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Music With A Message


New Orleans entertainer soothes aching souls after years of drugs and pain


By Robert George
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

Timothea Beckerman fills out a form for every caller who leaves a message on her hotline. Every day or so, she sits down at the kitchen table and goes through the forms, calling back to ask what medicine they are taking, whether they have insurance and how they got hepatitis C.

One day recently, she returned calls from a nurse whose joints hurt so badly she couldn't get out of bed, an ex-con whose doctor said his case wasn't bad enough yet to bother treating, and a woman whose only message was: "This is Margie. Call me, please."

Timothea listened to the nurse for a long while, for as long as it took, and said, "You feel free to call me any time."

She said it quietly, connecting to the nurse in a voice that was a mere whisper of the one she has used on hundreds of stages in the past four decades.

She gave the ex-convict the name of a clinic that could help him, and she said he deserved treatment as much as anyone.

"I don't care if you were incarcerated," she said. "It doesn't matter."

Then she called the number Margie had left her. Someone else answered. Tears in her eyes, Timothea held her hand over the phone and mouthed the word "suicide" to a friend who had stopped by and sat down across the kitchen table. Then she moved her hand onto her forehead and put the phone back to her lips.

"What? When? What happened?" she asked the girl on the other end.

Timothea told the girl she was so sorry, and to call if she needed anything. Again before hanging up, she said she was sorry.

She sat in her seat stunned, mumbling that she didn't even know Margie's last name. A woman in her 40s, it sounded like, worried and sick, and Timothea had called back too late.

"I called her back before," she said. "But she wasn't there."

"You can't save everybody," said her friend Gerald Cannon, who is on the board of the Siren to

Wail agency.

Timothea started the agency two years ago, after she told her boss at a nightclub where she had a regular gig that she had hepatitis-C, and he fired her.

She figures she got it from a dirty needle. She had shot heroin when she was young. She also had toured the world, searching for something she ended up finding at her kitchen table.

The disease is the one hardship she hasn't been able to talk away, or ignore, or move beyond. She has the worst strain, one so resistant to treatment that she figures the drugs the doctors usually prescribe aren't worth their side effects. The drugs can make you feel like you have the flu, and with so little prospect of a cure, Timothea doesn't want to spend half her time feverish and vomiting. As it is, the disease makes her continually tired and achy.

Timothea wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand.

Cannon told her not to blame herself. He is a free-lance filmmaker who produced the television ad that prompted people to start calling Timothea. It had run several times this week, and he had come over because he figured the phone must be ringing a lot. Timothea doesn't perform as much as she used to, but she had a gig that night, and he wanted to make sure she didn't tire herself out.

He asked her if she remembered how she used to want to be a star.

"I just wanted to be somebody," Timothea said. "With all that hoopla you have on the stage, you still come home to yourself."

'Going Home to Mama'

She is 51, and ever since she was a girl, she has tried to make sense of her life through her songs. "Been There, Done That" is about leaving a man who beat her. "I Was Just a Baby, Havin' a Baby" is an apology to her three sons, each of whom she gave up for adoption.

Then there's "Going Home to Mama."

Timothea was raised by her mother, who, along with her sisters, had been a hustler at The Avenue A, her Aunt Lucille's bar on the West Bank. Her mother was not a bad woman, just alone, so alone that there was no way for Timothea to reach across the abyss and touch her on her island of loneliness. Her mother popped pills and got married. Again and again, her mother got married, once without even divorcing the previous husband.

Only once had Margaret Beckerman cared for Timothea as a mother should. Timothea was in her 20s, heavily into drugs, and she had fallen off of a barstool and hurt her back so badly that she couldn't walk. Her mother had gone broke taking care of her. She had lost her apartment and carried Timothea from shelter to shelter like a piece of luggage. That's how Timothea had felt, like a possession her mother could carry around, and it occurred to her that her mother was only capable of loving her as a possession and not as a person. When she was healthy enough to care for herself, Timothea went back to shooting drugs.

As far as she could recall, her mother had never hugged her. Timothea figured the woman must not have known how. In fact, her mother had cringed whenever Timothea came near. Yet one night last year, she had touched Timothea. She had reached up from her hospital bed and she

had touched her face and hair, and then her hands had moved down, touching Timothea's shoulders and arms, her stomach and legs.

Not long after, she died. Timothea is glad she recorded "Going Home to Mama" before the end of her mother's life.

'Baby Workout'

The next album she recorded was named after the title song, "School of Hard Knocks," and it's about her life. She included a grown-up version of the song she used to sing as a child in Aunt Lucille's bar, Jackie Wilson's "Baby Workout."

She was 10 and she would go inside the telephone booth at the back of the bar and wait for someone to play the song on the jukebox. Then she would jump out in her Catholic schoolgirl uniform, shout, "Hey, you!" and sing along with the music until the men in the bar started yelling, "Show 'em how you roll your belly."

Her aunt would hoist her on the bar and lift up her shirt. Timothea was a tiny thing, and she would wiggle her heart out while the men threw change at her. She could make $8 a night, more than the bartender made in tips. But it was the attention she craved.

The feeling she got from wiggling her belly for the drunks was the thing she thought other girls must get from their mothers and fathers. She imagined it was what love was. But even as it fed her craving, it hollowed her out even more.

At 13, she had a stage name, "Little Tiny Timmy Little, the Little Girl with the Big Voice." She had her first husband and her first baby when she was 15. At 17, she was on drugs. There was another husband, two more babies, the inside of a lot of jail cells, and, of course, that time with her mother when she hurt her back.

Through it all she remembered that the stage was the one place where she had felt loved, and when she got off drugs, she returned to it. She was as little as ever, barely 5 feet tall, and skinny, yet she still had her big voice. She sang out to all those people listening to the songs about who she was, and they would cheer for her. She would hang around the club after her act was over, trying to hold onto that feeling she had onstage, the feeling of touching people.

Since starting the hotline, she gets the feeling all the time. The callers tell her all about themselves. She hears how ashamed they are that they got this disease, and she tells them she knows all about it and not to worry. It's good to talk about it, she tells them. Sometimes you just need a good talk from the heart with another person who isn't going to judge you for it. There's a certain magic to that. Don't stop, she says to them. She's listening. That's what she's there for.

Calls to make

Timothea puts all of her forms in a white binder, and by midafternoon, with her reading glasses slipping down her nose, she called back the last person.

Cannon stayed with her all day, and she had him look up the numbers of support groups she gave to the girl who had answered Margie's phone. She was about to get ready for her gig, at the Tap Room across the lake in Covington, when the phone rang again. It was a grandmother who got the disease 40 years ago from a blood transfusion.

"I'm here," she said to her. "What can I do for you, sweetie?"

That night she was dynamite on stage. The crowd cheered after every song. They loved her.

As good as it was to be on that stage, she drove right home after the last set. She didn't hang around at all. She needed her sleep. She had phone calls to make in the morning.

For information on Siren to Wail Inc., call 891-4164, or toll free 1 (866) 891-4164.

Robert George can be reached at bgeorge@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3321.


The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.

Copyright 2002 New OrleansNet LLC. All Rights Reserved

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