LOSING IT

But this is not an article about journalistic anguish, it is the story of Hillya Mooney, who saw quite clearly what was happening and then took the pieces of her soul and vanished.

Hillya moved to the small rural community of Surprise, Arizona. She was now wearing a crude wig to disguise herself. It was during this period that a social worker informed Hillya, to her consternation, that she was homeless.

Hillya was shocked. She actually believed that she had pulled her respectability over her shattered spirit just as she had pulled her house dress over her knees. The futility of these gestures simply escaped her.

"They told me I needed food stamps and said I could end up a bag lady. That knocked me off my feet. I began to wonder: 'Who am I? What's going on?' I forgot about eating. I wanted to get out of my involvement with the police, the county attorney. I was trying to deep-six the entire thing, but it wouldn't go away. I told myself that Surprise was a beautiful, glamorous resort. But it was a momentary dream inside the nightmare. I was totally disconnected. I felt as if I was pretending to be another person. It was an out-of-body experience. I felt responsible for defending the women who'd been bludgeoned, but I didn't want to feel all those things the other women felt. My feet were stuck in tar. I would not be able to just sit on the sidelines and be an observer.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'Oh, please, don't pull me back into it. Please.'"
In Surprise, Hillya met a man who offered her the use of his trailer in the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Happy Trails Mobile Home Park while he was away in Alaska. She accepted gratefully.

But her benefactor returned early from his trip, drank heavily and offered an observation: "You're a woman. I'm a man. So what's the problem?"

"I told him it was against my religion.
"He responded like I was some kind of misfit. Not modern. Not with it. He wasn't angry or abusive, Just resentful. He tried to avoid me. I tried to avoid him. The trailer wasn't big enough for that. Every time I would try to be a normal person, it would not work. It's like dancing with someone and you are out of synch. I tried to have a fluffy life. People would ask, 'What's with the wig?' I moved to another neighborhood and nothing went away."
With sexual pressure mounting in her hideaway, Hillya ended her six-month stay in Surprise and moved back to Phoenix, taking up winter residence with other homeless transients in the National Guard Armory.

No longer shocked at being included in the homeless census, Hillya recognized her bunk mates for who they were, yet she invented a perspective for herself that was part whimsy, part catharsis.

"I was surrounded by mentally ill women who sat up all night long, rocking themselves and jabbering away. One woman wrapped herself in plastic from head to toe. Charlotte was afraid she'd get germs. Two older women, they must have been 65, used to be prostitutes and they still were. They wore long black hair wigs.

"I saw all these people who had taken on this horrible existence and accepted it. I refused. People lost everything and then they lost their minds. I decided not to do that. I decided the National Guard Armory was the summer camp I never had as a kid. I really had a great time."
Hillya spent a little over a month on a pallet with an army blanket inside the National Guard Armory before moving into the Andre House, a transient shelter run by the Catholic Church.

In August of 1992, she transferred to a bankrupt motel on Van Buren, formerly the Sands, that had been converted to a homeless depot.

Called the New Day Center, the shelter was administered by the United Methodist Outreach Ministry (UMOM).

"I thought it was paradise," said Hillya.
Every morning she would catch a bus and ride downtown with a donated ticket.
"I would go to the Hyatt and read the newspaper like a normal person. I would window-shop at Ortega's and look at Indian jewelry I liked. I went into boutiques and looked at clothes as if I was going to buy something. I used the hotel rest rooms. Homeless people don't have access to water. I had a pair of inexpensive pearl earrings. I was still dainty."
Her appearance was important to Hillya: "Mascara meant you existed."
When Hillya found herself acting more normally she began to watch how others conducted themselves, looking for clues.

"I started going to Saint Mary's Church. The first mass is at 9:30. I had a need to make myself more real, a need to speak to people. I always spoke to the bus driver, the concierge at the hotel. I would observe how people shook hands at church. It was always so calm and peaceful in the church. There was none of the anger and hostility that surrounds the homeless. There would be fairs downtown. I never had money to buy food, but I'd always go to see how people acted. I dropped into Phoenix College where I'd taught. I'd practice on a piano, play Rachmaninoff, Chopin."
Hillya's excursions came to an end every day when the sun went down and she was thrust back into the violent world of the homeless.

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