Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

Jodi arrived in New York City with $35 in her pocket. She was dazed, overwhelmed, overjoyed.

"There were taxis honking," she remembers. "People yelling. Vendors roasting nuts in the subway. One woman walked by with a ton of perfume on. It was just too much."

For three hours, she leaned against the wall of the bus terminal, just watching.

John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.

"I was afraid to go anywhere," she says. "I thought everyone was going to attack me. One big burly guy was talking to me with this accent and scaring the hell out of me. But what I realized was that everyone had their own little missions. Everyone was doing their own thing. I told myself, 'I like this place.'"

Her first stop beyond the bus station was Times Square. At a TGI Friday's, she ordered what seemed like a gourmet meal: pasta. "We used to eat macaroni and cheese without milk," she says. "This had texture. Flavor. Spices. Aroma. I had never tasted anything like it." But when the bill arrived, she was stunned. "No one ever told me how expensive New York was," she says.

Jodi headed to Central Park to spend the night, but changed her mind after a few natives warned her that she could get killed there. She returned to the bus terminal, where she slept on the floor.

After a decade in a storage shed, Jodi easily adapted to street life. Once her money was gone, she panhandled, visited a pizzeria after hours for leftover food, offered to work for meals. "I ate well," Jodi says. "I didn't starve one day. I was accustomed to danger, so I didn't overreact to things."

Using a map she found on the subway, she explored the city. "I just bummed along, checking out statues and looking at storefronts for entertainment," she says. "I was there to prove to myself I could do things."

She visited the Statue of Liberty, taking her first boat ride. "Look! We're floating!" she shouted from the ferry. She visited FAO Schwarz, where she spent hours looking at the stuffed animals, model trains and remote-control cars. She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gazed at sculptures, paintings and drawings for the first time.

"No one ever told me that things like Monet existed," she says. "No one ever told me he used a paintbrush. I cried."

Brimming with confidence, intoxicated by "how wonderful the world was," Jodi decided to seek a writing job. She had no idea how to do it, so she went into an employment agency. But when clerks there asked for a work history and an address, she got worried and left.

With no job prospects and no notion of how to change that, Jodi saw only one option: to go back to Colorado.

As her bus approached Loveland, Jodi made herself a promise. Someday, somehow, she would return to New York. "I didn't care what it took," she says.

She made her way back to the storage yard, "expecting to be pounded," she remembers. But during the two weeks that she had been away, things had suddenly changed: Her family was leaving the shed. Her parents had split up, and the boys were going with their father, who was already loading supplies from Unit 151 into the station wagon. The girls were to go with their mother.

Jodi and her sister chose the Plymouth instead.

They drove to Fort Collins, where they slept at a truck stop and visited business after business looking for jobs. Jodi's sister found work in a restaurant; Jodi took on some clerical jobs. She changed her name, dropping the surname she'd shared with her parents.

At last she was free.

"You could drive where you wanted, check out things as long as you wanted, talk to people if you wanted. It was the best feeling in the whole damn world," Jodi recalls.

After two months, the sisters found a house to rent for $600 a month. But even the simplest of modern conveniences posed a challenge. "We couldn't figure out the running-water thing," Jodi says. "And it had windows, too. That was different. We couldn't figure out how to use a key to the door, either. But it had shag carpet. It had a medicine cabinet that opened and closed. It had pillows. Our dog could bark until she was green. It was safe."

For their birthdays, the sisters treated themselves to a big-screen viewing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at a two-dollar theater in Longmont. "I never realized you could just go to the movies," Jodi says. "I always thought you had to be invited."

She also visited an eye doctor and discovered "that there were trees on the mountains."

Jodi, who read twelve books a week, everything from literature to cartoon collections, began writing stories for a newspaper agriculture supplement and a recipe column for a magazine. "It sounds silly," she says, "but when you're making icicle pops with lemonade, it's pretty exciting. Especially if you've never had a refrigerator."

She even transformed a notebook doodle into a word puzzle called "Brain Baffler," which she eventually sold to weekly newspapers. But that was just the start of her literary career.

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