News: Keeping Melissa Warm

Writers embrace one of their own

Dec 13, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Writers are organizing a benefit for Melissa Mosby, a homeless woman who has participated in the Word on the Street program at InkTank.

Sometimes Melissa Mosby awakens into the dark and tells herself the truth: "My name is Melissa Mosby. I am 40 years old. I am sleeping in a trash room. This is really my life."

Mosby is homeless on and around Main Street. She's also a graceful, funny and sometimes devastating writer. It's something even she might not fully know if she hadn't come seeking the $2 per story that InkTank's "Word on the Street" program pays homeless writers.

"I went to talk to (InkTank founder) Kathy (Holwadel) to see what they were writing about," Mosby says. "She said, 'We're not writing — you are.' "

Mosby did, faithfully, sometimes for a needed $2 and sometimes for a free release.

"Writing helps me get relief from feelings that are hard to express," she says. "It would come out negative if I tried to do it any other way than writing, and it probably wouldn't be as honest."

Another young man dies on the streets where she lives, and she writes:

We draw straws every time we leave from behind closed doors and we don't even know the length of the straw we've drawn. The yellow tape, the red and blue lights, the white uniforms and the blood on the sidewalk. The pain of family and friends. The unidentified assassin. What the hell is going on? Who are we? What do we value if not the life we are given and the power of choice?

Some of InkTank's writing prompts draw out her sharp wit.

Cincinnati Social Services, huh? For real, I can't say. I know they take social very personally; everything you've ever owned, sold, or had in the bank, they want to know. Red, red tape. And don't even think about lying. ... It's difficult enough for me to keep up with my truths — last place of residence, for instance. What do I put, "the abandominium at 1307 Walnut #310"?

Mosby earns what money she can, however she can. Sometimes she calls businesses to offer cleaning or window washing services; then when she shows up, they're surprised the well-spoken woman at the door isn't white.

"Hope don't come so easy for black folk." Can you, for a moment, step into my shoes? Or see with my eyes, or hear with my ears? Can you imagine life where people challenge your every desire or dream? A tone of voice, a "where did you learn to read and write so well?" (to which I answered, "School") These quell hope.

'The place of no feeling'
Mosby says she's homeless because of bad choices.

"Mistakes," she says. "Mistakes that I regret. I thought being an individual was more important than being a wife. And it's not. I'd do that over again."

She reconsiders her last thought.

"I think. Sometimes I think I have people in my life who see me and I made friendships that I wouldn't trade for anything."

Yet the thread through most of Mosby's writing is feeling like an outsider. She says she's terrified of making mistakes.

"In my mind, people would say, 'See, I told you, she ain't shit,' " she says. "Sometimes when I talk to people who I consider normal and they're talking to me like I'm normal, I feel like a fraud."

Like many homeless people, Mosby has her addiction. She writes about that less often.

Have you ever tried to avoid feeling? I never realized it but I have almost always tried to avoid it. Needless to say, it is a terrible mistake. The most detrimental time was when I had my first child. She was handicapped. She had cerebral palsy. I was hurt, confused, angry and terrified. I lived at the hospital in Long Beach, Cal. It was 3 days before she was stable enough for me to touch her in the incubator, which has gloves already attached. I was lonely, I was sad. I loved my daughter Erin so much. I was so confused that I stole a book from the library about CP. I carried it with me everywhere. I was at the gas station and I met a guy who invited me to a party. I told my mom and she encouraged me to go because either I had cut off all my friends, or they were so uncomfortable with my situation that they vanished. I went. I was introduced to smoking cooked cocaine — rock, crack. Hard. It took me to the place of no feeling. It hooked me and from then on practically ran my life.

She's put together years of sobriety before, but her faith is shaken. Getting sober isn't that hard, she says. Staying sober is.

Mosby became something of a star writer at InkTank, both for her talent and her consistency. She says she doesn't resent acting as local ambassador to homelessness.

"I revel in it," she says. "That's what I'm familiar with, being homeless."

My opinion of the "upper class" has been altered because of InkTank. They are not a guilt-ridden group of white folks trying to clear their consciences. God knows we've got enough of those. But the InkTankers have a goal and dedication to the art of writing, and the help they give to me is simply the fallout from their main goal. I like that.

Change time
The attention her writing's garnered still confuses Mosby.

"I mean, I'm glad," she says. "But I've never done anything so well that people push me to continue. Right now I'm trying to figure out if it's people's tastes that's out of whack or if it's me that's out of whack."

If people's tastes are right, then Mosby faces a frightening choice.

"I can't fuck up," she says. "I have to make a change. I'm 40. I have to change or I'll die."

Her ideal isn't a perfect life. Just a life, period.

"Something that I can maintain and, when some kind of upset happens in my life, I have people to turn to and don't have to pretend to be able to handle it all by myself," she says.

Mosby says the best thing people can do for her is to honestly share themselves.

"Continue to share your humanness and the fact that nobody has it all together," she says. "Because sometimes, in my mind, everybody has it together but me."

As she keeps reaching out through her writing, more people, especially fellow writers, reach back. Some writers — like this one — have little façade but much else in common with her. It's something neither of us would know but for honest writing.

Mosby's a star not just because she's a good writer but because she tries to be a good friend.

Friendship usually means being what someone wants. Then they consider you a friend. I just try to be honest and hope that the person is partial to honesty. But remember, I'm a friend in progress.

This spring I moved to Main and Liberty. For a time I walked crying to and from work on Third Street. Two times Mosby caught me. She put her arm around me and told me this, too, would pass. Then she walked me home.

This writer and others are hosting a "Keep Melissa Warm" benefit for Mosby from 5:30-8 p.m. Monday at The Gathering, 1431 Main St. She will read her work at 7 p.m. Funds raised will pay for a four-month winter lease and utilities for a Main Street apartment. Suggested donation is $20 at the door. Donations can also be made at any National City Bank to the Melissa Mosby Fund or by mail to National City, 4221 Glenway Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45205. Any additional funds collected will be donated to InkTank's Word on the Street Program.