Thursday, July 31, 2014

.Trying This

I want to try writing a blog post from my tablet using this Stylus app. cl found that it is easier to write in Cursive. This may help me to blog my Roadtrip!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

California Dream

After Explorers disbanned, I went back to wandering. But this time, I was largely on my own. My old neighborhood friends weren’t around anymore… Charlie had moved away, and so had Shawn and his sisters, and it seemed like other people didn’t come out of their houses the way they used to. Lyndsie had moved with her family to Rockford, I barely saw Jennie and Rose at school any more, and my younger brother wasn’t at all interested in my company anymore. I was on my own now.
For some reason I liked walking to the train depot. When we were younger Jay and I had sometimes walked to the train station and taken short train trips to other towns, without our parents knowing. We would go to Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, or Mount Prospect, usually, and just walk around the downtown area, pretending we lived there. (We never dared go any closer to the city than Des Plaines, and for some reason it never occurred to us to take a train ride in the opposite direction from the city.) I loved the grimy smell of the train depot, contrasted with the sanitized, air-conditioned feeling of the commuter trains. Getting on a train always gave me an excited, jumpy feeling, like I was about to go somewhere. Even if it was just the next town over.
So after school I would walk to the train depot and just hang out there. Back then, it was just a big room that smelled of beer, cigarettes and dirt. Orange, yellow and green plastic chairs lined the room, all connected to one another, I guess so nobody would steal them. Those chairs, all decorated with graffiti and mysterious staines, had probably been there since the seventies, when the depot was built. I’d heard the train depot had been an exciting place in the seventies. It was built with an attached strip mall, and a flat roof. The flat roof was because the building planners speculated that someday helicopters would be another popular source of transportation, and that they could land on the roof of the train depot! That would have been cool, but it never happened.
By the time I started hanging around, the strip mall contained only a handful of stores and restaurants that most people had never heard of. The depot itself had been taken over by the homeless people. They even used one of the payphones in the corner as their personal phone number. As for me, I’d just sit on the stairs in the back of the room, where I could see and hear everything while staying mostly unnoticed.
Then one day, when I got there, three teenagers were hanging around. There were two boys and a girl, all a little bit older than me.
I observed them from my spot on the stairs. The kids didn’t seem to be getting on any trains. They were hanging out, just like the homeless people, and like me.
In fact, the homeless people had given the kids food to eat, and the girl and one of the boys had washed their hair in the bathroom sinks. (The second boy’s head was shaved, so I guess he didn’t need to wash his hair at all.)
The biggest boy, with the bald head, was wild and talkative. He paced around the train depot, smoking cigarettes and talking to the homeless people. I learned, from eavesdropping, that he and his friends were from Michican. They were trying to hitchhike to California.
The girl was talking in Spanish to some Mexican guys outside. The second boy was quieter, just sitting on one of the chairs and smoking a cigarette in peace. So I was shocked when he came and plunked himself down on the stairs next to me.
“Whatcha doing?” he asked me.
I shrugged. I wasn’t used to anyone talking to me at the train depot, so I didn’t even have an answer for that simple question.
“Waiting for a train?” the boy prodded.
I shook my head. “Just… waiting,” I stammered.
He laughed. “I know the feeling,” he said. “I don’t even know where I’m sleeping tonight! I’m from Michigan!” He whipped out his state ID and held it in front of my eyes, so that I could see for myself that he was from Michigan. I could also see that his name was Joel, and that he was seventeen. “These two just showed up at my house at one in the morning, and asked me if I wanted to go to California. I was like, sure, what the hell!”
At the sound of Joel’s voice, the other boy and the girl came and joined us on the steps.
I felt a little surrounded… but I was thrilled that these kids, who were obviously way cooler than me, having hitchhiked from another state and all, had decided to talk to me! “Whats your name?” the biggest boy demanded.
“Nicki,” I told him.
“I’m Jerome, and this is Sally, and I guess you already got to know Joel,” said the boy. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” I told him, adding that I’d be fifteen in a few months.
Joel raised his eyebrows. “We’d be kidnapping a minor,” he scoffed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We were thinking before that you might like to come with us to California,” Jerome explained. “But Joel is scared that we’ll get in trouble because you’re so young.”
“You guys are minors too,” I pointed out.
“Nope. In Michigan, seventeen is the age of majority,” said Joel. “If you’re seventeen and you’re from Michigan, you can go anywhere you want!”
I’d never heard of anything like that. I’d always assumed kids were minors until they were eighteen, everywhere in the USA and possibly the world. “Can you drink?”
Jerome winked at me. “Not legally, but sure!”
“It should be okay, though,” Joel decided. “I mean, Sally’s really only fifteen, so…”
“Joel, shut up!” Sally punched him in the arm. She looked at me. She was a chubby girl with dyed black hair and large brown eyes. “You won’t tell, will you? I’m a runaway. But if anyone asks, I’m seventeen.”
“I won’t tell,” I promised.
Her eyes grew wide. “They’re gonna ditch me, and take you instead!”
“They wouldn’t.”
Joel and Jerome burst out laughing, saying I was wrong, they would definitely consider ditching Sally.
“But, seriously.” Jerome’s smile faded, and he looked somberly into my eyes. “This girl here is like a little sister to me. I will protect her with my life, no matter what.”
We were all silent, for a moment, mulling this over.
“Do you smoke?” Sally asked me.
I shook my head. “I can’t. I got asthma.”
“You party?” she asked. When I looked confused, she added, “You know… you drink, smoke weed, anything?”
“Naw.” I felt somehow guilty, like I wasn’t as cool as they thought, after all. I tried to explain. “See, my dad is an alcoholic, and…”
The kids laughed again. “Join the club, kid,” said Joel, patting me on the back.
“So are you gonna come with us?” asked Sally.
“Yeah, she is,” Jerome answered for me.
Before long, I was starting to think it might be a good idea. The kids and I talked for hours. We got up and paced around the train depot, went outside and balanced on the tracks, sat on the plastic chairs and ate stale sandwiches with the homeless people, and just talked and talked. I’ll never remember what we talked about, except for the underlying theme that none of us felt like we fit into the world as a whole. Jerome was sure that California would be a whole new world, where we could all start a new life. He said he had hitchhiked across the country before. He was full of adventurous stories of getting rides with truck drivers and hippies, sleeping on the streets and in forests, making new friends and having fun.
Sally and I talked the most of all. While the boys were outside smoking, we vowed to stick together because we were both girls. We would help each other out and keep each other safe.
For a regular person, it would have been hard to understand how I got so attached to three complete strangers, in just a few hours. But in those days, I didn’t get to have real conversations with many people. All my anxiety disappeared around those kids. For once in my life, I felt like I belonged.
After a while, a cop walked into the train station. “Let me see your ID’s,” he demanded.
All of us, except for Sally, pulled them out. Joel and Jerome had state ID’s from Michigan, but all I had was my school ID.
“What are you doing in Palatine, if you’re all the way from Michigan?” the cop wanted to know.
“My mom lives in this town,” said Jerome. “We’re just waiting for her to get off of work, so we can get some money from her. We’re trying to get to California.”
The cop looked at Sally. “Where’s your ID?”
“I lost it, somewhere in Michigan.” Sally told him that her name was Kelly. She told him a made up birthday, and an address in Michigan that could have been real, or not.
The cop checked my ID next. “You waiting for a train?”
“I’m waiting for my big brother,” I said. I’d always sort of wished for a big brother.
“Why are you waiting for him at the train depot?” the cop wanted to know.
“He’s coming on the train,” I said. I was already making up a story in my head, involving Charlie, my headbanger friend from my neighborhood. I was going to say that Charlie worked at the McDonalds in Des Plaines, and that he was on his way home from work on the train. It could have been true. When Charlie had first moved out of the neighborhood, he’d lived in Des Plaines, worked at the McDonalds there, and sometimes had taken the train back to Palatine to visit. And, I did used to pretend he was my big brother. So, I reasoned, I wasn’t really lying if I told the cop all of that. But he never asked.
“That’s fine. You can stay,” the cop told me. “But you three need to get out of here. You have no reason to be here, unless you’re waiting for a train.”
Joel, Jerome and Sally gathered up their stuff. “When do you get off of school tomorrow?” Jerome asked.
“Two-forty-five.”
“Then, I’ll see you.” He winked at me again, before he left with Joel and Sally.
“Bye!” I called after them, waving wildly.
I waited for the cop to leave, before I went out the back door of the train station, darting across the train tracks and heading for the safety of my neighborhood. I went home through the back streets, so the cop wouldn’t drive past and see me walking, brotherless.

I barely made it through school the next day. I was nervous, but I’d pretty much made up my mind that I was going to go to California with my new friends.
There was nothing, I’d concluded, to keep me in Palatine. I hated school. I had no friends, and it seemed impossible for me to get anything more than C’s, D’s and F’s in my classes. For whatever reason, I could hardly ever catch onto the things being taught.
My horrid grades caused the teachers and other kids to decide that I just wasn’t trying, and that I didn’t study, didn’t care. It was easier to pretend like they were right. Every time I got in trouble for not turning in my homework, or got a test back with an angry red D or F on the top, I used to make my face go blank. I’d shrug it off, and stuff the paper into my backpack without a second glance. And whenever the teacher told us to find partners or get into groups to do an assignment, I would stay at my desk, glaring down at my desk, avoiding eye contact with the world. I would try to pretend like it was my choice not to participate. Even if the teacher threatened to give me a “zero” if I didn’t find a partner or get with a group, I would shrug and say, “I don’t care.” It was better han letting a teacher force me into a group of kids who didn’t want me in their group. I didn’t belong in school. Getting out a few years early seemed like my idea of Heaven.
I doubted they’d miss me at home, either, if I left. I figured nobody, at home or at school, would be bothered by my running away. I imagined writing a short goodbye note, explaining that I would be okay and to not look for me or worry about me. I would be a loss they could easily get over.
That day after school, I hightailed it to the train depot, excited to see my new friends. But when I got there, Joel and Jerome were no where in sight. Only Sally was there. She was crying her eyes out. One of the homeless people, a woman with gray hair, was comforting her.
I went over to her. “Sally, what’s the matter? Where are Joel and Jerome?”:
“I’m going home,” sobbed Sally. “I Called one of my friends in Michigan, and she said my mom is really sick. I gotta go home. I called the cops and turned myself in. Jerome and Joel took off so they won’t get in trouble,”
My heart sank. Not only had our venture to California been cancelled, but so had my only chances at having three real live friends.
“You want me to stay with you until the cops get here?” I asked Sally.
She nodded. “I’m sorry I’m ruining everything,” she whispered.
“Its okay,” I said. “You could write to me when you get back to Michigan. Will you?”
“Sure!” Sally brightened. “Maybe I can come back and visit you, one day. We stayed up all night talking about you, you know. Especially Jerome. I think he likes you.”
“Me?” This was the second time I’d been told that a boy liked me! But I was pretty sure nobody had ever stayed up all night talking about me before.
As soon as we exchanged addresses and phone numbers, the same cop from the day before came in. He walked right over to us, but he looked at me first.
“You waiting n your brother again?”
I nodded.
“Do you two know each other?” the cop asked, pointing to Sally.
“I met her yesterday,” I reminded him.
“Didn’t you meet those other kids here yesterday too?”
It took me a minute to realize that the cop didn’t know Sally was one of the same people he’d kicked out of the train depot yesterday. Her fake name and birthday had, apparently, really fooled him. I opened my mouth to explain, but stopped short, and just nodded warily. “Uh… yeah,” I said.
“Okay, young lady. I’m supposed to give you a ride to the police station. Your mom is on her way here,” the cop said.
I hugged Sally goodbye, before the cop led her outside. I went to the window and watched the cop hold the back door of the squad car open for Sally. Tears started to run down my face.
It had felt good to have friends, for a while. I couldn’t believe they were gone.
The homeless woman who’d been comforting Sally came up behind me, and put her hand on my back. “Its better this way, honey,” she said. “That little girl would have never made it on the streets.”

The police ended up picking Joel and Jerome up that night, as well. They let Joel go, and he got a ride back to Michigan with Sally and her mom. The cops kept Jerome, though. He had a warrant for some crime he’d committed years earlier, when he’d lived with his mother in Palatine. Jerome was sent to the Audy Home to wait for his trial.
I wrote to Sally the very next day. I got Joel’s address from Sally, and I wrote a letter to Jerome in care of the Audy Home. For a while, I wrote loyally to all three of them. I told myself that I was keeping everyone together, in a way, keeping Jerome and Joel and Sally updated on each other, trying to keep alive the feeling I’d had during those long hours in the train depot. Jerome, rotting away in the Audy Home, was the only one who wrote back to me regularly, even after he was transferred to a residential treatment center in Virginia. Jerome and I dreamed that someday, we were gonna get the others back together, and we were going to hitchhike to California, for real.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Exploring With The Explorers

Hi everyone! I've been MIA from this blog forever, but I'm going to get back on track and keep on cranking it out! I think I'm going to try NaNoWriMo next month, too, so that I can really get some work done!
Anyway, the saga continues...

Shortly after I started my freshman year of high school (which was, by the way, not starting off as well as eighth grade had ended) I heard my mom talking on the phone one day, making an appointment. Whatever she was saying sounded a little suspicious to me. When she hung up, I asked her, “Who were you just talking to?”
“Well, I was making an appointment for us to go to a family counselor,” Mom replied solemnly.
“What for?” I scowled. I had a feeling I knew where this conversation was going.
“Because you fight with me and Dad a lot, and we want to find out why,” said Mom.
I shook my head. “I’m not going.” I certainly didn’t want to go sit in a room with all of my family members and talk about what a bad kid I had turned out to be!
“We’re all going,” said Mom.
“That’s stupid, Mom! Its stupid!” I shouted.
I ran up the stairs and sought out Jay, who was in his room listening to music. I thought for sure he’d be my ally in this, since he was the one who wanted to believe there was absolutely nothing wrong with our family. “Jay, guess what? Mom made an appointment for us to go to family counseling!”
Instead of joining forces with me, Jay retorted, “So?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Do you want to go to family counseling?”
He glared at me. “Well, I don’t think its stoo-pid!” he retorted, mocking the words I had yelled on my way up the stairs.
“Shut up! I hate you!” I shouted back at him. I retreated to my room, slamming the door behind me.
I felt lonely and sick and scared. I didn’t want to go to counseling. I didn’t want everyone looking at me and telling me how bad I was.

Inevitably, the day came… our first day of counseling at the township’s Youth Services department. I had resigned myself to the idea, although it still made me feel uncomfortable. As we started driving down our street, my dad stopped the car to speak with our across-the-street neighbors Sharon and Mark, a couple who had moved in recently and became good friends with my parents. Sharon asked where we were off to, and my dad replied, “Just running a few errands!” It seemed sort of scary to me that my parents didn’t want to tell Sharon and Mark, two of their closest friends, where we were really going. Counseling was apparently something very shameful. Since we were going to counseling because of me, I must be shameful!
It was definitely uncomfortable, if nothing else. My parents, my brother and I were no longer very used to going anyplace together… let alone someplace where we would sit and talk to a stranger about how screwed up we were. And we didn’t really talk about our feelings, in general.
So when the counselor, a lady named Wendy, brought us into her little office, none of us were quite sure what to do with ourselves. Mostly, I think, we told jokes and made Wendy laugh.
We went to a few sessions of family counseling, each pretty much the same as the next. Wendy would meet with my brother and I together, and then with our parents, and finally with all of us together. We generally kept the mood light and avoided talking about anything serious.
There was one session when my brother Jay brought up some incident that had happened at home, between him and our mom. I do not remember, at all, what it was about. I only remember that, on the ride home, our mom yelled at my brother for bringing it up. She accused him of badmouthing her in front of the counselor.
“Well, the point of going to counseling is for the kids to be able to bring things like that up, things that are bothering, and for the counselor to help us with it,” my dad reminded her.
That made my mom even more angry. She was driving, and when we got to our house she didn’t get out of the car. My brother and I ran up to my bedroom. We could hear our parents shouting at each other outside. We looked out the window and watched our mom drive away, as my stereo played “Hey Jude” in the background. “It’s just like a movie, isn’t it?” my brother remarked.
At the next counseling session, Wendy announced that she only needed to see me from then on. I was the screwed up one, the one who needed all the help. My parents and brother were free to go, to keep on doing as they had been doing.
I went to counseling every week, alone, from then on. Except for periods of time when my mom refused to take me to see Wendy because I wasn’t getting any “better”. My grades still sucked, and I still argued a lot with my parents. Mostly with my mom. The arguments centered, of course, around my grades and my messy room. Plus I was as hypersensitive and anxious as always, and I was probably hard to get along with in my family because I could never, for the life of me, just “go with the flow.”
I guess my parents expected Wendy to be more of an ally to them… to somehow get to the bottom of me, convince me to just bring up my grades, get along with my family, and for God’s sake just act normal! Instead, Wendy let me use the counseling sessions however I wanted, and I mainly used them to just blow off steam. I’d sit on Wendy’s couch, fidget like crazy, and report to her anything that had happened at home or in school in the past week. Wendy would nod, ask questions, and take notes. Sometimes she’d try to teach me some sort of relaxation technique, or have me read a book about anxiety or social skills or something. Once, she told me that I had Oppositional Defiancy Disorder. But mostly, she just seemed baffled by me.
The year I was fourteen, Youth Services started an Explorers program for teenagers.
Explorers was a national organization, actually a branch of the Boy Scouts. Most Explorers groups had a specific theme, such as police work, fire fighting, or community service, and give kids a chance to do field work at the job they want to do when they get older. It was supposed to whip your self-esteem and discipline into shape so you could become a fine, upstanding citizen!
The group the Youth Services started was more of a haphazard, experimental group for kids who were already getting services there. The Explorers would raise money and decide what they wanted to use it for… ball games, amusement parks, bowling, miniature golf, etc. They would also get involved in community service projects. Basically, the Youth Services Explorers program woul give troubled kidss a chance to have some clean, positive experiences.
Sandy found out about the program, and thought it would help me learn some social skills and make friends. I was terrified of spending an additional hour each week with kids who could potentially make fun of me… although eighth grade had gone smoothly, in high school I had gone right back to being an outcast… but Sandy convinced me to give it a try!
At first there were only four other kids in the program. Kandice and Rick had gone to my school in junior high but now went to an alternative branch of our high school, for kids with behavior problems. Tim went to my high school but I didn’t know him. He was a somewhat “nerdy” boy who loved math and electronics and was as socially awkward as I was. He may have had some sort of autism himself. Then there was Daniel, who went to a different high school. He was the only black kid in the program. He came with his Big Brother, James, who had signed up as a volunteer with the program so that he and Daniel would have something to do together.
At first, none of us talked much. The adult leaders, a mix of Youth Services staff and volunteers, were in charge of breaking the ice for us. They’d already arranged our first outing to a team building park.
I signed up to go, but I was terrified! It would mean spending a whole day with people I barely knew. The other kids had not made fun of me so far, but that was because they hadn’t gotten to know me yet!
I was desperate to belong, though. I had to take a chance!

The morning we went to the team building park, there were two staff members, plus Daniel’s big brother, chaperoning four of us kids. (Tim didn’t go that day.) Rick and Candice jumped into the staff members’ car right away. There was no room left in that car, and I was afraid of being left behind, so I hopped into James’s car with Daniel. James and Daniel looked a little surprised when I appeared in the back seat, but they didn’t say anything. I sat silently, staring out the window, waiting for the trip to start.
At first I assumed James and Daniel didn’t like me, and resented me being in their car, because they were both very quiet on the drive. But it was only because they were both sort of shy, and I think they were just getting to know each other as well
It was actually James, and not the staff members, who made it a point to befriend me and make me feel more comfortable. At the team building park, he sensed my uncertainness, and stuck by me, helping me understand what to do. It was one of those obstacle courses where people are supposed to communicate with each other to get through the challenges. Communication and talking were not my strong points! When I was very comfortable around people I tended to be hyperactive, and when I was uncomfortable I tended to be silent, but I was never good at actually communicating! But James took me under one wing and Daniel under the other, and helped us both get through the obstacles.
After that, going to Explorers was easier for me. James had helped me make connections with Kandice and Rick, so I was not so nervous around them, but it was James and Daniel who I looked forward to seeing each week.

One of our first planned outings was to an ice skating rink. I had never learned to ice skate, I could barely rollerblade! But I’d found a pair of very old ice hockey skates in my basement, which I’d cleaned up so I could go on the outing. I was awkward on the bulky skates, and I was afraid of falling, so I inched my way around the rink, clinging to the wall.
Daniel skated up to me and demanded, “What are you doing, girl?”
“I can’t ice skate,” I admitted.
“Yeah you can! Its easy! I’ll help you!” Daniel grabbed my hand, and suddenly the two of us were whizzing around and around the rink at what seemed like ninety miles an hour! Daniel held onto me and I never fell once. I forgot to be afraid! I had a grin plastered across my face! I was exuberant! For the first time in a long time, I felt like a normal kid.

At the next Explorers meeting, Daniel and James weren’t there. They were absent from the next two meetings as well. I finally gathered the courage to ask one of the staff members where they had gone.
“Daniel won’t be coming back any more. He moved to Chicago,” said a leader named Cathy.
I couldn’t accept the idea of never seeing Daniel and James again! “Maybe we can find out where he is, and send him a letter,” I suggested.
“I don’t think that would be appropriate,” Cathy retorted.
From then on, “appropriate” was a word I hated. It was a word that would mean, don’t get close to people, don’t get attached, because they can disappear at any moment and you won’t even be allowed to look for them.

A new volunteer joined Explorers. His name was Jeff, and he couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. Us kids were excited at the idea of a volunteer who was much younger and more laid back than the ones we were used to! Jeff admitted to us that he drank and smoked weed, and that he’d been a wild kid in high school. He talked to us like we were real people, not like he was the Staff and we were the Troubled Kids.
Right when Jeff started volunteering, there was a dance, held at the community college, for all Explorers groups in the area. We went… a little reluctantly. Kandice told Rick, Tim and I that the dance was going to be lame.
Kandice was the most worldly one in our group. She hung out with eighteen and nineteen year olds, drank alcohol, went to parties, and had run away from home a few times. If she told us something was going to be lame, we took her word for it.
Sure enough, there was hardly anyone at the dance. When we tried to hang out in the section where snacks were being served, several cops who were leaders of other groups told us that we must go dance.
Instead, we ended up playing hide and seek, boys against girls! We used the entire first floor of the building to play in. When it was our turn to hide, Kandice and I stumbled upon the back stage part of the college’s auditorium.
Our game forgotten, we snuck around back stage, exploring with the excitement of kids who were somewhere they knew they probably shouldn’t be.
Eventually the staff must have wondered where we were, and they sent Jeff to find us. He came into the auditorium. Kandice and I tried to hide, but our giggles gave us away.
Instead of dragging us back to the dance floor, Jeff helped us explore the auditorium! We discovered a way to climb up into the rafters. I was enchanted by this secret world inside the college! Up there was where the magic behind the scenes of a play was created. We found where the lighting and music was controlled, where old costumes were kept, and a piece of rope which we thought could be used to make a person fly across the auditorium like Tinker Bell! Later on, I would daydream that someday I would run away from home and live in the rafters of the community college auditorium. In another daydream, I plotted to enroll in the community college when I got older, and join a drama class just so I could spend time in the rafters. I had a habit of becoming obsessed with odd things, and for the next few months my obsession was with the rafters in auditoriums.
Anyway, the dance ended, and Kandice and I pleaded to ride back to Youth Services with Jeff. Flattered by our admiration, Jeff treated us to a crazy ride, speeding and blowing traffic lights the whole way! The dude was my newest hero.
Back at youth Services, the other kid were quickly picked up by their parents, and most of the volunteers and staff members headed home. My parents were not there yet. They’d started regularly being late to pick me up from places, giving me the sinking feeling that they wanted to put off seeing me for as long as possible. That night, Cathy, the… the same staff member who had told me that it would not be appropriate to try to write to Daniel after he moved… waited with me. She made chit-chat with me, asking me how I’d liked the dance.
“It was awesome!” I told her. “Me and Kandice were sneaking around in the auditorium, and then Jeff came and showed us how to get up into the rafters! We were up there for hours! It was so cool, just like a secret room!”
Cathy raised her eyebrows . “Jeff took you up there?”
I nodded, taking her tone as a sign of her approval. “Then on the way home, he drove, like, ninety miles an hour, and he went through all the red lights!” I laughed at the memory.
“He did, huh?” Cathy smiled stiffly.
“Yeah! Jeff is so cool, isn’t he?”
It never occurred to me that I was basically ratting Jeff out. A kid like Kandice or Rick or even Tim would have known better than to cheerfully spout all of that information. But in my innocence and excitement, I never dreamed that Jeff could get into trouble.

At the next Explorers meeting, Jeff wasn’t there.
This time I remembered the disappearance of Daniel and James, so I didn’t even wait to see if Jeff showed up at another meeting. I marched right up to Cathy and demanded, “Where’s Jeff?”
“Jeff and I had a talk, and he decided that he wasn’t ready to make a commitment to volunteering,” said Cathy. “He’s very busy with work right now.”
Even I didn’t fall for that. My heart sank. “He left because of us,” I said. “He got into trouble from the dance, didn’t he.”
Cathy shook her head quickly. “Oh, no, no, no! It had nothing to do with that!”
But I knew.

One of the last Explorers activities I can remember is when there was a state-wide conference for all Explorer groups in Illinois. It was held at the Clock Tower Hotel in Rockford. The conference was two days long. We were supposed to choose and attend seminars about things like law enforcement, self-defense, and leadership skills. My little group raised money selling magazine subscriptions so we could go.
The conference happened at a time when the Youth Services department was trying to attract more kids to the Explorers group, instead of limiting it to troubled kids who already got services there. They visited different schools and put up flyers. The result was that two girls named Megan joined us. The two Megans had been best friends since kindergarten. They were fine, upstanding, straight-A, college bound, take-charge girls with straight, shiny hair and bright eyes, and they came full of ideas on how they could change and improve our group. Instead of welcoming their ideas and attitudes, we troubled kids started off resenting them. We called them “the Megans” as if they were a separate entity from us. Even after we warmed up to the Megans, we never really felt like Explorers was the same with them there.
Anyway. We would be staying overnight at the Clock Tower Hotel, and since staff members weren’t allowed to share rooms with kids because of paranoia reasons, we had to pair up.. The Megans would share one room, Rick and Tim another, and Kandice and I the third.
When we arrived that morning after a ride that seemed to last about six hours (even though I know it didn’t because Rockford is really only an hour and a half away from Palatine) we were supposed to report to the seminars we’d chosen. The Megans dutifully went off to together to the seminar they’d chosen. The rest of us, of course, completely ditched our seminars and explored the hotel. (We did a lot of exploring. We were probably the only Explorers group that really earned the title of Explorers!)
We found the game room right away. I was excited to see that they had a Pinball machine! I loved Pinball, and I was pretty good at it, as long as nobody was watching me.
Then this boy about my own age came and started watching me play. So of course I got nervous, screwed up, and lost my balls right away!
“You’re pretty good,” said the boy.
“Naw,” I replied, edging away.
The boy followed me. “You have, like, the coolest eyes I’ve ever seen! You have crazy eyes! They’re all different colors!
“Uh, thanks,” I said.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
I told him, “Nicki.”
“My name is Ron,” he said. “Nice to meet you. I saw you from across the room, and I told my friend, ‘I gotta meet that girl!`”
I was confused. Why would the boy want to meet me? I was wary of him, but I stood with him and made awkward conversation for a while. He told me he lived in Galesburg, and was in a Police Explorers club, because he wanted to be a cop when he grew up. His dad, grandpa, and uncles were all cops, and so was his older brother.
After a while, Ron had to leave and go to his seminar, and I made a beeline for Kandice. I wanted to tell her about this weird boy who kept following me and trying to talk to me!
Kandice rolled her eyes. “He likes you!”
“What for?” I wondered.
“You know! He think you’re pretty or something,” Kandice explained.
“You mean he, like, boyfriend-girlfriend likes me?”
“Was he acting like it?”
“I dunno.” I thought about it. “He said I have crazy eyes.”
“Well, there you go!” said Kandice. “He likes you!”
I forgot about Ronny, while Kandice and I explored the hotel some more. There was nothing more exciting than being two kids left to their own devices in a large, fancy hotel! This was even cooler than the rafters in the college theater had been!
We wandered into a meeting room that was empty, except for a piano in the back corner, where a large, African American man was playing a song. The man was bald headed, and was wearing a red suit and tie. We lingered in the room until the man stopped playing. We clapped.
“Thank you, thank you!” the man said.
“Do you work here?” I asked. “Is this your job, playing the piano here?”
“Not exactly,” he replied. “I’m just messing around right now. Tonight I’ll be playing in the bar downstairs. I’m Willie. Who are you?”
“I’m Kandice, and that’s Nicki,” Kandice told him.
We stayed with Willie a while longer, and he played more songs for us and told us funny stories. As always, I was thrilled to meet a kind person. All anyone ever had to do was smile at me, talk to me for a while, and I would think of them as my new best friend. So of course, I didn’t want to leave ever, and Kandice had to practically drag me away when she started to get bored.

And now this story gets a little weirder.
The Explorers organization had put on a dance for all of the Explorers. I had a bad track record with dances! But apparently, when you’re fourteen, going to dances is what you’re supposed to do, because the Explorers were always having them.
Ronny and his friend Charles came to find me and Kandice, and they decided with Kandice that the four of us were going to the dance together. Then, as soon as we walked into the dance, Kandice and Charlie vanished, leaving me alone at the table with Ronny.
The music was so loud, it hurt my ears. I couldn’t even really hear the music when it was that loud… I just heard a massive, loud rushing sound. There were strobe lights bouncing around everywhere. I felt dizzy. I could see Ronny trying to talk to me, his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear the words coming out of his mouth. For some reason he kept trying to grab my foot between his feet under the table. Things were spiraling out of control!
I got up and darted out of the room.
I felt like I was escaping something, like I was in a bad dream where someone was chasing me. Was Ronny chasing me? I didn’t look back. I just kept on running.
I needed to find a place to hide! I knew Kandice was still at the dance, and I didn’t want to go back to my room alone. But I hadn’t seen Rick or Tim there, so I decided to go to their room. Only, I couldn’t remember exactly what room it was! It was in a different hallway from our room, and Iwasn’t sure how to get there.
When I thought I had found their room, I knocked fiercely at the door. Nobody answered, so I pounded even harder.
A lady came out of a room across the hall. She was wearing a cop uniform! “They’re not in there,” she told me. “Can I help you?”
I backed away from her. “I’m just looking for Rick and Tim,” I stammered.
“That’s not their room,” said the cop. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, But the cop kept staring me. I chewed on my lip and scratched at a scab on my arm, waiting for her to go away.
“Are you on any medication?” the cop demanded. “Or drugs?”
“Nope!” I replied. “Okay, I’m gonna go look for Rick and Tim now. Bye!” I turned and shot down the hallway, leaping down the stairs three at a time.
I got to a downstairs hallway with a huge picture window overlooking the pool. I stopped to catch my breath. I stood up on a bench below the window, and looked out at the pool. It was a cool view, with window above my head and below my feet. I could imagine I was flying!
“Excuse me,” someone said.
I turned around. The cop had followed me! I turned back to look at the pool. Now my heart was pounding! I couldn’t even really remember why I had been so panicked at the dance. The noise and lights and Ronny had freaked me out. Now I had cops after me! How did I get myself into these situations?
“What are you doing up there?” the cop asked me.
“Just looking,” I said.
“Why don’t you come down from there? People might think we’re crazy.”
It felt like she was talking me down from a suicide jump or something. But how could she think I was going to jump? The window was as thick as the wall! I got down anyway. And then, who did I see, but my new friend Willie?
I ran towards him, shouting, “Willie! Help me!” I hid behind him, peeking out from behind his red suit coat.
Willie chuckled. “Whats the matter?”
“I don’t want to go back to the dance! Its dark and noisy, and that weird boy is there! And now I got this cop following me everywhere!”
“Did that boy make a bad move on you?” Willie asked.
The cop had followed me down the hall, of course, and was now eyeing both of us suspiciously. “Do you know this child?” she asked Willie.
Willie nodded casually. “Well, she’s supposed to be at the dance,” said the cop. “All of the other kids are at the dance.”
“I don’t want to go to the dance!” I protested.
“Sure you do!” said the cop. “Come on, I’ll walk down there with you.”
“Yeah, I’ll walk down there with you, too,” said Willie. He winked at me, trying to convince me.
“Alright,” I gave in.
Willie and the cop started towards the room where the dance was. I followed.
Then I had an evil idea.
I slowed my pace until I was a couple of yards behind Willie and the cop. When they passed a stairway, I bolted up the stairs! I glanced over my shoulder and saw Willie looking back at me. He rolled his eyes and shook his head.
This time, I ran directly to mine and Kandice’s room. I used my key, and burst inside. Kandice and Charles were lying on the bed in there. Rick was sitting at the end of the bed, watching TV. As I slammed the door behind me, they all looked up.
“Got the cops after me!” I panted.
“What? The cops? Why would they be after you?” Kandice stared at me.
“Because… its like…” I stammered.
“Calm down. Take some deep breaths,” Rick counseled me. He handed me an open can of warm pop. “Drink this!”
I took a long chug, even though it was diet and I hated diet pop.
Before I could try to explain again, there was a knock at the door. I ran to peep through the peep hole. There were about ten uniformed cops standing out there, in a triangle formation, with grim expressions on their faces. I wondered if they were about to bust down the door, like I’d seen on “COPS.”
I turned to the other kids. “They’re here! The cops!” I cried. “What should I do?”
“Open the door,” Kandice advised.
Rick opened it for me. The cops marched right in. I stood there, drinking my hand-me-down pop and smiling sheepishly.
“Are you Nicki?” the cop in the front of the triangle demanded.
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“Why were you running from Officer Parks?” he asked.
“Who’s Officer Parks?”
“That nice lady officer who was trying to walk with you to the dance.”
“Oh. Yeah. Because I don’t want to go to the dance!” I said for the millionth time.
“Why not?” asked the exasperated cop.
“Someone made a bad move on me,” I replied.
The cop narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean, a bad move?”
I looked back at him, bewildered. I was just repeating what Willie had said. I had no clue what a “bad move” was, or why it caused the cop to look so alarmed. I decided to just explain, “He was kicking me under the table!”
The cops looked at each other and raised their eyebrows, their mouths twitching.
When they were finally satisfied that I wasn’t going to slit my wrists or burn the building down, the cops left, warning us to keep the door open when we had boys in the room.
As soon as they were gone, I was ready to take off again. “I’m gonna go find Willie!” I declared.
“Who’s Willie?” asked Rick.
“Some black dude we met downstairs,” said Kandice. “Nicki’s in love with him.”
“I am not!” I protested. But I was already out in the hallway by then, so they probably didn’t hear me.

I walked down to the very end of the hotel, where there was a bar and a large lounge area. I found Willie sitting at the bar. “Guess what! The cops were after me but now they let me go. And I didn’t have to go to the dance. Its over. So I came here.”
“That’s good, huh,” said Willie.
He seemed amused by my company. He didn’t have anything better to do than talk to me, so we sat in the lounge outside the bar, and talked to random people coming in and out. I laughed at the drunk people who stopped and joked with us, and Willie told me more funny stories about the people he’d met. He said he lived in Freeport, which was near Rockford, but he traveled around the country playing the piano and singing. I didn’t always understand what he was talking about. But I was having the time of my life, just sitting there!
It was one in the morning when another flock of cops appeared in the lounge. These cops looked much younger than the ones who had come up to my room. I wasn’t even sure they were cops. Maybe they were just cops in training, or even older Explorers?
“Are you Nicki?” one of the alleged cops asked me. When I nodded he said, “You need to come with us. You’re supposed to be up in your room. Everyone has been looking for you!”
“I was down here. I don’t want to up to my room. I want to stay here,” I said.
“Its one in the morning. You’ve broken curfew,” said the cop.
I hadn’t even known there was a curfew. I still balked, though, even as the parade of cops led me upstairs. “I’m having fun down here! I’m not even tired!” I said, and then changed the subject. “I’m not crazy, you know.”
The cop rumpled my hair with his hand. “Oh, shut up and take your Ritalin,” he said.
When we got upstairs to the room I was staying in, I saw Kandice, Tim, Rick and the Megans all lined up outside the door with the staff. “Hi, guys!” I greeted them cheerfully. “Here I am with my police escort!” They all laughed, even the cops.
I saw Willie one more time after that, the next morning as everyone was getting ready to leave. Of course I skipped breakfast to go down to the lobby and pester him. The weird thing was, Willie was actually sleeping on the couch in the lobby. I woke him up when I got down there, to say goodbye to him. At the time, I thought it was funny, and adventurous, for someone to be sleeping in the lobby of a hotel without having a room. I never thought to ask him why. I asked him if I could write to him, and he gave me his sister’s address, which he said he used as a mailing address. The address was in a town very close to Rockford. Willie said he traveled a lot, and that was why he didn’t have his own local mailing address.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess maybe Willie was one of my first homeless people. That was one of our last Explorers adventures. A few months later, the Department Of Youth Services decided to do away with the Explorers program. Apparently, we “troubled kids” couldn’t be helped after all.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shout Out To Lake In The Hills!

Hey, who keeps reading this from Lake In The Hills? Thanks for being such a loyal reader, but... won't you say hi???

School Is Cool

I got lucky in eighth grade because my two friends, Jennie and Rose, had ended up in the same homeroom as me. In that school it was pretty coincidental that two girls I had met by chance, who I had only been in elective classes with during seventh grade, had both ended up in my homeroom. At my junior high we were sectioned off, so that even though we switched classes all day long, we would be in the same classes with all the kids in our homeroom, except for electives. Three of my classes were even taught by the same teacher, in a portable classroom outside the school. Maybe someone in the school had placed me in this group on purpose, or maybe it was just a happy coincidence, but the arrangement was perfect for me. Being in the same classroom three times a day, plus being with the same kids in every class, provided a lot more stability. Jennie and Rose were still my only real friends, but my homeroom group became like a sort of extended family. I now at least had people to talk to, and didn’t get nervous when I had to be in a group. The homeroom kids rarely teased me, and sometimes even could be counted on to stick up for me against other kids in the school. And Jennie, Rose and I grew even closer, now that we were together all day every day. Jennie and I even began telling people we were cousins, devising a story about how we had just recently discovered that our fathers were stepbrothers. When we discovered something we both had in common, we would look at each other and chorus, “Cousins!”
Although I was pretty happy in school, my grades and school work were still a mess. I liked to go to school to see Jennie and Rose and even to see the other kids, but meanwhile, I was failing every class! As for tests, I tried to study when I remembered to, and when I managed to bring the right books and material home. But I really had no idea how to study. Apparently, blankly staring at my books and notes was not the way to go. I failed tests miserably.
At one point, I decided I was so unscholarly that I was better off depending on my psychic abilities to pass tests! The next time I was given a test, I simply closed my eyes and randomly chose answers. I was genuinely shocked when I failed even that test!
Ms. Evans, the teacher who taught me English, Literature and Social Studies, started out being my least favorite teacher. She seemed to ignore me in class, but during Parent-Teacher Conferences she was quick to report all of my shortcomings to my mother. Ms. Evans told my mom that all I did in class was take up a seat. She claimed that I never turned in assignments (basically true), that I talked out of turn (guilty as charged… I was so happy with the little bit of acceptance I’d gained that I often couldn’t keep quiet!), and that I passed notes (not guilty… although I did a lot of doodling and scribbling in my notebooks when I was supposed to be taking notes!) After that conference my parents screamed at me more than ever, and I blamed it on Ms. Evans. I was especially happy when she had to have surgery and took an extended amount of time off to recover, leaving us with a substitute who I got along very well with.
Slowly, my grades seemed to improve. I still did horribly at tests. I failed the Constitution test that all eighth graders were required to pass in order to graduate. I had to take the failed test home and correct the answers, and then I was supposed to take the test a second time. Being the evil genius that I was, I looked up all the correct answers in my history book, copied them down before I turned in my first test, and memorized them by rote. When the time came to take the second test, I easily got an A+, shocking everyone.
I also did well at special, long term projects, which was good because these projects often carried more points than the smaller assignments and tests I flunked all the time. I remember writing a fictional diary of a girl traveling with the Wagon Train, for history class. For Science, I aced one project by doing a study on birth order, surveying the students in my little brother’s sixth grade class and cataloging their results in order to prove my hypothesis that birth order effected personality. Jennie and I aced another project together by researching and doing an oral report on alcoholism. (I felt I had an insider’s advantage on this one because of my family!) When I was flunking math, I brought my grade up by doing a special extra credit project, where basically I made a geometrical design on a piece of poster board. I excelled at this type of learning!
The year got better and better. Ms. Evans, once my arch nemesis, became my favorite teacher after a while! Social Studies was my last class of the day, and every day Jennie and Rose and I would stay after school to help put all the chairs on top of the desks and pick trash up off the floor, before rushing to our busses. I liked having this few minutes of extra attention and conversation with a teacher, and it seemed to improve her view of me too! She started singling Jennie and Rose, and especially me, out for other classroom jobs, such as bringing the recycling bin and garbage outside, delivering notes to the office, organizing shelves, etc. Sometimes she would even buy us sodas as rewards! I was still young enough, at least emotionally, to think of these things as privileges.
I also joined Dynamic Discussions, an after school club where we discussed a different topic or issue each Wednesday. This group helped me make more friends, and I really liked the teacher who led it, Mrs. Britton. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged!
Around this time, I seemed to develop some sort of sleeping disorder. Even though I woke up at 6:00 every morning, when nighttime rolled around, I could not fall asleep. My brother and I still had a required “bed time” mandated by my mom. I would go to bed at nine-thirty like I was supposed to, but I would usually be unable to sleep. I would read in my bed for hours, and when my eyes got too tired, I would just lie awake in misery, often until two or three in the morning. I complained bitterly about this to everyone who would listen, but nobody seemed to have any advice to give me. (My brother did tell me that I could come into his room if I was bored, because apparently he also suffered from insomnia!)
When I did manage to drift to sleep, I was plagued by horrible nightmares. I would wake up with my heart pounding in my ears. It got so bad that all I had to do was close my eyes, and horrid visions would appear before me! One time, I woke up in the night screaming bloody-murder. My parents bolted out of bed and ran upstairs, thinking I was being attacked or something! When I woke up I was sitting straight up in bed, terrified and bawling. I had absolutely no memory of what I had been dreaming about, what had frightened me so badly. Not remembering scared me even worse. I cried hysterically, begging my parents not to leave me alone! They told me I could sleep on the couch for the night, but even the couch, right outside my parents’ bedroom, was too scary for me. I couldn’t stop crying.
“I want to go to school!” I bawled.
“What? You don’t want to go to school?” asked my mom, guessing that something at school had happened that was tormenting me and had caused my nightmare.
But, “No, I do want to go to school!” I sobbed. “Please take me to school!” School, with its brightly lit classrooms and hallways, where the kids were now tolerant ofand even friendly to me, where the teachers took time to talk to me, where even the janitor smiled at me and ruffled my hair when he saw me, now seemed like a safe haven.
“School is closed right now. It’s three in the morning,” my dad told me.
“I want to go anyway,” I wept.
In the end, my dad slept on the couch, and I slept in my parents’ bed next to my mom. It was the only way I could get any sleep. And in the morning, I happily went off to the comfort and safety of school.

As the weather started to get warmer and the sun started to shine more often, my mood lifted even more. I spent as much time outside as I could… either wandering the streets aimlessly with Jennie, Rose or Lyndsie after school, or occasionally hanging out with my brother and his friends, who had become quite the group of wanna-be juvenile delinquents! One particular time, Jay and I walked into the downtown area of our neighborhood, where we ran into a few of Jay’s friends… the twins, Jerry and Jack, who had been notoriously bratty since before kindergarten, and another boy named Brett… hanging out in front of the drug store. At the drug store you could get a warm, generic can of soda for only ten cents, and Jay’s friends were begging passer-byers for spare change so they could get some pops. Jay and I were sort of lingering around, enjoying the act, when one older man got very angry at the boys. He scowled and told them, “You children are very gull.”
“So what? We don’t even know what that means!” the boys retorted.
“It means, rude beyond belief,” the man said. “And I’m calling the police!”
Jerry and Jack shouted some nasty words after the man. But they soon lost interest and started to walk away, along with their sidekick Brett. Jay and I trailed after them.
We walked around in town for a while. I didn’t like Jack and Jerry very much. They were loud-mouthy and show-offy. But this was the first time I had met Brett, who seemed like a much nicer kid, the kind of kid I would have wanted to be friends with. I was enjoying being part of a group along with my brother, even temporarily. It sort of reminded me of the days when I used to hang out with Jay and Pete and Ben!
We came around the block, on the same street as the drug store but about a block away. I glanced over in that direction, and saw that there were two cop cars parked right in front of the drug store. “Oh no,” I gasped, “he really did call the cops!”
We all ran off. The twins ran in one direction, and Jay and Brett and I went in another. We crept stealthily around town for a while, making our way home through the back streets and neighborhoods, trying to avoid the busy streets where we assumed the cops would be.
My heart was pounding like crazy! I was sure that we were on our way to jail! Jay tried to reassure me. “It’s no big deal. Jerry and Jack get the cops called on them all the time. Besides, we didn’t do anything wrong!”
Still, even Jay was a little nervous… if not about the cops themselves finding us, then about my mom finding out that we had been somehow involved. Our mom was the kind of person who everyone seemed to know. She had friends everywhere. The most horrible thing my brother and I could have done would be to do something to displease some adult… anyone else… a teacher, a storekeeper, or anyone… that could possibly embarrass my mom.
We went home and ran up to my room, where we talked and laughed about our “adventure”. All the while, we kept looking out my window, expecting the police to drive down our street any minute now to report us to our mother.
I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and classmates about the episode! I wanted them to think that I had an exciting life, even when they weren’t around.

I was really enjoying the feeling of belonging. I felt like school was my home. On yearbook day I wanted to pick up the yearbook I had ordered months and months earlier… but to my chagrin, the PTA moms handing out the yearbooks said they didn’t have my order!
“But I know I ordered one!” I said in dismay. I had probably meant to order one, but had lost the order form, or forgotten to turn it in, or something! It was possible to buy one on the spot with cash, but I didn’t have that kind of money on me! All I had was my three dollar allowance, and my school lunch card!
While all the kids in my homeroom were signing each other’s yearbooks, I complained to Ms. Evans. I was nearly in tears! “I really wanted a yearbook!” I sighed.
“Tell you what, kiddo,” said Ms. Evans. “I’ll get you a yearbook if you promise me one thing… when you grow up an become a writer, you have to dedicate one of your books to me!”
“Sure! I can do that!” I grinned.
So I got a yearbook, and filled it with signatures, and I was happy as a clam.

I even went to the eighth grade graduation dance, at the end of the school year. I went with Jennie and Rose, not with a boy, but still, I went. A few days later Rose and I attended a graduation party at Jennie’s house. Just like a regular kid! I was sad, so sad, to see eighth grade end. To make matters worse, Jay was going to be starting seventh grade there in the fall, while I would move onto the uncharted territory of high school. On the last day of school, I actually cried from homesickness. It was the first, and last, time I would ever be sad about summer vacation starting.

Some People Aren't So Trustworthy

Whenever there was an occasion for my mom to get gifts (Christmas, Mother’s Day, her birthday, etc) my dad would take Jay and I to the store and help us pick out some gifts for her from us. Jay and I were pretty good at picking out gifts based on what we knew Mom liked. She always wore the colors red and black, and she loved cows, so many times we would pick out red and black clothing, red and black jewelry, or clothing or jewelry that had cows on them! Other times my dad would sort of guide us to pick out something that he already knew she wanted.
No matter what we got her, when Mom unwrapped her gift, she would thank us profusely, tell us how wonderful we were… and then tell us that she was going to return it and get something else. “I already have earrings just like this,” she would say, or, “I really don’t like this kind of material.” Every time!
We grew to expect it, but it still hurt our feelings. My mom would tell us she was going to return something, and Jay and I would groan, “Oh my God, Mom!”
The year I was in eighth grade, as Mother’s Day grew near, I decided I’d found the perfect solution. I’d get her a gift certificate! That way, she couldn’t return it. Cappuccinos were just starting to get really popular, and a small cappuccino shop called Mr. Cappuccino’s had just opened up a few blocks away from my house. I decided to get her a gift certificate from there.
The week before Mother’s Day, my brother and I walked up to Mr. Cappuccino’s and asked them if they had gift certificates available. The young man behind the counter told me that he didn’t have any yet, but he would the next week. Seeing my face fall, he asked, “When do you need one by?”
“I wanted to give it to her for Mother’s Day,” I said.
The man thought about it. “You know what? Come back in a few hours, and I’ll have some,” he said.
I went home with my brother, and after a few hours I walked back up to Mr. Cappuccino’s. The same man was behind the counter. “You came back!” he said. As he filled out the gift certificate I had requested, he asked me some questions… the usual questions adults ask kids, like whether I lived near by (obviously I did, since I had walked there twice in one day!), what school I went to, etc.
But his questions were enough to set my mind spinning. I was delighted that the guy behind the counter had recognized me (even though only a few hours had passed), had gone through all the trouble of somehow acquiring gift certificates for me, and had been kind and talked to me. These days, I didn’t encounter a whole lot of adults who showed any sort of interest in me, other than to yell at me! The fact that someone in a store had singled me out for attention just amazed me.
I began going to Mr. Cappuccino’s on a regular basis. At first I would just stop there once or twice a week, and stay just long enough to drink a hot chocolate. The owner, Cort, was a guy in his late twenties who lived in an apartment above the shop. He worked at the shop almost constantly, and when he wasn’t working, his mother was there tending the shop. The shop was very popular, and at certain times it would be jam-packed with customers… but at other times only the “regular” customers, mainly Cort’s friends, gathered at the counter. I quickly became one of the regulars… in fact, I got into the habit of going there every day right after school, and staying until evening. On weekends, I might be there from open to close! I would sit up on the stool, nursing my hot chocolate for all it was worth, swinging my legs and cheerfully talking with Cort and his friends. I was thirteen and still very young for my age, and the people at the coffee shop generally treated me like someone’s goofy little sister. They’d ask me about school and crack jokes with me and buy me more hot chocolates.
Sometimes they’d talk about serious matters like politics, or tell stories from their childhoods, and I learned a lot about the world from listening in on these conversations. From Mr. Cappuccino’s I learned that every person in the world had something to say, some story to tell, and some lesson to teach. In a way, I was lucky, because I informally had a whole roomful of adult mentors.
Other times, everyone seemed to forget I was there, and they’d talk about more adult topics like sex, or make dirty jokes. I absorbed everything they said, like a sponge. I would go to school in the morning and repeat dirty jokes and stories to my friends, laughing hysterically even though I didn’t really understand what I was saying. Then I’d go to school and repeat the jokes to Jennie and Rose, who just shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me!
As the shop grew more popular, Cort opened up a second location, in a different town. He then had to split his time between the two shops, and more and more often it was easier for him to stay at the second, larger shop and hire other people to work at the tiny shop that I frequented. His friends no longer came around the small shop as much, and were replaced by different “regulars” who weren’t quite sure what a really weird 14-year-old was doing sitting in a coffee shop sucking down hot chocolates seven days a week. I did make friends with some of the new employees. I grew very attached to one in particular, a college student who came to work there full time during his winter vacation the year I was a freshman in high school. I was used to being around the adults at the shop, but I thought it was awesome that this college dude, young enough to still sort of be a kid but old enough for me to look up to, would pay attention to me. During that winter vacation, I spent even more time at the shop. But when January came, the guy went back to his college in Florida. I was brokenhearted! And the other young employees were never quite as nice as that guy had been.
Eventually, the little cappuccino shop lost its luster for me. It didn’t help that my little brother, and my friends at school, repeatedly pointed out that perhaps Cort and the others at the shop were only nice to me because I “gave them money.” That idea made me feel somehow dirty, and lonely. I frequented the shop less and less, until I barely showed up there at all anymore.
I was always getting attached to people and places, though… especially adults. Any time an adult showed me any sort of friendliness or kindness, they would become a hero in my eyes. There was an older lady who lived on one corner, who was often outside raking her leaves, and the middle-aged lady on another corner who was often outside with her little maltese puppy. The Hispanic family down the street always tolerated my presence in good spirits… which was a little ironic because one of the daughters in that family was a grade younger than me, and rode on the same school bus as me, but showed no interest in being my friend. She thought it was sort of annoying that I was hanging around with her mother, uncles, and little brother, but there was not much she could do about it!
I even had my own tag-along, a six-year-old girl named Tammy. Like the Hispanic family I was friends with, Tammy’s family also included a kid who rode on my school bus, a boy named Ben who was a year younger than me. I was on more friendly terms with Ben than I was on with the girl from the family down the street, though. His mother, stepfather, and siblings had moved to our neighborhood a year earlier, but Ben had been living with his real father in another state and hadn’t joined them until a few months later. Ben and I had become friends at the bus stop, before he’d gotten the chance to find out that I was an unpopular kid at school. We never did become great friends, but Ben never teased me, and at the bus stop or at his house we often hung out and talked as if we were friends. He thought it was a little weird that I spent so much time with his little sister, but since it mostly meant that he got a break from babysitting her, he didn’t mind it at all.
Ben told me that his real father was a severe alcoholic, and that Ben had often survived only by raiding his father’s pockets for money after he passed out drunk. His stepfather wasn’t an alcoholic, at least not very obviously, but he physically disciplined his own sons and Ben pretty harshly. Ben told me that his stepfather had once given his younger stepbrother a bloody nose. And as for Ben’s mom, she didn’t seem to like him at all. When I was there, she would make fun of Ben, calling him names, and encouraging Tammy to join in. Ben was yet another stray kid.
Another one of my neighborhood idols was Charlie, a twenty-two-year-old headbanger who lived a block away from me. I first met him when his semi-feral cat had kittens. Tammy and I would go to his house every single day after school, asking to play with them. Charlie obliged, bringing the kittens out for us every single day and sitting with us on the tiny porch of his house.
When I was thirteen, twenty-two seemed so worldly. I just about worshipped Charlie. A lot of the other adults in my world, including my mom and my guidance counselors, worried when they found out about my friendship with Charlie. They were sure that he was some sort of child molester. Plus, with his long, wild black hair and rock band clothing, he was pretty well recognized in our neighborhood… and not in a good way! My mom couldn’t believe that I had gotten to know that weirdo!
But looking back now, I think that Charlie really was just another stray kid, albeit a little bit older than most of my stray kid friends. His mother had died when he was a kid, and his father was an alcoholic. Like a lot of the kids I knew, Charlie had been left to figure things out for himself in life. I think maybe his headbanger personality was something he created on purpose, in junior high or high school, to help himself survive.
At any rate, Charlie was my biggest hero, and the adult I spent the most time with! He took his role seriously enough and helped me through life in his own way. When I talked about running away from home, he would talk me out of it. “I know you’re smart enough to take care of yourself, but it would be really hard, because you’re too young to get a job or drive or anything,” he would point out. “Just stay with your parents for now. At least it’s a free place to sleep, and free food.” When I complained about the teachers and mean kids in school, he would tell me, “They’re just stupid. You just have to ignore them.” He taught me not to take life so seriously and to be thankful for smaller things in life.
Not all of the adults I automatically trusted were so worthy of it, though!
There was one man, an Indian guy called Rabu who worked as a bagger at the Jewel grocery store on the corner. The kids in my neighborhood were constantly running in and out of the Jewel, buying (or stealing) candy and pop or looking for free samples or just enjoying the air conditioning. I was no different. I found a reason to go into the Jewel at least once a day. When Rabu was working he would smile and say hello to me. Always looking for someone to become attached to, I made sure to look for him whenever I went into the store.
One day Tammy and some other kids and I were playing soccer in the empty lot next to the Jewel. Rabu was collecting shopping carts from the parking lot, and when he saw us he walked over to where we were. I stopped playing soccer and went to say hi to him. English was his second language and he wasn’t all that great at speaking it, so our conversations were always awkward.
Behind us, the other kids stopped playing soccer and wandered off, probably to play in Tammy’s backyard. Rabu took my hand and held it. “Do you like that?” he asked.
I thought he was looking at the ring on my hand, which was made out of a sea shell. “Yeah! Its made out of a sea shell! I got it in Wisconsin,” I told him.
Rabu nodded. “Can I give you a kiss?” he asked.
I knew that people from other countries were always kissing each other to say hello or goodbye. My Italian family members were always kissing me at weddings and stuff. I thought Rabu wanted to give me a friendly peck on the cheek, so I nodded cheerfully.
But it turned out he actually wanted to kiss me!
I pulled away from him, startled. “I gotta go home now,” I said, and darted away. I ran home and scrubbed the heck out of my face with a wash rag and steaming hot water!
I was a dumb kid because I trusted everyone, especially in my neighborhood. In a neighborhood where most of the parents worked and the kids ran amok, I had believed that the adults I encountered would always be like substitute parents and look out for me. Usually I was right. But Rabu was the first person who taught me that some adults were not trustworthy.
From that day on, I had a pukey feeling in my stomach whenever I went into the Jewel, and I rarely went in there anymore. When I had to, because the other kids wanted to go in or because I was with my parents or something, I avoided looking at Rabu. Sometimes I would be standing in line, carefully managing not to look in Rabu’s direction, and I could feel his eyes burning holes in me. This lasted a few years, until suddenly Rabu didn’t work there anymore, and I could go into the Jewel whenever I wanted to again.

Stray Kids

“You know what we are?” I told my best friend, Lyndsie. We sat against the brick wall in the alley between the bar and Joe’s Barbershop, licking ice cream cones we had just bought at Baskin Robbins with half of my lunch money for the week. We were fourteen and liked to believe we had complete freedom in the world. “We’re stray kids,” I said. I liked the sound of that. I thought it described me and Lyndsie completely. And it was better than lost kids. “We’re two stray kids who nobody really wants around.”
Lyndsie rolled her eyes. “Maybe you are. I don’t want to be a stray kid. I’m just a regular person, like everyone else.”
That was the thing about Lyndsie. She was always trying too hard to be like everyone else. You know how adults are always saying, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff too?” Well, if everyone else jumped off a cliff, Lyndsie would definitely be right there with them.
In Kindergarten and first grade Lyndsie and I had both lived in Wheeling, where we’d met each other at school and become best friends. Her family had moved to Palatine at about the same time as my family had. We lived only about five minutes away from each other, but we lived in different school zones so our paths never crossed. Even though our mothers had remained good friends, we had never seen each other again.
Then in seventh grade our mothers had decided to reintroduce us to each other. They’d taken us out for lunch together. In a lot of ways Lyndsie and I were opposites. She wore makeup, liked fashion, listened to pop music, and tried to be popular in school. I had little or no interest in fashion and makeup, liked listening to the Oldies Station, and had given up on being popular. But in a lot of ways we were similar. We both had strange family lives. My parents fought constantly, my mother was borderline abusive, and my dad had recently been arrested for drunk driving. Her parents also fought constantly, her father was borderline abusive to her and her younger sister, and her mentally unstable mother often threatened suicide. Lyndsie and I led lonely lives, and by the end of the long school day we were always bursting with pent-up energy and dying for someone to talk to. At age twelve we’d had to be content with going to each other’s houses after school, or having one of our mothers drop us off at the library or the mini-mall. Despite their various shortcomings as parents, our collective parents had had a ton of rules for us. But by the time we were fourteen we were more independent, riding our bikes to each others houses whenever we wanted to and roaming around the town when the weather was nice.
Lyndsie was teaching me how to be a normal kid. I mean, she didn’t actually set out to do that, but she was like a bridge between my world and the rest of the world. At school, she hung out with the older, rebellious kids. She listened to “in” music, wore makeup, went to parties, and experimented with smoking and drinking.
I couldn’t bring myself to do any of those things. But I did cut off my hair! I just took a pair of scissors, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, and lopped it off. Instead of being wild and uncontrollable, now it hung in swirls and banana curls around my face.
I also adopted the uniform of jeans, T-shirts and unbuttoned flannels, the look of musicians like Kurt Kobain. Before I had always looked sort of raggedy, but now I looked like I was following the popular style. By my second year of high school, I actually sort of blended in… as long as I didn’t talk much!

“What do you wanna do now?” I asked her.
“I dunno. We could go to your house.”
“Naw.” I hated going to my house.
“Then lets go to my house.”
“There’s nothing to do there.”
“There’s nothing to do here either,” Lyndsie pointed out.
“Fine,” I sighed.
We walked all the way back to her house, taking a shortcut through Community Park. But when we got there, her parents weren’t home and the doors were locked. Lyndsie’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who earned extra money babysitting for a two-year-old boy we called Charlie Brown, so Lyndsie didn’t have a house key like I did. We went through the gate into the back yard and sat around, waiting.
I lay back in the grass and looked up at the clouds, searching for something to amuse myself. “Hey, look, I see a giraffe!” I declared.
I thought Lyndsie would make fun of the childish game, but instead she giggled and lay down next to me. “I see a tyrannosaurus rex,” she said.
“That one looks like a bulldozer!”
“Hey, that one looks like Charlie Brown’s head!”
“Dude, if you stare up at the sky long enough, it feels like you’re floating!”
We stared up at the sky in silence.
“Wow,” breathed Lyndsie.
“This is why I’ll never do drugs,” I mused. “Because people like us, we can get high off life.”
“Yeah,” Lyndsie agreed, “you’re right.”
We stayed that way until after dusk, when Lyndsie’s mom and her little sister and Charlie Brown came home and let us into the house.

By that time, I had actually managed to make a few friends as school as well. My friendship with Lyndsie had helped me polish up my social skills a little. But the kids I became friends with at school were other “stray” kids, kids who got teased at school and were unwanted at home.
First there was Mallory, who I met towards the end of seventh grade. She had just transferred to our school from a private school. Mallory was tall for her age, very overweight, and also very unkempt. She was plagued by horrid acne on her face, and she didn’t wear deodorant, although she did wear very heavy perfume. We were in gym class together, and that was where we met, bonded by the fact that both of us sucked at sports and got picked last for teams. Our gym teacher in seventh grade often let us spend the class period in “Open gym”, which basically meant we could do whatever we wanted, as long as we were in motion. We would walk around the gym and talk, or play catch. We rode the school bus together too, and soon our friendship had expanded to getting off the bus at each other’s stops and visiting each other’ houses.
Mallory lived with her mother, stepfather, older sister, and three younger half siblings. Her stepfather’s brother also stayed with the family. She adored her younger siblings, especially eleven-year-old Sari, who had cerebral palsy. But the adults in her family were often cruel to Mallory. Her stepfather and step-uncle were constantly yelling at her, and instead of sticking up for her, her mother would warn her to “lay low” around them. The stepfather wasn’t even Mallory’s first stepfather! He was her mother’s third husband. And he wasn’t the father of Mallory’s younger siblings.
The one bright spot in her life was the volunteer work she did, every Saturday, at a local nursing home. She would roam around and talk to the residents, and would often stay all day long. She loved it there so much, she invited me to come with her. It quickly became one of my favorite places, too! We didn’t have any rules or supervision there, but just roamed around the facility, talking to people and helping out where we could.
Mallory got teased all the time at school, and although I stuck up for her, my word didn’t carry much weight with the other kids since I was a “nerd” myself. Little by little, Mallory started to shut down. She stopped wanting to hang out with me, and even though we still sat together on the bus, she would usually pop on her headphones and ignore me.
Then one day, she just wasn’t at school anymore. Her absence stretched out longer than a regular illness would have. I called her house several times but couldn’t get a hold of her.
“Maybe she committed suicide because we teased her,” joked one of the girls in the locker room.
“You’d be proud of that, huh?” I snapped at them.
They didn’t know how close they were to the truth. Mallory’s mother eventually called me and let me know that Mallory was in a mental hospital. She was there for over a month.
As if Mallory’s heart wasn’t broken enough, the nursing home we volunteered at called her mom while she was in the hospital, and told her mom that Mallory and I were not going to be invited back to volunteer anymore. The head of volunteer services, who I’d never met or seen, said we showed up when we weren’t scheduled to work, and didn’t do anything but roam around.
When I heard that, I felt like I’d been punched in the heart. I’d loved volunteering at the nursing home… and now I was being told that I wasn’t wanted there? But as hard as it was for me to hear, I could only imagine how much it hurt Mallory.
She eventually came back to school, and seemed to be doing much better… but shortly thereafter, her family moved to Schaumburg, and Mallory transferred to another school. We talked on the phone a lot, but now that we didn’t ride the same bus or even go to school together, it was hard to visit each other.
One day Mallory ran away from home. She didn’t run very far… she just went to the mall that was a few blocks from her house. Her parents called the police on her, and when they came to get her, they took her to another mental hospital. This time, when Mallory got out, she was sent to live with her dad, in Wauconda. Wauconda was in northern Illinois, in a different area code and everything, and at that time, it may as well have been Alaska. I never saw or heard from Mallory again.
A mutual friend Mallory and I had had was Rose, yet another kid who was always getting made fun of at school. Rose was a tormented soul, and I never did find out everything about her. She came from a very secretive family, where she and her two brothers were mostly raising themselves while their parents co-existed unpeacefully in the same household. I learned eventually that Rose’s father regularly abused her mother. “The sound of her crying is like my alarm clock,” Rose once told me. That was only one of the secrets in her troubled life.
Then there was Jennie, one more girl who was teased a lot at school, although at least her home life was a little more simple than mine or Rose’s. I was at her house more often than not, whenever I could persuade someone to give me a ride there. Jennie and I used to pretend we were cousins. In fact, we convinced our teachers that we really were cousins! We made up an elaborate story about how our fathers were stepbrothers but since their parents had not married each other until our fathers were adults, they didn’t really know each other that well, and that Jennie and I had just recently discovered that we were related by marriage. We invented a game we called “The Game,” where we would go out in public places and talk loudly about the fake life we supposedly had as cousins, and about our fake collective family and everything. Sometimes the Game involved pretending we were deaf, and speaking to each other using the ASL alphabet. It was a silly game, but we liked being silly! Whenever we realized we had something in common, we would chorus, “Cousins!” and make the ASL sign for cousins in the air. How weird we were!
Rose was usually silly with us too. Together the three of us would roam the streets, making up silly songs and inventing our own crazy world. But once in a while, Rose would snap, declaring that she really hated us. “I just pretended to be friends with you guys because I needed someone to hang out with!” she once shouted at us, for no apparent reason. “I pretend to like those stupid games, and those stupid songs, but I really hate them! I never liked either of you and I never will!” Then she would quite calmly ask us how we felt about that. “Do you have anything to say? Anything at all?” she would prod.
Jennie and I were never quite sure what to say about that! We weren’t the kind of kids who liked to argue. One thing our families really did have in common was that we’d been trained to be quiet and polite “good” little girls. We would just exchange nervous glances and say, “I guess… I dunno…”
For a brief while in the beginning of high school, we were also friends with Dennis, a boy who the other kids made fun of because they claimed he was gay. He did seem to have a little “sugar in his step”… literally, the way he walked and talked and acted seemed rather feminine. He claimed it was because he had grown up with four older sisters. Dennis loved to cook and he loved drama… he was in the drama club at school and was passionate about it. We liked him because he was funny, and because… well, he was a boy! It was just sort of interesting to be friends with a boy! Even a boy who acted like a girl!
But Dennis wasn’t all that nice as a person. Although he should have known what it was like to be picked on, he made fun of other people relentlessly. There was one girl who was overweight, who he constantly called “Heiffer”. He would make mooing sounds whenever he saw her. I didn’t like that girl very much, myself, for different reasons. We were in an English class together once during our freshman year of high school, and since we sat near each other in our assigned seats, we had started out at least as friendly acquaintances. But after a while, the girl had started ignoring me at class, and rolling her eyes at me when I tried to talk to her. When I asked another acquaintance why this girl suddenly seemed to hate my guts, he explained, “She said you never keep your feet quiet in class.”
That was probably true! I was always antsy in class and had trouble sitting still. I was constantly moving, swinging my legs and tapping my feet. I usually wasn’t even aware I was doing it! Since the classroom floors were carpeted, it didn’t cause a disruption… unlike in elementary school, when the floors had been tile, and my teachers had often interrupted their lessons to scold me, “Nicki, sit still!” But for some reason, my swinging legs had disturbed this girl enough to make her hate me. So, truthfully, I wasn’t all that upset about Dennis making fun of her. It still made me a little uncomfortable, though, and I never joined in.
The one thing my friends and I all had in common was that none of us quite fit in. We were strays, stray kids, whether Lyndsie thought so or not.
 
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