The last picture I have of Millie is of her talking to a stray cat.
It was a late October night. She was working “the spot,” a shuttered loading dock on an industrial street where I had first met her over a year before. Always shy, this night she was quieter than usual. She spoke to the ground, her voice a soft mumble of English and Spanish, a tight smile on her face. Always fashionable, she was dressed as if headed for a nightclub with small iron-on stars running the length of her pant seam.
We made small talk before she asked for a favor. Could I drive her to her mother’s place? She was tired and cold. Her body was sore from withdrawal. She hadn’t been scoring much.
Before she got into the car she bent over and whispered to the dirty cat. What she said, I don’t know.
Another prostitute had previously spoken to the cat, “You a good boy. We ain’t that different really, out here with nobody to care for us. We get by though.”
Millie’s body language said the same, although she would never voice it. She was not one for talking about herself or ever wanting pity.
Before leaving Hunts Point she asked to stop by 13-14, the notorious drug building, to buy methadone. I declined, citing time. We drove five miles away, to a small nursing home in the shadow of the Cross Bronx. Millie disappeared inside, unsure if her mother would accept her.
That was the last I ever saw of her.
Millie was seen in Hunts Point two months later in the local Laundromat, just before Christmas. Ana, as she has for over five years, opened the bathroom of the Tub and Tumble so Millie could clean up. Mille soon fell asleep in one of chairs next to the spinning dryers. Awoken, Millie asked Ana to call an ambulance.
She was taken to Lincoln Hospital, where she died on the night of January 6.
Yafna Garcia aged 41: The 97th death in the Bronx in 2013.
The hospital, having no information on her family, moved her body to the morgue, where she laid unclaimed as #97.
Unclaimed by her birth mother who still might be in their native Puerto Rico, or maybe in the Bronx.
Unclaimed by the mother in the Bronx nursing home, the one who raised her after her birth mother fell into the haze of drugs.
Unclaimed by a man who had lived with her birth mother and died of HIV. Maybe that was her father. There were so many men who spent so little time.
Unclaimed by one of the thirteen sisters or brothers who share a mother, but rarely a father, or were raised in the same house.
Unclaimed by her street husband, “Pooty,” the father of two or three of her children, who is now in a Franklin Correctional Facility near the Canadian border serving the end of a two-year sentence for criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Unclaimed by any of her four children, the oldest nineteen, the youngest just one, all in foster homes after being taken from her sisters.
Unclaimed by any of the other addicts of Hunts Point. Her “sisters, aunts, brothers, uncles, and mothers.” They were all busy scrambling for enough money to buy their daily dose of drugs. They couldn’t look for her anyway; few had homes much less computers or phones. Rumors were their internet.
Millie’s initial absence barely registered on the streets of Hunts Point. She often disappeared for weeks. Months passed and rumors started to fill the void. They wrapped around the obvious candidate: The massive abscess that covered her left forearm. The one she hid beneath a bandana. An infection that started from shooting up and grew with picking. “She died from an amputation gone wrong.” No, “She died from infection from maggots.”
By March, one of the thirteen siblings, an older sister, appeared at the Tub & Tumble looking to raise money for a funeral. She had learned of the death after looking for Millie in the public hospitals, something she did every now and again.
A different sister, this one younger, showed up two weeks later also looking to raise money and trying to piece together exactly what had happened. They both needed legal proof of their kinship to get her body.
The body, however, was no longer at the hospital. Sometime in the middle of January it had been shipped to the City Medical Examiner’s office for autopsy and holding, as all unclaimed bodies in New York are.
Case #97 of the Bronx Medical Examiner. Cause of Death: Bacterial Endocarditis of tricuspid valve due to intravenous drug abuse.
This information had not made it back to either Millie’s family or friends. In early April they still continued to talk of raising money for a funeral. That was not going to happen. Millie was already buried.
On March 21, Millie’s body was shipped from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to City Cemetery on Hart Island.
Inmates from Rikers Island placed her body in a wooden box made by other inmates. She was placed in a massive trench (70’ x 20’ x 6’) joining roughly one million others that lay beneath an empty field on a small island two miles from the shores of the Bronx.
Many of her siblings do not know she is dead. Those who do know don’t realize they cannot bury Millie on their terms. It is unlikely they will ever be able to pay their last respects. Hart Island is run by the Department of Correction and clouded in security and secrecy. It is close to impossible to visit. Family, after showing many documents, can fill out paperwork and hope. If they are accepted they can only get to the island via a ferry that leaves once a month. Her grave is unmarked: They wouldn’t be able to find it, anyway.
I started to tell her friends on the streets.
“What? I thought she died of maggots?” I tried to read a note from a doctor friend of mine, “Skin bacteria gets introduced via injection into arm veins and are carried back to the heart. They stick on the tricuspid valve (endocarditis). The bacteria on the valve then grow into a clot and subsequently shower the rest of the body, brain, kidneys, lungs, and joints.“
In the end I said, “Her heart caught the same infection that was on her arm.”
Pepsi cried, not just for the death, but because, “they buried her like a stray dog. I hope to God and pray that I don’t get treated like that. Please, I want the decency to be buried by those who love me.”
Another talked of the constant fear of ending up like Millie, buried in Hart Island. “I had gotten ten bags of great shit. I knew it was all going in me and that it could end that night. So I wrote my father’s phone number in marker on my stomach before shooting up for the paramedics to see.”
Michael cried, cleared his eyes, and looked at me. “Honestly? I know she is in a much better place than we are.”
Everybody fears telling her husband, if he ever comes back after prison. He was with Millie the January night just over a year ago when she injected herself with heroin and crack after six months of being clean. She was seven months pregnant and within one hour she was in labor. The child, her last, was born premature and is now with the state.
The sisters, the ones who know, are still hoping for a funeral. Hoping to get the death certificate and perhaps custody of the two younger children. They miss her. “She was my older sister and raised me. When she moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx at nineteen I had nobody. When I came to the Bronx she had this awful addiction but she still was the only one I could ever go to. She often had nothing. Nothing, but she managed to help me and give to me.”
Last summer Millie was working her usual spot on a Sunday afternoon. She was sitting with Mary Alice on the ledge of the loading dock. They were telling stories of what the men who paid them wanted, laughing at the absurd requests.
I asked Millie and Mary Alice what they wanted. Mary Alice worked through a dream of rehabilitation and redemption.
Millie was her usual quiet, shy self. I had to prod her to answer the question. She smiled, “I want my kids back. I know it probably won’t happen. Still, if I get them back it means I will be clean and I hope that happens. I am tired of this life. Tired. You can only do this so long. We say it doesn’t hurt. It does.”
She looked down, picking at her bright green leggings. She lifted her head and with a big smile said, “Oh and also one of them chocolate-dipped cones from McDonald’s. I love them. You can turn them upside down and they don’t drip.”
More on addiction and Hunts Point: Faces of Addiction
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