AT FIRST IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO SLEEP; EVERY TIME SHE closed her eyes she saw his face. So sometimes late at night Carol Fennelly would put on the nightgown her dead lover had given her as an engagement present. It is pastel and long and silky, not secondhand like most of her clothes, but purchased brand-new from a real store, Victoria's Secret. Then she would light one of the candles next to her bed, illuminating a room unlike any other at the shelter for the homeless where she lives. It is a small space (she estimates the dimensions as 12 by 10 by 18), and while the walls are typical government issue, bland and civic and institutional, almost zealously nondescript, she has domesticated them with a vengeance, turning them into a beckoning tumble of color and icons and artifacts. In her pink slippers she would move about in a soft glide, almost ghostly, and she would light another candle and another and another. Their glow would join the flickers from a comic bulbish appliance called a plasma ball that she sometimes leaves on all night. It belonged to her companion of 13 years, and it produces jets of color, reckless ricochets of pink and purple. She would put on music, especially a tape of love songs he had put together for her. The peace of this moment would be a consoling contrast to the tumult of his final days: the fights, the screams and the harangues, the slamming of doors, the threats to throw her furniture out the window, the calling of terrible names:
Lady in red
Is dancing with me
Cheek to cheek
Just you and me
It's where I want to be.
And so while the music played and the shadows throughout the room pulsated and contorted, she would try to get Mitch Snyder to pay a visit.
But of course he never did.
SHE HESITATES TO CALL THIS ROOM AT the Community for Creative Non-Violence a shrine and prefers to think of it instead as a refuge, a place for restoration after her long public days as a spokesperson-by-default at the shelter, where all the unpaid workers are equal but some are more prominent in their equalness. The days begin at 5 in the morning, grueling whirlwinds of glad-handing and politicking and working the phones for favors in a kind of upper-class panhandling (her goal is not spare change so much as free rides on jets for visiting celebrities who will create goodwill for the shelter at media events) and cajoling her contacts at assignment desks throughout the city ("How about a cold weather story? We have 50 volunteer nurses in our health clinic right now giving free flu shots to our residents!") and smiling a lot, smiling all the time, telling everyone yes, yes; she's fine, just fine.
He killed himself in the room next door. The last time anyone spoke to him was at about 5 in the afternoon on Tuesday, July 3. After that he stopped answering his pages, and he was discovered, with his cat, by a fellow worker at the community on Thursday, July 5. He left a note addressed to Carol: "I loved you an awful lot. All I ever wanted was for you to love me more than anyone else in the world. Sorry for all the pain I caused you in the last 13 years." He also mentioned where he had hidden $8,000 in cash that belonged to the shelter. It fell to his unofficial widow to make the public announcement. Those who saw her that day say that she looked ravaged. Normally a pretty woman who is all circles and softness, with curly brown hair and two somewhat protuberant front teeth that make her look younger, more eager than her 41 years, she stood puffy-faced and dark-eyed outside that now-famous building at Second and D NW and spoke very quietly. The words she used were simple, spare, plain and true. In her distinctive speaking voice -- it is both soft and forceful -- she told the crowd of about 50 reporters and photographers that Mitch Snyder, famous activist, government gadfly, street angel, always said good things happened when it rained.
"Well, today," she said, "he was wrong."
BEFORE HE DIED SHE HAD sequestered herself with friends "to get some space, I never wanted to leave the center; it was for personal survival that I did." A week later she moved back in.
The day was thick with heat, humid and motionless, but at the shelter the air conditioning mercifully was on. She could not imagine sleeping ever again in the room they had shared, so she turned it into the archives, the official repository of the boxes and papers and important records of the community, including what Carol Fennelly likes to call "the guys." "The guys," she says, "are actually a coed crowd," consisting of the ashes of 30 men and women who froze to death in the District and who, Mitch vowed, would never again be homeless. Often it was she or Mitch who was called by the morgue to come and claim them.
Slowly, she lugged their bed and their dining room table and their dressers into an adjoining room, and, standing amid the cartons and the dust, she felt invigorated by the disarray. Grief transformed itself into activity. Her plan was simple. She would set about making sense of her life by making sense of her things. She put the big tapestry on the wall above her bed; it is filled with blues and magentas, and the pattern consists of two mandalas, the wheel of life. She bought it on layaway 21 years ago when she was unwed and pregnant and living under her parents' roof in her home state of California; it was a symbol of her hope that someday she would have her own place. On the bed near the pillows she placed the collection of about a dozen teddy bears she had given to Mitch over the years.
In the days and weeks and months that followed she concentrated on making her room as cheerful and as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
In the room's single window she arranged her greenery, mostly tough, can't-lose plants such as ivy and philodendron, cousins to the weed in their tenacity. All her photos she put up on the wall opposite her bed above the old wobbly desk; pictures that provide an instant history of her life. There's a picture of her dressed as a clown back when she was into amateur clowning as one of the ways to attract crowds at CCNV events; she had made the headdress herself by gluing red fringe to some pantyhose. There are several pictures of Mitch, one with his friend Cher, who is part of a group of celebrities who have supported the shelter, most of them inspired by the made-for-TV movie called "Samaritan" in which Martin Sheen played Mitch. A photo of Mitch and an elderly woman everyone called Granny shows him leaning over with his head touching hers so that their joint silhouette is that of a heart. It is the image being used on a new line of T-shirts being sold to raise money for the shelter. By the last year of his life, Mitch's lectures all over the country were raising about $100,000 a year.
She devoted two bookshelves to books, many of them inspirational in nature, such as Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary and The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. She likes to cook and there are several recipe books, including what counts as her one indisputably yuppie possession, The Silver Palate Cookbook.
She decided to use a third shelf for her dishes -- plates and bowls and pots and pottery she had accumulated over the years, some of it broken, all of it treasured.
Throughout she placed her several potpourris, a category of gift she receives with enough frequency to prompt her to think there's some kind of etiquette book that recommends these tasteful little baskets filled with scented petals as perfect for the lady activist.
On top of her bureau she placed a glass jar containing the gallstone that killed her friend Big John: a small brown thing like a marble that never should have had that much power. It was given to her by Mitch; she doesn't quite count it as a present. She also placed there an old juice bottle that she and Mitch had filled with water from the Sacramento River in California. They wanted to have a baby together, and the water was for its baptismal ceremony.
"Sacramento," she says softly, "means blessed."
Mitch had two children from a previous marriage, whom he abandoned when they were very young. Now they are in their twenties; the last Carol heard, Rick was looking for work as an accountant and Dean was in the military. "It was a painful subject for him," she says. His absences as a father echoed the absence of his own father during childhood. He did not send his former wife any support money. "No one at the shelter has private money," says Carol. "He had none to send." He used to believe children should be little radicals, and tried to get Carol to feed hers on the soup line. As time went on, his ideas about how to rear children became more tolerant.
On the wall she hung up her artwork, message-laden reminders of the existence of ghettos and of pain, of moons and Madonnas.
She put up the crucifix that was made by a homeless man while he was in detox.
She put up the crucifix that was made by her son, Shamus, when he was 7.
She hung two small rosaries that were left by anonymous mourners on Mitch's coffin during the service. Next to her bed is a wooden rosary from Italy, about five feet long. It is near an icon of a birthing scene that she bought during a trip to the Soviet Union last spring.
In one corner she placed a life-size papier-ma~che' statue of a homeless woman dressed in rags, donated to the community by an art student. Carol calls the stat- ue Frances, after a homeless woman whom she once knew and who was very dear and who has since disappeared.
By the side of her bed she placed a box left on Mitch's coffin by a Vietnam veteran. It contains the vet's Bronze Star and a typewritten note. By the side of her bed she also keeps one of her favorite books, a collection of poetry that includes the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that she read at his funeral:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light.
Pinned to a board above her desk like an old corsage is a nostalgic cluster of plastic identification bands from the times their political actions led them to the hospital or jail. On her desk is a wedding album that will remain empty. There is also the bill from the funeral home that charged $275 for the oak urn with a cross that contains his ashes.
Carol Fennelly believes in the corporal works of mercy, in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. She also believes in the mortification of the flesh and at times gives up food and drink, except for sips of water. She converted to Catholicism a few years back, and in her room next to her bed there is even a kneeler, a dark imposing railing where she sometimes bows her head and prays for inner peace.
But she is not a nun.
In the closet she hung her pretty clothes, almost all secondhand, the swankiest from her friend Suzie Goldman. Mitch disapproved of abundance; he always wore the same jeans and the same boots and the same army jacket to the point that when it began to disintegrate she would steal it in his sleep and replace it with another for him to also wear into oblivion. "Excess is theft," he always used to say, but she could never quite match the depth of his material abnegation. He was a true ascetic; he felt rich in proportion to what he could do without: "You only need one pair of shoes."
Her attitude has always been that there is no reason to add to the drabness of an already too drab world. Carol Fennelly even has a jewelry box, though it does not contain precious gems so much as fanciful engaging baubles. She has her hair done in a stylish bob about once a month at the upscale Okyo salon by Bernard Portelli, a fan of the shelter who donates his services to her. She likes pretty things, and one of the most common adjectives used by friends to describe her is feminine.
Maneuvering in the small space, flushed with exertion, relieved to be so busy, gladly auditioning the placement of the large dining table that she likes to point out is solid oak, and the TV, and the trunk she inherited from her grandmother, placing on the high bureau some old political pins that Mitch had kept as well as a little tray with his toiletries, she kept reciting like a mantra her favorite saying. "I think it's from Dostoevsky, who I think was a famous Russian philosopher," she says. "Anyway what he supposedly said was:
" 'Beauty will save the world.' "
FOR A LONG TIME, OF COURSE, SHE thought the burden of universal redemption belonged not to beauty but to her and Mitch Snyder. "We were," she says, "addicted to changing the world."
They had been a movement couple since the second time she saw him, leafleting at a rally on January 7, 1977. She'd been in town for four months, living at a left-wing community called Sojourners, running a free day-care center for inner-city children. By then her own children were in public school. At the time, Mitch had been with CCNV since 1973; he had heard about the community from an antiwar activist he had met in prison.
She bummed a cigarette even though she did not smoke. In their faded jeans and shirts embroidered with flowers, they embodied an old-fashioned '60s idealism, a power-to-the-people sense of the world that today seems quaint.
"We courted," she says, "by going out to the heat grates to pick up people."
Sometimes when sleep comes dropping slow, she pores through a little basket on her bureau filled with Mitch's old political pins: "John Wayne Needs Sensitivity Training . . . Dump Watt . . . Jesse . . . 300 More Today . . . Free the 99th Congress . . . Vote for 17 . . . If the People Lead Eventually the Leaders Will Follow."
Her favorite novel is in this room, James Carroll's Mortal Friends, which is about the fictional lives of people who are just like her and Mitch. She has only to glance at the title to feel that it is her story, their story, about not just the hardship of a life dedicated to sweeping social change, but also about the intoxication, the romance. Oh, how their struggles changed, from the fight against the war in Vietnam to the fight for the ERA to the more recent triumph of actually getting the government to fork over a huge empty building on Second Street to shelter the homeless, but their ardor did not. Together they adored the highs and lows of a life filled with political action. She giggles sometimes, just remembering the kinds of ideas Mitch came up with. He would plan what he called happenings, or events. Her personal favorite, the one that serves as the absolute model of peaceful yet antic disruption, was back in, when was it, '84? Yes, '84. Mitch found out that a group called the American Conservative Union had baked the world's largest pie, 17 feet of crust and fruit, and as a demonstration of the "trickledown" theory it was going to give out slices: Under Republicanism, everyone can have a piece of the pie. Mitch Snyder served as chauffeur to Carol and others who dressed up as businessmen and jumped into the pie, splattering apples everywhere.
"We were charged," she says, her face shining with merriment, "with unlawful trespass of a pie."
"Don't you see?" she says, trying to sum up what made them different from other people.
"We always did what we dreamed."
It took genius to be that daring, that nettlesome. In her eyes, Mitch was a brilliant maverick.
The former Maytag appliance salesman from Brooklyn who passed bad checks and did time in the Danbury, Conn., federal prison, which is where he met the Berrigan brothers and found his true path, was more than mere mortal; he was spellbinder, hero, saint. She never expects to meet a man like him again. He was an original; except for the nightgown and a garish three-dimensional plaster of Paris rendition of the Last Supper that hangs on a fake gold chain next to the shelf with the dishes and, well, Big John's gallstone, he did not shower her with the gifts that might be expected from a normal suitor. His finest offering was in fact abstract, the wonderful edgy, almost contagious passion of someone who insists on leading life to a feverish hilt. It is only now, looking back, that she realizes with a shiver of fear the kind of hold he had on her. It was not mere influence; it was, she says, "absolute power."
THEY ALSO COURTED BY COURTING death.
"All right now," he would sometimes say, especially right before he was about to embark on a fast that might kill him, "what do I want?"
She would flash her trademark smile, a large lopsided grin, and then the list of specifications would begin:
"You want gospel music.
"And the song 'Vincent.'
And then, in more recent years: "Martin Sheen."
Always, he wanted:
"Lots of people.
"It should be outdoors in a public place.
"And civil disobedience."
When she said it right his face would light up with pleasure, and it was always his face that drew her to him, that long bony mustachioed face with the big sad eyes.
"When I die," he always used to tell her, "you're going to have a really interesting funeral."
It seems curious now the way he phrased it: Why you? Why not I?
IT WAS WHILE SHE WAS WITH MITCH that she undertook a fast that came close to killing her. Two years ago, for 48 days she subsisted on Evian water. Toward the end, her blood pressure was measured at 80 over nothing. Her two children opposed what she was doing. Her son, Shamus, now 20 and a shoe salesman at Lord & Taylor, asked her to please eat. Her 21-year-old daughter, Carrie Sunshine, a teacher of aerobics, was puzzled because in the past all the fasts were geared toward a certain goal, like when Mitch stopped eating in order to get Reagan to hand over the old Federal City College building, which became the nation's largest shelter for the homeless ("180,000 square feet!" as Carol is fond of saying), but this one seemed to be for its own con- sciousness-raising sake. At first their mother handled her hunger by reading cookbooks and preparing huge feasts for other people, but slowly her energy waned and by the end she did not even have the strength to stand up and weigh herself. In her room there is a photograph of her toward the end of the fast, just a head shot as she lay in her hospital bed. Her face is colorless and gaunt, all deep hollows and dulled eyes. When she is asked how she could justify a gesture of this magnitude given the still tender years of her children, her response is quick and oddly sanguine: "Oh, I always knew I would never die."
He sent her a booster note:
"I still love you," he wrote, "even though you don't have potassium and electrolytes. Thanks for being you." WHEN HE DIED, MITCH SNYDER HAD two $2 bills tucked away in his wallet; they had become thin and melty from having been folded for so long. They sit on her desk now, next to a jar of peanut butter a stranger thrust upon her when she was out shopping recently, and she wants her children to have those bills as keepsakes and as amulets. Now that he is gone they can see more clearly the role he played as their honorary stepfather.
Their relationship with their father, a painting contractor who now lives in Hawaii, is spotty at best. "Let's put it this way. I call him on my birthday," says Shamus, a handsome and outgoing young man who shows his humor with a telephone tape of a flushing toilet and his recorded voice asking callers to leave a message because he is busy at the moment.
He and his sister grew up in shelters and in apartments in neighborhoods where they were often the only white people. "In one place where we lived," their mother says with a touch of something in her voice that sounds like pride, "their playmates were all the children of prostitutes." Carrie Sunshine, petite and pretty with a high-pitched happy voice, says they never had keys to the places where they lived because the door was always open. They do not remember much about their early years in California, where their mother says she went through a super homemaker stage but that her relationship with her former husband was never great and reached its ebb at a department store when she did something that displeased him and he turned to her and said, "Why can't you just be more obedient?" Seething, she turned to him and said, "Dogs are obedient!" and promptly deposited herself on all fours and started barking and tugging on his pant cuffs with her teeth. Soon after that she saw a light and heard a voice urging her to leave: "I have something special for you and your children."
Carol remembers a middle-class childhood outside Los Angeles; she has two brothers who had more trouble with her father's nasty temper than she did. In fact, she thinks her young life in a male-dominated house is curiously echoed by her life in the shelter, filled as it mostly is with men. "For a long time," she says, "my parents kept hoping I'd be normal." They blame her crusading nature on a car accident she had when she was 17; she hurt her head and has never been, in their view, the same since. Carol's children find her to be so different from her parents that they often ask her, "Are you sure you weren't adopted?"
When the children get to talking about Mitch, their reminiscences trip over each other and they both try to convey at once the precise experience of hearing this musically impaired man sing. He not only had no idea how to carry a tune, but he could never remember any words anyway, so his impromptu concerts consisted mostly of crooning, loudly, with a kind of dumb happiness, da da da da over and over. He also had a habit of making the same awful jokes again and again, and when they heard one for the millionth time, they would groan, "Oh, God," and he would take that as his golden opportunity to raise his hands in mock protest: "Please, please, that's too formal. Just call me Mitch." He also had the world's worst eating habits; when he wasn't starving himself to death he would prepare huge, utterly unappetizing basins of things like Rice-A-Roni or five pounds of steamed clams and then he would wonder why no one wanted to join him at the table. His jeans were sometimes so tight he could barely walk in them, but Carrie's warning that he was probably ruining his sperm made no difference. He used to say that he wasn't really a person; he was really just a cat. THE FINAL MONTHS MIRRORED, ALMOST mockingly, Mitch's and Carol's lives as activists: They were filled with highs and lows, tortured partings and ecstatic reunions.
In the end his transformation was a swift downward plunge from being someone tormented beyond endurance by the cruelties of the world to someone who is in turn a cruel tormentor. In January 1990 they were going to get married, then they weren't. In April Carol went to the Soviet Union to look at alcohol treatment centers and while traveling had an epiphany not unlike the one that sent her to Washington in the first place: They were meant to be together as inevitably as stars and sky, dust and desert. She had a vision of them as a couple on a grand, almost historic mission: They must marry, they should even have a baby. She bought the icon of the birthing scene. And she went wild buying Russian linens, beautiful fabric that she brought back as a kind of dowry, cloth that was fresh and unsullied for both of them to admire. Samples are now draped around her room.
They even set a date: September 9. He would wear his army jacket, naturally, but she would go for broke and dress in white. The ceremony would be held outdoors, in public, and they would invite thousands of witnesses.
But by late spring his agony made him impossible to be around. For a while Carol moved down to the first floor near the infirmary, ostensibly to keep a closer watch on that part of the shelter's operation. She started spending more time with friends outside the shelter, including a jazz musician she remains close to today. She started to fear Mitch, and at night the worst sound she could imagine was his distinctive, heavy, heel-first footstep in the hall, coming closer and closer.
By June she was staying with friends away from the shelter on a routine basis. She would not tell him where she was going and she always took care to park her car, an easy-to-recognize, well-traveled silver Honda, blocks and blocks away from wherever she was. She won't talk about whether he hit her, but she will say that she was terrified of sudden rages, the way his face would twist itself and become unrecognizable with anger. Their last exchange was an ugly fight in which she came back to the shelter to pick up a few of her things and he stalked her down the hall, accusing her of being with someone else, showering her with epithets of which she can remember one in particular: "Trash, trash, trash," over and over.
That was Monday, July 2. At that moment she had no thoughts of saving him: "All I could think about was my survival."
After that he went to his room and apparently sat by the phone, waiting for her to call. The next evening, most likely, was when he killed himself by hanging. He looped an electrical cord over a pipe along the ceiling.
"He had this incredible power over me," she says. "The ability to turn my head around. You see, the same rage he directed at injustice he directed at me. His incredible manipulation of public officials was the same as his incredible manipulation of me."
When she speaks about this, her voice tends to lower and she bows her head slightly: What was once thrilling seems now almost shameful.
Her eyes have a sudden shine.
"He needed to own me. I had allowed him to own me. In the end, there wasn't anybody else. It was that I no longer wanted to be owned. I wanted to love him and be with him.
"That wasn't enough." NOW, IF SHE HAS HER WAY, SHE WILL soon own him. The lawyers have said there is a good chance she can become his legal widow. He had a girlfriend named Mary Ellen Hombs before he met Carol, and for years and years, even though they both worked at the shelter, Carol refused to speak to her. Why not? "She was rotten to me. She wouldn't leave me alone. She harassed me. I'm sure she'd say I harassed her. That's all I have to say on the subject. Right now, we speak through our attorneys."
Mitch's 1984 will made Carol and Mary Ellen joint legal representatives of his estate. The reason she wants to become his legal spouse is a point of personal pride: "I will never love any man as much as I loved Mitch, but I don't want to be known as his longtime companion when I would have been his wife if his mental illness had not intervened. I want not just the legal but also the social standing." One of her consolations on sleepless nights is to summon those times of closeness in both public and private, to close her eyes against the shifting shadows and to recall the ways in which they were spouses, the exchange of rings, the actual references to being husband and wife, most frequently at hospitals when in fear and panic one of them was rushing toward the other for what might be the final time.
Mitch's ashes now occupy a small table with a candle next to her bed; soot and bone, hard and soft, like silk and pearl.
But that's not really him. He is elsewhere, maybe everywhere. The horror of the last year has shown up in her dreams. One time she had a vision of something oozing through the vents in the ceiling, something ugly and molten and throbbing, that seemed to be evil itself, evil vents, evil events. Another time she saw while she slept a mansion next to a sunlit meadow filled with happy people. Inside she saw Mitch laid out on what looked like an operating table and a medical team working on him, but what was so odd was that they seemed to be doing some kind of heart surgery, so Carol spoke to the people in the dream: "You don't understand -- he hung himself, he did not have a heart attack." And the voices in the dream answered back: "We're not healing him from what others did to him but from what he did to others." It was a relief to dream that, to be able to wake up the next day and look at his rugged image on her walls and say, "Damn you, Mitch, for dumping all this on me!"
He was cremated with a copy of his favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." She thought he might want the medal left on his coffin by the nameless vet to join his ashes, but she was told that the medal would outlast the flame, and so she kept it out, and when she wants to think of all the good he did for so many, she reads the note that came with it:
"You gave shelter to those who fought when the country turned its back."
No, those ashes are not him. Mitch to her is enthusiasm and action and one less hungry person, one more person on a clean cot for the night. Mitch is all the money that he brought in personally to the shelter and that she must find a way to bring in now. He is the reminder that there's always more work to be done: You can never do it right, never do enough. She will carry on. The last thing she wants is for anyone to think of her as weak. Here she is, health itself, filled with potassium and electrolytes, and her blood pressure is perfectly respectable. His goals are hers. She is his true bride.
Madeleine Blais last wrote for the Magazine on schedulemania.