Stranger Danger

As a child, I had stranger danger.  That acute awareness of an adult that emitted a sense of caution; knowing that something about someone I didn’t know…or didn’t know well…just wasn’t quite right.  I don’t know when I acquired it; maybe it was somewhere in my 80’s childhood, growing up in a working-class offshoot of Detroit, amidst the amplified ravages of the Crack Era, supplemented by a declining auto industry.  All I know is, by the time a middle aged man first stopped his car next to me as I was walking from a friend’s house at the age of ten, telling me that I was cute and offering a ride, I instinctively knew to walk faster and not engage him, or him, or the many other hims that followed. It was one of the unfortunate survival instincts you learn when you grow up in a not-so-safe environment, one of the few pebbles in my development that I am appreciative of.

 

My own kiddos have not lived in the same type of milieu.  Sure, we’ve not lived among mansions, or even McMansions, but my kids are growing up in the 21st Century.  Faces are crammed into electronic devices, not falling into pillows of green grass. Neighbors are isolated from each other; hell, my daughter and I lived in an apartment complex for seven years, and never even knew the names of the people living on either side of is.  Of course, I instilled in my kids the adage, “Don’t talk to strangers”, but because they are rarely out of my sight, they’ve not had much opportunity to practice its use.  What my kids do have, however, is a recognition of boundaries with adults they don’t know.  I taught them to have ownership of their bodies from infancy; they were never forced to hug or kiss ANYONE.  If an adult is offended, oh fucking well, the adult will just have to get over it.  It’s ridiculous to expect brand new humans to decipher a touch in one place that makes them feel uncomfortable, as opposed to a touch in another place that makes them feel uncomfortable, just because the giver of said touch happens to know their mama from way back.  Besides, I know from personal experience that it only takes one second, one fleeting moment of distraction, to destroy a child’s innocence forever.  Not on my watch.  Perhaps, I naively assumed that most parents felt the same. On the metro train the other day, I found out that I was wrong.

 

Some young cats boarded the Green Line at L’Enfant Circle; skinny dudes with dreads and bandanas.  I’d seen them before; the “host” of the group introduced them as an aspiring dance troupe, trying to raise money to compete on “So You Think You Can Dance”.  They began their short routine, miraculously in a small space given the crowdedness of a rush hour train. One pop-locked in circles; the other artfully contorted his double-jointed arms and legs to the point of entertaining dismay.  I watched for a split second, then turned back to my game of iPhone Solitaire.  I couldn’t knock their hustle, but I wasn’t getting paid for another week, and a sister doesn’t carry cash. As I dragged an ace to the top row with my index finger, I heard a loud, booming voice from the door; an oversized bear of a man was shouting, clapping and cheering the dancers on.  Mind you, they were on the OTHER SIDE OF THE TRAIN, and this brother’s voice carried. Mm-kay, I thought, he’s really enthusiastic about this-here impromptu show. Maybe he doesn’t get out much.  A moment later, I noticed a little brown girl of around nine, braids unloosened to exhibit textured ponytails, stand up away from her mother to get a closer look at the dancers.  As she’d entered the train one stop before, I heard her comment to her mom that she’d also wanted to dance like the guys for money. With sniper-like precision, the loud man’s focus pinpointed straight to the little girl.  The little girl who, at this point was closer to him than she was to her mom.  The hairs on my nape stood up, as the mama in me analyzed the level of safety around her.  “Come on Mama,” Big Dude boomed. “Let the little girl dance!” My discomfort with the scenario grew as the mother smiled and said nothing, and Big Dude began to talk directly to the little girl. “Aw Baby, don’t worry.  Your mama’s been drinking some haterade this morning.  Go ‘head and dance, baby!”  And it was in that moment, that I prayed to all of the Baby Jesuses of every nationality that this little girl had sufficient amounts of stranger danger in her blood.  Enough to know that something was amiss about this big, adult man zeroing in on her and encouraging her to dance for him.  But she didn’t.  Little Girl ate up the attention.  And began to dance.  Mere inches from my face, this little girl started to milly-rock, drop it like it’s hot, swivel her hips and purse her lips, all to the glee of this Big Ass Dude who continued to spur her on.  This went on for several tense, disconcerting train stops, as the mama smiled sheepishly and occasional uncomfortable snickers filled the crowded air.  I glanced at the mama, trying to Jedi-Mindtrick the message: PLEASE STOP HER. THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE AIN’T COOL. Hell, I’m not for the cursing at of any child, but a well-placed “Sit your little ass down” would have been fitting at that moment. But instead, the mother did nothing.  Little Girl continued to dance with more and more fervor. And with every bounce of her behind, the giddiness of Big Dude increased.  By the time he was ready to get off the train, he knew that in another place, he could have gotten away with a lot more.  And that the rest of us were on to his game  His parting words were, “All these fucking haters ain’t gonna support this little girl dancing.  Y’all some fucking haters” as he pulled a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and beckoned the girl over to him to receive it.  And her mother let her.  Moments later, I heard her mother ask the little girl how much the man had given her.  Apparently, that was of utmost importance to her.  

 

After she and her mom exited the train, I remained, dumbfounded for several minutes.  Why did this mother let that happen? What became of her instinctual warrior blood, willing to be shed to protect her baby?  And why was Little Girl so comfortable performing for this strange man?  Was this the norm?  I had to ask the woman next to me if she also felt uncomfortable.  She not only affirmed that she did, but several other people on the train chimed in as well. I wondered, what would have happened if I spoke up?  I suppose I would have gotten a cuss out and a warning to mind my damn business. Someone once told me, roots grow in the ground before they shoot up. Perhaps it would have been worth it to plant that painful seed in the mother’s heart.

 

The event on the train brought to mind the unfortunate case of Relisha Rudd, an 8 year old girl living in a DC shelter with her family who was given over to a relative stranger, a custodian at the shelter who had befriended the family.  Relisha was allegedly allowed to travel with the custodian. Relisha’s disappearance was not reported for several weeks, until a staff member at her school finally took action and called the authorities.  A staff member at her school–not her family.  Weeks later, video footage was found of Relisha accompanying the custodian into a hotel room.  The custodian’s wife was found shot dead, and soon after, the custodian was found in a D.C. park, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.  Relisha Rudd, three years later, has never been found.  

 

In the age of reality shows, social media, Cash Me Outside Girls and teen moms earning six figures to share their tales on television, it’s hard to maintain the sanctity of children’s innocence. But in this ever-corroding society, it’s one of the last, precious, perfect things we have left.  The ability to allow children to remain children for as long as possible.  To fall and laugh and play in the assurance that there are adults surrounding them, protecting their multi-colored worlds from all hurt, harm and danger.  From leering eyes. From hands moved down to low on their backs. From indecent suggestions in their ears.  

 

My daughter will be eighteen years old in seven months.  As God is my witness, I will protect every last minute of her childhood with my very being.  No one has the right to take it away.  And I don’t have the right to allow someone to take it.

 

   

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Got Any Friends?

A while ago, I was talking to an associate of mine, another single mother.  I was poo-pooing my significant drop in salary (after six months out of work and at least 300 job applications,  I took the first thing that batted its FICA-filled eyes at me).  By virtue of our relationship, I am privy to know how much she makes.  Anyone who has lived in the DMV can give testament to the fact that the mere thought of the cost of living here should cause anyone to break out in hives.  And yet, this young woman who makes less than me, whose salary barely covers her rent, proceeded to share how she lives in an affluent part of Maryland, will soon be moving to an even more expensive apartment, has put a son through private school, has another child in college, goes on trips, buys clothes, etc. Ad nauseum…     Never meeting a subject I wasn’t afraid to broach, I felt compelled to ask the woman: how do you do it?

With a nod of her head and a twinkle in her eye, she stated proudly, “Well girl, I’ve got friends.”

“Friends?”  I asked naively.

“Yeah.  Friends that look out for me.”

“Oh…” I confirmed knowingly. “Must be nice to have….friends.”

Her friends are so proficient at looking out for her, that her salary from work  merely supplements the….gifts? Er, love offerings….earnings ….proceeds?… she gets from her “friends”.  She didn’t go into detail about what she herself contributes to her many friendships, but it was clear that for at least one, she simply acted as a…friend.  No really, as in a buddy…someone to talk to, hang out with, maybe grab a bite to eat with.

And it was in that moment that a decades long mystery (at least, a mystery to me) began to unfold.  I’ve often wondered, how do these women not only take care of their children, but live with relative ease and comfort?  In my dispensation as a single mom, I have never had a time when I was not living paycheck to paycheck, even when I was making $25K more and was in the exclusive “middle class” club.  Unfortunately, I had only one major take-away from my time in middle class:  you get to make just enough…to be broke.

So now I realize how so many women in my position are able to not only survive, but thrive in the midst of a economic and job wasteland:

As I watched the mother of 9+ children drop at least four off at the inner-city school in which I taught in Southeast DC, only to go somewhere, anywhere other than a job….

As I waved hello to the neighbor who lived in the same crappy apartment complex as mine while parking her Cadillac Escalade….

The solution:  you gotta have friends!

Which then led me to self-ask:  have I ever had any potential friends?

I recall many years ago, when I was fresh out of college and a newbie transplant to Baltimore, that I asked my circle of friends if they had any nice, or cute, or sane friends.  But that was more so I didn’t have to face another Friday night alone looking at the corners of my one bedroom apartment, a stack of unchecked Spanish quizzes,  and whatever was being offered on public television.  I got a few free dinners, but no one who even so much as offered to pay the laughably minute car note on my 1996 Ford Escort!

A few years ago, a guy I was dating sort of offered to be my “friend”…as long as I married him so that he could stay in the country.  And all for the bargain basement price of FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!  When it was clear that the amount wasn’t elevating my level of interest, he offered to be my extended friend, throwing in the bonus of a huge 4 level single family home in Mitchelville, a Mercedes truck and all the disposable cash I could handle.  After some consideration (truthfully, I did consider it), I concluded that the amount of deception required of me AND my then five year old daughter was not worth all the marble counter tops in the world.  Thus, on the little folded note asking if I would be his friend, I circled “no”.

But, again, I return to the question: why have I, a charming, sensitive, quirky, intelligent, mildly attractive woman, not been approached by more men to be my “friend”?  Am I putting out some vibe that has told men not to “try it” with me?  Am I not with-it enough?  Am I not cute enough?  WHAT’S WRONG WITH  ME?!?!?

(Sorry, momentary path back in time to a less secure version of me.  The confident version of me is back.  Again, my apologies).

For the past 2 years, my mom has been begging me to move back home, get some “little job” and use her as a “friend”, rent-free.  And using her it would be.   My dear, sweet, misinformed mother has the illusion that Michigan is the land of opportunity.  Anyone can get a job there!  Unbeknownest to her, I don’t just come with two kids, but at least $1000 in monthly bills, sans rent.  So I think I’ll keep our friendship to the daily calls in which she interrogates me for answering the phone on the third as opposed to the first ring.

And yet, I ponder, how does one get someone to be a “friend”, particularly without the obviously assumed benefits? Do we really have a sample population of people so lonely, that they are willing to financially provide for someone, solely based on the hope of something more?  A hope, that may never be fulfilled?

And how exactly does one qualify to get one of these friends? Is there a telepathic application that you fill out during your first few meetings?  If the converse contribution to the friendship isn’t sex, is there always a fear that one day, you’re going to have to pay up?  Is there a designated length of contract…or can one lose their friend and the financial benefits…terminated without cause?

When it’s all said and done, I think I may be way too proud to give myself willfully to such an unstructured relationship.  The eerie thought that I would have no control over the amount of the benefits, or when/if they would end, or how I would have to pay for the benefit (and ladies, we always have to pay it back…eventually), is too overwhelming for my highly-sensitive little soul.  Besides, I hate owing ANYONE ANYTHING.  But I would never stand in judgment of the single mothers who, I am confident, do what they must to make sure their babies are cared for.  To an almost Malcolmian extent-by any means necessary.

The reality, as far as I can see it, is that there are few folk who are able to survive in 2013 without some form of “friendship”.  Whether it be government assistance, or family support, or even a friend (fine, a sugar daddy-there, I said it), when the average median household is just over $50,000, and 46.2 Americans live below the poverty line (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/us-poverty-census_n_1877197.html), it would be foolish for anyone to assume that we can get by without a little “help from our friends”.  And it’s downright insulting to be browbeaten by politicians and corporations for needing it.

Then there are the kindly folks who read my first entry into Poverty Chronicles and reached out to me to ask if they could help in my time of need.   Folks who cast angel wings in their shadows.  Friends who cry over me, check up on me, pray for me.  These are the kinds of friends I don’t mind having.  I can sleep at night with these kinds of friends.  They take “friends with benefits” to a whole new meaning.

So maybe tonight, when you pull out that last packet of ramen, you might find yourself looking in the mirror and asking yourself:

Got any friends?

Friends Pic

The Food Stamp Chronicles #1

Today was the day I have been looking forward to for the past nine days.  The day when, for just one second, I could cautiously exhale.

The 12th of each month is when my food stamp allowance is uploaded onto my card.

We’ve been avoiding the grocery store for the last nine days, since last month’s balance hit -0-.  I’ve become skilled at making masterpieces out of what’s in that dusty can in the back of the cupboard–it helps that I’m a trained chef–and, besides, all one really needs is water, a can of tomatoes, and a few noodles of spaghetti to make a culinary delight.  At least, that’s what I tell myself when I must place it in front of my family for dinner.

So thus, the 12th of each month almost feels like Christmas.  It’s the day when I can feel like every other mom, grocery shopping with my toddler in the cart, happily gabbing about nothing as I casually walk through the aisles.  I’m walking as though I can purchase what I want; I can even drop a random item in the cart with arrogant nonchalance. Silently masking the hidden reality that has already set in–how will I make this $211 feed my family for an entire month?

And so, on the morning of the 12th, I go to work, feverishly scouring through the grocery advertisements for the best deals.  I carefully plan my weekly menu around what’s on sale. It’s been a while since we’ve bought groceries, so there’s a bit more to get than the last time.  After a well-planned 54 minute shopping trip, I place my numerous items on the belt.  I feel the familiar anxiety, but say a prayer of thanks to the Almighty for providing in spite of my situation.  I offer my savings card to the cashier to scan.  Better than sex is seeing a grocery bill total slowing diminish by 20, 30 or even 40 percent as a result of my deal-snatching skills.  $100….$95.45….$82.37….$75.28….your total is $68.99. I look around with pride as the other customers admire my skills as well.  I consider offering my deal-snatching skills as a side-hustle–I’m sure there are countless others struggling just like me–but first things first.  I quickly retrieve and swipe my EBT card (I know I’ve been paying into the system with income taxes for the past 20 years, but somehow, that embarrassment is hard-wired)…..only to be told that I have no balance.  This can’t be!  I excuse myself to call the toll-free “customer service” number. 

Jackie (or whatever the automated chick’s name is), informs: “If your name starts with M,N, or 0,  your funds will be uploaded on the 11th of each month.  If P,Q,or R, on the 12th.  If S or T, on the 13th.…”

I’ve heard enough.  Five months of getting food stamps, and I had always received them on the 12th.  And now, (I assume) due to the increase of those receiving them, they changed the dates. 

And that’s what poverty feels like.  It feels like not being given the dignity of being told in a letter that your date of receipt had changed.

It’s the confusion as to whether you should pay with money you don’t have, or put the food back for tomorrow.

It’s the embarrassment you feel when you realize that you have no choice but to leave a cart full of food at the check out aisle.

It’s the indignation of the store manager who refuses to acknowledge you when you apologize.

It’s the sadness and guilt of coming home with no food.

It’s the tears that want to well up at seemingly having no control over your situation.

Yeah, poverty is one ugly P-word.  But it’s in these moments that I remember a more beautiful W-word that I have.

Will.

The will to keep on surviving, to keep perceiving the new thing in the horizon, the will to keep laughing.

And tomorrow, I’ll go to a different Safeway.