As I was walking in the upscale, gracious neighborhood, I heard what could have been gunshots. A dog barked, the traffic din continued as usual, and in the deepening dark I found myself taken back to a time when I worked with at-risk youth. At-risk translates into this: addicted, often abandoned, homeless and profoundly abused children ages twelve-eighteen. It had not been a job I expected to be offered or to take.
It had been a huge risk leaving the Detroit suburbs for an unknown future in Portland. The difficulty of finding a new job comparable to the one I had left was a harsh awakening. I had enjoyed the diversity of skills needed as manager of a home care department at a older adult services center. My caseload had been on average three hundred and fifty mostly homebound, impaired adults. I hired and supervised up to one hundred fifty employees who provided personal care to folks. One thing I particularly liked was counseling individuals, compromised by illnesses or brain trauma, and their families, often in worsening situations. Many of the people I worked with had developed alcohol or prescription drug problems, something I knew about as a recovering person.
I’d had confidence in my work and I enjoyed it. But the employment I found in Portland was not what I had planned.
When I sent my resume for a position at an inpatient rehabilitation center for youth, I did so out of real interest but primarily a need for a job. When I was hired I was stunned. And what I discovered the next four and a half years is that I had stumbled into a calling. Helping addicted and traumatized persons find healing and healthier skills in sobriety has been a passionate commitment. But in Detroit metro I wore dresses and high heels, had a nice little office with a fair amount of authority. In Portland, I gradually came to wear jeans and boots. I faced the new clients with a naïve optimism that was met with raised eyebrows and, more often than not, sneers. Not gratitude. Still, I was all in.
So, as I recently walked after the gunshot rang out in the city streets, I recalled those times, as well as a poem I had written when working with the demanding, insightful, unloved and courageous youth. I offer it here since it is a prose poem, a story of one young woman who granted me a little trust after a few months. She was a strong girl, tall and striking with multiracial coloring, untamed Afro, and golden eyes that told me stories when she would not speak. She had made progress with her addictive thinking and ghosts of the past. Or so I thought. Ever since then, nearly twenty years ago, I have wondered where life took her. Or her, it. What do we really know of these youth? Times were tough then; they are so much harder now. I came to love these kids, and she was exceptional in many ways. But did she even survive?
After an A.A. meeting, we are simply
driving down the street,
dense shadows settling like
benign fall-out, bits and pieces of the
city’s life transformed by twilight’s
The van I drive is swaying with talk and sighs,
gossip skipping over seats and back again,
a longing for chocolate broadcast in lieu
of forbidden hungers for needle and pipe,
bottle and line.
Frail hopes of home are muffled by
The street is nearly empty, no one is at war
and someone behind me starts humming.
So when I see you at the edge
of my eye, I am not prepared.
You are a wildling,
have drawn an invisible gun,
A .22 you murmur,
and are shooting out the street lamps,
aiming at bland storefronts,
methodically making choices:
skip that, this is history,
the bar has got to go,
and your left hand shields your eyes
from rainbow-brilliant lights
that beckon passersby.
I speak your name once, twice.
It floods the small space between us,
vanishes like vapor.
You are moving in slow-motion,
a graceful mime, the sound of
gossamer bullets dropping from your lips.
I call louder and think you hear me
for you nod and pause, alert.
Behind us the humming crescendos
into a song but you say to no one:
And now the shotgun and hoist
your specter weapon to your shoulder,
fire at one, two windows
then fall against your seat.
Your face is immutable and fearless;
eyes are hard and sheer as you
gaze into the sudden rain.
Lost in gangsta paradise?
asks one of the girls
and more laughter
floats and tangles
with a soft scream of tires
as I round the corner, followed by
a steady beat of hands clapping and
the chorus of an old Dead tune.
Finally we arrive and I park.
You jump from the van
and blend into the jumble of girls.
The rain has stopped. I breathe
the earthen-scented air, scan
the sky for a star.
But you break away, stride to the center
of the parking lot, take exacting
aim once more.
Five cars are lined up
against a brick wall and you shoot
every one, and each is given
a name, those who forgot and left you,
humiliated, betrayed and forsook you
too many unspeakable times.
I walk towards you in silence,
then stop as
you swing around
point your ghost weapon
right at my chest, eyes aflame
then frown, drop it, hands raised.
Your head droops, disconsolate,
a beautiful sunflower grown too fast
for the strength of its stem.
You run to me, pat my
upturned palms twice,
blink and smile, walk out
of darkness and though bright doors,
to hurry in to the warmth.
I press my heart quiet.
It is finished, your fevered pain,
the dominion of terror,
emptied now of its heat,
of searing yet unseen tears.