He was eleven or twelve years-old when his caseworker dropped him off at the shelter. That is what we call the people who we pay, barely, to stand in for the missing parents who would otherwise tend to the menial needs of their children. These children are cases, and someone must work them.
“I shall sleep in the woods” he told me, his chin imperiously lifted as high as he could, deigning to deny this nightmare of humiliation. His caseworker went inside the shelter to sign his intake paperwork while we stood in the dusk of evening at impasse.
“What will you eat?”
“I will forage for edible plants and roots.”
“How will you stay warm?”
“I will build a shelter and insulate my clothes with leaves.”
He squinted at the trees bordering the parking lot. He wouldn’t get glasses for many months yet. Caseworkers have more than one case, more like forty at a time, and all of the unclaimed children must be worked according to the most acute need of the given day. The paperwork for acquiring prescription glasses for a ward of the state is daunting, and hard to accomplish on the dashboard of a car.
“What should I do?” I ask the boss.
“Let him go to the woods of course. He will get hungry eventually and come inside. It has to be his choice”
He sits in the woods, cross-legged, scooping leaf litter and pine needles up against his legs and busying himself with close inspection of the flora for potential sustenance. I sit with him, uninvited and unwelcome, and try to appeal to reason. There is nothing to be done about his situation today, and why not come inside and eat dinner, take a shower, and watch a movie with the other kids? He explains to me very slowly, as though I am not very bright and he must simplify his words so I can understand their meaning– “I did not ask to come here.” A co-worker brings us each a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some kool-aid. I eat mine. He does not acknowledge his at all.
It got dark. I don’t remember when he decided to come inside, but he did, and confirming his worst fears, he stayed with us for a long time.
He introduced me to the the poem Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes. He had copied it word for word on notebook paper and he carried it, and many other things, in a backpack bursting with words and ragged at the seams. I bring him my 1935 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one of my most treasured possessions, and tell him he can keep it as long as he stays at the shelter. He tries to refuse it, reminding me that the place is full of filthy children who do not know how to act right. Undisciplined and driven by pop culture and hormones, they have no respect for other people’s things. I tell him I don’t care and he wraps it in a plastic garbage bag and hides it far back under his bed when he is not using it.
Maya Angelou came to town, and by virtue of being in social services, we get tickets. He, another resident, one of the few he could tolerate, and myself.
We sit in the balcony at Ruby Diamond auditorium on the campus of Florida State University, in Tallahassee, Florida. When Maya takes the stage the formal theater erupts in applause, but rising above the clapping is his hooting and shouting. His smile so wide with joy I thought the top of his head would fall off. He points at her, raises his hands to the ceiling, testifying all the while shouting, “You go Miss Angelou!” I am shocked. I have never seen him act like this, without reserve. The people around us all smile, supportive of this young, gangly black boy losing his cool over an elderly poet. Below us, in the spotlight at center stage, hearing the cheers of children, she looks up at us with her own huge smile and she bows low. This stands as one of my greatest memories in this life. After the performance, we wait with a throng outside to watch her exit the theater to her waiting limousine. A security perimeter is established and when Ms. Angelou appears the crowd breaks out in a quiet, subdued applause.
Movement flashes in the corner of my vision and then the other young lady in my company is at the door of the limo, leaning in, and a police officer is scrambling to catch up when he stops in his tracks, at a word from inside the car. My young ward and I watch aghast, as our audacious companion receives a hug and a few whispered blessings from this icon. Later, when we beg her to tell us what was said, she says, “I can’t. It was just something between black girls.”
Years go by.
I see him around town from time to time, always on the move, always with that over-stuffed back-pack. He is a writer now, and an autodidact of the highest order. Politics, jazz, literature, he has pieces underway on all fronts, but he is hard-pressed to finish anything he says, because he is so swept away with David Mcullough’s biography of John Adams that all he wants to do is finish reading it. I ask him where he is staying and he is evasive.
He shows up at my door unexpected. I’m not sure how me found me. My profession is expected to draw firm lines between professional and personal boundaries and this is clearly one of those times. He is now 25, and I have not worked a shift in a shelter in 8 years, and anyway what would you do? He is coughing with a deep rattle in his chest, and his face is ashen. I bring him inside, self-conscious of my personal space, but it is cold and wet outside and there is just no other option. I issue him a towel, soap, wash cloth and harangue him to go clean up while I find him some clean clothes and heat up some food. It’s like we are back in the shelter, which for me are such good memories. He does not want help, but he does need it. He spends a few days on the couch, going to the library during the day while I work. He gets better. I explain that he probably needs to work on a permanent living situation. He apologizes for the intrusion, I say “No, no, no it’s not like that.” It’s too late, I have offended his delicate pride. Again. This is a recurring mistake on my part.
Years go by
He works at Wal-mart as an overnight stock supervisor. He loves it. He has an apartment. We bump into each other and chat about local politics. He arrived at the shelter a child, but with a fully mature belief in the principles of small government and conservative values. He is enthusiastic about the campaign of a local journalist aspiring to a county commission seat. He spends most of his free time volunteering to help her win, which she does. I see him the night of her victory party and it is November, and cold, and he tells me he has lost his apartment until he can pay some back rent. I bring him home, but by now I am married. My wife has met him, and shares the same affection for this eccentric, absolutely bafflingly original person that I do. It is no trouble to have him at the house except we have a new dog who barks relentlessly, and our place is a shoebox, so he recuperates for a few days and then he is off again, because we can’t just move him in of course, not that he would accept the offer anyway.
Years go by
He leaves Tallahassee. He is not well, and he believes I am conspiring against him through secret chat boards, in league with his arch-nemesis at Wal-mart. I correspond with him by email, pleading with him to know that this is not true. He is scathing in his condemnation of my own faux-intellectual posturing, my adherence to charitable largess that only serves to keep people beholden to a state that does not have their best interest heart, a state that is not satisfied with just keeping him down, but that is in actuality designed to destroy him. Due to his towering intellect and bottomless pain, he is ruthlessly accurate and specific in his assessment of my abilities as a writer, a social worker, a man, and a human being.
I remember my training from working at the shelter. Spring-loaded front teeth was our creed, a metaphor for absorbing the verbal attacks and the ugliness that comes from children who understand that their footing in the world is slipping beneath them, and therefore those of us whom they meet as they fall are by definition bad. It’s true. The best youth crisis shelter in the world is a horrible place for any child to find themselves. They can knock our teeth in, but our teeth are spring-loaded, and pop right back out. I mourn the loss of our friendship, but I understand that is irrelevant now. He is in trouble, and as ever, he does not want help.
I heard that he left for Atlanta, and was living downtown in the Sweet Auburn area. I take that to mean he is homeless. He was never afraid of being homeless. He accepted it as a necessary sacrifice to pursue his independent studies, to be beholden to no person, to answer only to the self.
And now I learn that he is dead. Gone. I don’t know what happened. I hear he was last residing in New Orleans, which for him must surely have been heaven, and equally hell. It doesn’t matter where he was, or how he died, not much anyway.
What matters is that we failed him.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.