The Set-up

Meet the boy nicknamed RoRo. Eight-years-old with a four-year-old brother and a father in jail. He lives in a low-income housing project in Anacostia, but his mom has driven him across the river to this Columbia Heights writing center. It’s his first visit to 826DC, a writing and tutoring center I co-founded after meeting kids like RoRo and his mom nearly four years ago.

He makes a beeline for the treasure chest in our Unnatural History Museum store. His backpack throws him off balance when he leans forward for a better look. The chest is filled with sand and random, unnatural bones available for any young person’s taking, but there’s a price: one bone per joke told to the 826DC staff.

He turns to his mom, Ashley. “Mom, I need a joke. Mommy, tell me one.”

She’s juggling an incoming text, our parental consent form and her younger son, nicknamed Papa. She doesn’t hear.

Papa doesn’t hear him, either. He’s figured out how to zip his jacket hood over his face and ears and he’s trying to show his mom, or anyone’s mom, how funny this is. As RoRo is led to a table where kids with homework and tutors are already at work, his eyes remain on his mom and the treasure chest.

Papa spots a white, plastic dinosaur that lives in the back of 826DC and begins to tug at Ashley’s arm. Her eyes are locked on the form she has to fill out before she can answer the text her friend’s sent. Papa turns to me, pulls my hand.

“Don’t you want to take him?” I ask her. “The form can wait.”

“You take him. I’m not good with kids sometimes. Not even my own.”

The Story

We leave RoRo with his homework and dreams of the treasure chest’s bones, and take her four-year old to Starbucks. I’ve been buying Ashley Frappuccinos since late 2007 when she agreed to participate, using the nickname Gemini, in the Dispatches From the Anacostia series. Of all the teenagers I met, Ashley had it the worst: in and out of juvie jail from the age of 11, two kids by two fathers and dancing with a drug habit all the way through. She’s also the only teenager I met who somehow earned her GED, stayed in college, kept a job and won custody of her two children. DC offers more resources, at the federal and local levels, than any other city I know of. We also have one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Things aren’t syncing up. I’ve asked Ashley a hundred times how she’s able to break through when her friends aren’t, and one hundred times she’s shaken her head. It’s a mystery. Or a messed-up joke.

For weeks, her voicemail message has been “Joy to the world! You’ve reached the beautiful believer.” In the four years I’ve known her, she’s never been anything but Ashley. Once we’re situated with Frappuccinos and cupcakes, I ask. “What’s with your voicemail?”

“God’s back in my life. He’s saved me and my boys.” A sideways look at me. “You don’t like it?”

“It’s catchy.” I shake my head at the cupcake she offers to share. “All yours.”

“I went to church a lot growing up.” She studies the phone screen while reaching for the glove her four-year-old’s knocking to the ground. “It keeps me on track.”

“And the job search?” She’s recently lost the job she had with the government.

“People in the church are helping me find something new. That and a new place to live. I need something to fill my days. I don’t like having this much time on my hands.” She breaks off another edge of the cupcake and feeds it to Papa. She says, as much to him as to me, “I used to know a lot of jokes.”

“What’s wrong with the apartment you’ve got?” I ask. I know the answer before she says it. I’ve heard it before.

“I’m behind on my rent. A few months. It’ll be okay, though.” She sucks down the last of the sweet tea. “There was this one joke. It starts…” Her phone rings again. “Damn, I can’t remember. But we’ve got to go.”

We walk back across a plaza. It’s winter and boys stomp their feet to stay warm while they wait for rides. Ashley’s son drifts toward the older kids. She keeps a tight hold on his hand though she doesn’t talk to him at all.

“I’ve got a storage unit where I’m keeping our extra things,” she tells me. “I got behind on the rent. Six months behind. And the owner calls. He’s going to give away all my things! My journals, my poetry, everything. So I pulled together enough to get current.”

“Why didn’t you put the money to your apartment rent?”

“I can’t have anyone throwing away my journals and all my poems. No way that can happen.” She lets go of Papa’s hand to rub hers together. She blows on them and takes his hand. She does this a few more times, warming her own hands and then his. “You know what I mean?”

The church is finding her a new home. There are shelters, housing agencies and support systems every which way she turns, funded by individuals and waiting to help. But no one will house her dreams and journals if she doesn’t, and she didn’t nickname herself Beautiful Believer for nothing. “You bet I do.”

A smile comes over her face. She drops the phone into her pocket. “I remembered a joke.”

Papa’s gloves fall to the ground as she hurries inside, never letting go of his hand.

The Punch Line

5:30 and RoRo is waiting for us. He keeps his eye on the front door and avoids looking at the treasure chest as he walks past it.

Ashley puts a hand on his shoulder and stops him. “I’ve got one for you.”

She squats down and whispers it. His eyes dart around as he listens. He pulls back to look her in the eye. They both laugh, a 22-year-old enjoying a joke with an 8-year-old who could have been her little brother, but is instead her son.

RoRo turns to the 826DC store volunteer. His chest puffs a little and he tips his head back. He even holds his hands the way the comedians do on stage. The way his mom does from time to time when I catch her on good days, when she’s got a job, the rent’s paid and her days full.

“Why’d the orange roll back down the hill?” he asks.

The volunteer shakes his head.

“Because it ran out of juice!”

Before we’re even done laughing, RoRo’s making a beeline for the treasure chest. “Mommy, which one should I choose? This one looks like a chicken leg. But this one could be an elephant’s foot. Which one?”

“Whatever your heart desires,” she answers.

RoRo picks a bone he decides must have belonged to a prehistoric creature of unknown origins and knocks it against the side of the treasure chest. He holds it up to the light to check for cracks. He raps his knuckles against the curved end and the thunking sound brings a smile to his face.

The Other Punch Line

“Why’d the orange roll back down the hill?” Ashley says again, in case I didn’t hear it the first time. But, before she can deliver the line about running out of juice, RoRo taps Papa on the head with the bone. Not hard, but not softly either. She kneels, arms around them, to mediate. The punch line goes undelivered.

DC has more non-profits and resources than any other city in the United States. We’ve also got more graduate degree holders than those with college degrees, so you’d think we could get this right. But young people living below the poverty line “roll back down” every day. Rolling backward, despite all the resources and educated, engaged people, is the norm here.

Ashley unzips her four-year-old’s hood a few inches so he can see. They walk out, a boy on each side of a very young woman who screws up jobs and housing sometimes, like all 22-year-olds do, while also trying to be a mom. She may roll back down the hill sometimes, but she’s got the gumption to keep a roof over her boys’ heads, food on the table and school on their minds, and that’s a new punch line to an old joke we’ve heard too often.