Excerpt from Driftwood Chapter 6, Jail. Age 13.
Context: After returning to the shelter after my first stint in jail (for playing baseball), I began questioning my religion wondering why Jehovah was letting so much happen to me. I decided to convert and essentially picked a non-christian religion from a game of chance. It ended up being Jewish. Then I witnessed the shelter staff neglect a toddler who was brought in, leaving it in a playpen crying all alone for hours. The staff said that if I didn’t like it I could run away “like my little white friend” (who had run away and gotten gang raped, something the staff wouldn’t stop making fun of). So… I did. I spent 3 weeks on the street, making every mistake possible. This is the tail end of that story.
If you haven’t heard the song Runaway Train by Soul Asylum, go listen to it before you read this. You could probably skip the rest of this chapter. This was my first stint on the streets. One of the many times I would run away from shelters. But this time, was a special time. It’s the time where I didn’t know what I was doing and somehow lasted 3 weeks out on the streets by myself. And in those 3 weeks, I lived out every cliché of that damn song…..
I remembered from when my mom sent me alone to Indiana a few years prior that the airport had a few rows of payphones. They were the key out of this hell. If my mom didn’t want me, I knew someone who did. Someone who always wanted me. I knew that for a fact cause the last thing I remembered him screaming was “I want my kids.” I could call my stepdad and he could get me, and he could get my sister and we could go back to what should have been our happily ever after before my mom fucked it all up.
For some reason, it took a lot more 411 calls than the first time I tried finding him back before my sister left. I had to keep bumming change off people, but eventually, I found him. His wife picked up the phone. He was away on assignment. I told her everything. Everything that had been happening for the past 5 years. Everything that was happening to me, everything that had happened with my sister. She responded the way any logical adult would: “You poor girl, I’m so sorry, how can I help, can I send you anything?” Then she said everything I needed to hear, about how my dad always loved me, how he always tried to find us.
She tossed in a few things that, well, I easily looked over like how my mom “really messed him up” and how he was so messed up and full of anger that it “almost ended their marriage.” Yes, it was my mom, my evil mom kept me from my stepdad and if she had just stayed with him, he would have gotten better. Oh yea, it was all my mom’s fault.
New wives love to blame exes for their husband’s flaws. *eye roll*. But back then, she was preaching to the choir and I was eating that shit up. She said that she wanted to bring me to California and that they would get my sister too. But she had to wait to talk to Brett first. Bret was on assignment and would be back in a couple of days. I just needed to call back in a couple of days, and they’d get me a ticket. There was no question. She knew Brett was going to send for me.
It was… God…God was finally going to save me. I just needed time for being a Jew to kick in. Further proof it was working? One of the women who I had bummed change off of was eves dropping on the whole conversation. She came over to me when I hung up the phone and apologized for listening in. “I don’t usually do this,” she said. “But God is compelling me to help you.” GOD right there. God was working his magic.
She was a black lady in her early-mid 30s(ish), short, about 5’4 (I only could tell that cause she was my mom’s height) and just…just sweet as pie. She asked if I was hungry. I was starving, but I said no. I have always had this thing where if someone offers you something you didn’t ask for, you say no even though you want/need it. And if they insist, it’s okay to say yes because it means they really want to give it to you. Some weird politeness thing I don’t know where I picked it up. She insisted. Basically, presenting it as I was doing her a service by letting her take me to lunch. God was calling her to help.
She took me to get some fried fish, I didn’t like fish of any kind, but I smiled and ate it as she told me about herself, her life. She was a single mom, her sister and sister’s kid lived with her. She worked at the airport for the flight benefits. Shitty pay, but she could fly anywhere she wanted for free… when she could afford to save up for hotels and stuff which hadn’t yet happened.
I told her my mom kicked me out, which wasn’t necessarily a lie, but the suppressed truth didn’t really matter since she’d listened in on the whole conversation. She asked if I had anywhere to stay while I waited to hear back from my stepdad. No. She asked me to come back with her for the night. She didn’t have a lot to offer, but she couldn’t let me just be out there on the streets. No. I’m good. I’ll be okay.
“Please. Let me help you”
I should have said no, and I would recommend any kid on the streets to say “no” when some kind stranger offers you a place to stay for the night. Taking help from the “wrong people” is the second way girls (and boys) in foster care end up sex trafficked or on a NCMEC poster at a bus stop. Even then I knew going home with random nice strangers offering to help was just stupid, but it was an impossible choice to make.
Being a kid, all alone in the world and you stumble on someone there, offering you kindness the rest of the world isn’t. Do you take the help and risk ending up another checkmark in some serial killers list of conquests or do you decline the help and end up just wondering the streets vulnerable and still end up some check on a serial killer’s list of conquest. Somehow, over the next 5 years, I was just incredibly lucky in this area, for the most part.
The lady lived in a small apartment somewhere in College Park or east point. She had 2 kids under 5 (maybe one was 6 or 7) and her sister had a baby. They were all crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. They didn’t have much, but they were making it work. They both had jobs, traded off babysitting each other’s kids when their shifts allowed. Her sister didn’t even seem to be moved in the slightest by the random stranger was brought home. I stayed with them for 3 nights.
In the morning she would take me to the train station, under the miss-impression that I was still in school. I’d ride around MARTA, eventually landing in the Fulton County Public Library downtown to hide out from truancy officers. I’d wait there till school hours were over then head to the mall for some free samples and back to the airport at 8 or 9 ish and wait for her shift to end.
At the end of her shift, the lady took me back home with her stopping to grab some fast food on the way home. When we got back to her house, I’d call my new stepmother to let her know I was somewhere safe. The third night. I was supposed to call Brett at 6 my time. He was going to be home and that gave his wife some time to fill him in. So, I called from the airport. Brett picked up. I was so excited to hear his voice… for the first 3 seconds.
“What the hell are you doing, Zeda? You’ve got my wife all worked up and upset”
The conversation went down from there. I told him I needed help, he asked where Danny was, why didn’t I call Danny. I said, “probably in an alley somewhere smoking crack or in prison and “he’s not my father.”
“I talked to Barbara She told me everything. About you running away, fighting teachers, sleeping around. You’re 13!”
“She’s lying!” I yelled. Okay, she didn’t technically lie, except for the sleeping around part. But the teacher I fought was Ms. Lenowski in 3rd grade and that principal in kindergarten that tried to paddle me like every damn day just for fun. Still, it was a twist of the truth and he didn’t want to hear the reality. “I don’t need this shit Zeda! I don’t need you trying to mess up my life!” He was yelling at this point. I whimpered back: “I’m not trying to do anything.” I could hear my would-be stepmother crying in the background.
“You’re trying to get my wife to fly you out here. Do you even understand what would have happened if she did? I can go to jail, Zeda. Custodial interference, Kidnapping”
“Did Barbara tell you about Alicia. If I’m so awful, why doesn’t she have Alicia”
“I can’t deal with this shit right now”
“Don’t ever call me again.”
“You said you’d always be my daddy.”
“Yea, and your mom said til death do us part.
People say things they don’t mean.”
Then he hung up the phone. I sat in the phone booth and shed a couple of tears before the anger took over. I didn’t understand why, if my mom didn’t want me, why did she have to make sure no one else would take me. I wasn’t going to let her win. Wasn’t going to let her break me. I wiped the tears off my face and resolved that I was just going to have to figure out a way to take care of myself.