Ellen Alexander Conley
Alexandra Hits the Streets

Ellen should have been used to changelings. Not only her husband had morphed into a new creature, making Ellen lie awake at night chanting, “But who are you? Who are you now?”

It also had happened to Alexandra during the fall of her fourteenth year, and Ellen had wrestled dark angels for her child’s soul. Maybe Alexandra would have come through on her own, but Ellen was not one who could sit back and wait out dangers, real or perceived. Now, on her walk on St. Mark's Place with the twenty-three-year-old Alexandra, she wanted some credit for hanging on for all those years she had swooped down to this very block to retrieve her daughter during her various truancies.

She used to give money to bums until her daughter started panhandling that bad year. For years Ellen had had her quarters ready, a soft touch for down-and-outers. Once, she had stopped her car on the Bowery, at a red light where all the window-cleaners waited. A ragged black man wrote “hello” in mirror script with the Windex so that Ellen could read the word from inside the car. She was impressed by the fellow’s cleverness, then she realized he was a former student from her college literature class. He told her, while all the cars tooted for her to move on, that maybe he'd get his head together and return to school someday.

Ellen had gone on a swoop to see if she could net Alexandra, who was playing hooky again. She saw all the throwaway kids positioned in disarray on the stoops at St. Mark's Place. She recognized one little kid with his hair in a yellow tufted Mohawk. Once Alexandra had pulled this boy into their apartment. “Ma, come meet Roko.”

“What do you think?” Alexandra had asked her later in a maternal voice. This was in the very earliest days.

“He’s a real cute punk-in-training. He looks like chicken-licken.”

Did you see those little army boots and his black leather jacket with ANARCHY! painted on it?”

“Yeah, he’s real cute as long as I’m not his mother,” she had laughed.

Now Roko noticed her and disengaged himself from the group. He came over to the car and leaned in the window.

“Have you seen Alexandra?” Ellen asked him.

“No. Not today.” While he was talking to Ellen he had written, “Good bye, BITCH,” in the dust of her window.

Furiously, she scanned the crowd for her daughter. Leaning on a hydrant sticky with dog urine, were a teenage mother and father and their babe. The young dad’s mouth hung open, and he swatted at imaginary insects crawling up his face. The madonna swayed back and forth, empty-eyed. Ellen’s eyes searched for a policeman to rescue the infant. Then she realized that the child’s head was micro-sized. She stopped looking for a cop. The situation was beyond salvation.

Alexandra could do an imitation of that wasted look. She would let her eyes roll back, vacating her face.
“Look, Ma.”

“Don’t scare me that way.”

“I’m Nancy Spungeon—Sid Vicious’s girlfriend. The one he killed in the Chelsea Hotel. You should read her mother’s book. Mrs. Spungeon sounds just like you.” She laughed malevolently.

The phone call from Alexandra’s principal had started the same way. “It’s a shame that someone so gifted blah, blah, blah . . . !”

She decided to take just one more turn around the block. What were the lyrics of that song Alexandra used to play before she and Steve punished her for cutting school by confiscating her record player?



Ellen stopped in mid-stride to eavesdrop. In the kitchen Alexandra was talking with her best friend, Johanna.

“Where were you seventh period?” Johanna asked Alexandra.

“I must be flipping out because you’ll never guess.”

“Come on. Tell me.”

“I went to visit Miss Kurtzwilder. Why, I don’t know. She slobbered all over me. Did you notice she wore the same dress all week?”

“She was always soft on you. Where do you keep the butter?” Johanna put a dozen frozen biscuits in the oven.

“On the side of the fridge door. I’m desperate. Only you, my dog and Miss Kurtzwilder likes me. Everybody else hates me.”

“And two out of the three have BO.”

Ellen could get a glimpse of Johanna eating bits of the butter with her black-painted fingernails. Alexandra was out of view.

“No. Three out of three smell,” Alexandra laughed.

“Thanks a lot.”

“I’m kidding.” Alexandra was overly quick to apologize to Johanna but not to her mother, Ellen noticed, losing her sociological objectivity.

“Speaking of hating. Do you have anything left that you want to bring over to my house so that your parents can’t confiscate it next time they get mad?”

“Just my Dead Kennedy tape. They missed that.”

“Then give me the cassette, and then we can cut tomorrow. They’ll have nothing to grab. We can get pizza and hang out.”

“I still don’t have any money.”

“You still have to eat those gross Gandhi lunches your mother packs?”

“She thinks if I eat from the four food groups, I won’t grow up to be a hooker.”

“Shit. Your mother is right out of the fuckin’ Brady Bunch. Listen, Alexandra. Tomorrow morning, just carry your empty school bag. You don’t want to lug books around all day. I’ve got money and cigs. It’s cool.”


Miracles of miracles! Alexandra scored high on the citywide examination and earned a place for the following year at the prestigious Bronx School of Science. Her junior high school principal called Ellen to congratulate her.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel," Ellen said to Steve.

"Let’s take her out for Chinese food to celebrate. Let her get a positive self-image.”

Ellen was congratulating herself about how she and Steve had successfully ridden out the teenage maelstrom, when the phone rang. Again it was the principal, who this time spoke with a tight voice. “When I went to give her the news, she was not in school.”

Ellen didn’t bother to call Steve back. She didn’t want to hear his usual litany that began, “Down the tubes . . . !”

Ellen drove over to St. Mark's Place. She found Alexandra, the high scorer in verbal and math, at her favorite roosting place—the steps of the Methadone Maintenance Clinic. A cigarette dangled from her pubescent lips and her eyes had been smeared with Kohl. “Poseur,” Ellen wanted to yell out and have a good laugh, but she was too full of fear.

The word “Bitch” still glowed in the dust of her window. Ellen had left it there as proof of her suffering. This time, a guy in his late twenties leaned toward the open car window. This man was no victor in the war against drugs. “Hey, do you want to give a home to this cute little puppy?” He pulled a squirming piece of fluff from inside his torn coat.

Ellen knew Alexandra well enough. The fact that this guy, who could hang a for-rent sign in his vacant eyes, carried a homeless dog inside his coat would be enough reason for her daughter to follow him to other boroughs. Alexandra once heard of an apartment for rent in Brooklyn for only a hundred dollars. She and Johanna made an appointment to sell their blood to get their first month’s rent. They hadn’t counted on a deposit on the apartment or an age restriction at the commercial blood bank.

“They told us to get fake ID and come back,” Alexandra had told her mother, expecting praise because they hadn’t done it after all.

Now Ellen called out to her daughter slumped on the steps. She watched as panic crossed Alexandra’s face. She threw down the cigarette and ran. At the corner she turned, then came sullenly back and got into the car.

Ellen didn't tell her that she had sat on the same steps when she first came to New York. Back then it hadn’t been a methadone clinic, but a craft shop with dusty God's eyes in Mexican yarn festooning the windows in cheerful colors. But she had been twenty-one, not thirteen. To Ellen, that made the difference.

Back at home, Ellen and Steve had a quick conference in the bathroom on how to handle this, and decided to continue with the celebration to improve Alexandra’s self-image. They came out and Alexandra lifted up her little girl’s face defiantly. She had applied green lipstick.

“Congratulations,” they spitted out.


That was the month that Ellen bought TOUGH LOVE in paperback. That was the winter Alexandra had cut school twenty-nine times, the season they decided to ground her. Now, following the guidelines listed in TOUGH LOVE, Steve each day, dutifully and resentfully, took Alexandra to school, and Ellen picked her up.

In order not to appear the punitive jailer, Ellen slyly soft-pedaled the harsher TOUGH LOVE directives and tried to be as cheerful as a game-show host. She laid in a stock of exotic fizzing drinks and bought an air popper. Each day, she offered up bowls of fresh popcorn and her best one-liners—“The bride was pregnant, so they threw puffed rice.”

But Alexandra would not be won over by charm or food and continued to sulk. Several days passed, and the pale winter light continued to send glints from the paper clips hanging from Alexandra’s fragile, sullen ear lobes. Her face remained immobile, but sometimes her lips moved in nervous twitches. She may or may not have been mumbling the word “asshole.”

Ellen’s own mother used to say to her in a high falsetto, “A wind is going to come from the North and freeze your face that way.” Ellen had not seen her own insurrection as “hormones hitting the brain” as she now saw Alexandra’s. That hard look setting in eventually gave Ellen a new idea. Actually she had several, but the violent ones she instantly repressed.

The next day, before picking up Alexandra, Ellen went to the 99¢ store and bought a bottle of facial mask. At four, when Alexandra deposited her unpleasant self on the couch, Ellen (still as effusive as a game-show host) intoned, “And now for the losers, a lovely parting gift.”

With that, she pulled out the jar of facial mask and, with the brush supplied, painted Alexandra’s snarling face. Efficiently she stroked the thick solution around Alexandra’s sensual bee-stung lips, over the soft curves of her still babyish cheeks, in ovals around the surprised, staring eyes. Next she coated her own face with the sticky slop, switched on Love Connection on Channel 4, plopped down on the sofa next to her daughter, and waited for their masks to harden.

By the time Love Connection had ended and People’s Court began with its trademark line—“Don’t get mad, get even—” their faces had stiffened. Ellen had not uttered a word, not even about one of the male love contestant, whose shirt that was open to the navel. Signaling Alexandra to follow her example, Ellen began to loosen the edges of the fibrous, plastic mask. Slowly, like pulling off an adhesive plaster, she carefully pulled it down, causing some degree of satisfying pain. Alexandra followed suit. They both were able to remove their masks in one piece. Under the lamp they examined the amounts of trapped squamous cells and surface debris they had caught in the pliant film for their fascinated examination. Underneath, their newly exposed skin was pink and fresh—the deadened layers stripped off.

“Again tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” Ellen replied.


Now each day, not like guard and prisoner, but like friends, they rushed home with their frozen chocolate pudding pops to eagerly flick on Love Connection.

“Why did she pick him? Oh, gross. Look at that gold chain around his neck.”

“What a loser. Grab a napkin, Alexandra. You’re dribbling on my leg.”

They listened and held hands as the announcer said in his arch, coy way. “Then what did you do? Get any little good night smooches in?”

“He didn’t leave until six a.m.,” the female dating contestant answered daringly, smugly.

“OOOOOH,” sang Alexandra and Ellen, along with the audience, knowingly.

“Well, well, well,” said the announcer, tongue in cheek. “We just heard Sheryl’s version of the date. Let’s talk to Gary for a moment. Would you like to go out with Sheryl again or would you rather be on your own? The Love Connection will pay for whatever choice you make.”

Gary fingered his sparse, blond mustache and gave his New Jersey version of a worldly laugh. “I think I’d rather look elsewhere.”

“OHHHHHHH,” sang the audience, along with Alexandra and Ellen.

“That’s up to you. Well, Sheryl. Lots of luck to you. We have lovely, parting gifts for being such a swell sport.”

“I’d kill myself,” said Alexandra.

“Don’t ever, ever say that.”

Alexandra looked up as if to evaluate her mother’s desperation. Ellen could see that it would take Alexandra a few seconds longer to make the connection to her two girlfriends who had recently tried to kill themselves. But then the twisted look of pain arrived.

Suddenly Alexandra pushed into Ellen’s body, clinging to her. Softly she told her mother that not all the times she had cut school had she hit the street. Sometimes she went to the Children's Room at the Donnell Library, pillows lay on the carpeted floor. “There,” she whispered almost inaudibly, “I reread all the books you used to read to me—The Naughty Bunny, The Day the Gang Got Rich.”

“Then what happened?” Ellen asked.

“The librarian kicked me out, said I couldn’t come back. She told me that I belonged in the Young Adult Section.”

Wrenching sobs shook her daughter’s body.


There were other changes. Alexandra’s hair, now clean and as burnished as a copper samovar, would attractively drape the black receiver of the phone when her friends called. Alexandra would tell them, “I can’t. I’m grounded.” Eventually she even said, much to Ellen’s surprise, “I’m watching TV with my ma.” Hanging up quickly, she would rush back to their nest on the couch.

Besides Love Connection, their favorites were the commercials: “How many times has this happened to you . . .” They would intone with the announcer. “You are going out to a special event and break your NAIL! Never let your good times be spoiled again . . .” Ellen and Alexandra would laugh and hoot as they watched this weeping woman who couldn’t go out and celebrate her wedding anniversary because of her split nail.

But just moments later the wife comes out from the bathroom drying her tears with a hand with perfect nails. “Let’s go, dear,” Alexandra said on cue.

“What did you do?” said Ellen, with the amazed husband. “Grow a new nail?”

“Almost. These are Lee Press-Ons.” Sometimes they laughed so hard they had to race to the bathroom to pee.

After one of these rituals of theirs, Alexandra grabbed Ellen’s arm to halt her. “Ma. Let’s order them.”

The announcer was reciting the eight-hundred number for orders. “Indicate to our operators standing by whether you want them in glamour or party lengths.”

“I’ll get myself a pair too,” Ellen impulsively added, ready to go the whole distance, dipsy with new-found and shared, pleasure. They were really into their afternoons.

From then on, mother and daughter, their hands elegantly tipped, would sit with their credit card ready to dial, junkies for the spot commercials. They had ordered the “smell-alike” perfumes at only the fraction of their expensive counterparts, The Gut Buster and the five cassettes of Party Rock by the original recording artist of the Fifties. In fact, one of their best times was when Ellen played for Alexandra the song “Runaway Sue” and Alexandra adapted the lyrics to herself.

Ellen secretly believed that through the miracle of technology and with all the combined efforts of the original recording stars and her own goodwill, her daughter would come to understand that her state was not uniquely hers and that it would pass. Hadn’t Ellen sung in her youth “We’ll have fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes the T-Bird away”?


Taking a load of dirty bowls into the kitchen, Ellen had missed the beginning of a new commercial. Now, she stood still to take the rest of it in.

On the TV, the camera zoomed in on a young face, one just past adolescence. The cheeks and lips were graced in the palest shades of peach. The slight smile held an aura of youthful innocence. The face could have been Alexandra. It looked a lot like hers.

“Notice the unrivaled likeness to the young Princess put out by the Danbury Mint,” the announcer told his unseen audience. “Our consummate sculptress worked from actual photographs to recreate the romance and beauty of the young Princess. Each vivid figure seems truly alive . . .”

Ellen’s heart began to thump. The voice continued, “ . . . unlike most things we might foolishly invest in, this is sure to grow in value. This is your only time to order this captivated beauty, full of flowing vitality.” A soft light was turned on, bathing the revolving beauty in a golden haze of innocence.

“I want, I want . . . ,” Ellen silently cried, “. . .to keep forever.”

The announcer seemed to answer her pain using one of Ellen's own words: “Forever, you’ll cherish her blonde coiffure, her pure but captivating smile, her endearing sweetness. This is our beloved Princess!”

Ellen’s finger sadly traced the raised numbers on her VISA card.

Too late, Ellen realized that Alexandra had witnessed Ellen’s naked, desperate desire to keep her enshrined and safe, a porcelain princess doll that could be carefully placed each night with a sigh of relief in the knickknack shelf. For three weeks they had brushed each other’s hair in the warm nest of the couch bathed in the soft lights emanating from the TV, keeping her own little princess hidden safely away.

Ellen turned and faced her daughter, saw her furious look of betrayal.

“Just stay away from me,” Alexandra said viciously. She started to paint angular lines out from her eyes with her kohl pencil, as if preparing for some tribal battle. Ellen made a desperate grab for her. For a moment they wrestled evenly—Jacob with his angel—but then with a fierce wrench, her daughter broke free from her grasp, as they both knew she would eventually do, and headed down into the streets.