An Upper Darby woman with schizophrenia is an unlikely celebrity on South Street.
Stella Iliopoulos is sort of a local rock star. Although the friendly, petite 37-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago, she’s managed to carve out a niche for herself on the ever-changing South Street—simply by going there a few days a week on and off for about 12 years. People there dig her.
Stella used to go everywhere on South Street, but over time her tendencies to panhandle, hang out without spending money and ask lots of questions have gotten her into trouble. She’s been kicked out of most of the chains—Whole Foods, Wawa, Starbucks—but still visits her friends at the punk-rock shop Crash Bang Boom (formerly Zipperhead); the anarchist bookstore Wooden Shoe; and other smaller South Street operations.
“Everybody on the street knows who she is,” says David McGee, a manager at the vegetarian restaurant Maoz. “She’s the most popular person on South Street.”
Rob “Crash Bang Boom,” the owner of Crash Bang Boom, first met Stella at Tattooed Mom about 12 years ago. He’s impressed that she’s stuck around South Street so long.
“She’s made a lot of friends over the past dozen years. Sometimes it’s amusing to me, the people she’s befriended,” he says. “She knows people like Dave P., who runs Making Time, because he used to work at Spaceboy Records and she used to stop in there all the time. It’s just funny that that party gets national attention, and Stella will stroll in, being her regular Stella self and be like, ‘Oh, I was just talking to Dave P...’ She just rattles off the name and she’s not name-dropping, she just knows them—like Sean Agnew, from R5 Productions. She knows everybody. She’s on the A-List.”
Stella did the whole patient thing, and like many Americans with mental health problems, she didn’t find doctors or hospitals that helpful. “They made it worse for me,” she says of the last behavioral health care program she attended. “They don’t want to make me think better. They don’t want to make me do nothing.”
I’ve been in a few area hospitals for manic episodes myself, and I know exactly what she’s talking about. Being babysat in a unit with other unstable people—some of whom are violent—while the grownups get their insurance tactics squared away is not beneficial for those who need help understanding why different aspects of their reality don’t fit together. If my mom hadn’t taken it upon herself to find me the best psychiatrist, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Though Stella is sweet and trusting, her circumstances have hardened her to the harsh reality that she can’t always rely on other people. She’s never been able to get a job because she doesn’t function well, so Stella panhandles. She’s not apologetic about it, either: “I just say, ‘Do you have any money?’ That’s it.”
“Do people ever yell at you for it?” I ask.
“Yeah, they say, ‘Get the fuck off. Get away from me.’ They say, ‘Don’t bother me.’”
“Do you mind?”
“Sometimes I mind,” she says.
“How do you respond?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you give me money?’”
I ask her what she does when people ignore her. “Who helps you, then?”
“Nobody does. I help myself.”
Stella is on the antipsychotic medication Zyprexa and says it helps, but she still gets agitated and confused. She tries to talk to people about things so she can perceive them more clearly, but people tune her out. I watched as Stella talked to one store clerk for half an hour, repeatedly asking him, “You know what I’m saying?” to which he repeatedly responded, “Yes, I know what you’re saying” while trying his best to surf the Internet and ignore her visibly enough so that she’d give up and leave.
Barista Justin Cipa, Stella’s favorite person at Java Co. on Fourth St., says, “If everyone else would just chill out around here and get to know this person and their issues, like where she’s coming from, she wouldn’t seem so off-the-wall.”
Lately, Stella’s been sleeping at the 69th Street Terminal instead of taking the trolley all the way back to her mom’s house. She and her mom argue. (Her mother declined to comment for this article.) Her friends around South Street get worried, but somehow Stella always takes care of herself.