Not Bad, Just Broken

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“That’s a hotel for bad girls,” my dad explained.

It’s the comment he’d make on our rides from Cincinnati to Youngstown – family treks to visit my grandparents and other relations in the rust belt town. We’d pass a brick and cement structure just south of Columbus, its grounds wrapped in chain link fence and barbed wire, and my little girl self would ask about its purpose.

More than 25 years later I believe that in most instances people are inherently good. An old manager’s comment echoes in my brain, a lesson she taught her own daughter: people aren’t bad, they just make bad choices.

And so, it’s about that “bad girl hotel” that I wonder about the lives lost, the trials and tribulations weathered. The women behind those cinder blocks and barbed wire. What happened to make them broken?

And then I wonder about a former colleague.

Years ago I worked with an assignment editor. Her voice was a song from the Kentucky hills, gravely from years of nicotine and low slung like a Harlan County porch. Her words rolled over some vowels and careened through others. That’s how people talk in Eastern Kentucky. It’s a hackneyed creole that harkens back to their Scotch-Irish roots.

Orange from a tanning bed and yellowy white from a bottle, Amy looked like a beauty queen has-been. She always told young reporters and male interns that she used to be a looker, her teenage bikini shot dangling from a plastic photo album on a key chain.

Life had been good to Amy, once upon a time.

She worked the assignment desk like the bridge of destroyer. Sweet talking dispatchers on her beat list, quickly catching police calls on the scanner, Amy didn’t miss much. This Eastern Kentucky girl was a newshound, always pushing to dig up a better story for the reporter on duty.

When the editorial pressure or managerial fracas got to be too much, Amy would grab her pack of Virginia Slims and clip her Nokia cell phone to the chest of her dress. She’d step outside and puff away, knowing that news was never more than a call away.

The slender 30-something didn’t eat much, and several newsroom staffers wondered if Amy had gotten tied up in Hillbilly Heroin, what with little mannerisms like little twitches and erratic behavior. OxyContin had emerged as a quick high in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, and in the early 2000s pharmacies started storing the pain medication under lock and key.

Meant to help ease the agony of cancer, OxyContin was a cheap way for others to forget about poverty, wasted dreams and other trademarked, American angst.

And Amy must have been hurting.

In Payless pumps and snagged panty hose, Amy would talk about her home life. A husband who loved her, a bright future with hopes of children. Amy wanted the American Dream, or whatever pieces she could get her hands on in her little hometown.

Somehow I lost track of Amy.

I can’t remember who left our newsroom first – whether I headed for Cincinnati or she transitioned elsewhere, but somehow our paths diverged, until her name was mentioned to me in the context of a crime.

Years removed from the news business, I still knew how to navigate county clerk websites and mugshot repositories like it was my job. Some quick sleuthing turned up a sad photo of my old colleague, her face worn well beyond her years and her hair a grown-out marker of the last time she’d bleached her roots.

More searching led to news articles and court papers and snippets of a sad story that was easy to piece together. Amy had fallen on hard times, a cliche in any region but especially true in the rough living of Eastern Kentucky.

Drugs. Murder. Arson. It was the kind of rap sheet Amy would shout over a two-way to a reporter, but instead the charges were her own.

Today she sits in one of those cement and chain link structures, in a “hotel for bad girls,” and I can’t help but think she isn’t bad. She’s just broken.

And it reminds me just how fragile we all are.