I’m working on a piece that takes place in the inner-city, and going back over Random Family, which I read almost a year ago.
The book is chock-full of incredible reporting, and clean simple prose that make the breaking heart of the story burst clear-through. Too many scenes and snippets (and even profoundly good exposition) to recount, but I wanted to lay out the scene that struck me the most.
It’s about Mercedes, the 11-year-old daughter of two of the book’s main characters: Caesar and Coco, who fell in love very young, had children as teenagers, and then went on to a long-term stint in prison (Caesar), and extreme poverty (Coco).
First, this bit, because it lays out the situation, but also because it’s great example of the occasional need to break the cardinal rule of writing, and tell rather than show.
Mercedes had already had more than enough hardship and fear and humiliation for several lifetimes – nights in unsafe buildings; cold waits on the hard benches of homeless shelters, police stations, courtrooms, and welfare offices; she’d been up-rooted eight times in eight years. Her mother struggled every single day of her life. Her father was in prison. Terrifying seizures plagued her little sister. Drugs rendered the adults she loved incoherent; her godfather was permanently paralyzed. Sadness threatened to engulf every corner if her anger couldn’t keep it at bay. She’d witnessed countless acts of violence involving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, strangers, police. Raised in poverty, Mercedes had weathered innumerable sudden crises, but perhaps even more insidious was the fact that – despite them – little changed. Fear organized whole seasons of Mercedes’s experience, and she was probably still frightened: she just didn’t show it anymore…
… All her teachers believed she was capable. Mercedes’s problem was “her attitude.” But her assertiveness served her badly in only one of the two worlds she had to negotiate. Bossiness at school might have rendered her a bit of a bully, but at home, lording over little kids was a necessary skill. At school, outbursts caused chaos; at home, they somehow focused things; in either place, they generated the attention she needed and craved.
Le Blanc, the book’s celebrated author, has spent a couple hundred pages by this point, showing us the world that Mercedes inhabits, in exquisite and stomach churning detail. Now as the story pivots towards its climax, she’s marshaling all of that painstaking narrative into a few dense paragraphs — reminding us of all that we’ve read, in a sort-of rapid fire that makes it much starker, somehow. (I think because it’s the bare facts, devoid of the warmth that the characters themselves emanate in the actual scene-by-scene version).
Then, this bit, which is inside the head of Caesar several years into his sentence.
Mercedes predicament extended beyond personal history or family or attitude or teenage parenting. “Poverty is a subculture that exists within the ghetto,” he said. “It goes beyond black or Hispanic, at least in my mind. Over-worked teachers. Run-down schools. It looks like they designed this system to make our children fail. Socioeconomic conditions. Why are we so passive? We accept conditions that don’t benefit us – economic oppression we’ve been suffering for years. That’s the primary condition.” But most of all he blamed himself. He had been in prison for most of Mercedes’s life….
We first meet Caesar as a very young boy, living deep in the ghetto, ravenous for affection and approval, and validation. We see him, and all the book’s main characters, struggle through a wilderness of poverty — not quite passively, as he says — but certainly without grasping at the larger forces that shape their existence. It’s satisfying to see this here, even if the moment proves fleeting, in part because it makes clear that the lack of perspective is not at all due to a lack of intellectual capacity. It puts the lie to any quick or easy assumptions.
But also because, as a matter of craft, the access to Caesar’s dawning realizations feels like a great pay-off. Le Blanc too ten years to finish this book. Moments like this make clear that that time wasn’t gratuitous or wasted. Showing up and being present and engaging with subjects is the only way to capture these moments of clarity.
And then this full scene (which is long, but very worth reading), because of the moment at the end. It’s ‘s so small — an administrator not looking up when she should — and yet so devastating. It feels like the crux of everything, of all the ineluctable heartache that has driven the narrative forward to this point. (I mean, the whole scene is maddening, but that bit at the end broke my heart).
In Troy, children shared the same probationary space as wayward adults. The two-story office building sat opposite the local newspaper, not far from the storefront that used to hosue the shelter where Mercedes had stayed six years before. The city’s homeless population had continued growing, and Joseph’s House had since moved to larger digs. A plump receptionist buzzed Mercedes and her mother in.
Coco looked tiny next to Mercedes, who towered over her by a full head. Mercedes long mane of brown-blond hair spilled from a bandanna of the Puerto Rican flag, which she’d positioned with the star facing front. Like Wonder Woman, she assessed the scene – a sinny white guy nervously sitting, a black woman reading a magazine. She sat down and nibbled her nails. Her door-knocker earring swung, a cursive Mercedes inscribed in their cradle. Coco moved almost primly, each gesture snug with anxiety.
Miss O’Connell, Mercedes probation officer, beckoned them through a metal detector and led them to a chilly interview room. On the wall was a tattered Xerox, LOVE, THE ANTI-DRUG. It read, in part, “Drug Free is achieved in a series of small personal ways.”
“Do you understand why you’re here?” Miss O’Connell asked without introducing herself.
“No,” Mercedes said.
“Why did you leave detention without permission?” she asked.
“Cuz I didn’t think I was supposed to be pubished,” said Mercedes.
“What else could you have done?”
Mercedes knew the rill: “Listen to Mrs. Hitchins.”
“Asked?” Mercedes tried.
“What could you have changed to make a better situation?” Miss O’Connell asked, but it wasn’t a question. “Attitude,” she added.
Probation tackled that.
Mercedes would be routed to Diversion, a program that aimed to keep her at home. Miss O’Connell outlined Mercedes’s options: If Mercedes “didn’t cooperate,” she’d “choose to go to family court.” There a “judge would weigh the truth like judges did.” Then Miss O’Connell asked Mercedes to sign a voluntary form that acknowledged that she understood she had a choice. Mercedes looked perplexed, so Miss O’Connell elaborated: the voluntary form involved “rights in America.”
“You have a right to accept this part of probation, so which do you pick?”
Mercedes’s eyes widened and she looked at her mother. Coco uncertainly reached for the pen.
Because she was a minor, the terms of Mercedes’s probation required that she follow the rules both at school and at home. “What does it mean to follow the rules?” Miss O’Connell asked.
“Listen to my mom,” Mercedes said.
“That’s right, listen to your mom. You’re old enough to help a little bit. Set the table. Do the laundry.” Mercedes’s house had no table; she ate on her lap on the floor; Coco thought her daughter helped too much. Miss O’Connell quickly ticked off a check-list of questions she was suuposed to ask Mercedes.
“Drugs,” Miss O’Connell said. “Drugs, hopefully, that’s not a problem at eleven. Curfew?”
“She’s barely outside,” Coco said.
Ordinarily Miss O’Connell saw her charges weekly, but since it was summer, she suggested every other week: It didn’t make sense to Coco. Summer streets were the worst, and without school, the children had less to do than ever. Miss O’Connell was ready to conclude the interview: “So what are you leaving with? What’s the message you are getting from me, from school, from home?”
“Try to control my temper,” Mercedes said.
“You need to control your temper.”
Then a remarkable thing happened – Mercedes asked for help: “I can’t – I don’t know how,” she said.
It was an extremely rare admission of weakness, but Miss O’Connell didn’t respond. Coco however understood the significance of what had just happened, and she tried to keep Mercedes’s request for help afloat: “How come Mercedes try to calm me down when I get upset, but she can’t realize it for herself?” Coco asked anxiously. Without glancing up from her paperwork, Miss O’Connell assured Coco that Mercedes would learn all she needed to know in anger management.
That’s all for now.