Excerpt from Driftwood Chapter 6, Jail. Age 13.
Context: The staff at the shelter said that if I didn’t like the way I was being treated, that I could run away…So I did. I ended up staying with a random stranger for a couple of nights under the premise that I’d be flying to California to live with my stepdad. After he rejected me, I kept up the lie cause I didn’t want the woman or her family to get in trouble for “custodial interference”
I hung around the airport till the lady’s shift ended and met her outside the taxi stand. She asked how my day was. Fine. Did I reach my stepfather? He wasn’t in yet, they meant call him at six their time. We stopped and grabbed some burgers and headed to her house. When we were there, I took a look around. Just absorbing the place.
There was so much stuff crammed into their tiny apartment, kid, and baby stuff everywhere. They needed a babysitter, someone to help around the house. I could have told them what happened, and they probably would have let me stay… but would I have been a help or just another mouth to feed? I debated this till I pretended to call Brett and his wife.
I pretended to have a wonderful conversation with my stepdad…while talking to the international time and date number. I kept it short, cause as far as they knew I was calling long distance. After the fake call, the lady smiled at me and asked how it went. I could have told her the truth. Stayed with them, helped them out.
Brett saying that someone could go to jail for helping me was what sealed the deal. I didn’t want these women to go to jail. I didn’t want those babies to end up in foster care. Screaming. Alone. Tossed in some playpen for hours as the staff gossiped and ignored them. I couldn’t do that. So, I feigned a smile and said “Great”
“He’s buying me a ticket tonight. Delta. I fly out tomorrow morning. First class”
She knew I was lying. Maybe mother’s intuition, but she didn’t let on till the following morning. She was giving me the 3rd degree the entire time. What time was my flight, when did it land, what airport was I flying into, were there any connections, did he pay for someone to ride with me, did I know where to pick up my ticket etc etc.
I tried putting her at ease without telling any lies I could get caught up in if she double checked. Flight time: My “Dad” would let me know the details when I called him, sometime around 10, pick up the tickets at the ticket counter, blah blah blah. She paused. I wasn’t going to let up. She handed me 20 bucks. I said no thanks, my dad’s loaded.
“Please. Take it. I don’t have a lot, but I want to help with what I can. You can buy yourself a burger or something when you land. I hear California has great burgers”
She insisted. So, I took the money and thanked her. She said “Don’t thank me, I was just doing what God called me to do. Thank you for letting me.” That’s the last time I ever saw or talked to her. The airport would end up being one of the places I frequented while I was on the streets for a place to sleep at night. I won’t pretend that I didn’t go back sometimes hoping to see her, but I never did. I didn’t even know where in the airport she worked. We always just met at 9 outside across from the parking deck. I don’t know. Maybe she was an angel or something.
I spent the few days living out my own version of the book, From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Literally. We read the book in my 5th grade class in Indiana. I kind of fell in love with the story. It almost compelled me to run away from my grandmother’s house. The idea that two kids could run away and live in a museum. I know the writer didn’t intend on it being a how-to guide for street kids, but that’s how I saw it.
So, the first step… find a safe place to stay ‘til I get a job and my own place. Why not a museum. I first went to the High Museum of Art. It sounded fancy. If I was gonna do this, it had to be somewhere fancy. I snuck in with a school group. People really don’t pay attention. The high? Not a good option, just paintings and weird sculptures. I left a little defeated but then stole a giant apple from this convenience store across from the museum and felt pretty badass…and full.
Stealing that apple gave me kind of made me feel like Aladdin. I could have paid for it, though. I spent 13 of the 20 the lady gave me on getting a weekly transit pass and I was holding on to the last 8 and whatever I could panhandle for a daily meal. I guess in that moment, I didn’t consider an apple a meal.
Next stop, Midtown train station for the Margarete Mitchel House and Museum. Waited around, snuck in with another school group. It was perfect, set up like an old timey house. I tried hiding behind this big old-timey wooden couch thing, planning to execute my plan to sneak in the bathroom and wait til close to find somewhere inconspicuous to sleep but someone spotted me. I guess they check at the end of tours for students looking to play hooky. I bolted out of there like a bat out of hell.
So, I spent about a week or so just riding on the train. In the morning I would wash up in the bathroom at Dunwoody Station. It had a single restroom with a locked door. It took a couple of times having strangers walking in on me trying to wash up at the downtown train station and airport before I figured out the importance of locked doors. Then I’d go to the public library during the day and blend in the stacks where people wouldn’t really notice me til the school day ended. Sometimes I would even try studying something. Usually Georgia history or Bio. In Georgia, you couldn’t pass the 8th grade without taking Georgia History.
When school hours ended, I’d go to the kid’s area and grab some textbooks to study for real. This was before the library got internet kiosks. After the library closed, I hopped on the train to Dunwoody mall to get some free samples. At some point, I’d take a buck-twenty-five and get an egg bagel at the Dunkin Donuts next to the library or buy some Starburst from the Africans selling fake designer bags and newspapers at stands outside the library. Starburst were more filling than skittles and I wasn’t much of a chocolate bar fan.
After “dinner” I’d ride the train up and down the stations, sleeping till they had their final stop. Sometimes stopping to look around the city or do some stupid “look at me I am a kid without parents” shit like sneak into a movie. But usually, it was the trains. That was the safest time and place to sleep. On the trains. You just had to make sure that when it got to the end of the track, you got off and hopped on a different train because the conductors would sometimes do walkthroughs.
When the trains stopped, I’d go to the Airport, get something to eat, and hang out in the chapel or play around on the wheelchairs or take a nap in the Delta terminal… The delta terminal had just been built, I think, it had cushioned seats. Most nights, I would go to the top of the parking deck and watch the planes take off, wishing I was on one. Imagining the places, I would be going.
Okay, so I debated telling this next part, mostly because of how embarrassing it is. But fuck it, this story is worthless if I’m not honest. Well, as honest as I can be with the whole name and story swapping that I’m gonna end up doing later. By the way, everything up til now has been 100% true. Feel free to fact check. The people in my life kinda super sucked but again, later when I talk about my actual friends who I had sustained enough interaction with to know their stories, I will have to switch shit up…. I’m stalling.
I had these friends in 1st grade, twins. I was so jealous that they got to be twins. I wanted a twin. They even had their own secret twin language. So, in 1st grade, they were my best friends, super fun. Played hopscotch together. Let’s call them Tia and Tamara. Why not. So, Tia and Tamara were super cool and my bestest friends. I would imagine I was their triplet. I left, cause I always left schools every time I made friends.
We ran back into each other in middle school. They were not the same. No one is the same as they were in 1st grade by middle school. But for them, yea, they were wild. They were dating guys who were 20 and 25 years old. I was shocked as fuck, but they were like, “dude, it’s okay. R Kelly and Aaliyah got married.” Not even lying, R. Kelly and Aaliyah were the justification for why 12/13-year-old girls were dating grown men and not crying about how some creepy old dudes were molesting them. They actually thought it was dating and okay.
It was totally weird to me ‘til I’m sitting there riding the trains with nowhere to go and nothing to do. They were always showing off what their boyfriends had bought them, bracelets, new shoes, clothes, etc etc. Bragging about how they had sex. They were going to move in with them. I don’t know where the hell their parents were in all this. So, I got the bright idea that I should get a grown-up boyfriend.
We could date, eventually move in together BAM new life. And hey, it’s okay R. Kelly and Aaliyah dated, and you know what, women back in the old days were married off by my age. There were advertisements everywhere for dating lines. You leave a message like “hey my name is veronica, I’m hot and sexy and my boobs are just so big” and dudes would trip over themselves trying to get you to message them back.
My message wasn’t nearly as creative. Just “Hi, my name is Cindy (fake name, obvi), I’m 18 and looking for a guy for dating. Just talk at first and see where it goes from there.” Yea, guys weren’t tripping over themselves for that, but I did get one reply. A guy named Jack. White guy, 28, brown hair and brown eyes, goatee. Sounded hot. We talked for a day before deciding to meet up and go to a movie. He was going to meet me at the Dunwoody station and pick me up in his Jeep.