She leans heavily against the blue tile wall. "Anybody," the lifeless monotone begins, "can scrub a goddamn toilet.Drinking just makes it easier."
Both the room and the woman are flawless and spare. High-style. But the calm, precise voice is desolate. "For me," her leaden words drop slowly, "drinking is like tunneling my way out of a prison."
The voices are different, but within each lie variations on similar themes.
Hopelessness and tragedy. Anger and despair.
To be black and female in Washington they say, is to inherit what is often an unbearably heavy burden.
Many of their families are fragmented. The traces of racism which still cling to this town tend to dash individual hopes and plans, robbing its victims of their dignity, crushing their self-esteem. So, like thousands upon thousands of Washingtonians, they seek solace, comfort or a place to hide in the depths of a liquor bottle.
In recent years, statistics tell us, the number of women who abuse alcohol: has steadily risen, and experts in the field believe there are now as many women alcoholics as there are men. In Washington, where the nation's alcoholism rate is highest and 80 per cent of the city's alcoholics are black, the toll the disease takes on the black community is increasingly visible among women.
Yet, less is known about black female alcoholics than any other group in the community.
Their stories are as different as their lives. And each underscores the depth of the problem.
Ella carried everything she needed in one bright blue mop bucket. Several sponges, disinfectant spray, clean dust cloths, scouring powder, Endust and two bottles of Mr. Clean -- one the real thing, the other refilled with bourbon.
She is a hotel maid, a job she finds degrading, and despises. But at 30, she had been an alcoholic for "at least 10 years and wanted to get off welfare. She took the only work she could find.
Ella is 5 feet 2 160 pounds; her features are plain sad. She quit school at 16 because she couldn't read very well and became discouraged.
"My grandmother, who raised me, always felt that by being black everything was automatically closed off to us. She didn't push me to do anything. And even when I did decide that I should straighten up in school and try to be a secretary or somthing, she told me to forget it.
"She used to always tell me that I was too fat, too black and too stupid, and after a while, that's exactly how I saw myself."
Ella's father was killed in Korea. A year later, when Ella was four, her mother left the only child with her grandmother where she received a strict Baptist upbringing in a home off Georgia Avenue NW, near Howard University. She never married never had a boyfried. She slept with a man once.
But going back a bit. Shortly after dropping out of high school, Ella fell in with a group of girls who had also dropped out of school. They drank, and before long Ella couldn't begin the day without alcohol.The high made her forget her troubles.
"I'd put vodka in orange juice at first," she says, "and that was fine. But if I was desperate, I'd drink anything. Right before I quit drinking, I could put away a whole thing of MD 20/20 without batting an eye. And that styff is poison."
Ella says her life became "one long depression" centered around hopelessness.
"When I would drink, I would fantasize. I don't think I ever really wanted to be white, but I would imagine myself a lot thinner and with much lighter skin. You wouldn't believe the things that people assume about you when you're very big and very dark. I could be the mayor, but all people see is a huge black woman, and they're expecting Aunt Jemima.
"And when you work as a maid . . . people feel like they can walk on you. 'Do this. Do that.' And the way some of them leave their rooms . . . I could tell you all about congressmen who don't have sense enough to flush the toilet. The work made me tired, I got dirty, and some days I felt I'd jump out the window if I had to look at one more unmade bed. So I took a drink. Once I got the idea to hide the bourbon in the Mr. Clean bottle, I was all set. I could drink anytime I felt like it, and I felt like it all the time."
Her supervisor never detected her drinking.
"I could handle it pretty well, but even when I didn't, it didn't seem to matter. I'm sure they thought I was just another stupid nigger. And really, girl, it don't take much sense to clean up a dirty bedroom."
One night, while walking home from a bus stop, she was mugged and raped by a group of teen-aged boys. That led to her decision to stop drinking.
"Bitter as I was," Ella recalls, "I couldn't fault those kids too much. I wasn't even sober enough to defend myself . . . or to even really understand what had happened to me. The next day, I told the whole thing to my girlfriend who I was staying with at the time, and she really made me see that I needed help. Then she said I couldn't stay with her anymore if I didn't get it, and she made some phone calls to find out where to go.
"One of the things I heard here (in the treatment program) is that people are valuable. You know -- worth something and thought about that, and it was like someone had shown me another world."
It has been five months since Ella took her last drink.
Lenore is tall, slender, the fashionable mother of three school-age daughters. At 37, she has been married 14 years to a well-known D.C. physician.
Before her children were born, she taught in the Montgomery County public school system, but left because "I wanted to make sure that my kids didn't turn out like the ones I was seeing in class."
Her husband is on call much of the day and night. Her girls are in school. To dissipate some of the "feelings of shallowness" which fill her days, Lenore drinks herself into numbness, beginning when her youngest daughter leaves for school at about 8:15. On mornings when she drives the carpool, she starts her drinking an hour later.
The pattern has fit for nearly five years, the length of time Lenore is certain she's been an alcoholic.
"The house would be empty except for me and the baby, and I would do a few things. You know pick up a sock here, put a glass in the dishwasher there, but there's only so much to do in a day if you keep the house pretty straight all the time.
"Then I'd shop and go to lunch with friends. It got to the point where lunch would be the biggest thing of the day. You think about whom you're going with, what you'll wear, where you're going, but it's tiresome. And these lunches were where I really started to drink.
"We'd all sit around and talk about each other's problems and have another drink. And I would be thinking that we should be ashamed of ourselves for bitching all the time when people practically in our back yards were starving. Mostly we talked about our husbands, the kids . . ."
As Lenore's drinking got worse, the friends she used to lunch with dropped away "because there's something about a drunken woman friend at the lunch table that really turns people off," she says.
"I feel like I'm going crazy here, because Frank is gone all the time and there is less and less that you can do for 6, 8 and 10 year olds on a day-to-day basis. I think I would like to go back to work, but now that we've 'made it,' Frank says no, and I just don't have the energy to fight."
In the late afternoon, before her oldest child gets in from soccer practice, but after the two younger ones are already home, Lenore begins to thing about "getting it together." She hides her liquor -- usually Southern Comfort or Old Grand Dad -- in the bottom drawer of her electric range, since "Frank would just as soon die before he'd touch anything in that kitchen. He can barely get himself a glass of water."
She takes a cup of strong coffee into the bathroom with her, and after a long hot bath, carefully styles her hair, puts on makeup and changes from the designer jeans she is fond of wearing during the day. By this time her oldest daughter is home, and after getting the children started on their homework, she begins dinner. Usually, her husband is late or misses the evening meal entirely.
"I'm desperate for some kind of help," she says, her eyes almost pleading. "It's gotten to the point where my oldest two kids know what's happening and I hate myself for setting that kind of example. No, I don't think Frank suspects anything, but he'd have a fit if I went for help. And if I saw any of the doctors we know, well, I know they're not supposed to say anything, but it would be all over the place in no time. I don't really know what to do."
Lenore takes a pale pink Lenox teacup wreathed in tiny green leaves from a cupboard and fills it with Kahlua and coffee. She sinks slowly, painfully into the living room sofa.