Volume 19 #2
I met Richie over 20 years ago. I was still a teenager and he was 9. He was a boy that never really had a chance. We worked amidst a lot of poverty and Richie was at the losing end of this reality. The neighborhood struggled but families still had access to a stubborn resilience and a chance (even if it was small) of breaking free. Everyone, it seemed, except Richie. His poverty was different – more relentless. His home (where he still lives to this day) didn’t have working plumbing or electricity. He and his uncle cooked family meals on a charcoal grill in a backyard overflowing with old car parts and abandoned furniture. In all my years of working with Richie I was only invited into the house once – the walls were stacked high with piles of trash and old newspapers. The smell was intolerable.
Years ago, we found a mentor for Richie but the mentor quit after two weeks. He looked me in the eye and said, “How can I commit myself to a boy who’s so uncommitted?” But aren’t those the boys who need our commitment the most?
Richie’s family was poor but they were also deeply dysfunctional. I clearly remember the night when Richie started a fire under the bed of his sleeping mother. This began a series of events that led to him being placed in state custody. We followed Richie as he drifted through child protective services, group homes and eventually – when he became an adult – we followed him right back to the home he left 5 years before. Nothing much changed except the boy was now a man. Richie has always been my definition of bleak.
I still see Richie from time to time as he wanders around scrapping for metal or panhandling at the entrance of our local 7-11. He sometimes comes over to the house to say hello. It had been awhile since our paths crossed but I saw him again last week late one night at the grocery store. He had long greasy black hair under his filthy baseball cap and his teeth were badly chipped or missing. He wore an old black leather jacket with dirty torn jeans. If I didn’t know him – I would have been afraid of him. Richie stood in the front of the store aimlessly gazing into space, holding a gallon of milk. He was exactly the man that security would escort off the premise. Richie is 29 years old but he looks much older.
He stared at me a second, smiled and said, “A.B…it’s A.B. How are you?”
And then I hugged him. Richie, unlike many of his neighborhood peers, was never a street-tough kid. He was the local outcast, profoundly troubled and usually the victim.
I love running into kids who used to come to our Bible clubs. Sometimes I feel some disappointment as they relate back the last few years, but there’s always something that puts a smile on my face. Maybe it’s the fact that they finally got their GED or perhaps a new baby that they speak about with such pride and love. But as I talked with Richie there was nothing. No hope. He didn’t have any plans or accomplishments. The boy didn’t even seem to know how to dream.
“I’m not doing anything,” he said slowly.
“Well, what’s going on for you?”
He shook his head, “Nothing.”
“How’s your girlfriend?” I asked. Last time we met he was dating a young girl he had met downtown.
“She left me.”
“I’m sorry Richie – that sounds hard. Are you working?”
“I can’t. I fell off the roof of the building and messed up my head.” He then began a disjointed story about falling from the third floor of a Burger King. He was making little sense. Richie ended with, “I tried to get a lawyer and three times I signed up to get disability but they won’t give it to me. But I can’t work. My head is bad.”
And so the conversation went. Richie spoke without passion and his eyes wandered. I realized that he was coming off a high. After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, “Dear…it’s good to see you.”
I smiled, his uncle always called me dear when Richie was a boy, “It’s good to see you too, Richie.”
“I’m still in the same place,” he said.
I nodded, I knew.“They can’t get rid of me. This neighborhood tries to get rid of me. But they can’t.”
I thought back on all the times I’d seen Richie through the years. It was true – the neighborhood might try to get rid of Richie – but he was a fixture. Eventually I had to leave and I gave Richie one more hug.
“Good-bye dear,” he said, “I’ll see you again sometime.”
With tears in my eyes I wandered through the store simply unable to do anything else. Finally I bought a few of the items on my list and as I was picking up my bags at the checkout stand I saw that Richie was still standing motionless in the same spot I had left him. A gallon of milk hung from his arm.
I shook my head and sighed, feeling despair for a boy who never got a chance.
In that moment I thought about the orchestra on the Titanic. The ship was sinking and they played on. How in the world could I keep the song going for Richie? All I know for sure is that love matters when hope, options, systems and programs run out. Love keeps on. When failure is imminent and there won’t be a second chance, love remains. When the boat is sinking and no rescue is near, love persists. Love goes down with the ship.
Richie never really had the option for success, he barely has the option for survival. What are we to do? How do you help when it’s too late? I don’t know. But I do believe that how we align ourselves with the Richies of the world matters. The boundaries of our families should include the lost. We must throw our lot in with love – it is the very language of God. Go down with the ship. Love until the end. And remember that true love – love born of God – can raise the dead. How mysterious that real Hope is born of hopelessness.
I paused one more time on my way out to the parking lot and caught Richie’s eye. He nodded his head and I waved as big as I could. I wanted the whole store to see. When despair makes our hearts poor all that is left is love. I love Richie. I always will. And then I waved again.
I wanted everyone who stared at him with fear or disdain to know that he belonged to a family…ours. Broken or not, he won’t be forgotten. He isn’t just a statistic.
The vagrant in aisle two with cracked teeth and no options is my boy. He’s our boy. Always.
* all names and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity. © Amy Beth Barlow