Shaffer: Raleigh homeless woman remembered, put to rest

March 17, 2013 

Anita Bridges, Raleigh homeless woman who died last week after being struck by a car on New Bern Avenue.

— Around lunchtime Wednesday, I got a call from the lobby downstairs. The polite voice of a 16-year-old boy asked if I’d come to talk to him.

“In person,” he said.

So I walked down and shook hands with Rodney Wilson, who told me he’d read what I’d written about Anita Bridges, his aunt.

He’d read how I’d called her by the street name Crazy Horse. He’d read how I’d called her a homeless alcoholic and lifelong jailbird who died alone in the middle of New Bern Avenue, run over by a car at midnight, quite possibly drunk. He read how I lamented that somebody, somewhere must have loved her.

“I loved her,” Wilson told me, poised and well-spoken. “She had a lot of people that loved her. People on the street didn’t know that we loved her. But we did.”

As for the eulogy I gave his aunt, Wilson looked me in the eye in the lobby of The News & Observer and delivered this gut-punch.

“That really hurt,” he said.

Let me interrupt for a minute and say that Anita Bridges’ nephew isn’t the only person who called me last week.

I heard from my neighbor, who told me that between 2005 and 2009, Bridges regularly pounded on his door at midnight. Sometimes, she’d be soaked in her own urine. When my neighbor took her to a shelter, she got thrown out for smuggling in a whiskey bottle.

I heard from the businesses on New Bern Avenue who recalled Bridges repeatedly stumbling through their doors and cursing all their customers, sometimes pulling off her top in the process.

She’d wander off when police came, then start all over once they’d left. They asked, “How do you handle somebody like that? You can’t. You can’t put a hand on her. You just stand there and take it.”

I told Wilson about all of this, and I told him about the mile-long record his aunt owned at the Wake County courthouse.

He nodded calmly.

“I know how she was,” Wilson said.

He described an aunt who, though homeless, would offer him money when they met on the street. Once, she gave him $3, and he took it for a minute because the money would come in handy. But he gave it back, knowing she needed it more.

Listening to Wilson describe his family’s deep affection, you can’t help asking why they didn’t work harder to get Bridges off the street. If she was such a beloved family member, how could they let her live that way?

She wasn’t just homeless. Look at the police records. She was intoxicated and disruptive. She was urinating in public. She assaulted people.

I got another call Wednesday from Lutricia Turner, now retired from the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women. Bridges knew her as “Mama Turner” when she was behind bars in the ’80s and ’90s. From Mama Turner’s perspective, Bridges’ recklessness and self-destruction all comes back to a cry for attention.

“Nobody came to visit Anita in prison,” Turner said. “We had visitors’ lists. Anita didn’t have a visitors’ list. If they cared so much about her, give it to her while she’s living. Anita was longing for love.”

She received that love, Wilson told me. We left the lobby for the snack bar upstairs, and he called in his brother D’Antwan Bridges, who was waiting outside. They told me their aunt would come to dinner sometimes but mostly stayed away considering herself a black sheep.

They tried to change their aunt, they said. Everyone tried. But you can’t change someone who doesn’t want to be changed.

If this sounds oversimplified, or like a feel-good excuse made after a preventable disaster, maybe you’ve never known or loved somebody who was truly lost. I’ve known plenty of relatives, all of them dead now, who let go of every rope tossed their way.

“If she wasn’t as wild as she was,” D’Antwan Bridges said, “she wouldn’t be her.”

Their aunt had a funeral Saturday. People filed into Rush Memorial AME Zion Church on Edenton Street, eager to cry, laugh and remember.

Behind those doors, on her way to eternity, nobody called her Crazy Horse.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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