Note: This is part two. Part one can be found by clicking here.
How do you write about someone like Abby Roach? Her journey is remarkable in its pain and sadness. She’s experienced horror and guilt and despair deeper than most of us can imagine. At the same time, she’s more resilient than most of us will ever be, and in all of this, there are glorious rays of sunshine peeking out around the black clouds that have surrounded her life for so long. There are painted butterflies and chirping bluebirds flitting around in all of this thick smoke.
Cruelty was a theme in Abby’s life for a long time. The cruelty of that no-good-son-of-a-bitch husband who knocked out her teeth. The ignorance of people (like me) who assumed that her dental deficiencies were the result of self-abuse. The realities of rootlessness and living on the street. But you’d be selling her short if that was all you took away from this. Abby’s not just a battered woman, or a street busker. She’s a talented musician, an artist, a success story in progress. She’s like a train, pushing forward and moving on. There are good things happening in her life.
I’ve been wrestling with this for a year now, ever since she first contacted me. That she entrusted me with her story is both gift and a huge responsibility. As I look back over our correspondence and the beauty and eloquence of Abby’s words, I realize that no one can possible relay this narrative better than she. In the end, I decided that the best thing to do is to let her tell it herself. She gave me permission to do so.
Again, if you haven’t read Part I of this story, I encourage you to, for continuity’s sake. In it, you’ll find our initial Facebook messages. Here are the rest. I’ve edited them a little (a couple of commas and two typos), and removed the names of Abby’s children. I’m including my wordy, worried messages too, because this story is also about friendship, and the way we connected after my initial misjudgment of Our Lady of the Spoons.
April 9, 2011
I am a freight train rider. I travel around the country because that is all that I know now. I came into Nashville that year on the back of a freight train, with the “bedroll boy” you met. His name is Sam, and we traveled together for many years. Sam does have a drinking problem, but I don’t even drink. After all that had happened to me I am too scared to lose my wits.
I was a housewife and a mother of four. When I lost my teeth, I lost all my hope. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t stand to look myself in the mirror. My jaw was broken, my cheek bones cracked. I had walked in on my husband with his 16 year old girlfriend in my own house with my youngest playing on the floor in front of them. The last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital was thinking I was dead as he strangled me. He went to prison, and is now released as of last October. I don’t go to Wichita, KS anymore.
I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t speak correctly anymore, I was slurring all my words. I looked old in the mirror, an old haggard lady with no teeth. I gave my youngest two children up for adoption, and signed my rights over to my parents so they could cherish Alex and Charlotte. I talk to them often, but I don’t go home. I am not me anymore.
I just stick to the trains. On the trains I found music. I didn’t want to be another bum with a cardboard sign, so another traveler stole a pair of spoons from some outdoor seating and said: “Play these.” So I did. Now I am (apparently, what they tell me) the #2 spoon player in the US. I’ve gotten quite fast since the day you met me.
I am sorry for acting and writing so hostile. I was angry and sad. When I am busking I get crackhead comments constantly, tweeker comments. I get tourists coming up to me giggling asking me to give them a big “toothy grin” and pointing and laughing at me…. I also draw crowds now and make children dance. I teach anyone who wants to learn. Maybe it’s silly to find salvation in steel…steel spoons, steel train. All I know is to move, sleep under the stars, make music.
Sam currently is in the Henrico County Jail. He is awaiting trail on April 20th for Voluntary Manslaughter, but they are attempting to raise his charges to Murder 2. He killed a man who was beating up his girlfriend at the Acca Train Yard in Richmond VA. I visit him when I am in the area and put money on his books. I wasn’t there at the time, I hadn’t seen him for 6 months, but I am all the “family” he has. He grew up on the street.
God, Abby. You’re amazing. You stuck in my head all this time after I met you (you made such an impression on me)– how incredible that we’re talking.
I’m trying to take in all you’ve written here. I imagine that you do get a lot of stupid comments from tourists, and that it gets very old. I don’t know how to explain this, but if you look around my blog, I think you’ll realize that I am incredibly touched by people and their stories, and that I seldom (if ever) mean disrespect. In fact, I hold you in very high regard. I’ll never forget the mental picture I have of hearing you play, then later seeing you and Sam and your dog walking toward that bridge in the moonlight. Moments like these are what make life so rich and beautiful in my world.
Honestly, Abby, I love people and their stories, but you have given me a lot of food for thought with your comments about the way what I wrote affected you. Our impressions aren’t always correct, and even though I didn’t think of that description of you as a negative, you did, and I don’t want to see you any more hurt than you already have been. I’m going to be writing more about it on my blog (with corrections and retractions), and I will let you know when it’s posted. And THANK YOU.
I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through. If I win the lottery, I’m buying you teeth. No one deserves to go through what you’ve endured, and I’m sorry for the way that incident changed the course of your life.
I’ve had it rough, but not like you have. I can’t imagine it. It’s making me cry, re-reading what you wrote here. I always swore that art is what helps get many of us through the craziness of our lives. I don’t know what I’d do without writing (and music and visual art). And you, Abby, are truly an artist. I’m forever grateful that you picked up those spoons and that you make so many people happy. You’re a life changer.
Thanks for “friending” me. I’m truly honored.
Abby– I hope you’re doing well. I want to write a new post about you, and I’m wondering how much you’re okay with me sharing. In fact, I’d love to do a story/ magazine article on you at some point. Can you think about this and let me know what you think? I wanna tell your story. If you’re ever near __________ (my city), you’ve got friends here.
Sorry about taking a moment to reply to you… I haven’t forgotten, I’ve just been busy. I am attempting to crawl out of my hole and do something with myself besides jump from city to city clicking spoons together. I have many, many projects on the horizon. About three years ago I was in Portland Oregon and I met a lady named Mary Anne Benner. Mary Anne is an independent filmmaker (Algif Studios) and was doing filming for a project she is working on, still. She filmed me there, in front of the Mall by Pioneer Square, and we have been in touch since.
I have always traveled with a camera. I take one everywhere, hence the freight train videos. I like people to tell me their stories, and Mary Anne, now three years later, is helping me with my own project. My project is going to be a few years in the making, and hard work, but it should pay off. I already have about 300 gigs of film taken over the last 2 or 3 years, but no high quality shots because I haven’t the money for good equipment. I would love to leave something concrete for my children and grandchildren. There is no name for the project just the idea… The band I play with is Free Dirt, so we have just been loosely referring to it a FREE DIRT FILM. The dream is to film the artists that are on the rails, on the road, and in the woods. There are a large number of musicians, traveling circus shows, magicians, poi performers, jewelry makers, poets, writers, photographers. I want to capture and tell their stories. Although there have been random documentaries on travelers, rail riders, “gutter punks” and even the ties between vagabond youth and the anarchist movement there have not been any on the art, and those who are fueled city to city being fed solely on art. Often when I am playing I hear people yelling rude things to me… the resounding “get a job” and all too often “WHAT the FUCK do YOU contribute?!”… I want to answer THAT question.
So, here I am, 3 years later sitting in Mary Anne’s computer room putting together a fundraiser, and setting up dot coms. The cost of cameras, directional mics and audio equipment is crazy, plus the cost of memory and postage and blah blah blah. Plus I only have about a week before I am living out of my backpack again… I opened a savings account for the project and when the card came in the mail my heart skipped a beat. This is the most “on the grid” I have been in almost 7 years.
Maybe I am nuts. I don’t really care. I just really want to leave something behind for my kids. And, as far as my story goes, I am okay with you writing. My emotions on the subject have been a little weird lately. My ex-husband got out of prison last October – my birthday to be exact – and he will be out of the work release facility they put him in less than a month. I just never want to see him again, but randomly I have been getting emails from him from random accounts and it makes my chest sink every time. I just never reply.
Maybe you have some advice on this subject… Saving your soul from the torture that comes after you no matter how many state lines you cross… Perhaps this project is what I need to become independent in my brain… what I need to separate myself from a shoddy past. Maybe the thought of humanizing a homeless vagabond is too much for others to consider, or maybe the thought of a runaway housewife making movies on the backs of trains is a little too “out of the movies” itself. I don’t know. Guess I’ll find out. All I know is that Mary believes in me and it’s been so long since I’ve had that.
So…. Yeah. Write. I must move on. Tell my story, maybe it will help others. I have placed the link to a shot of Mary’s movie with me…. and if you ever want a phone/skype conversation let me know. I’ve grown out of all my shyness the last few years.
I don’t think you’re nuts. I think you’re figuring out a lot of things. You did what you needed to do to get through, to get by. Now, things are changing for you, and it probably feels a little scary. It sounds like you’re figuring out new ways of coping and living. I hope that they’re gentler ways. Between the lines, it sounds like you’re learning how to be kind to yourself, and how to accept the kindness of others.
I hope I don’t sound preachy here. I’ve been there, running, trying to forget, though in a lesser way. Fierce independence can be a blessing and a curse. We need other people. When I was a struggling single mom, I’d refuse all offers of help from others. My sister kind of shook me one day and said, “Sometimes, you’ve got to let the giver give.” I realized that she meant that sometimes, the giver gets more out of the deal than the receiver, and it’s good to let them have that. It makes sense to me.
So, Abby, my friend, you’re moving forward, into something more hopeful and peaceful. I’m glad you have friends like Mary Ann that surround you. Your past isn’t shoddy, it’s what’s made you who you are. I hope that one day you’ll be proud of it. You have stories to tell your children, you’re making films to explain. You took a tragedy and made it into music, and you’ve made a lot of people happy in the process. I doubt that many forget you once they’ve met you. I never did.
I don’t have a lot of advice, I just know what I believe. The past is the past– we can’t undo it, we can just move forward and try not to repeat the same mistakes. Cherish your uniqueness– it’s a gift. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. You’ve added to the beauty of this world. Oh, and be selective about who gets to be in your circle. No abusers, only those who treat you well.
I think that your project sounds incredible. When I lived in Ohio, in the crumbling, urban section of Dayton, I was always struck by the people who lived there. I wrote about them, but sort of the way that I wrote about you. Just my observations of them, when I’d see them walking around, leaning against walls, doing god-knows-what in alleys. While I only imagined what they were going through, you really know your subjects. You talk to them and live their lifestyle. Who better to document these stories? This is going to be successful, I just know it. Again, if you come to Arkansas, let me know. Give me enough notice and I’ll try to help with a benefit. My boyfriend, also a musician, says he’d love to play with you. He can get you bookings, and so can I.
Okay, I’m going to go start writing about you. Safe journeys, Abby. I don’t have Skype, but I plan on getting it. I’ll let you know when I do!
That was our last conversation for a year, other than a link or two from Abby. Her openness and grief, and her hope for the future hit like a hollow point bullet to my heart. It all sort of pinned me to the wall for a long time, semi-paralyzing me with its depth and emotion. Maybe it hit too close to home to tell you about it until now.
I messaged her the other day, and apologized for the delay. Almost immediately, she wrote back and said: ”don’t feel embarrassed, life gets BUSY… TRUST ME I KNOW.”
Amadeus and I have been planning a trip to Nashville at the end of June. I’m hoping that he’ll bring his upright bass, and that he and Abby can jam together. Mostly, I’m just hoping to hug this fascinating woman.
In the meantime, here’s an update from Abby:
I have been doing all I can to improve upon my situation, and have been very busy. I am playing with a guitar player named James Lockhart (Jimbo), and we play a lot in Nashville, Savannah and Asheville… Nashville has always seemed to be my home base. Somebody added me into that Wikipedia as the “Nashville Spoon Lady”…
I’m going to send you some links to what I’ve been doing… besides these links, our band (FREE DIRT) has recently been hired to play the hillbilly jug band in a horror film called JUG FACE, and we’ve been busy with that all week.
Nashville has warmed up to me. Tourists expect me to be there, they add us into the horse tours and walking tours. We gather huge crowds over the weekends and run a completely G rated show, all civil war era music. We play with a banjo player and a tub player…
Here are the links, I would love to know what you think.*
Google “Abby the Spoon Lady” and in return you’ll receive millions of hits. Friend her on Facebook. Click her links, read about her projects, and if your pockets are deep, please contribute. And if you’re ever in Nashville, head down to Music Row, and follow the clacking sound of spoons. It will lead you to the beautiful and talented Abby Roach. And please– tell her Moonbeam sent you.
*Note: Abby sent me several videos, but I’ve left them out due to my HTML disability (for which I’m applying for SSI), and problems I had with layout on these two posts. Both YouTube and Google provide a lot of links to Abby the Spoon Lady and the Free Dirt Project.