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The boy is stuck in something like hell. He is six years old and covered in small red bites from chinches—bedbugs—and he is woefully skinny due to an unchecked case of ringworm. He is so hungry his stomach hurts, but then being hungry is nothing new to him. When he was two years old the pangs got so bad he rooted through the trash and ate rat droppings and had to have his stomach pumped. He is staying in his father’s cramped, filthy apartment in a desolate stretch of Brooklyn, sleeping with stepbrothers who wet the bed, surviving in a place that smells like death. He has not seen his mother in three months, and he doesn’t know why. His world is a world of drugs and violence and unrelenting chaos, and he has the wisdom to know, even at six, that if something does not change for him soon, he might not make it.
He does not pray, does not know how, but he thinks, Please don’t let my father let me die. And this thought, in a way, is its own little prayer.
And then the boy sees his father come up the block, and the woman with the hammer sees him too, and she screams, “Junebug, where is my son?!”
The boy recognizes this voice, and he says, “Mom?”
The woman with the hammer looks down at the boy, and she looks puzzled, until she looks harder and finally says, “Maurice?”
The boy didn’t recognize his mother because her teeth had fallen out from smoking dope.
The mother didn’t recognize her son because he was shriveled from the ringworm.
Now she is chasing Junebug and yelling, “Look what you did to my baby!”
The boy should be frightened, or confused, but more than anything what the boy feels is happiness. He is happy that his mother has come back to get him, and because of that he is not going to die—at least not now, at least not in this place.
He will remember this as the moment when he knew his mother loved him.
© 2011 Laura Schroff
“Excuse me, lady, do you have any spare change?”
This was the first thing he said to me, on 56th Street in New York City, right around the corner from Broadway, on a sunny September day.
And when I heard him, I didn’t really hear him. His words were part of the clatter, like a car horn or someone yelling for a cab. They were, you could say, just noise—the kind of nuisance New Yorkers learn to tune out. So I walked right by him, as if he wasn’t there.
But then, just a few yards past him, I stopped.
And then—and I’m still not sure why I did this—I came back.
I came back and I looked at him, and I realized he was just a boy. Earlier, out of the corner of my eye, I had noticed he was young. But now, looking at him, I saw that he was a child—tiny body, sticks for arms, big round eyes. He wore a burgundy sweatshirt that was smudged and frayed and ratty burgundy sweatpants to match. He had scuffed white sneakers with untied laces, and his fingernails were dirty. But his eyes were bright and there was a general sweetness about him. He was, I would soon learn, eleven years old.
He stretched his palm toward me, and he asked again, “Excuse me, lady, do you have any spare change? I am hungry.”
What I said in response may have surprised him, but it really shocked me.
“If you’re hungry,” I said, “I’ll take you to McDonald’s and buy you lunch.”
“Can I have a cheeseburger?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“How about a Big Mac?”
“That’s okay, too.”
“How about a Diet Coke?”
“Yes, that’s okay.”
“Well, how about a thick chocolate shake and French fries?”
I told him he could have anything he wanted. And then I asked him if I could join him for lunch.
He thought about it for a second.
“Sure,” he finally said.
We had lunch together that day, at McDonald’s.
And after that, we got together every Monday.
For the next 150 Mondays.
His name is Maurice, and he changed my life.
Why did I stop and go back to Maurice? It is easier for me to tell you why I ignored him in the first place. I ignored him, very simply, because he wasn’t in my schedule.
You see, I am a woman whose life runs on schedules. I make appointments, I fill slots, I micromanage the clock. I bounce around from meeting to meeting, ticking things off a list. I am not merely punctual; I am fifteen minutes early for any and every engagement. This is how I live; it is who I am—but some things in life do not fit neatly into a schedule.
Rain, for example. On the day I met Maurice—September 1, 1986—a huge storm swept over the city, and I awoke to darkness and hammering rain. It was Labor Day weekend and the summer was slipping away, but I had tickets to the U.S. Open tennis tournament that afternoon—box seats, three rows from center court. I wasn’t a big tennis fan, but I loved having such great seats; to me, the tickets were tangible evidence of how successful I’d become. In 1986 I was thirty-five years old and an advertising sales executive for USA Today, and I was very good at what I did, which was building relationships through sheer force of personality. Maybe I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be in my life—after all, I was still single, and another summer had come and gone without me finding that someone special—but by any standard I was doing pretty well. Taking clients to the Open and sitting courtside for free was just another measure of how far this girl from a working-class Long Island town had come.
But then the rains washed out the day, and by noon the Open had been postponed. I puttered around my apartment, tidied up a bit, made some calls, and read the paper until the rain finally let up in mid-afternoon. I grabbed a sweater and dashed out for a walk. I may not have had a destination, but I had a definite purpose—to enjoy the fall chill in the air and the peeking sun on my face, to get a little exercise, to say good-bye to summer. Stopping was never part of the plan.
And so, when Maurice spoke to me, I just kept going. Another thing to remember is that this was New York in the 1980s, a time when vagrants and panhandlers were as common a sight in the city as kids on bikes or moms with strollers. The nation was enjoying an economic boom, and on Wall Street new millionaires were minted every day. But the flip side was a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and nowhere was this more evident than on the streets of New York City. Whatever wealth was supposed to trickle down to the middle class did not come close to reaching the city’s poorest, most desperate people, and for many of them the only recourse was living on the streets. After a while you got used to the sight of them—hard, gaunt men and sad, haunted women, wearing rags, camped on corners, sleeping on grates, asking for change. It is tough to imagine anyone could see them and not feel deeply moved by their plight. Yet they were just so prevalent that most people made an almost subconscious decision to simply look the other way—to, basically, ignore them. The problem seemed so vast, so endemic, that stopping to help a single panhandler could feel all but pointless. And so we swept past them every day, great waves of us going on with our lives and accepting that there was nothing we could really do to help.
There had been one homeless man I briefly came to know the winter before I met Maurice. His name was Stan, and he lived on the street off Sixth Avenue, not far from my apartment. Stan was a stocky guy in his midforties who owned a pair of wool gloves, a navy blue skullcap, old work shoes, and a few other things stuffed into plastic shopping bags, certainly not any of the simple creature comforts we take for granted—a warm blanket, for instance, or a winter coat. He slept on a subway grate, and the steam from the trains kept him alive.
One day I asked if he’d like a cup of coffee, and he answered that he would, with milk and four sugars, please. And it became part of my routine to bring him a cup of coffee on the way to work. I’d ask Stan how he was doing and I’d wish him good luck, until one morning he was gone and the grate was just a grate again, not Stan’s spot. And just like that he vanished from my life, without a hint of what happened to him. I felt sad that he was no longer there and I often wondered what became of him, but I went on with my life and over time I stopped thinking about Stan. I hate to believe my compassion for him and others like him was a casual thing, but if I’m really honest with myself, I’d have to say that it was. I cared, but I didn’t care enough to make a real change in my life to help. I was not some heroic do-gooder. I learned, like most New Yorkers, to tune out the nuisance.
Then came Maurice. I walked past him to the corner, onto Broadway, and, halfway to the other side in the middle of the avenue, just stopped. I stood there for a few moments, in front of cars waiting for the light to change, until a horn sounded and startled me. I turned around and hustled back to the sidewalk. I don’t remember thinking about it or even making a conscious decision to turn around. I just remember doing it.
Looking back all these years later, I believe there was a strong, unseen connection that pulled me back to Maurice. It’s something I call an invisible thread. It is, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, something that connects two people who are destined to meet, regardless of time and place and circumstance. Some legends call it the red string of fate; others, the thread of destiny. It is, I believe, what brought Maurice and I to the same stretch of sidewalk in a vast, teeming city—just two people out of eight million, somehow connected, somehow meant to be friends.
Look, neither of us is a superhero, nor even especially virtuous. When we met we were just two people with complicated pasts and fragile dreams. But somehow we found each other, and we became friends.
And that, you will see, made all the difference for us both.
© 2011 Laura Schroff
We walked across the avenue to the McDonald’s, and for the first few moments neither of us spoke. This thing we were doing—going to lunch, a couple of strangers, an adult and a child—it was weird, and we both felt it.
Finally, I said, “Hi, I’m Laura.”
“I’m Maurice,” he said.
We got in line and I ordered the meal he’d asked for—Big Mac, fries, thick chocolate shake—and I got the same for myself. We found a table and sat down, and Maurice tore into his food. He’s famished, I thought. Maybe he doesn’t know when he will eat again. It took him just a few minutes to pack it all away. When he was done, he asked where I lived. We were sitting by the side window and could see my apartment building, the Symphony, from our table, so I pointed and said, “Right there.”
“Do you live in a hotel, too?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “it’s an apartment.”
“Like the Jeffersons?”
“Oh, the TV show. Not as big. It’s just a studio. Where do you live?”
He hesitated for a moment before telling me he lived at the Bryant, a welfare hotel on West 54th Street and Broadway.
I couldn’t believe he lived just two blocks from my apartment. One street was all that separated our worlds.
I would later learn that the simple act of telling me where he lived was a leap of faith for Maurice. He was not in the habit of trusting adults, much less white adults. If I had thought about it I might have realized no one had ever stopped to talk to him, or asked him where he lived, or been nice to him, or bought him lunch. Why wouldn’t he be suspicious of me? How could he be sure I wasn’t a Social Services worker trying to take him away from his family? When he went home later and told one of his uncles some woman had taken him to McDonald’s, the uncle said, “She is trying to snatch you. Stay away from her. Stay off that corner, in case she comes back.”
I figured I should tell Maurice something about myself. Part of me felt that taking him to lunch was a good thing to do, but another part wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. After all, he was a child and I was a stranger, and hadn’t children everywhere been taught not to follow strangers? Was I crossing some line here? I imagine some will say what I did was flat-out wrong. All I can say is, in my heart, I believe it was the only thing I could have done in that situation. Still, I understand how people might be skeptical. So I figured if I told him something about myself, I wouldn’t be such a stranger.
“I work at USA Today,” I said.
I could tell he had no idea what that meant. I explained it was a newspaper, and that it was new, and that we were trying to be the first national newspaper in the country. I told him my job was selling advertising, which was how the newspaper paid for itself. None of this cleared things up.
“What do you do all day?” he asked.
Ah, he wanted to know my schedule. I ran through it for him—sales calls, meetings, working lunches, presentations, sometimes client dinners.
“Yes, every day.”
“Do you ever miss a day?”
“If I’m sick,” I said. “But I’m rarely sick.”
“But you never just not do it one day?”
“No, never. That’s my job. And besides, I really like what I do.”
Maurice could barely grasp what I was saying. Only later would I learn that until he got to know me, he had never known anyone with a job.
There was something else I didn’t know about Maurice as I sat across from him that day. I didn’t know that in the pocket of his sweatpants he had a knife.
Not a knife, actually, but a small razor-blade box cutter. He had stolen it from a Duane Reade on Broadway. It was a measure of my inability to fathom his world that I never thought for a single moment he might be carrying a weapon. The idea of a weapon in his delicate little hands was incomprehensible to me. It never dawned on me that he could even use one, much less that he might truly need one to protect himself from the violence that permeated his life.
For a good part of Maurice’s childhood, the greatest harm he faced came from the man who gave him life.
Maurice’s father wasn’t around for very long, but in that short time he was an inordinately damaging presence—an out-of-control buzz saw you couldn’t shut off. He was also named Maurice, after his own absentee dad, but when he was born no one knew how to spell it so he became Morris. It wasn’t long before most people called him Lefty anyway, because, although he was right-handed, it was his left that he used to knock people out.
Morris was just five foot two, but his size only made him tougher, more aggressive, as if he had something to prove every minute of every day. In the notoriously dangerous east Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived—a one-square-mile tract known as Brownsville, birthplace of the nefarious 1940s gang Murder Inc. and later home to some of the roughest street gangs in the country—Morris was one of the most feared men of all.
As a member of the infamous Tomahawks street gang, Morris was a stick-up man, and he was brazenly good at it. He even routinely robbed people he knew. There was a dice game on Howard Avenue—fifteen or twenty people, piles of tens and twenties in a pot—and Morris sometimes liked to play. One night he announced he was robbing the game. Ain’t nobody takin’ nothin’ from me, one man said. Morris hit him once in the face with the butt of his gun and knocked him out, then scooped up several hundred dollars and walked away. No one else said a word. The next day Morris leaned against a car in front of his building, smiling as the very people he had robbed walked by. He was daring them to say something. No one did.
Morris finally met his match in a spark plug named Darcella. Slender and pretty, with light skin and soft features, Darcella was one of eleven children born to Rose, a single mother from Baltimore who moved her family to the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn. Darcella grew up surrounded by brothers and wound up as tough as any of them; she was known to fight anyone who crossed her, male or female, throwing blizzards of punches and never seeming to tire. People weren’t sure if she was crazy or just mean. In her teens she was one of the few female members of the Tomahawks, and she wore the gang’s black leather jacket with pride.
Then she fell for a gang member who impressed her with his swagger. They were never a good match, Morris and Darcella. They were both too explosive, too much like each other, but they became a couple anyway. She called him Junebug, evolved from Junior, since technically he was Maurice, Jr. He called her Red, from Red Bone, a nickname for fair-skinned black women. They had three children, all before Darcella turned twenty. First came two daughters, Celeste and LaToya. And then a son—a boy she named Maurice.
Sadly for Maurice and his sisters, the language his parents understood best was a discourse of violent action, not words. Morris, in particular, was a heavy drug user and an alcoholic, and coke, dope, and Wild Irish Rose easily triggered his rages. When he came home at all, it was to rail at his family with both curses and fists. He would routinely slap his daughters in the head; one time, he hit Celeste so hard he ruptured her eardrum. He would slap and push and punch Darcella with the same ruthless efficiency that terrified everyone in Brownsville, and he would slap and punch Maurice, his only son. When the boy would cry, he would say, “Shut up, punk,” and hit him again.
Morris would disappear for days to be with his girlfriend, Diane, then come home and warn Darcella not to even look at another man. Morris’s infidelity finally pushed her too far, and she packed up her children and found an apartment in the notorious Marcy Projects in Bed-Stuy. A complex of twenty-seven six-story buildings on nearly thirty acres, with some 1,700 apartments housing more than 4,000 people, the Marcy was riddled with drugs and violence, hardly anyone’s idea of a sanctuary. But for Darcella it was a place to escape an even greater threat.
Morris found them anyway. One night he burst into their apartment and demanded to talk to Darcella. “Red, I can’t let you leave me,” he said, crying. “I love you.” With young Maurice watching, Darcella stood her ground.
“I’m not havin’ it,” she said. “You’re no good; get out.”
Morris cocked his left fist and punched Darcella in the face.
She fell to the floor, and Maurice grabbed hold of his father’s leg to stop him from hitting her again. Morris flicked the boy against a wall. That, it turned out, was a mistake: Darcella saw her son on the ground, ran to the kitchen, and came out with a steak knife.
Morris didn’t flinch. It was hardly the first time he’d found himself at the point of a knife. “What you gonna do with that?” he asked.
Darcella lunged toward his chest. His arms came up to defend himself, so she stabbed him in the arms. She stabbed him again and again as he tried to block the blows, and finally he staggered into the hallway and fell, covered in blood, crying, “Red, you stabbed me! You tried to kill me! I don’t believe you did this!”
Maurice, wide-eyed, watched it all. Finally, the police came and asked Morris who had attacked him so savagely.
“Some guys,” is all he said.
And with that, Morris limped away. Maurice, just five years old, watched his father go. His family, as he knew it, was no more.
My first lunch with Maurice was over thirty minutes after it began, but I didn’t want to say good-bye to Maurice just yet. When we stepped out into the street, the sun was bright and strong, so I asked Maurice if he wanted to take a walk in Central Park.
“Okay,” he said with a shrug.
We walked into the south end of the park and strolled along a path toward the Great Lawn. Bicyclists, joggers, mothers and toddlers, laughing teenagers, everyone, it seemed, was carefree. Once again, we didn’t say much; we just walked side by side. I wanted to know more about him and about the circumstances that led him to begging in the street but I held back, because I didn’t want him to think I was snooping around.
I did ask him one thing.
“So, Maurice, what about you? What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I don’t know,” he said without hesitation.
“No? Don’t you ever think about it?”
“No,” he replied flatly.
Maurice didn’t spend his days dreaming of becoming a policeman, or an astronaut, or a shortstop, or the president; he didn’t even know these were dreams most boys have. And even if he could have imagined a life for himself beyond the misery that was his world, what would have been the point of dreaming about that life? There was nothing Maurice wanted to be, because there was no reason to believe he could be anything except what he was—a scrounger, a beggar, a street kid.
In the park there was a brisk fall breeze, leaves fluttered away from trees, and the sun peeked through the giant elms. We seemed a million miles away from the concrete core of the city. I didn’t ask Maurice any more questions. I just let him enjoy this break from his street routine. When we left the park, we passed a HÄagen-Dazs, and I asked him if he wanted some ice cream.
“Can I get a chocolate cone?” he asked.
“You bet,” I said.
I ordered two cones, and when I handed one to him, I saw Maurice smile for the very first time. It was not a big smile, not wide and toothy like you see with most kids. It was quick to appear and just as quick to vanish. But it happened, and I saw it, and it seemed to me like a beautiful, shiny new thing.
When we finished our ice cream I asked, “Is there anything else you want to do?”
“Can we go play video games?”
“Sure we can.” So we walked to an arcade on Broadway. I gave Maurice a few quarters and watched him play Asteroids. He lost himself in the game like any kid would. He jerked the joystick and stuck out his tongue and stood on his toes and made noises as he blew up things with his spaceship missiles. It was fun to watch him play.
Later that day, it occurred to me that buying lunch for Maurice and spending a couple of hours with him had made me feel—at very little expense in time and money—inordinately good. And that, in turn, made me feel guilty. Was the only reason I had stopped and bought him lunch to make myself feel good for a while? Had I, instead of window-shopping or going to a movie, chosen to divert myself by buying Maurice a burger and an ice cream? Was there something inherently patronizing about what I did, something maybe even exploitative?
Help out a poor kid, feel better about your own life?
I didn’t have the answers back then. All I knew was that being with Maurice felt right. We left the arcade and strolled down Broadway, winding up on 56th Street, right where we had met. I opened my purse and handed Maurice my business card.
“Look, if you’re ever hungry, please call me and I’ll make sure you have something to eat.”
Maurice took the card, looked at it, and stuffed it in his pocket.
“Thank you for my lunch and my HÄagen-Dazs,” he said. “I had a great day.”
“Me too,” I said. And then he went one way, and I went another.
I wondered if I would ever see Maurice again. Certainly there was a very good chance I wouldn’t. At that time, I didn’t know how tough things were for Maurice, how truly dire his family life was. If I had, I don’t think I’d have let him walk away. I think I might have hugged him and never let go.
But I did walk away, and when I turned around to look for him in the bustle of Broadway, he was already gone, invisible again. I had to accept he might be out of my life for good—that our strange little friendship was over just as it was beginning.
Yet I believed then and I believe now that there is something in the universe that brings people who need each other together. There is something that helps two wildly disparate people somehow forge a bond. Maybe it is precisely the thing that haunts us most that makes us reach out to others we think can provide some solace. Maybe it was my own past that made me turn around and find Maurice that day. And maybe, just maybe, that invisible thread of fate would bring us back together again.
And then, as I walked back home, I felt a surge of regret, because, while I had given Maurice my business card, I hadn’t given him a quarter for the call. This was way before cell phones, and I couldn’t be sure he had a landline in his apartment. If he wanted to reach me he’d likely have to use a pay phone, which meant he would have to beg for the quarter.
But in the end it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Because on the way home Maurice threw my business card in the trash.
© 2011 Laura Schroff