My Son, the Street Person

My Son, the Street Person

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

My Son, the Street Person

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.

Maya Angelou

Let me start right off by confessing: my son lives on the streets. Of course, in response to casual inquiry about him, I usually say, “He’s doing great.” If pressed further I say, “He’s traveling.” No one can fault that. After all, many restless young men spend a year roaming before they settle down and go to college. Get it out of their systems, sow their wild oats, find themselves . . . you know. But questioners may remember that this is his second year out of high school. How many wild oats has he got?

Most of the interrogators let it drop. They are too busy with their own lives, and perhaps they sense some great darkness lurking behind my answers. But some people are tenacious. “Where is he?” they want to know. A tale of fictional intrigue is on the tip of my tongue, but for some reason I am compelled to tell the truth, so I answer, “New York City.” I hear the wheels turning—how long can you be traveling in New York City? There are a lot of sights, a few good day trips, but hey, two weeks ought to do it. A writhing can of worms gapes open: “What’s he doing? Where’s he living?

“My son is a street person,” I must respond.

I glimpse the shocked response before it is politely stuffed away. “She’s a failure as a parent,” they’re thinking.

The sociological data on street kids says that they come from divorced, alcoholic, abusive, unloving and often uneducated families. While that’s the classic profile, it’s no portrait of my son.

My husband, Lee, and I have, amazingly enough, been married for twenty-one years. Despite attempts to cultivate the pleasure of a glass of wine now and then, I must admit the stuff puts me to sleep. We did scold our son and send him to his room on occasion, even grounded him once or twice. But he was an easy child and, in our family, yelling is something you do on the sidelines of a hockey game. We tend to talk things out.

Unloved? This child has been adored, admired and cherished since he was conceived. To this day, he lights up a room when he walks in. There is an energy, a zest for life that can’t be missed. So, please, don’t say it’s lack of love. I did not do everything right. But love him? Yes, that I did.

This kid’s so smart his high school teachers still talk about him. Education runs on both sides of the family. Our family tree is practically sprouting with doctors, lawyers and MBAs.

Having eliminated all the usual criteria of homelessness, “mentally unbalanced” is the only one left. He must be crazy, right? Wrong. He’s the most rational, practical person you could hope to meet.

My son has lived on the streets for almost a year now. He is not homeless or living out of a cardboard box. He is a squatter, living with a group of people in an abandoned building that is city-owned. There are many cities where street people take up residency, begin repairs and avoid authorities. Others link in, and soon there is a community of sorts, with rules, guidelines for joining and extended support.

In the beginning, I actually imagined that he was planning to write a book, make a documentary or organize assistance for the homeless. I had it all worked out. My son the social activist, the do-gooder. But it turns out that he did not go to New York City to help those “poor people.” He claims that would be a form of manipulation, taking advantage of street people, standing apart and observing. This is his life. Though he comes home for occasional visits, he does not ask us for any money or help.

My son has chosen this life. He is not a failure. It is not a last resort, a desperate attempt to survive or a dead end. He wants to be exactly where he is. Nor did he do this out of a romanticized notion of what it would be like. He knows the hunger, the fear, the violence, the disease.

Day after day, I ask myself, why? Why did he end up in this place? I am not able to fully understand or accept it. I cannot change it, or approve it, or even explain it. Yet it doesn’t go away. That is my child out there. I have talked to many of my son’s friends. After overcoming my initial reaction to body piercing, multiple tattoos, ripped clothes, and dyed hair, I find them to be kind, intelligent, thoughtful people. They are searching for something.

After my initial horror, I began to comprehend some of the appeal of the life he has chosen. It is a day-to-day existence in which there is no worry about career goals, or what the neighbors will think, or making your mark in the world. My son and his friends focus on the basics of survival. How are you going to eat today? Where will you sleep? Will you keep warm? Where will you relieve yourself? These are questions that inspire considerable passion and take up a major portion of each day. Then you are free to pursue your own daydreams. There is, in fact, a freedom in the squats. The price is danger, discomfort, bugs and ill health; the street beats you up and ages you quickly. But the freedom is there. It is not pretty or pastel or romantic, but beneath the dirt and desperation, I can sometimes see freedom shining through my son’s eyes.

A strong sense of community exists among his friends. There are a few subgroups: the down-and-out families; the drug dealers and users; the desperate runaways; and the cases, like my son, who are there by choice. Some are old timers, others are new to the life. The group my son is part of has organized their places of shelter into a network of communication that could be a model for any revolutionary group. There is an excitement and purpose in their rejection of a world order they consider decadent and off-target. They are not abusing the earth or taking advantage of people or accumulating wealth. They may be more sure of what they do not want than what they do, but their intention is to do no harm.

They live in the buildings abandoned by society, eat the vast quantities of food society throws out, and scrounge for clothing and comforts of life from the discarded piles on the curbstone. Books on revolution and philosophy are passed around and discussed late into the night. They offer each other protection and help, often giving their only dollar to one whose need is greater. They are proud of their ability to survive. Sometimes I think they are telling us something about the dysfunction of our nation of unhappy, out-of-control consumers.

I know the dangers of his life. On those long nights when fear grabs hold of me and will not let go, the fears parade beneath my closed eyes. I imagine all the guns in New York City. I see berserk crackheads pursuing my son. I picture him caught in crossfire, or poking his head in the wrong Dumpster, or simply ticking off some hothead. I see him cold and shivering, dirty and lice covered, his immune system weakened, disease ready to ambush him. I see him falling in love and wanting to settle down but unprepared for a “normal” life. I see these things, and for all my attempts at understanding, I am simply a frightened mother.

All this pensive philosophy falls away and is replaced by excited anticipation when he returns for a visit. The one form of assistance that he accepts other than spare building supplies, is a round-trip bus ticket home. We cook a big meal, stock up on a supply of his favorite foods, and expect a late night filled with descriptions of the people in his life: the local hotdog vendor, the Puerto Rican brothers who own the corner bodega, the hovering drug dealer, the young squatter couple from Ohio, the artist with AIDS, the old communist who has been living like this for twenty-five years, the guy who taught him plumbing. There are so many stories.

In the daylight, I surreptitiously examine his skin sores, listen to his cough, and check out his cuts and bruises. He plays with his little brother, rests, showers and takes his sisters out for coffee. Soon the local grapevine carries word of his arrival in town. By the second evening a jam session is underway in the back room, the pulsating bass notes lull me into a contented sleep.

What is the price he will pay for this lifestyle? I don’t know; I can try to guess. I know that he is young, and he will change. I know that the college graduate we once imagined is a dream deferred. I am much more clear about my cost: the endless days of worry, the incessant wondering about what we could have done differently, the hesitant greeting I give him while I look at the sores on his face with a growing dread. Yet, is this so different from any parent? Maybe my case is more dramatic and extreme than many, but in the end, we mothers all worry and pray for our children whatever their age or whereabouts. Our inability to insure safety and happiness never changes the longing.

Yes, I feel embarrassed when I am questioned, and sometimes I believe I am the failed parent others perceive me to be. Yet I am also proud. This handsome, vibrant young man to whom I gave birth has courage. He is on a quest, even if his goal is not the Holy Grail. He is learning, seeking and questioning everything. What will be his future? In the old days he might have gone west or searched for a river’s source; today the cities have become our wilderness. Perhaps he, more than I in my frenetic, practical life, has found what it is all about. Who can say for sure?

So now you will better understand my request. If you pass a strange, grungy kid on the street, wherever you may be, don’t look away or grimace in disgust. Look him in the eyes, talk to him, at least give him a greeting—he might be my son, or he could be yours.

Eva Nagel

Postscript: My son is now a trained professional, married and a father himself. He met his wife in New York city. The only sign of their former life is a framed collage of the squat that hangs on their bedroom wall.

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