In August, Matthew and Charles talked about the fun of cutting good trails. In September, joined by another ECC member, 18-year-old Elaya, they talk of disappointment and the search for solid ground now that they’ve been let down. By the end of September, the only certainties are their having each other’s backs and our refusal to ever eat at Subway again. This sandwich shop is being thrown out like the baby with the bathwater. It’s where we first talked about cutting trails, then setbacks, and where we’re ultimately stood up by the person we most want to help. In October, we’re settling on a new place. The realization has come, though, after a month spent trying to avoid the slippery slope back to bad habits and dead streets that are now almost starting to make sense.
September began well enough. They all made it into the full-time ECC program and were asked to start work on, of all days, September 11. Elaya cheered her best friend/“sister” through her final week of pregnancy. Matthew saw Virginia for the first time when he accompanied his former ECC supervisor, Josh, on a weeklong construction project. Charles read Go Tell It on the Mountain, watched television, and looked toward the promise of full-time work.
Matthew tried to find Charles before leaving on the trip both wanted to take, but Charles had left his grandmother’s house and no forwarding number was offered. Charles’s grandmother believes in a tough-love style he respects, although it’s sent him away more than once. Over burgers at the Navy Yard Five Guys that first week of September, Charles talked about his leaving school at 14. “My grandmother was, like, if you’re not going to go to school, you’re not going to stay here. I was crying when she told me. I could have stayed and taken care of her. But I wouldn’t ever disrespect her.” Charles left on good terms all those years ago, and now, unable to help with the bills after his last summertime ECC check ran out, he left on equally good terms. The only problem: he lost out on a trip and on work he had really wanted.
Still, in early September, Charles’s spirits were high. He’d finished Go Tell It on the Mountain and had studied the list of Baldwin’s other works. He enjoyed the book, but found it depressing. “Hard” he called it. But, he added, “I want to read more fiction. I can put myself in most situations in those books.” He needed a new book because he didn’t want to be outside for those final days before ECC work resumed. “Somebody told me that when I started working, I was going to stay in the house and not come outside. I no longer get high. I no longer drink. I don’t want to look down on nobody I came up with, because I know the troubles they’re going through, and it’s hard.” But he also wouldn’t hang out on the streets with them.
On September 11, Charles, Elaya, and Matthew learned that the ECC still hadn’t restaffed adequately to kick off the yearlong program. The organization offered to help them find temporary jobs until the program started, in November, but these three felt betrayed by the setback regardless. They don’t trust that the program will start, and they can fill an afternoon of sandwiches and my cop-counting telling me why.
“Our lives have been full of letdowns and here’s another one and we’re all out there lost again,” Matthew explained after getting the news. “They told us we had to commit to them, but they haven’t committed to us. We knew we’d stay busy and the work would tire us out and give us something hard to do, that we’d come home deadbeat tired and go straight to sleep. We just knew that a whole year of that alone would change us out, grow us up, and show us how to handle ourselves.”
Matthew had, at this point, already filled out an application for D.C. Metro. He planned to apply elsewhere as well. He would stay off the streets, busy and working toward college, one way or the other.
Five days after getting the news, Charles hadn’t gone out for more than two hours until our lunch meeting that Sunday. He’d been rereading Go Tell It on the Mountain, watching The Simpsons, and sleeping. When we met, midmonth, he shook his head and clucked in the manner of a much older man. He broke away to smoke cigarettes he hadn’t needed two weeks before. He wanted a more uplifting book. “Baldwin was dark, real dark,” he told me. I looked down at the collection of Baldwin’s essays and stories I’d brought, and wished I had any other book to give him that day. But I didn’t.
“Anytime, I can go right back to the old ways. That dawns on me a lot. It doesn’t even seem that long ago,” Charles told me that day. He had worked on the streets until two years before, when his mother decided to “clean up her act.” Others had tried to save Charles, seeing in him the sweet shyness, intelligence, and potential we’ve seen. He told me of a dealer who wanted him to stay in school badly enough to drive him there every day and deny him any drugs the dealer might handle. “He was like, ‘Man, you’re wasting my gas and you’re wasting your mind.’ He was around all the time and someone I looked up to.” But the dealer’s urgings didn’t shake Charles up enough to change his ways. Neither did the man’s murder. It took Charles’s mother’s changing her ways.
“She’s the world to me,” he said, smiling. “She went through her rough time and she really came through. I’m so proud of her.”
In every conversation this month, the importance of family—biological, emotionally determined, or hoped for—came through loud and clear. For all their tough talking and well-honed survival instincts, Elaya, Charles, and Matthew remain as connected to the notion of family as any other young adult, if not more than most. Family, in whatever form it comes, can keep them off the streets.
Elaya could fill five pieces of poster board sketching her tree of biological and “adopted” family members. “You don’t have to necessarily be my blood,” she told me the day we met. “If you’ve been there for me, you’re my family.” The mother who left her at the hospital at birth is just as much a mother in Elaya’s mind as is her best friend/"sister"’s mother. “I try to take the best thing I see out of everybody and make it part of my character,” she says. As much as Charles’s stories of selling to his mother after his grandmother made him leave home made me want to cry, he ended them with a redeeming message about both women. And then there’s Matthew. He’s seeking a job “in a big organization where I could be comfortable and build a career, like in a home.” He wants to settle into a good place and stay, the way one could with one’s family.
Upon learning about the ECC delay, Elaya was upset, too. But she quickly found a part-time job, procured a job application for Charles as well, and focused on spending time with her “sisters.” One gave birth in mid-September. Another is expecting. The Saturday we first met at Five Guys, Elaya assured me she had no plans to raise a family anytime soon. I believed her because the force of her determination more than equaled that of probably every overtime-working government contractor eating burgers around us. After getting expelled from one school and missing many classes in 10th and 11th grade in another school, Elaya pulled herself together. In 12th grade, she went to day and night school to ensure finishing on schedule. “It was hard, but I knew that’s what I had to do, because I had messed up. Do the crime, pay the time.” Elaya graduated with grades good enough to earn her a partial college scholarship. With the ECC scholarship and a second part-time job, she’ll be ready to start college next year.
The last week of September, we meet for dinner at yet another restaurant, Johnny Rockets. Between gulps of her milkshake, Elaya tells me of the recent night Matthew gave her a ride home. Elaya, fed up and not wanting to stay with her “sister,” decided to head back to her great-aunt’s house at 3 a.m. After waiting an hour for the bus, she began the long walk home. “I was going to get home one way or the other,” she said. Luckily, Matthew, out late as a favor to his mother, spotted Elaya and drove her home. They laughed at my concern for them out so late, and then we all laughed over the way Johnny Rockets makes that ketchup smiley face every time they serve fries.
But, as much as we laughed, we also worried about Charles. He never showed up. As September drew to a close, he had vanished. No one answered either phone number. He’d now missed our planned time together, and I had no way to give him the book I thought might offer a good combination of gangsters, great writing, and happy endings—E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. So Matthew headed home with the book after promising to meet wherever and whenever Charles wanted.
Five days later, we got our chance. Charles called me. Revealing only that things had been very hard for him, he said he wanted to meet at the Navy Yard Subway.
The last day of September, Matthew comes by metro, and Elaya, unable to break a family obligation, calls my cell phone, hoping to boost Charles’s spirits by phone. He’s not there yet. It’s just two Subway employees, Matthew, and I on a quiet Sunday.
Until Matthew has a plan, he’s staying with his mother. He answers few friends’ calls these days. He goes out infrequently. He tells me how hard it is to see friends choosing not to finish school. One day, they’ll be 30 and then 40 years old, he points out. It’ll be all the harder for them to accomplish anything. I ask about pizza slices in Adams-Morgan and it’s as if I’d reminded him of a distant memory instead of something we discussed four weeks before. We wait for Charles.
Charles calls, frantic but unable to reach us from two metro stops and a river’s crossing away. We’re in the Subway where, two weeks before, Charles told me he was sorely tempted to return to the streets. Now Matthew is telling him, on my cell phone, that he understands it’s hard, and that life’s hard for Matthew right now, too.
So, as September ends, much feels hard in the way Charles characterized Baldwin’s novel as “hard.” Charles, Elaya, and Matthew don’t know when their ECC jobs will start. “If” is a word we avoid entirely when talking about the ECC. Charles can’t always be found and, when found, doesn’t always sound like the young man we’ve come to know. Elaya no longer feels happy staying with any family more than a few days, but doesn’t have income with which to rent her own home. Matthew doesn’t know when he’ll hear back on his metro job application and avoids most calls.
But Elaya still wears her green ECC bracelet and, at last sighting, Charles was still wearing his, too. Matthew may get to write about his experiences for a local paper. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve grown closer. Elaya’s still trying to introduce Charles to a pizza-shop manager. Matthew’s rescued Elaya from a long walk home at 4 a.m. and lived up to his word, showing up wherever and whenever Charles says he can meet. And Charles … Charles gives us friendship, a reminder of why we need to meet so often, and a question to consider when we do meet next: Where do we find more stories with happy endings?