Two weeks after arriving in New York City, I watched a dark blue van with side windows pull to the curb and idle in front of the homeless shelter. The woman on duty said I should climb in. I was going to the Bronx for treatment.
I piled into the middle seat of a van fully loaded with people: all of them sullen, quiet, and black. We wound through early afternoon traffic. Wipers slapped cold sleet from the windshield. I watched the gaily decorated downtown cityscape grow more desolate: soon we were passing lone tenement buildings, defiant hulks squatting in the middle of trash-strewn lots. We drove past the ornate splendor of Yankee Stadium and the Grand Concourse, a testament to better times. Soon the streets twisted and looped, making me feel as if I were entering a great labyrinth.
Nestled on the side of a hill, the Rockford facility was an enormous building, its steep walls rising up from the street below like the ramparts of some ancient castle. I could hear traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway and trains rumbling past on the elevated Number Four line. Getting out of the van, I discreetly stretched. I was grateful to be out of the shelter, but wary of my new surroundings, and didn’t want to call undue attention to myself. Waving his thick hands, a large bald man with gold caps on his teeth climbed out from the front passenger seat and directed us inside. From the way he seemed to enjoy flashing both his grin and his authority over us, I assumed he was a counselor—though I came to learn he was a client, like me.
In the lobby, people carrying clipboards directed those of us who had come from the van to sit on a raggedy collection of castaway furniture. Everyone holding a clipboard was black. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Several women, some with hair braided into thick ropes, all with dark and gleaming skin, lingered in one corner of the lobby, quietly murmuring to one another.
Gold Teeth curtly barked orders to his co-workers. To those of us who had just gotten off the van, he showed a benign indifference, walking through our midst like we were pigeons clustered around his feet in the park. But to his peers, those other clipboard-wielding men, he behaved menacingly, demanding answers, calling for paperwork, and looking generally displeased with everyone’s performance. It occurred to me he might be showing off for the women. This insight surprised me. I felt no sexual attraction toward this raw gang of women. If anything, they frightened me. More than one had lumped-up purple razor scars running across the fleshy skin of her arm or back. Some had bruised, ashen faces. But most unsettling was their sturdy and silent indifference, as they stood with chins jutted out or fists curled into plump hips.
* * *
That night I lay in the bottom half of a bunk bed in an open dormitory. Someone flashed the overhead lights to signal they would soon be shut off. There were at least two dozen of us packed into the large second-floor room, which had bathroom facilities at one end. Bunk beds were pushed against all the walls and people mostly stood in the center aisle of the room, chatting or milling about as they got ready for bed. Outside I could hear the low hum of traffic from the expressway and the occasional siren wail from somewhere in the city.
Considering where I was, I felt generally pleased and optimistic. The room was crowded but warm, a huge step up from the damp shelter on Saint Mark’s Place. I felt as if it would be okay to remove my street clothes before I went to bed, which I hadn’t done since arriving in the city. Dinner had been a baked chicken leg and thigh, a plop of mashed potatoes, and diced carrots. Because I was new, those in charge let me get seconds. I had bagged the bulk of my clothes and dropped them in a great canvas cart, ready to be laundered. My court appearance in Pennsylvania was scheduled for late February, about ten weeks out. I had done all I could to ensure I wouldn’t end up in jail, and now felt certain the worst of this adventure was behind me.
Just as the lights went out, I heard three or four dull, popping sounds from the street below.
There was a lull in the dormitory conversation, but nobody seemed concerned by this noise. I immediately got off the bed. Gunshots? But the popping noise seemed so innocent, not at all like the crack of gunfire on TV. In a hurry to look out the window, I had to make my way to the room’s center aisle and double back between bunks.
Someone called out, “Where you going?”
“You hear that?” I asked. Arriving at the window, I found my view of the street blocked. I turned and headed across the room; somewhere there had to be an unobstructed view.
“Don’t look out the window,” that same voice said.
Ignoring this advice, I squeezed between two bunks on the other side of the room, much closer to where I imagined the sounds had come from. “I want to see,” I said.
“You’ll get shot.”
The unseen speaker’s tone was somehow both plaintive and blunt. It wasn’t a command, more a simple statement of fact. I pulled up short. Nobody else had made a move to the windows. Coming back to the center aisle, I grinned at the person speaking to me.
“Good point,” I said.
Mike introduced himself. He was the blackest black man I had ever seen. He wore a tight white T-shirt and folded his muscular arms across his chest. His skin was so black, shadow didn’t seem to register on his face or arms, giving him an unsettling two-dimensional appearance, except for the cut of his strong chest, which showed in relief against the cotton of his shirt. Mike grinned, a toothy white smile. “If it was gunshots, you don’t want to see.”
“I didn’t even think of that,” I said. He had a magazine folded in three and tucked under his arm. He looked about 22 years old, which would make him five years younger than me. There were a few other young men standing nearby him.
“Where you from, Country?” Mike asked.
“Pennsylvania,” I said. Feeling a little put off by the nickname, I added: “It’s only four hours out of the city.”
“Is Pennsylvania south?” he asked.
I nodded, amused by what I took for his lack of geographic awareness.
“Then that’s the country,” he said. All his friends laughed. “You from the country, Country.” Mike grinned.
His smile lit up his face, emphasizing his boyish good looks. I found it hard to stay annoyed at him.
“What you got there,” I asked, nodding to the magazine under his arm, just to change the subject.
“Porn,” he said, tugging the magazine out and handing it to me.
“Oh…” My voice rose unintentionally. Pornographic magazines were most likely contraband. A small infraction to be sure, but I hadn’t intended to break any rules. My job was to stay out of trouble until after my court date. With all the guys looking at me, I felt as if it would have been rude to refuse the magazine, so I took it and held it in front of me. “Is having porn against the rules?” I asked.
“Yup,” Mike said. There was an awkward silence. “You going to tell?” He cocked his head and I could hear mild disbelief.
“No, no, no,” I said. Breaking the rules was bad, but being labeled a snitch was certainly much worse. “I just wondered,” I said.
“A’ight.” Mike looked at me evenly. “Go take care of that thing,” he nodded toward the bathroom. “Then bring me back my magazine.”
“Oh, right,” I laughed nervously.
I felt a sudden and jarring shock at the way the conversation had turned. The small group that had formed around us scrutinized me. “Right,” I repeated.
Feeling self-conscious, I wasn’t sure how to gracefully exit the little group. I started to walk backwards toward the bathroom, waving the magazine around in front of me, like some circus buffoon. I tripped over something in the aisle and then laughed nervously again at my own awkwardness.
Mike and each of his friends looked at one another and shook their heads. Someone clucked his teeth. I felt grateful for the darkness in the room, for I could feel my face getting hot.
* * *
One week into treatment, I was making my way back to the dormitory after Evening Focus. Focus meetings were held twice daily, morning and evening, in a large auditorium on the first floor. One of the counselors, a short man named Angel, was standing in the hallway, urging anyone who was a parent to go to the north wing of the first floor where the administrative offices were. The hallways on the first floor were always packed after focus meetings and meals, but especially during the workday morning and evening rush.
“You got a kid.” Angel said to me. “Over there,” he pointed. It wasn’t a question and he didn’t wait for an answer. He gave my shoulder a little shove.
Jostling my way through the crowd, I made my way to the north wing and found a line of people that stretched the length of the building. I went to the end of the line and stood, wondering why I was there.
I asked the person in front of me, but he had no idea. Five minutes later the line had not budged, but another person or two had come to stand behind me. None of us understood why we were here. Growing impatient, I made my way to the front of the line.
As I asked further up, someone said, “Toys.”
Craning my neck, I could see a counselor listlessly sitting in an office with a great pile of packages behind him. Inside the office, a person from the line stood rubbing his chin as he surveyed the stack of packages.
“Donations,” I heard someone else say.
Donated toys. We were standing in line to select a donated Christmas toy for our kids. I could feel something terrible rising in my chest. As I walked back to my place at the end of the line, I felt myself growing agitated and irritable.
I wasn’t sure where my son lived. It had been months since I’d seen him. He would be four years old the month after Christmas. I knew his mother had recently moved, from Shamokin back to Steelton, but I wasn’t sure if she was staying with her mother now, or on her own. Last I heard she was seeing Jack Driscoll, who owned a house across the street from my mother’s house.
Standing in line, I began to feel distressed. I sighed heavily and ran my fingers through my hair. I wasn’t particularly concerned with getting a toy, but I complained aloud about the length of the line and fidgeted.
“This is so stupid,” I said to no one in particular.
“You too good for our toys?” Rick, a lanky counselor with a bald head, had come out of one of the nearby offices. His presence surprised me, his sharp tone put me on guard. I hadn’t meant to draw attention to myself.
“No,” I stammered. “No. . .”
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I just feel…” I had to think for a minute.
Groping for the right word, I finally said: “Bad.” I winced at my inability to convey what I was feeling. Suddenly I felt my eyes well with tears. The intensity and speed of my emotions shocked me. “Really bad,” I added.
He looked me directly in the eye. He didn’t smile, but something in his manner softened. “You feel bad because you’re in treatment and have to get your kid a donated toy for Christmas,” he said.
I shrugged. “I don’t even know where to send it,” I admitted.
With these words, my irritability disappeared and despair took its place. I felt limp and useless, like a wet towel on a clothesline in the middle of a downpour.
* * *
Immediately after the holiday lull, Rockford went into an uproar. The entire community filed into the auditorium for Morning Focus, a meeting typically only attended by the facility’s newest members. Vans had been halted, the laundry shuttered, and the administrative wing locked down. The kitchen remained open for breakfast, but only a skeleton crew remained to clean up and prepare a simple lunch. Something was going on.
As the auditorium filled, I took a seat in the right wing, close to the stage. There were at least five hundred people seated and still more passing through the double doors. The quiet roar of confusion filled the great space. I could hear senior members complain about the vans being stopped: They were missing work, trade programs, or appointments at clinics or social service offices. The gang of women I had seen in the lobby on my first day was led into the great hall in a group. A wiry woman, evidently in authority, fluttered about them, chirping directions in a Hispanic accent and watching carefully as they made their way toward the rows of seats reserved for them. A hush seemed to fall across the crowd in the vicinity of the women as they passed, as if the wiry woman’s scrutiny alone were enough to suppress noise.
A group of counselors took the stage. Juan, a short Latino, pleaded for quiet over the microphone. Ramon, stocky and balding, used his hands like a traffic cop. But the noise kept rising. Then, Terrance Tyson, a counselor from East New York, one of the toughest, most desperate crack-torn neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn, took the microphone from Juan and barked, “Shut the fuck up!”
The sudden silence was followed almost immediately by a ripple of laughter. All of the counselors reacted quickly to the laughter, swearing and berating the entire community until there was utter stillness. This was meant to be a somber occasion.
Taking the stage next was James, the director of the program, an athletic-looking man whose youthful countenance was belied by his gray temples. As the director paced, the auditorium grew tense. He spoke in a low tone that felt menacing. Gold Teeth and two of his peers were led onstage. The three of them stood, stoop-shouldered, staring at their shoes, like sinners in church. Of all the client jobs, these men’s had been the highest positions of authority. I was shocked to see them singled out like this.
James went on about clients breaking the rules. He was coy about specifics. It became clear he wanted the specifics from us. Looking across the seats, I saw mostly teenagers and young men, crackheads from some of the worst neighborhoods in New York City.
Good luck, I thought.
Next James called a young man in baggy jeans and hooded jacket on stage. This boy had been remanded to treatment by the courts with a significant amount of jail time hanging in the balance. He seemed oddly pleased by this fact, as if it lent him a stature he might not otherwise have been able to attain. In group, he liked to refer to himself—proudly and with no irony—as a predicate felon. “Yo, I’m a predicate felon.”
I found him arrogant and disagreeable but could see the fear in his eyes and felt bad for him now. He was shaking his head, denying any wrongdoing.
“Get your shit,” James told him, “and get the fuck out.”
“What that mean?” Predicate Felon’s voice filled with emotion. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand?” James snorted. “Well, okay. Let’s break it down. ‘Get your shit’ mean, go upstairs and get your stuff.” James paused. Speaking directly into the microphone, he said: “‘Get the fuck out,’ mean ‘Get the fuck out.’”
His amplified voice echoed from the walls.
Predicate Felon’s shoulders slumped.
Turning his attention from the boy, James addressed the crowd. He wanted us to tell on ourselves, tell on our friends, and tell on one another. James wanted this information now.
For the rest of the day a parade of counselors appeared on stage, alone or sometimes in pairs. They alternated between cursing and berating us, or making impassioned pleas for us to discuss any rule infractions we might know of. I didn’t mind the cursing, but by the time evening came, the pleas were taking their toll. Something about the soothing promise of redemption and the measured cadence of the counselor’s arguments put me on edge.
People were beginning to crack.
One by one they raised their hands, like churchgoers making an altar call, and were led out by counselors to the administrative wing. I saw Mike briefly at dinner, but we weren’t allowed to talk.
Gold Teeth split, storming off the stage late evening on day two. Others slipped out during the night. A quiet desperation seemed to settle over everyone, even the counselors whose curses and taunts now rang softly in our ears. Sometimes they let us sit in the auditorium for hours in silence.
After dinner the third day, Ramon led me and half a dozen other new people to the administrative wing. Ramon started in on his plea for information. Halfway through his spiel, Ramon began pacing the hall in front of us as he spoke. He seemed exasperated. I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I would tell about the porn magazine.
I raised my hand.
“You fucking guys are all brand new—,” Ramon said.
I waved my hand.
“You haven’t been here long enough to know shit.” He ran his hand over the shiny skin of his head.
Ramon looked at me with bloodshot eyes. He chuckled with a derisive snort. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
I lowered my hand.
“What the fuck?” He hiked his pants. “What do you want?”
Tongue tied, I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing. Rockford was a madhouse—of this much I was certain. In my desperation to avoid jail and get into treatment, I had signed on at an asylum.
* * *
Days after the lockdown ended, I piled into a van with Mike and a few others to go downtown to a public clinic for physicals and blood tests, a standard procedure for all new clients.
We drove into Manhattan and were dropped off in a public park nearby the clinic to wait for it to open. Homeless people wandered the park in the early morning light: some rooted through trash, while others pushed carts, or rested on sodden sheets of cardboard laid on the bare, wet ground.
“What’s up with all these hobos?” I asked. “They’re all over the place.”
Mike cut his eyes at me and scowled.
“No seriously,” I asked. “Why does New York have so many hobos?”
“Stop saying hobo, motherfucker,” Mike said. He was sitting on the back of a park bench, with his feet on the seat. He blew into his cupped hands for warmth and then looked at me pointedly. “Wasn’t you in the homeless shelter?”
“Yep,” I grinned. “I was a hobo my damn self.”
Mike snorted and shook his head.
“They ain’t hobos, man. They homeless people,” he said. He sounded irritated. He looked wistfully at the locked door of the clinic. “They got homeless people in Pennsylvania, too,” he added. “They all over.”
A pigeon fluttered down, landing on the concrete sidewalk. I watched it peck for crumbs as I shifted my weight from foot to foot. Hugging my crossed arms to my chest, I watched my breath turn to steam.
For a while, no one said anything. The pigeons cooed.
“If I got thrown out of the house,” I said, almost in a whisper. “I just slept on the couch over at Bud’s, or sometimes up at Mary and Frank’s…”.
* * *
In late February, I took the train back to Pennsylvania alone, to appear in court. Arriving in Harrisburg on Sunday afternoon, I phoned my mother-in-law from the train station. She listened as I asked to speak to her daughter, and then without saying a word to me, she cupped the receiver with her hand. I heard muffled voices and seconds later Maryanne answered.
“Can I see Joey?” I asked. “I’m only in town for the night.”
She told me she was staying with Jack now, and that I was welcome to come and see Joey, but that there could be no trouble. She stressed the word trouble.
I took the bus to Jack’s. The sky had gone dark purple, bringing the street lights up. The moon shone. To avoid walking past my mother’s house, I climbed the concrete steps on Fourth and Swatara. Bethlehem Steel’s dark stacks loomed even darker in silhouette against the night sky—straight and hard, like the cold iron bars of a prison cell. From Jack’s front porch, I could see my mother’s house and her car parked in the vacant lot up the street.
I wasn’t welcome there.
At the door, Jack smiled and waved me inside. Joey came storming out of the dining room, screaming in delight. I had only enough time to drop my bag and make some hurried hellos, before he dragged me into the dining room to show me his birthday toys. Jack came into the dining room. He was about 32, five years older than me, with a deep voice, working-man hands, and blonde hair in a crew cut.
Joey’s blue eyes sparkled. The dining room floor was littered with toy cars and trucks. He sat across the room from Jack and me, and waved vaguely in our direction. “Dad! Dad! Hand me that car.”
I held up a little blue 69’ Camaro. “This?” I asked.
“No!” Joey happily shook his shorn head. “My other Dad.” Jack rolled a Ford wagon over to Joey, who grinned ear-to-ear, and sent it roaring down the plastic track. With his light coloration, I noted ruefully that Joey looked more like Jack’s son than he did mine.
Maryanne came down from upstairs, asked if I were hungry, and then darted into the kitchen. Jack wandered into the living room to watch TV. I followed Maryanne into the kitchen. She stood at the countertop, deftly assembling a sandwich. Thin, blonde, determined. Sandwich made, she turned from her task, shoved the plate into my hands and immediately headed for the other room.
“Wait, Mary—” I said. I was whispering and not even sure why.
“What,” Maryanne asked impatiently, her voice flat. She looked up at me with one eyebrow raised. There was an awkward pause, which I didn’t know how to fill.
“He calls him Dad?” I asked.
“Tim,” Maryanne said. “I do not want to hear the shit.”
She tilted her head sweetly, and then left me standing in Jack’s kitchen with a bologna sandwich and some potato chips.
I went into the dining room and raced cars with Joey. Later on, he showed me his room, with which he seemed delighted. Too soon, it was time for me to go. Maryanne asked if I were going across the street to visit my mother.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “No.”
“You should go,” Maryanne said. “She wants to see you.”
“Doubtful,” I mumbled.
“No. I called her,” Maryanne said. “She definitely wants to see you.”
“You called her?” My voice rose. Having someone else make the call for me hadn’t even occurred to me, but knowing Maryanne had called seemed somehow unimaginable—Maryanne and my mom had never been close.
“What did she say?” I asked, alarmed.
Maryanne slowly enunciated: “She said . . . she wants . . . to see you.”
Her consideration felt good, but her confidence that my mother wanted to see me left me feeling awkward, uncomfortable. At a loss for words, I hugged Joey, grabbed my bag, and made for the door.
“Thanks,” I said.
Maryanne waved her hand, dismissing her kindness.
Joey howled with disappointment.
Across the street, I tapped on my mother’s front door. After a few minutes, the curtain was pulled back. Mom; small, worn. A tight little knot of worry. Opening the door, she looked me up and down. Her hair was different now, short.
“Leave that there,” she said, indicating my bag. “No one will mess with it.”
I dropped the bag and followed her inside. One of my younger brothers was on the floor of the living room, watching TV. Someone else was in the kitchen, but I couldn’t tell who. I was about to sit on the couch, but Mom indicated a kitchen chair she had dragged into the middle of the living room.
I felt uncomfortable and started to talk. Yammer, really. I told her about the weather in New York, how big Joey was, the furniture in Jack’s living room. Once I started, I didn’t dare stop. As I went on, I realized Mom was clutching her purse to her chest. This astonished me. I had never seen her act with such undisguised caution. One time when I still lived here, I had overheard her tell my younger brother that she thought I might be Satan. Not that I was possessed, but that I was actually Satan. “He goes through locked doors,” she’d said, her voice desperate, edgy.
“Okay,” Mom was saying, glancing at her watch. “You better go.”
My throat was dry from talking. About fifteen minutes had passed. More than anything, I felt relieved it was over. On the front porch, she wished me luck and gave me a quick hug, which surprised me.
“Write,” she said.
I was staying in a room over the Alva Restaurant, right next door to the train station, within walking distance of the court house. The kind of room prostitutes and their johns used by the hour. After my guilty plea was entered, I was duly remanded to treatment. I vaguely considered not going back to New York City, but the idea of staying near home gave me a bad feeling.
On the train ride back to Manhattan, I wondered about the unexpected visit with my mother. She’d asked me to write. Me. Write her.
I resolved I would.