted to locate Brandie for an interview. Only to discover most of the facts listed above. I spoke with her mother about two years ago, who told me that she was either homeless in New York City, had gone south to Atlanta, or was wandering somewhere out west.
About a year and a half ago, another interviewee and former classmate had informed me of a couple of Brandie sightings by him and a couple of other folks in New York in 2003 or 2004. I interviewed one other classmate, this one in March of this year, who said that he’d found classified ads that Brandie had placed in an indy rag in Los Angeles, ads that rambled on about “the oppressor” and how she was a “foster child” (not true) and a multiple degree graduate of the “University of Homeless Services.” I stopped my search after that interview, realizing that even if I found her, the illness (likely schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) would likely make it impossible for me to interview her or even hold a coherent conversation.
Three weeks ago, another former classmate called to tell me that Brandie was dead. She’d received this information via email as part of an email chain that went through three or four other people. There wasn’t any real evidence in these emails, not a newspaper obituary or death notice, not an article from the police blotter of a body found or anything to confirm the rumor. I said that I would check into it.
Since then, I contacted another classmate, one that at one point in life was Brandie’s best friend, who then went through the email chain himself and declared her dead. I also contacted the L.A. County Morgue, an emergency homeless shelter for the mentally ill in Santa Monica, traced Brandie’s travels to L.A. and Berkeley/Santa Cruz, and discovered that she was in a band as a backup vocalist prior to and at the beginning stages of her homeless wanderings. Yet none of it gave me any evidence that she was alive or dead. I’d contact her mother, but I knew from my phone conversation with her two years ago that she’d know less about Brandie’s current existence (one way or the other) than I do.
It’s truly sad in so many ways. I first met Brandie a bit more than twenty-seven years ago, before we became classmates in our gifted-track program at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon. Our’s wasn’t anything close to a friendship. We met because Brandie’s mother and my father Jimme were drinking buddies. On the day we met, me, Jimme and my older brother were at Brandie’s place with her mother. As Brandie walked into her bright and yellow apartment, idiotic me said, “Wow, she’s fat!” Not exactly the best first thing to say to a girl in the beginning stages of puberty. She was beyond pissed off with me for years after that. It wasn’t until high school that we even became weak acquaintances. This despite having bumped into and conversed with Brandie’s mother and Brandie’s older sister on multiple occasions throughout those years.
There are a lot of things I remember about Brandie. Her infectious laugh and smile. Her off-center creativity. Her love for music — which I assumed she picked up from her mother, a great singer in her own right — along with the arts in general. Her contrarian attitude toward Mount Vernon High School and its hundreds of cliques. Most of all, I remember her saying to me, “You’re such a pessimist, Donald! You need to be more optimistic about life.” Brandie said this to me all of the time in our last three years of high school. It suggested that I needed to be more like her, that I needed to take the things that happened to me less seriously than I actually did at the time.
The last time I saw Brandie was in August of ’93, yelling out of the back of someone’s beat-up Chevy something or other near Gramatan Avenue and Hartley Park in Mount Vernon. She seemed happier than she was at the end of high school. I was in the middle of a family visit and getting geared up for my third year of graduate school, this one being my first at Carnegie Mellon. I waved at her, realizing that she hadn’t changed much since the first time we had met.
I wonder whether anything I ever said to her, including the “Wow, she’s fat!” ever affected her outlook on life. Or was it years of insults about her weight, her face, the constant comparisons with her sister, her mother’s slights and anger, her college life or the everyday unfairness of this world that triggered her downward spiral? All I know is that somewhere between ’87 and ’07 Brandie traded in her optimism for depression, that she preferred the life of a mentally ill wandered minus meds to the lifelessness that comes with anti-psychotic medication. Or maybe she didn’t trade in her optimism after all. She left for L.A. in the hopes of making it, despite the awesome odds against her. Either way, I hope to find her soon.