My mother was buried on the day after Christmas, 1996. I was 16 and I had been homeless for a few months. There was no money for a proper funeral. There was no priest--just the cemetery workers sitting a few feet away, talking about sports and women, and waiting to put dirt on top of her.
My sister and a friend and I had managed to pull enough money together to take a taxi to the cemetery in upstate New York, an hour away. I remember it was freezing cold. I was wearing an army jacket and old boots with holes in them.
We stood there for about 10 or 15 minutes looking at her coffin, a donated pine box. I saw that her name had been misspelled in Magic Marker on the top. So my friend took out his Magic Marker and wrote her name, Jean, and spelled it right, and wrote, "Beloved Mother, 1954-1996," and drew an angel on it.
This was the lowest point in my life. But I didn't cry. I was thinking too much. At that moment, something in me changed.
My mom's death was a severe reality check. It forced me to re-evaluate what would happen to me if I kept going on the way I was living. I saw that I had a precious window of time in which I could get my life back together, go back to school, and make a success of myself.
And you know what? I did it. But it wasn't easy.
COCAINE, BUT NO FOOD
I grew up with my sister, mother, and father in a poor neighborhood overrun with drugs and crime, in the Bronx, New York City. My parents were cocaine addicts. My mother was also an alcoholic. We never had any food in the house. Everything was filthy and the drugs were everywhere. I used to go into the kitchen and see my parents shooting up cocaine; they didn't try to hide it. I would sit on the window sill, and stare out into the alley.
We had two cats and a dog that no one really walked or fed; you can imagine what the house was like. I had to step over piles of feces crawling with maggots to get to my room.
The welfare checks were spent before they arrived. By the end of the previous month, my mother would have run up a bar tab, and borrowed from everyone she knew. When the check came, the mood in the house was very light, very happy. My mother would listen to her old records, and my father would smile and laugh at her jokes. Then they would run out and get drugs.
I spent a lot of my nights at a 24-hour supermarket, packing groceries for tips, and I brought food home. I also went to self-service gas stations and pumped gas for tips.
My mother would get so desperate, she would sell televisions for $5, and whatever she could get her hands on, including, once, my sister's winter coat, and my sister couldn't go to school the next day. I got teased a lot at school; my clothes smelled bad and I was dirty.
When my parents separated, my mother and sister went to live with my godfather. I stayed behind with my father, but we lost the apartment when the child-welfare authorities realized I wasn't going to school.
I was about 13, and I was put into a city youth facility. I got out when I promised to live with my mother and godfather. But by then, my mother had developed full-blown AIDS, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. When she was hospitalized, I didn't feel comfortable living with my godfather anymore. I took just about everything I could squeeze into a backpack, all the money I had on me at the time, which wasn't much, and, at age 15, headed out on my own.
I slept at friends' houses for awhile, on couches or floors. I would clean house to earn the right to be there, but I would hear whispered conversations about me. I felt like I was constantly inconveniencing everybody.
When I couldn't sleep at someone's house, I slept on park benches, or on the subway. If it was cold, I rode the trains all night long, or slept in an apartment hallway. There would be days, sometimes a week or two, without showering. There was endless, endless walking. Never a moment to rest. You learn to sleep anywhere. Sometimes I cleaned up in the bathroom at a doughnut shop.
One of the hardest things, when I was panhandling, was when the middle-class kids would stare at me and snicker under their breath, or count their mall money in front of me. Sometimes, somebody would leave a dollar and smile, walking away, knowing they had done a good deed.
When my mother died, I decided to go back to high school. My father, who also has AIDS, was living in a men's shelter. I brought him to the school so I could convince them I had somewhere to live. I was sitting outside the interview room and repeating a friend's address and phone number over and over to my father, so he would know it when they asked. I didn't want to go back into a city youth facility.
I studied all the time, anywhere I could--school hallways, libraries, stair-wells in apartment buildings. I was still homeless, but I finally had a way to show what I could do, and transform everything inside of me into something useful.
I doubled my course load, and finished high school in two years, acing many of my classes. My senior year, I got a part-time job, and was able to save enough to share an apartment. I won a college scholarship, and decided not only that I wanted to go to college, but that I wanted to go to Harvard. I knew that it represented all the opportunity in the world. So much had been denied me in the past, and if I could help it, I didn't want any doors closed in the future.
A LETTER ARRIVES
In June, I got a letter from Harvard. I was accepted for next fall. I just started screaming and screaming, "I'm going to Harvard! I'm going to Harvard!" and charging around from room to room, and made like 40 phone calls to all my friends, and screamed until my throat was sore.
Now I'm 19, working as a clerk at The Times. My sister lives nearby and works as a receptionist. My father kicked drugs two and a half years ago, and has his own apartment.
I'm not angry with my parents. They cared very much about me, and I loved them back. They were addicts since before both my sister and I were born, and probably should have never had kids. I'm grateful to them. They taught me things--they showed me which way not to go.
But I also have good memories. I remember my mother coming into my bedroom at night, tucking me into bed. I remember her singing. If I could tell her anything today, I'd say: "Don't worry about me anymore. I'm gonna be fine, and thank you for everything. And I love you."
WHO ARE THE HOMELESS?
No one knows precisely how many Americans are homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 750,000 Americans are homeless on any given night, and close to 2 million are homeless during the course of a year.
Federal officials recently issued a report on who these people are and where they come from, based on surveys of men and women served by shelters, soup kitchens, and other programs. Here are some of the report's key findings.
Elizabeth Murray is a winner of The New York Times College Scholarship, a program that rewards New York City high school graduates who have achieved academic success despite great odds. For more information about the program, visit www.nytimes.com/learning/students/scholarship or call (212) 556-1585.
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|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2000|
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