Iolene Catalano(IC), David Isay(DI) and Nurse(N)
IC: (singing): ”Poppa writes to Johnny, but Johnny can’t come home. No, Johnny can’t come home. No Johnny can’t come home . . . Mamma writes to Johnny, but Johnny can’t come home, cause he’s been on the chain gang too long . . .”
My name is Iolene Catalano, and I have the AIDS , and I’m dying from the AIDS. I am waiting for an operation. I don’t expect for the prognosis to turn out very well. This is my life story.
”High Sheriff and police, coming after me, and I feel like I got to carry on . . . ”
DI: I met Iolene Catalano early in 1994. A friend brought her over to my apartment. He’d heard some of the poetry she’d been writing, and thought it ought to be recorded. I set up my tape machine and started rolling, but instead of reading her poems, Iolene launched into the story of her life.
IC: I was born in a carnival trailer in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1948. My mother was a dancer in a sideshow in the carnival and my father worked a thing called a rollback. It’s a crooked wheel with a foot pedal under the rug for suckers, and you figure . . .
DI: After a couple of minutes, I stopped my tape recorder and asked Iolene if she might be interested in recording her entire life story. She said yes.
IC: I can tell people the absolute truth, because I have nothing left to lose. There’s nothing anyone can take from me. I’m an old lady now, 45 years old. Alright, and I’ve had a hell of a life. I’ve endured and survived, and I have an unusual nature that’s made me capable of surviving the unique amount of suffering that became my destiny.
DI: For the next several months, Iolene and I got together once or twice a week, going through her life. We made it as far as the age of 14 in her story when she became too sick to continue taping. She died two months later.
Iolene’s stories were vivid. They were hard and horrifying, often poetic, always disturbing, as I learned in our first interview when Iolene began her story by telling of her earliest memory.
IC: When I was 5 years old my father molested me. When my mother came home from work, I couldn’t even get my mouth open. I could not say a word. Alright. I stood there, and I looked at my mother, and my mother looked at me, until finally it started to dawn on her what had happened. And I saw a part of her wake up that I had never seen before. Alright, and she stood up, and she snatched two big handfuls of hair off of her head, she ripped ’em right out of her head, and she screamed a terrible sound, like a person who’s been mortally wounded. And I was like ’Mommy.’ And I was trying to fix her, and I couldn’t. She was all the way broken. All the way broken.
She went in the kitchen and she got a hatchet and she started sharpening the hatchet on the wet-stone. And we had to sit on the couch and listen to that wet stone being passed over the blade. I knew she was going to kill him. Okay, when he came home, he seen her right away out of the corner of his eye, man, she was hiding behind the refrigerator with the hatchet, and she chased him out. He just barely made it out to the car, she was chopping her way through the roof of the car, because he locked the door. And, uh, he managed to get away, and my mother came back into the house, and we all sat in silence in the living room for a long time. Then my mother started to cry, and she cried all day and she cried all night until about four in the morning. Then she got up and she took the Bible into her room, and we fell asleep on the couch and on the floor.
IC: I never talked about my story. Never, until after I found out that I had the AIDS. I would think about the things that happened to me when I was getting high in the galleries, and the bars. See a drug addict is a person that lives in the theater of their mind and emotions, and they amp them with drugs. Alright, in these galleries where the mentally ill and misbegotten, and the abused and the degraded sit and play games with hypodermic needles to forget, okay, that’s how I remembered.
We were like sleeping in a car and I lost all track of time. It might have been three or four months we were living in the streets, and my mother would go into bars. Me and the baby and my older sister Antoinette, we’d sit in a car, and my mother would go into bars and pick people up and bring them out to the car and rob ’em. With a knife. And boy it seemed to me she really wanted to kill somebody. And I don’t know how long that went on, because I was so young, my concept of time is like silly putty in there, but eventually, she went in some where, and we seen a squad car pull up outside the store, and she didn’t come out. And then she came out with the police, and she walked them over to the car where we were, and told us to get out. Then they took her away, and they took us to Dade County orphanage.
My aunt came to take us out, me and my baby sister. They left my older sister in there, but they took me and my little sister out. And I remember being on the airplane, and it was at night and when we looked, it was raining or something, and when we looked out the porthole, it was so black. And I was overwhelmed by a feeling of fear at the blackness out the window. It was the blackest . . . ooh . . . there was nothing. I looked out the window, there was nothing. And I had this terrible feeling of doom and dread.
I had a compulsion to run, and I didn’t know where I was going, but I couldn’t stay at my family’s house. I couldn’t. I’d wander off. I’d get up in the middle of class in school and walk out the door and be gone for like three weeks.
I got put in reform school by the judge for being an incorrigible child. Very unusual. I went in when I was 11. There was only like maybe two other girls that were there that young.
After I was in there a couple of years, the social worker called me in and told me my mother had committed suicide. And uh, I don’t know, it was weird. I remember trying to cry when they told me, but I couldn’t. The sound, it was like when somebody is really, spiritually hurt, they make a weird sound. And a sound that scared me really bad. I remember listening to the sound coming out of me, and I said ”I’m gonna die if I let this sound come out,” so I choked it off and I just sat there. And the social worker ran across the side of the table, and she was trying to get me to cry, or have some kind of reaction, and I wouldn’t do it. I got up and left. Couple of days later, right, I cried in my room by myself, I wouldn’t let anybody see me. And my whole fucking body turned blood red, all over. OK? Everything swelled way up. My fingers fat like little baby fingers, little fat cigar fingers, and the housemother said to the doctor ”What has she got, man? You know her mother died in the last few days, and we’ve been keeping her in the house. What is that?” And he said ”I don’t know.” He said ”It looks like some severe allergic reaction.” But today, I know it wasn’t an allergic reaction. It was because I held that sound in. Alright, when I held that sound in, it had to come out. You know, and it came out.
You know death is, man, it can be real hard. Okay. Once the process of dying starts if you begin to resist it, WOW, you’ll experience things physically that you wish that you didn’t have to experience. It hurts. I’m physically in a lot of pain. After a while your vision of everything is distorted by the pain, and everything that you view is through this net of pain.
After my mother died, they decided to relocate me to a foster home. It was a Catholic foster home. And I started trying to do good in school, because now the focus was on academic ability. So I started staying in my room a lot and trying to study, and you know, really learn, so that I could be accepted by people for being smart or writing a good essay or whatever. And I was able to do that. I was smart. But I was lonely.
I went with a traveling salesman, I guess he was. I was walking home from school, and he was very handsome. Nice clothes. And he stopped his car, and he offered me a ride, and I got in. And we were talking, and I liked him. And so he was like asking me some questions about sex and stuff and I told him ”I never, I haven’t had much experience, you know.” So he said, ”Well, I’ll tell you what, I’ll learn you what I know, and I’ll give you some money.” And I said ”Yeah? How much money will you give me?” And he says ”I’ll give you $100.” I said, ”Okay.” So we went to this motel in the afternoon, and it was really nice. He was very sexy, and very gentle, and playful, and I thought to myself, ”That’s what this is supposed to be like? I thought it was all about something a lot different from this, alright.” So I realized at that point that there were people that obviously used sex to create pleasure and joy, and not pain and sorrow and humiliation and regret.
I started changing. And I knew I was a whore. I knew real young, and I did the best to accept that this was to be my fate.
I’m actively in the process of being consumed by death. Okay, it’s like right in front of me. I’m standing in front of the fucking Grand Canyon poised for the dive, okay, and I’m getting my form together. Okay. To make the fucking dive into the abyss. And it’s a grieving process, you watch yourself die, your different selves. And with some of them leaving it’s a real sorrow, and with other things it’s like ”I’m glad I got rid of that.”
I lasted about a year at the foster home, before I burned down their house and slit my wrists and had to go back to court again and go to the nuthouse.
This is called ”Green Tile Walls:”
I hate Green Tile Walls
you know their cinderblock big thick green cinderblock tiles
The kind that build institutions.
They take on an unearthly hue under fluorescent lights
so the faces of the residents are stricken pale and shocked.
The quality of sound distorted so that voices almost echo against those tiles.
The sound carries like in a zoo.
What a place to learn to sing.
To beat our voices against those walls in an effort to find some freedom.
I hurled my voice against those walls
agonizing raw sounds of the blues.
I stretched my voice like a bird in flight
finding the range of its movement to hear some redeeming sound besides the cackling of mad women.
Freedom is a space inside your heart.
(Sings) ” . . . And the very last words that Georgie said was ’nearer thy God to thee.’”
I used to sing almost like every day. I mean after a while, I had to find something. There was nothing. It was just like the most barren environment that I’ve ever seen. Alright, so I took to sitting in the corner of one of the hallways, where I could get an echo. I would sing . . .
(Sings) ”Don’t let me cross over love’s cheating light, you belong to another, and you’ll never be mine. I know one step closer would be heaven divine. Don’t let me cross over, love’s cheating line.”
And the fucking nuts would start crying. Okay? I mean the sorrow that would fucking come out of me. When I stopped crying and I started singing. And people would always bother me, man, all the fucking nuts — even the nurses would bother me, ”Iolene, would you sing that song that you sang?” And I would be sitting in the hallways, singing all fucking night.
Now my death is sitting right on me now, it ain’t gonna be much longer. But it’s okay. I’m finished. It’s over, and I came out of it as a real human being, and that’s all I could ever ask for.
DI: This is where the interviews stop. April, 1994. Iolene had a collapse, and was admitted to Roosevelt hospital. At this point, we suspended recording her life story, hoping she’d recover enough to pick up where we’d left off to learn about the rest of her life. Her journey from the psychiatric institution, which was in Maryland, to New York City at the age of 14. Her life as a prostitute, junky and criminal, poet and thief, sometime rock and roll singer. Iolene was diagnosed with the HIV virus just one month after she shot heroin for the last time. She was clean for the last eight years of her life. ” I have to get better,” she said, ” I haven’t even started my story yet.”
While the pain made it too difficult for Iolene to focus on her past, she insisted on keeping a tape recorder by her bed, so she could try to keep a journal. Often at night, she’d have a nurse tape a microphone to her chest, so that she could record her thoughts as she was falling asleep.
(Tape recorder clicks on)
IC: Hi, this is Iolene. And it’s May the 6th . . . Apr . . . May the 6th . . . and I’m in Roosevelt Hospital. I’m here about a month already. I feel strangely depressed (clears throat). I hate talking when I’m this depressed. But I’m gonna do it. Okay. I’m depressed because I’m frightened. I’m very frightened. And I don’t know if I’m gonna live, and I don’t know if I’m gonna have a life that’s worth living if I survive this shit. I don’t know what it’s going to do really. Alright, these medical people have a way of giving you all these promises. But a lot of their promises are lies.
(Tape recorder clicks off, then on again)
IC: Here, come over here darling. Come over here with me.
N: I am a nurse’s aid here, and I’m wishing my dear friend a happy birthday, and many, many more. And hope that you would be a little stronger after this day. And hope that you will have many many more birthday.
N (sings): How old are you now? How old are you now?
IC (sings): Oh . . . I’m too old now . . .
N (sings): How old are you now?
IC (sings): I’m gonna get by somehow.
IC: Hmmm, look at this.
(Sound of Catalano winding music box. She hums along with the music box as it plays ”Lullaby and goodnight.” She moans and the tape recorder clicks off.)
(Catalano sings ”Don’t Let me Cross Over” with piano accompaniment.)