Sometimes my work leads me to some pretty strange places.
|About five years ago, I supervised a child welfare program in Detroit. We worked with families where the children were as risk for removal. Our job was to help families identify their strengths and use them to improve homes and family interactions so the children could safely remain with their families. This was not always the easiest task, but we were very dedicated, and as a result, we found ourselves doing some pretty strange things. One day we might be cleaning a very dirty, unkempt home, another day we might be combing lice nits out of a child's hair. Whatever it took to teach a family how to maintain, we did it.
One day, one of my case managers was working with a very large family. The mother had a mental illness, was in danger of being jailed for not getting her kids to school, was close to being evicted--and had seven kids. It is very difficult to work with big families because housing is next to impossible, and nobody's car is big enough to cart around that many people. She had very little support from her family or from any of the fathers.
My case manager, I'll call her Lauren, was working very hard to coordinate mental health services, transportation, housing, and other concrete items. Keep in mind too that the mother, I'll call her Lynn, was not yet being treated for her mental illness--all the more complicated.
One day, I got a crisis call from Lauren. The family's house had caught on fire, and the fire department was on its way. She needed me to come there to help transition the family to somewhere safe.
I arrived at the home and surveyed the damage. It had been a grease fire. Ironically, Lauren had paged Lynn to confirm the next home visit, and Lynn had left bacon cooking while she ran to the neighbor's house to use the phone. The grease caught on fire. The family was all safe, but the home was not. I had never seen a home after a fire. While the fire did significant damage, the smoke and the water used to stop the fire did an equal amount. We sat on the porch to watch the kids and troubleshoot.
We decided to call the Red Cross, which houses families after fire. They told us they would come out to survey the damage and then make a recommendation for the family, but we would probably be waiting a while. There were three other fires on the same block that day! In Detroit, it is somewhat common for a house to be firebombed if the resident owes money or needs to be taught a lesson.
As we waited, we tried to figure out how to plan for the few belongings that could be saved. Lynn explained that she knew the block well and that it wasn't safe to leave anything valuable behind. She pointed to house after house. "That house sells crack. That house is vacant and random people on drugs crash in that house. That house sells meth. That house is on fire. That house sells heroine....."
Two houses down, the neighbors had decided to fence in their front yard. They figured out a way to pull their convertible into the fenced area. Once they managed that, about eight adults sat it in and drank beer. It was probably 1:00 pm. They had young children too, but the adults were constantly yelling at them to stay inside. It must have been "grown up" time. We could not figure out why they had bothered to fence in the yard.
Lynn knew that many people on the block were already watching to see when she left so that they could get in and steal her things. Sure enough, a LOT of people had feigned sympathy with the goal of getting a look in. Lynn knew these neighbors, and they were not friends of hers. Others were driving down the road slowly. They were looking at her house, and and of course looking to buy something from one of the other houses.
While we waited for Red Cross, Lynn went in to pack up what she could salvage. We stayed on the porch to watch the children. A man approached us. He could not speak due to some kind of developmental delay. I could not figure out what he was trying to tell us. Lynn came out said that he was not capable of speaking, but that he frequented the block looking for bottles to return for the ten cent deposit. Once he took several cases of empty cans after a neighborhood party (I think it was from the convertible people, actually), and they chased him through the neighborhood, with the intention of killing him. His mother talked them out of it.
I happened to have some bottles in my trunk, so I went to my car and offered them to him. He was so thankful. He attempted to hug and kiss me. He took out a little electronic phone number organizer and asked for my phone number. To be nice, I gave him a fake one. Lauren was mad at me because she thought I gave him a real one. I asked her what he would do with the real one anyway--he couldn't talk!
Lauren and I went back into the house to see what Lynn was going to need for the kids. During that time, two of them disappeared. We were getting in the car to sweep the neighborhood when they returned. They went to the store and didn't tell their mother! Did I mention that Lynn was also cited for lack of supervision? I can't remember, but there may have been a drug issue too.
Meanwhile, the people next door were gearing up for a party. Their son was turning 11 years old, so they were having a neighborhood BBQ. I do not know why the party was for him, because it mainly consisted of the adults drinking a lot of alcohol. It was about 4 pm at this point, and most of the party goers were quite intoxicated.
One of the men came over, I'll call him Chuck. Chuck and I spent the next two hours having variants of this conversation:
Chuck: "Do you want a beer?"
Me: "No thanks, I'm working."
Chuck: "Do you ever get off of work and have a drink?"
Me: "Yes, with my boyfriend, at home."
Chuck: "I'm not trying to hear about him. What time to you get done? Come over. Let's go out tonight."
He finally got the idea that I was already attached, and left me alone. Lynn was very much into finding a new man. Seeing that Chuck had been talking to me, she came out and in a somewhat jealous tone told me that he was a really great catch. He worked at or owned a family furniture store.
After Lynn went back in the house, Lauren and I joked about picking up men at work. Oddly we used to get hit on a lot by clients. Just then, we heard a car with a very basey, loud stereo. We looked up, to see that it was a guy, holding a very large boombox and riding his bike, very skillfully steering with one hand. I swear, it was straight out of a Spike Lee movie. We started laughing hysterically. Lynn came out, and reported he was a neighborhood regular. She told us that when she first moved to the neighborhood, she heard the stereo and bolted to the door, of course thinking that whoever drove it was a contender to be her next man. She said, "I was just as surprised as you are to see a guy on a bike." When she wandered back into the house, Lauren and I began rolling with laughter. This day was just getting stranger and stranger.
After hours and hours of waiting, fending off horny neighbors, supervising very active children and watching the neighborhood interaction closely to entertain and protect myself, Lauren and the family, the Red Cross representative came. After three minutes, he determined the damage was significant enough to temporarily move the family into a hotel (duh). Of course, they needed two rooms, and two cars to get them there. But first, we had to load all of the wet, smoky belongings into our cars with the children, and head over the Red Cross office to get some supplies and complete some paperwork.
Anyone who has, or has been around, seven children knows that supervising them and carting them around town is a lot more complicated and nerve racking than I have actually made it sound. Particularly when their mother is not very skilled at parenting, and needs as much prompting as the children.
Finally, around 9 pm, we arrived at the hotel. We arranged for the children to safely be supervised in two different rooms, and carefully discussed the importance of mom staying with them. Lauren and I had been with the family for more than eight long hours and we were tired. The constant chaos and Lynn's untreated mental illness were grating on us. Both Lauren and I had far surpassed our ability to cope with stressful situations.
In the elevator on the way out of the hotel, Lauren addressed me quite seriously.
"Shelly, in the interest of maintaining a good working relationship. There is something I need to tell you. It is going to be hard to hear, but I think you should know."
"Okay," I said, bracing myself for her resignation, "What is it?"
Lauren replied, with a sly grin, "Chuck is really into me and he wants to see me after work. He gave me his number."
She held out the piece of paper for me to see. Chuck was not aware that Lauren knew he had hit on me too. I feigned being offended that he liked her and that she stole my man. We were laughing and crying so hard, we could barely stand up. We really needed the release.
As we walked to the car, we wanted to debrief, but it was hard. Our words were gone, along with our coping skills. We wanted to talk about it, but the best we could say was, "Today has really been surreal." That succinctly summed it up. We began to chuckle about the Spike Lee boombox-bike guy, but just then a man opened a fourth story window in the hotel. They did not look like windows that were supposed to open. He saw us talking on the street, pointed and yelled, "Oh, there you are. Is that where you've been hiding? I've been looking all over for you."
Lauren and I exchanged quick glances. In that brief look, two things were very clear: Neither of us knew who he was, and neither of us wanted to find out. Without words, we each sprinted into our separate cars and raced away.