Alice, Formerly Known As Al
A motley collection of people packed into the elevator with me late that Friday afternoon: a grandmother holding firmly to the hands of two children; a thin young man wearing a threadbare coat and a bowler hat; and an elderly woman dragging behind her a two-wheeled cart and the aroma of the streets. Judging from the one lit button on the panel, we were all going to the same place.
Sure enough, when the doors opened on the 10th floor, we all tumbled out. Everyone but me streamed to the right, sitting down at a row of seats stacked against a wall. It was my first time at the LGBT Center. I stood outside of the elevator bank wondering where volunteers were supposed to go.
A petite woman behind the reception desk looked up and motioned me forward with a friendly smile. She took my information and warmly invited me to wait in in the semi-circle of chairs in front of her.
My eyes traveled to the other side of the reception area. One by one, people disappeared into an alcove around the corner, and a few minutes later, exited back onto the elevator with plastic bags full of groceries.
My confusion must have shown on my face, because out of the blue, the receptionist stated matter-of-factly to me, “We operate a community food bank, too.”
“Oh,” I nodded. Immediately, I looked down at my jeans. How many bags of food could I have bought for the price of these, I wondered guiltily.
“It’s OK,” the receptionist said. I looked up and found her keen eyes on me. She chuckled. “Don’t ever quit your day job to become a poker player,” she advised gently, before picking up the ringing phone.
I studied her. She wore the end-of-the-workweek all over her face. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was slightly ruffled, her mascara a touch blurred. There was a chip in the coral nail polish on one of her fingers. But her voice was unfailingly polite and professional as she expertly directed callers, paged staff members and took messages. She spoke graciously to an irate caller; it sounded to me like he was apologizing to her by the end of their conversation. “All in a day’s work,” she sighed out loud.
She stood up and stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Alice. I used to be a volunteer here, too, when I first moved to the city. Then they offered me a paid position. This is a great place. I love it here. You will too.”
“You live in the city?” I ventured. “I’m kind of envious. I like being able to walk everywhere, but my wife has a thing for grass and trees.”
“Sometimes grass and trees are overrated,” she answered, and a cloud came over her face. She sat back down wearily. “I lived in the suburbs too, before I moved here.”
And then, unbidden, Alice told me her story.
“I used to be Al. Now I’m Alice,” she began.
Fifteen years ago, Alice left home after finishing high school. “I shouldn’t say ‘left home,’ I should say ‘kicked out,’” she clarified. “My family wasn’t, uh, supportive. My parents wanted to put me into a mental hospital, but when I refused to go – well, let’s just say my leaving was a mutual parting of the ways.”
Alice had one friend in high school, a straight male. He stuck by her through thick and thin. After graduation, they got jobs, shared an apartment and socialized together. “He was a great guy. Always had my back,” Alice said.
Nothing in their relationship changed when Alice started the transition process. One Saturday night, the two roommates went out as usual to their neighborhood bar. Alice decided to leave early. She left the bar alone and started walking home. She didn’t know that two friends of her roommate’s had been seated at a corner table, watching.
On a dark alley behind the bar, the roommate and his friends attacked Alice. They beat her unconscious and then fled the scene. Alice was discovered hours later and taken to the hospital. On the way, she expired and was resuscitated in the ambulance. She was put into a medically-induced coma to help heal her severe head trauma. In addition to her skull fractures, she had multiple broken bones and internal injuries.
“You know what?” Alice asked. “The worst part wasn’t the pain. That was bad enough, but what hurt the most was when I found out later my roommate was behind it. He had planned the whole thing with his friends.”
She shook her head, dislodging the memory. She looked at me. “Oh yes,” she responded to my unspoken question. “All of them were caught, and now they’re in jail for attempted murder.” Alice’s voice brightened. “I give the police credit though. Back then, you know, I thought they’d just look at me and laugh, say I got what was coming to me. But they were really sympathetic and kind. I didn’t expect that.”
The phone buzzed. Alice picked it up, then turned to me. “You can go in now, he’s ready for you,” she said.
“Now those guys are put away for a long time. They’re there, and I’m here,” she continued, spreading her arms across the desk.
“And I’m HERE,” she repeated, with a happy smile.