Before settling on purple paper and her name in bold, Valerie Klokow ’02 wanted the poster for her talk to have a little rhetoric and two xeroxed photographs.
The first was to be a picture of her: a standard looking Yalie with green plastic-framed glasses and a short auburn bob. The second was to be a picture of a dejected-looking 28-year-old woman, bloated from a liver that had all but shut down from drinking half a gallon of vodka a day for two years. Also of her.
And below them, the classic trick question, modified to Dwight Hall tastes, “Which one of these is a Yale undergraduate?”
The obvious answer: both. The obvious question: how?
Thirty years ago, Klokow, was a 6-year-old living in Sheboygan, Wisc., who wanted to be a lawyer. Today she is a Trumbull College senior, majoring in philosophy, waiting to hear from Yale Law School.
In between, she was a drug-addict and an alcoholic.
She is twice divorced and once widowed. She has lived on a blue blanket under a bush, in a car, in a backyard, in a park, in a couple rehab centers and more than a few prisons.
And Monday night, she spoke to a wide semi-circle of peers, most members of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, which organized the event.
Most were roughly half her age.
“I’m here to give a different face of homelessness in America,” she said.
Klokow was ill at ease to start, but it wasn’t because of the age difference, the roomful of swinging Birkenstocks or the 60-odd wide eyes fixed on her.
It was the fact that the audience wasn’t filled with convicts, runaways or juvies.
“I’m scared of you guys,” she said, sitting cross-legged under a high blue-painted ceiling. “I walk into mens’ prisons like no f—— big deal, and I’m sitting here looking at a bunch of Yale undergraduates, and I’m like ‘Oh my god.’”
She vowed to “cut through the bulls—,” to not censor the story for prep school ears or to spare herself the pain of telling it.
A manila folder of pictures (Klokow as a baby, at age 10 with her brothers, age 16 on Halloween, 28 at the beginning of her second trip to rehab, and this year, in the Yale law library) circulated, making sympathetic voyeurs of the crowd.
“I was a smart little kid once, and people told me I should be a lawyer because I argued a lot,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a lawyer was, but I wanted to be one — Then, in third grade, I started drinking and smoking. Home was not ideal, and I started seriously drinking when I was 9.”
It is a story she has told in more or less the same version hundreds of times, but every once in a while she choked on it, tried to wipe the redness from the edges of her eyes.
“When I was 13,” she continued, “I ran away to live with my 22-year-old boyfriend, and my mom was really not cool with that. At 16, I officially quit school, but I really stopped going when I was 13. I’ve still never been to high school. Or junior high school for that matter.”
It would be more than a decade before Klokow found herself in a community college in California. She would get married at 18, move in with her second husband before her first divorce was finalized, and find herself in a 10-year relationship that turned so abusive she went two years straight in which she “never didn’t have a black eye.” And before she turned 30, she would be a widow.
Her second husband started to lose his mind from all the drugs, she said, and he used to try to kill her on a regular basis. She would leave but come back because, she added, “with him was the only way I could be as high as I’d like to be.”
She remembered how much more expensive food was when they couldn’t afford nights in motels and slept in their car because they couldn’t cook or save anything for later.
She remembered starting the drive to Reno with her soon-to-be third husband and realizing, again, that she wasn’t divorced yet. And most vividly, she remembers looking through windows, seeing the lights of homes through the eyes of the homeless.
“I remember sitting outside looking at these houses. Have you noticed kitchen lights are always yellow? Other rooms are blue, well, that’s because TVs are blue, but kitchens are always yellow. I’d look in these yellow windows and see women washing dishes, and I used to wish I had dishes to wash.”
She said later, twisting a Poland Spring bottlecap in her hands, “now, dishes suck.”
When Klokow’s second husband died, she inherited a life insurance policy, $26,000 of which she spent in five weeks, she said, leaving her around $5,000 saved in the end for rehab. His death, she is sure, saved her life.
“Before I went into rehab,” she said, “I was drinking two fifths a day. I was living in a place I called ‘The Fort,’ which was one of those houses with half a number, I think it was 1601 and a half, or something. So we were living in this hut, with something like four dogs and 12 cats.”
“Without alcohol on a regular basis, I had seizures,” she continued after a deep breath. “You throw up a lot when your liver’s not working, everything stays and bloats and — ” she felt around for the PG-13 words and found none.
She resumed, “When I took a shot, I knew I was going to throw up and s— at the same time. I would try to be sitting on the toilet and by a sink. But sometimes I couldn’t make it so I would lay in my own body waste for days.”
A few years later, without having finished seventh grade, she would get a 790 on her verbal Scholastic Assessment Test (the first time she ever saw geometry was on the SAT math section) and fill out an application to Yale.
After 10 days of her second 30-day treatment program — that was all she could afford — she said she decided to become a drug and alcohol counselor but thought the nine-week program at a local Bible college would be too difficult.
So she enrolled in a two-year college where she ended up with a 4.0 GPA. She applied on the persuasion of a guidance counselor to roughly the same list of schools an Exeter senior at the top of her class would select. She was accepted everywhere but Harvard (“F— Harvard,” she said Monday, throwing a fist in the air) and Boston University.
Klokow calls her first year at Yale, which was technically her junior year since, she said, the dean’s office accepted all her credits from community college, “the most isolative experience of my life.”
She said she spent a lot of time trying to blend before she realized, “I’m 36. I’m not supposed to fit in with 18- to 22-year-olds.” She has been clean and sober for six and a half years, so she doesn’t go out much, and has never been to a Yale party.
“I had no kids my own age to play with,” she said, so she made friends with teaching assistants, which translates to four Yale friends a semester, she noted. Klokow said that her first year here was the hardest of her life.
But she never left, she said, because she has to be an example. And any day now, she’ll hear from law school. She hopes to be a juvenile defender or a judge eventually, to help kids have the safety net she says she never had.
Klokow remembered one “Yale moment” in her two years here: sitting in Linsly-Chittenden Hall when her TA from “AIDS and Society” told her in passing she’d written the only A paper in her section. At the same time, someone was practicing the violin next door.
And for one moment in a life that occasionally seemed like a movie, she said, fate conveniently provided a soundtrack.