Five Quick Stories Involving Alice V.


When I was young – thirteen, fourteen – I used to sing. I walked down the streets of our neighborhood, amongst the stray dogs and blooming cannas, singing Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” In the grocery store, I’d use the Muzak as my own personal karaoke machine. In the parking lot of St. Joseph Church, while waiting for Youth Group to start, I’d raise my hands, spin like Stephen Tyler, and sing Ozzie Osborne or Janis Joplin or whatever came to mind.

To encourage my love of singing, the youth group staff sent me to see Alice V. Or maybe they did it to punish me, I don’t know. But either way, they sent me on a Thursday afternoon, across the church parking lot to a tiny orange house done up with a mural of the Virgin Mary. “Go,” they said, pointing. “She’s waiting for you there.”

Skipping up the steps and through the door, humming a merry classic rock tune, I followed the scent of smoke. In the half light, made by dusty windows covered over with photographs and drums, maracas, bells, I saw her. Alice. At the piano bench, in an oaken haze of seriousness. Like a monument on a cliff —- no, like a dragon on a mountain. Unblinking, unsmiling, she waited for me.

I went to her, silently, the hum dead in my throat.

On the well worn piano, she played a scale of five notes, up and down. “Sing that.”

I coughed. My throat had run dry.

“Sing ah,” she said. “with the music.”

She raised her hand to play the scale again, and I knew she meant business, so I opened my mouth and squeaked, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, AH, ah, ah, ah-ah!”

Alice shook her head, then reached over and pressed my body with her left hand, right on my t-shirt and jeans. “Push with your stomach. Sing loud,” she said.

Shocked by her boldness, and totally afraid now, I pushed with my stomach and gave birth to the notes that she played on the keys. She played another scale, higher. And another, and another. And I sang through them all, trembling, but loud and on tune.

“Good,” she said. “Come back on Sunday morning.” I finally saw her eyes. They weren’t mean, like I expected. They were tired, and cynical, and bored, and amused, all at once. But not mean.

I walked out of the little house elated. Glad to be leaving, but also looking forward to coming back.

Sunday morning, back at the orange house across the church parking lot, I met with a motley crew of sopranos, altos, and tenors, all adults, all from completely different walks of life. They were the church choir, and what they had in common was that Alice talked to them all the same way she’d talked to me. For an hour we sang church songs, and she barked commands at us. Louder! Higher! Less vibrato! Take the harmony!

Everyone focused on the music, and I had no time to be shy. All too soon, the hour was up, and the other singers left to prepare for Mass. I found Alice smoking behind the sacristy, and I thanked her for the lesson.

“Where are you going?” she asked. “Mass is about to start. Go into the church. Tell them to get you a microphone.”

“But,” I stammered, “this was my first practice ever, and I don’t even go to church. I can’t just go in there and sing!”

Alice blew smoke from her lungs slowly, then said her favorite thing—something I would hear her say many more times in the future. “Baptism by fire. It’s the best way to learn.”


For 30 years now, Alice V. has run a non-profit arts organization near downtown. She gets local poor kids and puts paintbrushes, violins, or microphones in their hands. She writes to local Oil & Gas corporations and demands that they should give these kids money. If she can, she forces these kids to go to college. That’s what she chose to do with her life, and she does it all day long.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was one of those kids and Alice V. let me work at her organization after school, as an assistant assistant, so that I could have money to buy clothes. My main duties were organizing the sheet music room, and removing the yellowed leaves from Alice V.’s plants.

The main secretary was Yvonne. I was sixteen, and Yvonne was seventeen, but Yvonne was a whole lot older than me because she was six months pregnant, and I’d never even had a boyfriend yet.

One day, Alice V. needed us to drive her station wagon somewhere. Some kind of emergency—someone needed help. Alice had to drive someone else’s car to the next neighborhood over, and someone had to bring along the station wagon behind her.

“Not me,” said Yvonne. “I can’t drive.”

I quickly added, “I can’t drive, either.”

We were the only ones there. Alice looked at us with the cool glare that, by now, Yvonne was used to, but that still scared me a little bit. She turned it on Yvonne first.

“You’re going to have a baby, but you can’t drive a car?”

Yvonne giggled and shook her head again.

Alice turned to me. I was very afraid to drive the car, but more afraid of pissing her off. She handed me the keys and told me what I’d have to do.

“Come on,” she said. “Baptism by fire.”

The one-mile trip was uneventful, except for when I followed Alice under the Houston Avenue train bridge. Down in its darkness, Yvonne, my copilot, shrieked like a banshee. So I shrieked, too. It was cathartic and helped me focus. We kept it up, screeching like teakettles all the way to our destination, three blocks away. I stepped on the brake. Alice came over and told me to turn off the key. Yvonne and I fell back onto the bench seat, laughing with hysterical relief.

That’s how baptism by fire feels. Scary and thrilling, and then you’re grateful at the end.


People said that Alice never laughed, but they were wrong. One time I said something silly, and accidentally made her laugh. She had a deep, smoky chuckle that came out like a cough, as if she, herself, was surprised to hear it. Then she’d shake her head, as if chuckling was frivolous, and it was time to get back to her mission of saving local poor kids.

After that, I was addicted. I followed her all around like a personal court jester, cracking jokes a mile a minute. Usually, she didn’t laugh. Usually, she just gave me food and told me what to do.


One evening, Alice called me and her other personal jester, Tania R. “I’m going to a party,” she said. “Do you want to go with me? There’ll be food.” Yes, we did want to go.

Tania’s parents owned a corner store in First Ward, the next neighborhood over from mine. I walked to her house and together, we picked through the pile of clothes that her mother sold to people in Mexico. We found things that were slinky or sparkly enough for a party. When Alice came to pick us up, we were waiting outside with the chickens and liquor crates, very excited.

The party was at a mall. Although the mall was closed for the night, its doors had been unlocked for this event. Black tie. Invitation only.

I looked at the other guests just long enough to see that they were rich, and we were underdressed. Even Alice was. She had on the same kind of skirt and blouse as always, with comfortable shoes.

So I avoided the guests and looked at the food. There were tables and tables of it. Giant shrimp on fancy skewers. Pyramids of the most expensive fruit. Mini quiches. Cheesecakes and brownies with delicate, intricate decorations.

I was in awe. What world was this, where they gave away giant shrimp for free? A world where I would never live, except for brief moments, through flukes like this.

The party had a mime. Tania and I engaged him—mimed with him and danced with him for hours. Meanwhile, Alice did what she’d come to do. One by one, she went around to every rich person there and hit them up for money. Guilt-tripped them into pledging funds. Pointed out me and Tania, happy in our used clothes, and made those people write checks.

At the end, Tania and I rode home in Alice’s station wagon, our faces flushed with pleasure and our purses filled with cheesecake and shrimp. Alice was relaxed now, and I realized that she hadn’t enjoyed the party at all. She’d done what she had to do, and fed a couple of poor kids in the process.


I remember the day I left Alice’s non-profit for poor kids.

It was a Saturday morning, and I was riding in a borrowed pick-up truck, with Alice on one side of me, and my dad on the other. In the bed of the truck was everything I’d ever owned. We were driving to Austin in silence.

I’d been angry with her all week. We’d argued.

My argument had been, “I want to move in to my friend’s apartment and get a job at Dairy Queen.”

Her argument had been, “No.”

She had spent the last four years putting microphones, paintbrushes, food, and paychecks into my hands. She’d convinced a Rice professor to tutor me, to keep me from failing Calculus. She’d convinced a rich board member to pay my fee to take the SATs. She’d convinced everyone she knew to pull strings with everyone they knew, to let me apply to colleges way past the deadline. And I’d been accepted by UT. So she’d called a Representative at the State Capitol and forced him to give me a clerk job. And she’d had him badger his staff to find me a place, for free. And she’d dredged up some grant funding and called it a scholarship, and given it to me keep me afloat until my real, full scholarship came through from the University.

And so, there we were, in the borrowed pick-up truck, on the way to Austin. Alice sitting next to me, driving, silent. And I was so, so angry with her.

The worst part was that I knew, even before we left the city limits, that my anger was wrong. This was another of those situations where, in the future, I’d be laughing about how Alice was stubborn, and annoying, but right. Always right.

By the time we reached La Grange, the palms of my hands soaked the bench seat, and I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t anger I was feeling. It was fear.

It was too late to tell her, too late to apologize. I looked at her, and Alice just sat there silent, driving.

There was only one thing left to say, then, and I’d have to say it to myself, in my mind. “Baptism by fire.”

I said it all the way to Austin. And Alice was right; it was the best way to learn.

That was a true story.

On September 14th, Alice’s non-profit for poor kids will celebrate its 30th anniversary. I’m going to the party, and they want me to speak in front of the mayor and everybody about the necessity of community arts organizations and their continued funding.

Although I’ve read this story for important people before, Alice won’t let me read it for the mayor. She says, “MECA’s not really just about me, Gwen. A lot of people work really hard to make this place [etc., excessive modesty, etc.]”

If you’d like to help Alice with her mission, click here.

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Posted in Houston, stories on 09/01/2007 07:28 am

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