New Orleans entertainer
soothes aching souls after years of drugs and pain
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
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."
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.
care if you were incarcerated," she said. "It doesn't
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.
When? What happened?" she asked the girl on the other end.
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.
her back before," she said. "But she wasn't there."
can't save everybody," said her friend Gerald Cannon, who
is on the board of the Siren to
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
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.
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.
her eyes with the palm of her hand.
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.
wanted to be somebody," Timothea said. "With all that
hoopla you have on the stage, you still come home to yourself."
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.
"Going Home to Mama."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
here," she said to her. "What can I do for you, sweetie?"
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.
on Siren to Wail Inc., call 891-4164, or toll free 1 (866) 891-4164.
can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3321.
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