Our vendors: Rhonda (The Curbside Chronicle, Oklahoma City, USA)

Interview recorded by Ranya Forgotson, The Curbside Chronicle

Where are you from?

Well, I was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. It is literally a tri-state area. You can stand in the middle of the road and you’re in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. My parents used to say Arkansas is just a step away from Texas. When I was three, we moved to Houston and stayed there until I started being pen pals with my second husband. And I came here [Oklahoma City] and never went home.

I had an older brother and a younger brother. My younger brother passed away about fifteen years ago. He was an alcoholic and had psoriatic arthritis. My little brother had the biggest heart of anyone you’ve ever known, but he was also the loneliest person. So anytime I was around him, I tried to make sure things were good. He would have to doctor himself every night. Any stress triggered him. He had places all over his body. We’d put the medicine on and wrap him in Saran Wrap and then he had to stand in front of the sunlamp. I certainly understand why he picked up self-medicating. He was 39 when he passed; it was horrible. He was so much fun. He was gonna take me to Graceland.

Are you an Elvis fan?

When I was a teenager, I thought maybe Elvis would pass by our home going to the airport and break down and have to use our phone. And we’d find each other and get married.

What were your parents like?

It’s hard to say. They weren’t the Cleavers for sure. It’s funny, but it seems normal that they slept in separate rooms. My whole life they slept apart. They were always civil to each other. They were like roommates. It’s strange, but they stayed together. They’d been married fifty-one years by the time they passed.

My dad did construction and my mom took care of the house. She did the laundry and cooked three meals a day. We would come together every morning over breakfast. That part was normal.

Did you like school?

No, I was a nerd and I was skinny and out of place. My teeth were broken because we had this glass jar we would drink water out of the fridge from. And my brother hit the bottom of the jar while I was drinking and broke my teeth. We never got them fixed; we were poor. I’ve actually never been to the dentist ever.

I didn’t like high school at all. I didn’t dress the way everybody else dressed. I felt backwards…I finished high school in December instead of May because I had enough credits. I got out of school on a Friday and by Monday I had a job. I got a job in Dairy Queen management.

What was it like growing up poor?

It was hard. More than once or twice we had to have pinto beans for breakfast. But our parents shielded us quite a bit when we were young. They didn’t want us to know how poor we were, but we also had to understand that we couldn’t get what we wanted because we didn’t have the money.

My favorite thing with my dad was when we’d go to the store together. Even before I could talk, I remember this. I was standing in the back of his truck and he’d say, “Have you been good? Do you want to go to the store?” I knew going to the store meant chocolate. Going to the grocery store was always a big treat for me.  I still love going to this day.

What was life like after high school?

About that time, I met my first husband. He lived next door to my older brother. He was charming at first. He was friends with my big brother. So, everything we did at first, we did as two couples. We lived in trailers next to each other. I thought that it would be okay, but it was a nightmare because he was abusive.

The first sign of abuse – he came home one night and slung an iron skillet of what I’d cooked all over the house. And said, “Don’t bring that food into my house.” It was a poor man’s dinner – pork and beans spiced up. He threw it all over the living room and then took me by the hair and made me wipe it all up. And it only got worse.

How so?

I was not allowed to have chocolate in the house ever. When his dad passed away, someone brought us a German chocolate cake and I ate it. He knocked me clear across the room into the bathroom and washed my face in the toilet bowl.

When we first got married, I wanted to have lots of kids. I already had my son, Chad, from a previous relationship when I met him. Chad was just a baby at the time. But he made me have surgeries I didn’t need. I had five in one year. I ended up having a complete hysterectomy at twenty-two. You can’t drive for six weeks after surgery, so I can’t go anywhere he doesn’t know where I am. And he would take the house phone with him when he went to work. So, I decided to leave. I couldn’t do it anymore.

Was it difficult leaving?

I think I was more afraid of being alone. I’m a young woman with a child. I’ve got all these health issues from surgery. I didn’t want my parents or my mom to be right. I didn’t want to tell them that I’d blown it.

How did you end up in Oklahoma City?

Oh, this is a strange story. I became pen pals with my second husband. My best friend had moved here [Oklahoma City], and she was living with my husband’s best friend and him. All three of them. One night they called me at 3A.M. and started talking to me, wanting to know if I wanted to be pen pals with him. Sure, it’s three o’clock in the morning; I don’t care. Less than a week later and I got a letter. And it went back and forth. The first couple of months, it was just letters. Then we started talking on the phone every night. Neither one of us knew what the other one looked like because we didn’t have pictures to send. It was kind of wild and crazy. He asked me to come here [Oklahoma City] on my birthday thirty-three years ago, and I did.

We had been talking a year. No way I was gonna move myself and Chad without a commitment from someone. I said, “If we’re not getting married, we’re not gonna be together.” So, we went to the courthouse immediately. We had not one date ever. We were married for thirty years.

I don’t have to tear up a box and write on it. I can hold my head up and say, “I’m wearing a green apron; I’ve got a job now.”

Were you nervous since you’d never met?

I was so scared, so scared. I remember on the bus ride up here, I couldn’t even talk. I was trying to put my makeup on before we got here. I was very nervous. But when we got off the bus, my husband gave me a Butterfinger and Chad a rose. Chad didn’t get the joke, but I thought that was really cute. Immediately I fell in love with him, and it felt like I had known him forever.

What was that relationship like?

After couple months, it began to get bad quickly. He knew how to push my buttons and hurt me more than anybody else. Then he’d turn around and build me back up so he could knock me down again.

When he was good, he made me feel like the best woman on planet earth, but he could take that away from me with one swipe of that tongue. I still struggle with the mental stuff. He told me he was gonna mess me up to where no one would want me. When I got older, he said he remembered how I looked when I was young, so he didn’t need me to look good.

It was so bad with him that “no” didn’t mean “no.” There were lots of times he did stuff that I asked him to stop and he wouldn’t. I realized after I left that it’s okay to say “no” and they’re supposed to respect you.

You were married for thirty years. What was the hardest part about leaving him?

You develop a love for someone first. He couldn’t be abusive writing me letters. I was already in love with him when I got here. And, I like it here. I love living here. By then my parents had passed away. And my brother was gone. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I stayed with him. I felt like my identity was wrapped up in him. It took me thirty years to walk out of that abusive relationship.

When did you finally decide to leave?

He was choking me one night, and I was trying to get his attention. He had me pinned on the bed. He didn’t even see a person. I was saying, “Please stop, please stop.” And I saw that he didn’t see me. He didn’t see me as another human being. He was hurting me, but to him, he wasn’t hurting anything. I could have been a ragdoll.

I thought that was probably the last time I was ever going to breathe. But I prayed to God that if He just let me get out of this, “Don’t kill me now and I promise I’ll leave.” When he went to bed that night, I got my backpack and walked out. Never turned around. Never looked back.

That’s how I ended up homeless.

How did you feel when you finally left?

That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I looked back and said to myself, “What were you thinking? Now you’re too old to do anything. Nobody’s gonna want you. You’re not gonna be able to get a job. You’re too old for all that. Now what? You let your best years pass when you knew you should have left.” That was about three years ago. I was fifty-six when I finally left him.

Where did you go?

I stayed outside until I was able to make enough money to get into a motel. I had nothing when I left him. Motels are $60 a night. I turned to panhandling. For two years, that’s what I did. It is the most draining job I’ve ever had. Working twenty-four hours a day wasn’t as hard as picking up a sign and letting people know this is what I’m reduced to. I hated it.

It was a cycle of making money just to have a place to sleep. It was all about eating and sleeping. $60 a night is hard. That’s a big responsibility. And it made it hard to save any money for a place of my own. I needed cash every day so I didn’t have to sleep outside. I thought how am I ever going to get out of this? And the Curbside brought that to me. You gave me a dignity I didn’t have. And I do now.

What is it like being a vendor for The Curbside Chronicle?

I don’t have to tear up a box and write on it. I can hold my head up and say, “I’m wearing a green apron; I’ve got a job now.” I don’t have to go out there and ask people for handouts anymore. I’m very proud to hold that magazine…I get less things thrown at me and said to me. People still say, “get a job,” sometimes. But that’s okay. They just don’t understand that I am working.

How does it feel to be back in housing?

It is surreal. You guys helped make it happen. Something I’d been trying to do for years was get someplace permanent. And I didn’t know how I was gonna do that on my own. It was unbelievable.

You mentioned praying earlier. Are you religious?

Very. God and I are super close. And I’m still here because of Him. I told you that I prayed to Jesus, if He let me live, I’d leave. It helps me get up and face what I did in the past and take responsibility for that and move forward. I’m not so old that I can’t better myself.  I’m fifty-nine but I know I can still better my life.

What helps you reconcile with your past?

The Bible. If Jesus could go through everything He went through and still hold His head high and still have hope. Even though He knew what His destiny was. I don’t know what my destiny is, but I know what it’s not. And it’s not for me to die lonely and sad and abused. It’s for me to sell The Curbside Chronicle and try to better myself. And I don’t have to take that from anybody anymore. They can’t hurt me.

What advice would you give someone in an abusive relationship?

I know you love this person, and they say it’ll never happen again and you’re the best thing to ever happen to them. But it always happens and it’s always worse. Take your children and go while you can. There are places for women that are battered like that. I could have just went home to my mom and dad, but I was so ashamed. I felt like I deserved everything he was doing to me.

Don’t give up. There’s always hope. God didn’t put us on this earth to be miserable. He intends for us to fulfill our destiny. And that’s what I think is happening for me right now.

What are your goals for the future?

I really would love to go to classes to learn the computer. I can barely get on Facebook. I’m also hoping that my health will get better. We’re waiting on the surgery to remove my spleen now. There are some days when I can’t get out of bed at all. I miss all of my customers when I’m sick. But Curbside gives me flexibility with my health…If I can work all day and come home and have food to eat and crochet and watch T.V., I’m good. I’m not asking for a whole lot.