Read an Excerpt
“He Ain’t Heavy, Father, . . .”
Now, you got to remember I was little when all this started. I know now how fucked up my childhood was, but I didn’t know it then. I just lived it— me, my mom and Willie, my little brother James, and my big sister Sabrina. We were living in a big old run- down house in Washington, D.C., with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles piled in on top of us. We all slept in one big room. Back in them days we had enough to eat, but it wasn’t like anybody was cooking family meals. We kids would get some cereal if we were hungry. To a little kid, living all together like this was fun. One of the earliest things I remember, though, was my mom and them crying. My aunt Francine’s husband beat her to death with an iron, wrapped her body up, stuffed her in the wall where he lived, plastered it over, and painted the wall. I got a cousin who remembers that too. He was small, but he remembers. Aunt Francine was his mother.
My mom has always been a real pretty lady. Not tall, but proud and upright like a queen. Her dad— my grandfather— was real hard on her. With us kids he was okay, but he drank, and he could be mean to my grandmother and to their kids. Not a one of my mother’s brothers and sisters— and there were thirteen of them— turned out right. What saved my mom was that she had Willie, her husband, who worked construction and always brought his pay home to look after us. Willie was slim and dark- skinned, with very wide- set eyes and a big smile. Always wore a goofy little corduroy cap. On weekends he would take us kids out to Sandy Point Beach near Annapolis and teach us how to fish, and if we met up with anybody, he’d introduce us as his kids. Willie was a hugging man— always wrapping us kids up in his arms.
For a long time, I thought Willie was my dad— even though he had a different last name. You don’t think about that stuff when you’re a kid.
Everything changed when my grandfather passed. Grandma sold the house where we all lived together, and everybody went their own way. She could have held the family together— she was the grandmother. She had that power. But her thirteen children were all beefing with each other, so she sold the house, and we all just fell apart. By that time, my mom had had my little brother David and my sister Elsie too, so there were seven of us in our family: five kids, Willie, and my mom.
We moved to an apartment in Landover, Maryland. But we didn’t stay there long because one day Willie took me and my little brother James to go see his friend Mr. Morris, and as we were walking up the alley, Willie just fell out. His eyes rolled up and down he went. James and I must have been crying real bad, because Mr. Morris came running out and called the ambulance. I remember the doctors telling my mom that Willie had an aneurysm in his brain and to “expect some changes.” Some changes? Willie was gone in the VA hospital six months, and when he came out, he took one look at my mom— mother of his children— and said, “I don’t know you.” Next day, he took David with him when he went back to the hospital to pick up some medicine, and he forgot him there. David must have been about three years old. My mom was screaming, “Where is he? Where is my baby?” and Willie kept saying, “I left him here with you.” He didn’t have any idea. It took my mom forty- nine hours to find little David; some homeless lady had kidnapped him from the hospital and taken him back to the shelter, at Second and D, where she was staying. Luckily, a sharp- eyed social worker there noticed that the woman suddenly had a child who obviously wasn’t hers, and the social worker called the police.
Not long after we got David back, Willie drifted off. He didn’t know who we were, and he was going to look for his own people. He left my mom with five children.
That must be when we became homeless; I was six. I don’t remember how it all went down, but I know there was one shelter after another because they never let you stay in any one for more than a few nights. Sometimes we stayed in these slum- ass motels the city put us in— dirty, cheesy places full of roaches. One time the city put us and about fifty other families in a school at Fourth and O. They pushed the desks aside and set up cots, and we all had to be out of there in the morning before the children showed up.
Most of all I remember carrying our stuff around the streets in Hefty bags, and not knowing in the morning where I’d be sleeping that night.
But here’s the thing: Nobody should feel sorry for us, the way we was back then. I know it sounds funny, but we were happy— at least us kids. We didn’t know it was bad. My mother cared a lot about us. She made sure we ate every day, even if it was just a little something. If she had a little money, she’d get us a McDonald’s even if we had to split a cheeseburger three ways. I remember us standing at a bus stop one time real hungry, and my mom gathered some change, and all she could get us was a couple of twenty- five-cent cupcakes so that we’d have something in our stomachs. That she tried so hard meant a lot to us. Those hunger pains would never really go away, though. Often we would have canned meat. That shit smelled like dog food out of the can, but my mom somehow made it taste real good.
Our bouncing from shelter to shelter went on for a couple of years. One time my mom took us to her sister, our Aunt Evelyn’s house, and asked if could we spend the night, and Aunt Evelyn told my mom no. I don’t know why she did that, but like I said, the family kind of came apart after my grandfather passed. Thing is, we never slept on the street. Mom would find us a shelter for a few days, and then we’d be out on the streets again, in the heat, hauling our stuff around in those black Hefty bags.
My mom could have put us in foster care, but she didn’t. Around that time, Aunt Evelyn gave up her kids, all seven of them. I don’t know where she went, but she was smoking crack, and one day she just walked out on her kids, right out of the house they owned off Florida Avenue. Mom was there that day, visiting, and she just rounded up Aunt Evelyn’s kids and brought them to the shelter and hid them in our room there. They was our cousins, our family, and we just all crammed in together and didn’t think twice about it.
Mom saw what happened to Aunt Evelyn, and she kept us all together. So for a little while, she was raising all of us and five of Aunt Evelyn’s kids right there in the shelter. The two eldest cut out once their mom left them, and later on, two of them stuck around and lived with us. Mom didn’t know much about raising children, but she knew enough not to let us go. I remember we were at a shelter place, and some people came to my mom and said they wanted to take us. Man, mom flipped out. “You ain’t taking my motherfucking kids!” Screaming and throwing shit— she really went off. There wasn’t anything wrong with us as a family, really; we just didn’t have money, plain and simple. We also didn’t get a whole lot of hugging once Willie was gone. Mom was all about just getting us through the day— ten- hut, pick up your things there, look after your little brother, find your other shoe. Just getting her own five kids up and fed and off to the next shelter was about all she could do.
Pretty soon, it was time for me and James and Sabrina to go to school. There’d be a van come take us to Thompson Elementary, pick us up at whatever shelter and take us back there. No one knew we was from the shelter because we hid it real good. My sister Sabrina was seven, one year older than me; she was more like the big brother than a big sister. She was a little bitty thing— pretty like my mom— but man, you didn’t want to fuck with Sabrina. A kid would tease us about our raggedy- ass no- name- brand shoes, and Sabrina would come down on him like a hurricane. Always ready to throw the fuck down, and it wouldn’t matter how big the other kid was. Always getting in trouble for fighting and wouldn’t give a fuck. To her, it didn’t matter going to the principal’s office. She had her little brothers to defend. Like a mama bear with her cubs; that was Sabrina. To this day, I’ve never seen her lose a fight.
James, he was one year younger than me, and he was Willie’s boy for sure because they had the same last name: Whitaker. James was small and skinny, and darker than me. We have Cherokee in our blood from way back, and you could really see it in James. We were tight, being the two big boys of the family. We did everything together. But he and Sabrina shared something that I never did— that love of fighting. James could be going along just fine and then something would set him off. Even as a little kid I remember being shocked by it. We’d be out playing in the street with some kids and I’d think everything was fine, and suddenly James would be throwing his fists on some kid like to kill him.
I can’t be sure why James was like that, but part of it maybe was because he and Willie had a special bond, more than Sabrina or me. It hurt us all when Willie left, that’s for sure, but it hurt James the most. He was in a lotta pain for a long time from that. And he was real angry at my mom over it, but I didn’t know why. He turned that anger on other people, and most times I wouldn’t even see it coming. That’s where I think his love of fighting came from. James, he never did get over Willie leaving.
I wasn’t like that. I didn’t really like to fight. I wouldn’t get mad like that. It made me feel safe, though, having Sabrina on one side of me and James on the other. Even as little kids, ain’t nobody wanted to fuck with either of them, or with me.
When people learned that I was a big brother to Michael and James, they would always say something about how generous or noble I was. I guess that’s one way to look at it, but it sure isn’t the whole story. Not even close.
When I first met Michael and James, I was a curious, driven, and emotionally wounded twenty- year- old. At the time, I was talking my way through summer courses at George Washington University, having already attended three other universities, and I was working at the Robert Kennedy Memorial’s Youth Policy Institute in some kind of glorified internship. I was on a mission to change the way America addressed the needs of kids living in poverty, to help shine a light on what was called back then the “underclass,” and to create an education- to- employment system that would give kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods real equal opportunity. You know, the kind of grandiose dreams a twenty- year- old should have. So becoming a big brother to Michael and James fit right into that, I suppose. But to understand what really propelled me into the lives of these little guys— to gauge the parameters of the hole in my heart that I tried to fill with Michael and James— you have to go back to my own beginnings.
As with all boys, it starts with my father, a Purple Heart awardee nicknamed Jack, who was a giant of a man. He’d studied to be a priest, and though he had veered from that path, he retained an intense and old guard Catholic faith. His personal form of devotion ran the gamut from volunteering at Mother Teresa’s soup kitchens and homeless shelters to lying prostrate in front of family planning clinics to protest abortions and going to jail for it regularly.
Here’s the kind of man he was: Once a week, when we lived near Philly, Dad visited the sisters of the Regina Mundi Priory, a contemplative order of nuns with physical disabilities, and he took them in two or three shifts in his car to a swimming pool to give them an outing. One of the nuns, though, never went near the water; she sat alone in her wheelchair ten feet away from the pool, locked in a deathly terror of drowning and intense shame about her condition. Each week, Dad knelt before this sweet woman, needling her playfully and gently trying to cajole her into the pool. It took months, but finally she relented. He removed her leg braces, picked her up in his arms— Dad was a rugby and hockey player— and carried her tenderly into the water, holding her until she stopped trembling. Within a few weeks, she was able to fl oat on her own. A couple decades later, I went to visit some of the surviving nuns, who had moved to another convent in New En gland. That’s how I learned about this story. She told me no one in her entire life had ever been as patient and gentle with her as my dad was during that time.
These are the kinds of stories I grew up with. I was constantly being told what a wonderful man my father was.
And for the first seven or eight years of my life, that’s how I experienced him. Dad was an old- school traveling salesman for a company called Fred’s Frozen Foods. He was a grandmaster at it in the way born salesmen are, and he always knew the angles to approach people. He had an Irishman’s bottomless well of funny stories to tell, to soften up the client, and he also had a charismatic but mischievous way of interacting that made everybody around him feel important and at ease. He would walk down the street flashing a big grin and playing tricks on or saying hello to countless passers- by. He loved to draw people out and connect to them. He was a chameleon, a comedian, a people- pleasing tornado of a man.
Dad spent his days on the road with his partner- in- culinary crime, Uncle Dave Wells, driving a station wagon around to schools and hospitals all over the Midwest, armed with a big dry- ice cooler and deep fryer in back filled with corn dogs, pizza burgers, and breaded pork tenderloins, the kind of gluttonous product line that would make a nutritionist go on a hunger strike in protest. We always lived in comfortable houses big enough that my younger brother Luke and I had our own rooms. We mostly saw Dad on weekends, but when he was home, he was fully present. One time, for my science fair project Dad and I decided to figure out where a steak comes from. So we went to a prototypical Midwestern cattle ranch, and then we went to the Kansas City stockyards. The whole time, Dad would interview the cows about their impending fate. He’d have full- blown conversations with cows! I mean, the guy was mesmerizingly original and creative. I don’t know who was more startled by his tactics, the ranchers or the cows or me, but darned if I didn’t win first prize at that science fair with our big, blustery poster boards showing the remarkable transformation from a cow in the field to a steak on a plate, from the cow’s point of view. Dad used his extraordinary storyteller’s gift on the neighborhood kids, but especially on Luke and me. We’d both get into one bed at night, and Dad would sit there in the dark with us, spinning out his own versions of Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He’d start with the skeleton of the original tale and then go off on long, imaginative riffs. I never knew where the real stories ended and Dad’s flights of fancy began until later when I read the originals, but I loved Dad’s versions. It was never hard getting Luke and me to go to bed when Dad was around. And the stories of his adventures on the road with Uncle Dave! To a kid, they were magical. Who needed television when you had a dad like mine!
When he was on the road, he’d write us stories on postcards, hotel stationery, and airline vomit bags, wherever he could put pen to paper. There was one long- running story he concocted about a family of Native American totem poles who were also secret heroes. We’d seen them at a roadside exhibit in Texas one time when we were bombing around in the station wagon on one of our road trip adventures, and they took on a life of their own through Dad’s electrifying tales.
Uncle Dave and Dad were always mixing it up. Once they found themselves in Las Vegas in the same hotel where Elvis Presley was staying. So they got to know a couple of the waiters and either convinced or bribed them to be allowed to bring Elvis his room service meal. They hung around with the King in his hotel suite for a long time shooting the breeze. Another time they were in a big hotel and, in one of their more questionable moments, they found a wheelchair in a storage closet. So Dad got in the chair and Uncle Dave wheeled him into the restaurant, which was full of people at dinnertime. Uncle Dave ran the wheelchair into someone’s table and flipped the chair so Dad tumbled out. The diners were horrified, and a few rushed to Dad’s help. Suddenly Dad leapt up and shouted, “I’m cured, I’m cured. My god, it’s a miracle!!” And the place went nuts. I could go on all day recounting the stories we heard.
And we also saw for ourselves Dad in action. In a Pittsburgh gym and swimming pool Dad used to sneak us into through a little- used basement entrance, he wriggled a meeting for us with Fred Rogers, who had just finished his swim and was just like he was on television in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In Louisville we met the real Colonel Sanders, resplendent in his white suit, who told us the incredible story of how he started Kentucky Fried Chicken. He told Dad that he had heard of Fred’s Frozen Foods and liked what he saw, or tasted, from one breading guy to another, I guess. Dad was beaming the rest of the day, getting the Colonel’s stamp of approval like that.
We got to go with Dad to these extraordinary events called “food shows,” where restaurateurs and food brokers of all kinds would display their wares in some big auditorium. Luke and I would slide down row after row, sampling these culinary delights and meeting some of the greatest traveling salesmen who ever lived. They were larger- than- life figures, with big laughs, strong handshakes, and endless stories.
And Dad was the biggest of all of them in my eyes.
It was with the neighborhood kids, though, that my dad’s goodness really shone. Some of my earliest memories are of Dad driving through the neighborhoods we lived in, rounding up kids to play baseball or football in the park. People called him the Pied Piper; every kid followed him. He was tall and strong, and he had a full head of silver hair from the time he was in his mid- thirties. His smile was as wide as a piano keyboard; people couldn’t help but like him. If we were driving along and saw an old lady who had to cross the road, Dad would stop the car right in the intersection and make us kids get out with him, and then we’d help the old lady cross the street, with the cars behind us honking away.
Dad would pitch or quarterback for both teams, and he’d keep those kids entertained for hours with jokes, pratfalls, and high- energy goofballism. And if one of the kids clowned with him— pirouetting on his way to second base, crossing the end zone in a back flip— Dad would laugh and flatter him by performing his own deft imitation. I wish I could have frozen time right there . . .
A big shadow hung over my childhood, though, amidst all this sunshine: We moved from city to city every few years. We left Indianapolis for Kansas City when I was in kindergarten, and we moved from Kansas City to Fort Wayne several years later, and then we went on to Philadelphia. In between, we would land for memorable stints in Dad’s hometown of Pittsburgh, as well as the farms of my mom’s people in Kansas and Oklahoma. Dad fit in every place we went; he was the most popular grownup among the kids for miles around. It was not unusual for a knock on the door to come at any time, and a kid there to ask, “Can Mr. P come out and play?” But moving really took its emotional toll on me. It always seemed that the minute I was starting to draw whole breaths in a new place, we’d be on to the next. Each time, a little reservoir of sadness and self- doubt, isolation and anger, collected inside me because once again I’d be the outsider, the loner kid on the playground. Admittedly, I was a sensitive kid. But the regular moving crushed my spirit in ways that I had increasing trouble recovering from. The day the moving van showed up in Kansas City, I drew a few pitchers of water from the kitchen sink, carefully carried them outside, and poured them into the soil beneath the hedges to make a vast arsenal of mud. I peppered the side of that van with the mud, trying to erase the moving company’s name, Bekins. I caught hell and a half for that; the Bekins driver nearly pulled my arm out of its socket.
And then, somewhere around the time I was eight, an eerie darkness began falling across my relationship with Dad. I’m sure I was full of unspoken resentment toward him for uprooting us every few years. What I felt coming from Dad, though, was a new and growing impatience and anger with me that I couldn’t figure out. For example, I remember following Dad and all the neighborhood kids up to the park one day for a big baseball game. Everybody was clowning around— tripping each other on the grass, running the bases backward— and Dad was laughing, . . . until I got into the spirit and came to bat with my mitt on my head. Suddenly it was though a cloud had rolled in front of the sun. “Goddammit, J.P.!” he barked, and I shrank down into my shoes. On the way home after he dropped the other kids off, he started yelling at me for another perceived offense, and when I talked back to him, he spit at me in the backseat where I was sitting right next to Luke, and then he kicked me out of the car, making me walk the rest of the way home.
Again and again, it seemed, Dad would single me out for a harsh, relentless, and unexpected scolding— often when I felt I was doing nothing wrong. The forcefulness of the anger was shocking and profoundly destabilizing to me, and so contrary to his sunny persona. He would pay so much positive attention to strangers, and then turn on me like a wolf. Once I got stung by a bee and he screamed at me for not spraying myself with insect repellent. He went on and on, his face bright red with fury at my mistake, all the while my hand swelling up because of my extreme allergy to insect bites. He was viscerally, blindly affected by my mistakes, or by any hint of defiance.
Most importantly, I think, he wanted me to be perfect— a standard I could never meet no matter how hard I tried. The weight of his expectations was crushing.
When Dad would go off on his sales trips Monday through Friday, Mom was left behind with Luke and me. Mom had coincidentally studied to be a nun while Dad studied for the priesthood before they left their vocations separately, later met, and eventually married each other. She had endless energy for the church, for volunteering to teach art to kids in the Head Start program, for praying in front of family planning clinics (but not going with my dad to get arrested), for supporting the nuns of Mother Teresa’s religious order, and for her two boys whom she loved so much and so well. But it was tough for her to have to raise two growing sons while her husband was perpetually on the road and needing to move every few years. Not that Luke and I were bad kids; in fact, just the opposite. We were boys, sure, and we would get into fairly typical trivial scrapes and mischievous mishaps. But we were good student- athletes who didn’t break any major laws and didn’t come home in drunken stupors.
In fairness, however, we were a handful for my mom, and, in retrospect, I figure there is no way she wasn’t a bit subconsciously resentful toward Dad for being away so much. It must have been very difficult for her to be perpetually in his huge shadow, watching him constantly playing the role of the class clown. So by the time he got home from one of his weeklong trips, she’d have assembled a multi- count indictment of every one of Luke’s and my transgressions. Taken individually, these wouldn’t have caused much of a blink, but remember, this was the pre- cell phone era, which meant that there was a week’s worth of inequities for two rambunctious boys, and the litany was bracing for any semi- absent parent. Here I’d be eager for Dad to get home to play and tell his stories, but then, the minute he walked through the door— his pork tenderloin sample cases still in his hands and his overcoat buttoned— Mom would unload: “They clipped all the flowers from the hedges.” “They broke the basement window.” “They made a mess of the garage.” Dad— tired from the road and most likely filled with his own frustrations— would simply snap. He had a legendary Irish temper, and he probably just wanted a drink, and a little peace and quiet. But his rage would all come raining down on me, the eldest son. The man could go from zero to sixty in a heartbeat— face bright red, screaming his head off at me, occasionally with a hint of real blackout violence, and bringing out his belt, which we nicknamed the “whistling wasp.” His rage-aholism, usually connected with his drinking, was utterly terrifying. My hero would turn into a monster right before my eyes, and over time his short, frequent, explosive outbursts were devastating.
In each house we moved to, I would have a hiding place to which I would run during these outbursts. In our Kansas City house, the upstairs bathroom had a foldout cabinet that, when opened, would block the door, and to get away from any one of Dad’s memorable tirades, I’d run in there, open the drawer, then climb out the window and down off the roof. There was a spot, on the back roof of the garage and underneath a gigantic tree, that was my secret hideout; nobody knew about it, and nobody knew I was up there. I’d sit in there for hours with my hands squeezed against my pounding temples, absolutely invisible to the world, wondering, in my childish, guilt- ridden Catholic way: What did I do wrong? Why can’t I be good?
It was in moments like these that my journey toward Michael began.
Back then I didn’t forge a tight bond with Luke, who is a year and a half younger than I am. I kept Luke outside the walls. As anyone’s little brother would, he tried to follow me around, and I invariably stiff- armed him. Maybe I resented that I took the brunt of my dad’s anger and frustration. Dad was so easygoing with Luke, who had a knack for just going along while I couldn’t accept a shred of hypocrisy, unfairness, or authoritarianism from my father. Maybe I was jealous of how cool Luke was through thick and thin, while I was so sensitive, volatile, affected, and reactive. I slowly grew such a hard shell around my heart, to protect myself from Dad’s anger and the constant moves from city to city, that on some subconscious level I probably feared opening it up a crack to let Luke in. Who knows what else would have rushed in, or rushed out? It was safer for me to build my own little solitary citadel. Luke learned early on not to count on me too much for friendship, and he went his own way.
Even though we weren’t as close as we could have been back then, my protective instincts for Luke were already in full incubation, which when combined with my own volatility didn’t bode well for anyone who wanted to give Luke a hard time. One time on the school bus in Indiana, some older kid stuck his foot out and tripped Luke when he was walking to the back of the bus. What a mistake. It took a few of the other kids and the bus driver to pull me off the kid who did it, after I set upon him like a wild hyena. Another time I was in the garage and some kid rode up on his bike and said something derogatory to Luke. I came sprinting out of the garage so fast that I almost caught the kid as he sped away on his brand- new ten- speed bike. I didn’t see that kid on our block for weeks after that.
As part of his Catholic faith and love of kids, my dad gave money to Boys’ Town, the center originally set up for homeless boys that Father Edward Flanagan founded near Omaha in 1917. An icon from Boys’ Town that my father gave me hovers over the memories of my childhood. It was a wallet- sized picture of a smiling boy carrying a smaller, sleeping boy on his back. Beneath them is the legend “He ain’t heavy, Father, . . . he’s my brother!”
I used to stare at that picture; something about it captivated me. Though I was the big brother in the Prendergast family, it was the little guy I identified with. I wished for somebody like that big brother, somebody to stand up for me and protect me from the irrationality of my father’s fury, and from the loneliness that lingered with me wherever we moved to next.
What I think happened later inside my head was a kind of mental and spiritual backflip where I said to myself, okay, if I can’t be the little guy, I’ll be the big guy. Let me look for someone who doesn’t have that protector, because, as I know firsthand, it is the loneliest feeling in the world.
In Fort Wayne I became a teenager, with all that that entails. My relationship with Dad continued to deteriorate, and I never really understood why. I’d try to be good— I brought home nothing but A’s, I played on five different sports teams, and never drank or did any drugs. But nothing seemed to invite his approval. To the rest of the world, he was Uncle Jack— the back- slapping, handshake- buzzer- wielding, fart- cushion- planting clown he always was. To kids in the neighborhood, he was an ice- cream truck on a summer day. As I got older, it was as though God had given him only so much goodness to spend, and he doled it out in every direction but mine.
As communication became more difficult, my dad reverted more and more to the Korean War sergeant he had been when he was in his twenties. We were both dug in pretty deep by this time, so when he’d issue an order and I inevitably wouldn’t obey, things would escalate quickly, not unlike the worst caricature of a boot camp drill sergeant and the delinquent and defiant draftee. I refused to conform to the buck private to which he had tried to reduce me. He retreated more and more into military mode, and the war was on. Funny thing is, if he’d just have asked me, I would have done anything for him.
Our relationship squeezed down tighter and tighter, to the point where not only did I stop speaking to him but I completely refused to acknowledge his existence. I would look in every direction but his. I would address my mother and brother around the vacuum that I made of my father. At meals, I wouldn’t talk at all; if I wanted the salt, I’d catch Luke’s eye and slide my eyes toward the salt shaker. Nothing more. Naturally, my anti- theatrics placed a heavier burden on Luke, but that didn’t occur to me at all at the time.
Of course, ignoring Dad only enraged him further. I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was getting bigger and bigger. I was an older boy growing into a young man, and I was challenging his authority on his own turf. I was growing physically and intellectually, but basically thumbing my nose at him routinely right in his own house. Now, as an adult, I can see how incredibly painful that must have been for him, especially since he was so poorly equipped to cope with it, or even acknowledge it. It’s not like his life experience— raised by a Pittsburgh steelworker, schooled in the Vatican’s brand of unquestioning obedience, and then thrust into the cheerful conformity of corporate sales— had given him skills for empathy or introspection. All he saw in me was rebellion, and rudeness. He’d close in on me screaming, especially when he’d had a few drinks, and I’d simply turn into a corner with my head bowed, the emotional equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s old rope-a-dope, coldly willing him away as he railed and raged and pushed at my back.
But then, of course, I would turn it all on myself. My new hiding place in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was the neighbors’ garage. I’d spend hours crouched beside their rarely used car, my back against the tire, face in my hands, wondering why I was so unlovable.
At just this moment— as if to physically confirm my unlovability— my face exploded with a case of cystic acne for the record books. Knobby red lesions— shiny, greasy, and nauseating— so disfigured my face and neck that Luke took to calling me “The Lizard.” As a teenager, I simply squelched any newfound interest in the opposite sex. I kept myself hidden as much as possible behind long hair and a turned- down face. I took refuge in homework and basketball— especially basketball. It was an all- male world in which appearances mattered less than skill or effort, except for when the occasional impolitic kid could be overheard asking, “What’s wrong with that guy’s face?” I’d inherited my father’s natural athleticism and worked at it like a fiend. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night would keep me from my appointed hoop rounds. For me, every game— no matter how informal— was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And I followed professional ball with the concentration of a Zen master, studying Pistol Pete Maravich’s arsenal of moves, losing myself in the bottomless minutiae of strategy and statistics. I lofted myself on a cloud of inflated and delusional dreams of someday playing professional basketball.
What so tortured me, at my core, was not just my father’s screaming and my acne- ruined face, but the terrible unfairness that lay at the heart of it. I was a good kid, and yet all that my father saw were my mistakes and shortcomings, and all the world saw was a mutant lizard. I’d work hard to make friends, and then suddenly we’d be moving to another strange city. It was, to my proto- adolescent self, so massively unfair. That word— unfair— was etched on a giant boulder at the center of my consciousness; I’ve spent just about every minute of my life since then trying to scrape it away, in all kinds of rational and irrational ways.
It was this sense of unavenged injustice, I suppose, that led me to my other great passion at the time: superhero comic books. Something about these magical figures overcoming human failings to strike down unfairness resonated deep inside me. The ones I especially liked were the flawed heroes, the guys like Tony Stark in Iron Man who drank too much and pushed away everybody who tried to love him, and then exploded out of himself to become an avenger of nearly limitless power. All the best superhero stories seemed to turn on the same plot twist: That moment when a somewhat tormented, loner of a guy like me would undergo a freak accident— being bitten by a radioactive spider, say— and be transformed into a kind of savior or demigod. It’s what kept me going, the fantasy that someone as fl awed and unlovable as I would suddenly, and unexpectedly, be magically transformed into something else.
Instead, in the summer between eighth grade and freshman year of high school, my mother told me that we were moving again— this time to Philadelphia. It was too much; I cracked up. I fell into long fits of inconsolable staring, punctuated by occasional tears: “I can’t do this again. I’m just starting to fit in here a little bit. Don’t make me carry this ruined face into an entirely new school!” I descended further into a silent and lonely despair, a thoroughly broken kid.
The only way my parents could coax me into the car for the move to Philadelphia was to agree to the one condition I set upon the transition: that I could attend the same high school Wilt Chamberlain had attended so I could continue pursuing my NBA fantasy. Sure, my parents said. Just get in the car. Of course, once we arrived and they discovered that Wilt’s old school was one of the lowest performing in Philadelphia, I was off to Devon Prep, a predominately white Catholic high school run by hard- core, old- school, Hungarian Piarist priests. One of my last memories of that place is being forced to go to a school dance when my basketball team was on a road trip and finding the darkest corner of the gym where I could hide my pock- marked face.
Our new house was in Berwyn, about thirty minutes from downtown Philly. It had four bedrooms, a pool out back, and plenty of trees, and my isolation was absolute. I spent all my time working at various odd jobs, studying, and playing basketball. But while at home at night, I simply hid out in the basement, avoiding my parents, avoiding Luke, avoiding other kids, obsessively making tapes with a cassette recorder and a microphone poised precariously on a sock, mostly of rock bands from the 1960s and early 1970s, an era of peace activism about which I was enthralled. On the tapes, the house’s furnace cycling on and off is clearly audible behind the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
Hard as the move to Philly was, though, it was there that I began to figure out how to confront the unfairness of the world that so confounded me, and my path, ultimately, to Michael began to emerge more clearly.
I was able to talk my way out of Devon Prep and into the much cheaper Archbishop Carroll High School, run by the Christian Brothers order, on the grounds that since I was obviously headed for the NBA, I needed a high school with a bigger basketball program. Carroll wasn’t like some of the other Catholic schools. It had no specific uniforms, though a tie was required. And while it didn’t officially teach a Dorothy Day kind of activist Catholicism, we did hear a lot, informally, about farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez, peace activist Philip Berrigan, and other figures who stood up against unfairness in the way that Jesus did when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and merchants who were ripping people off in the temple. What I also found at Archbishop Carroll were three teachers who changed the course of my life.
The first one, Garrett Woznicki, was an indefatigable hippie with thinning long hair and a Jesus beard. Mr. Woz was very unconventional and excitable, jumping around like a talk show host or sitting back with his feet on the desk, cracking wise but breaking down literature like there was no tomorrow. He used to swear a lot in class, and that would get us all going. Some of his analytical insights, though, were like bombs dropping on your head. My brother Luke was also his student, and he once asked Mr. Woz a question about Catcher in the Rye and Holden’s messianic complex. Mr. Woz wrote out an answer and gave it to Luke. It was so compelling that my brother still has that piece of loose- leaf today.
Mr. Woz not only put before me volumes of Kerouac, Joyce, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Beckett, but he invited me to think and talk about them. Me! The Lizard! I’d never had anybody so highly value the contents of my skull. He turned reading, for me, into an aerobic sport; I remember devouring books with such ravenous intensity that I would sweat over the pages, my head filled with tales of courage, inquiry, adventure, destiny, and redemption.
One afternoon, I was shooting hoops in the driveway with Bobby Kennedy, a classmate who had as complex a father relationship as I did. We often spent long hours together processing the warped and painful father- son dynamic, trying to figure out what it all meant. That afternoon, Bobby and I were playing one- on- one and talking when Bobby suddenly said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I thought he meant take the train into downtown Philly. “No,” he said, “let’s go to New York.”
New York? New York was way outside the Berwyn orbit.
“When?” I asked.
Instantly, the idea made perfect sense. Just go. Get away from Dad, get away fromschool, get away from the whole world that judged me by my acne— just flee. Neither of us wanted to tell our parents what we were about to do, which I guess technically qualified us as running away. We left the basketball lying in the driveway. Next thing we knew, we were grabbing onto a slow- moving Conrail train and hopping on the back as it pulled out of the station, and we were off to New York.
New York was electrifying and terrifying at the same time for a couple of fifteen- year- old boys. We didn’t want to get rolled the minute we got off the train, so we practiced looking like New Yorkers. We stood in Penn Station watching people go by, and then practicing for each other how New Yorkers walked— with arms swinging and head held down as though getting ready to butt people out of the way. Predictably, a couple of Unificationists (or as we called them in our youth, “Moonies,” a term that has since then come to be considered derogatory)—who were all over the place back then and, little did we know, exquisitely skilled at trolling for lost youth— swooped in on us and with maximum warmth and cheerfulness offered us a place to stay. Not knowing any better, Bobby and I followed them to a hotel that was serving as their New York headquarters. Something made me stop, though. The vibe didn’t feel right, and I convinced Bobby to back away with me. The two who had lured us from Penn Station were stricken; they probably thought that if they had gotten us inside, they’d have us for good. They followed us for blocks, trying to get us to go back with them.
Bobby and I had very little money in our pockets, so we went to the YMCA. I went in first, and they gave me one little room that looked like something from a pre- war hospital, with one narrow cot. Bobby and I slept head to toe. Since the rooms were supposed to be for one person, one of us would have to go up to the room, open the window, and drop the key down into the alley so the other could come up as if going to a different room. During the day, we just wandered around, taking it all in. We probably looked like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt from Midnight Cowboy. We were unkempt and disheveled, and what’s more, I had cut my toe on some glass and was limping around like Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo. Times Square of the late 1970s was a revelation for me. I’d never seen so much homelessness, so many vagrants, so much raw need. I would talk with everyone, learning their stories, trying to understand how they got where they got. The more I saw, the more I wanted to see; I kept pushing Bobby and me toward the seediest parts of town.
After about a week, our money ran out completely, and we went to Covenant House,the famous mission to runaway and homeless children. The people there took us in like long- lost family; after all, their first concern is to make runaways feel safe. They gave us a pretty nice room with a bathroom and let me soak and bandage my toe. Bobby and I spent several days there. Meanwhile, our parents were frantic with worry. The guys running the shelter must have slowly peeled the onion off our flimsy story in passing conversations. Finally, a member of the staff, about ten years older than we were, sat us down and asked, “Where you boys from?”
We were ready for him, we thought.
“Flatbush,” I said.
“Brooklyn,” Bobby said at the same time.
The guy smiled. “Which is it?”
“So, not Brooklyn,” he asked us.
“No sir,” Bobby said. “Flatbush.”
“Boys,” the man said. “Flatbush is in Brooklyn.” Bobby and I looked at each other in horror. That hadn’t taken long.
“You guys are from Philadelphia, aren’t you? We got a call from some pretty disturbed parents who suspected you might be here. We aren’t throwing you out, but it sure sounds like they want you to come home.”
We were on the train home that afternoon, and our New York adventure was over. But the trip— hanging around Covenant House, wandering New York’s back alleys— really got me thinking about inequality as it relates to race, addiction, poverty, and homelessness. Those left behind and forgotten in cities like New York and Philly seemed particularly badly served in our society. The government had a whole Scrabble set full of acronyms for dealing with the poor— AFDC, SSI, HUD, and so on— yet it seemed that poor people only became poorer and more numerous. Something was wrong. Something was missing. The whole situation was unfair. There had to be a better way to serve the people marginalized in our society. The light bulb, though dim, was getting stronger. For the first time I began to get a sense of what I might do with my life. A mission was coming into focus.
The next year I took an evening class at Archbishop Carroll after basketball practice, and what set it apart was that unlike my gender- segregated daytime classes, there were girls in it. My face was so hideous with acne cysts that I would come in from basketball practice with a towel around my neck or over my head like a monk’s hood— to dry my hair, I’d say, but really I was hiding. The teacher— the second great influence of my high school career— was Joe Stoutzenberger, another man so lanky it makes me wonder if the school system paid these guys enough to eat properly. He taught world religion in a way the original Archbishop Carroll himself probably couldn’t have envisioned. Mr. Stoutz was very Buddhist in his outlook and mannerisms, and he spent weeks, while standing under the full- color crucifix on the wall, enlightening us on the tenets of other religions around the world and the centrality of compassion.
Mr. Stoutz led great discussions, and it was in his class that I finally discovered I had something to offer the world: I could listen and empathize. I could hear what people were saying, synthesize their thoughts, and lead discussions in a productive direction. I was probably particularly motivated because there were girls in the room, but I wasn’t really angling for them. The acne had made me a virtually asexual being. I only realized later that my facial and family afflictions had led me to deeper emotional frequencies that helped identify with others’ suffering and pain, which helped me to connect to people much more easily, especially those who themselves felt isolated. People told me that they felt “safe” around me, that I was emotionally trustworthy. That I was, in a way, the older boy from the Boys’ Town poster. It didn’t lift me out of my dark hole, but perhaps a tiny crack in all that blackness had appeared, and a little bit of light was seeping through, illuminating the beginning of a path.
Mr. Stoutz was very big on the notion that having faith in the community is the first step toward serving the community. We read Siddhartha, about the Buddha leaving the palace and discovering real life, and Mr. Stouz made that a requirement of his class— that we leave the palace of suburban Philadelphia and discover other realities. So I began wandering into downtown Philadelphia on the train, sometimes with my best buddy Joe DiStefano, to volunteer at a homeless shelter for men— my first, inchoate attempt to assuage my anguish over injustice by actually doing something about it. I’d go after school or on weekends and do menial jobs— ladling soup, cleaning up— and talk to the guys who’d ended up there. Many of them had spent their lives battling alcohol or drug addiction, and all manner of mental illness, and some, by their accounts, had just had crushingly bad breaks in life.
The people running the shelter warned me not to get too personally invested in the residents; they came and went, and I wouldn’t be any good to the organization if I had an emotional stake in any of them. But their pain latched on to me, at the cellular level, like a virus. In retrospect, it may not have been the best thing for my mental health at the time, because each of those gentlemen had his own tale of woe, and little by little I filled myself up with these tales of personal misery, adding them to my own. My acne was really aflame in those days. It was so bad— physically painful, not just emotionally gruesome— that my mother found some charlatan with a suction machine in his office that sucked the lesions off my back and chest with a loud thunk, pulling divots of flesh with them and leaving scars that were still with me two decades later.
Meanwhile, the more I ignored and defied my father, the angrier he grew; some evenings ended with him stalking me out of the kitchen through the porch out into the driveway under the basketball hoop and down all the way to the street, screaming at my back, making me feel like a worthless loser. Me. The student- athlete who simultaneously held down a paper route, a lawn- cutting business, and a YMCA gym job, while still volunteering at the homeless shelter. How could he look at me with such anger? And while we’re at it, how could there be a God with so much injustice in the world, allowing so much suffering? The leap of great unfairness from the personal to the global was in full development mode.
One night, waiting for the train home to Berwyn from Philadelphia, I stood at the edge of the platform, tortured by the hideous unfairness of everything I was feeling so palpably, strongly considering whether to step in front of the train. The engineer must have seen something was amiss; he blasted his horn uncharacteristically as he pulled into the station. I don’t even remember how, or why— maybe I was clinging to that sliver of light I’d discovered in Mr. Stoutz’ class— but I stepped back out of the way at the last second.
Meanwhile, my hoop dreams, or rather hoop delusions, were disappearing in a haze of painful injuries. Every year some part of my anatomy failed me. In seventh and eighth grades, the tendonitis was so bad in my wrists that I would tearfully run scalding water on them before games in the vain hope that the cysts would loosen up. My freshman and sophomore seasons were hindered by bone spurs and plantar fasciitis, making every step feel like hypodermic needles were being inserted into my heels. My junior year my cousin landed on my arm and broke it while I was roughhousing in Pittsburgh right before the season, making me miss the entire season. My coach didn’t speak to me for weeks after that. And finally my senior year I couldn’t run or jump because of tendonitis in my knees. Fed up, Coach Kirsch cut me, but I went to him in tears and begged him to let me stay on the team— I wanted to belong to something so badly. Coach Kirsch was tough, but he knew when someone really needed a lifeline, so he let me ride the bench, even though I often couldn’t even finish practices because of the pain.
Despite all this, one refuge I did not seek was alcohol or drugs. My dad drank, and I was so determined to be nothing like him, I swore off alcohol completely. Avoiding drugs was a no- brainer, as I felt steering clear of them might give me a competitive edge on the basketball court.
In my final year of high school, I had an experience whose significance wasn’t clear at the time. It all started with my being an insufferable smart- ass in Joan Kane’s Spanish class.
Ms. Kane— the third teacher who greatly influenced me— was very pretty and very unwilling to put up with my shenanigans. I was a discipline problem for her, just to get her attention. Poor Ms. Kane, though, had no other tools at her disposal but to give me one after- school detention slip after another, which was of course exactly what I wanted; it prolonged my time with her because detention, fortuitously, was held in her classroom. Though I cringe to remember it, I was so far gone that I’d write her platonic Shakespearean love notes suggesting that someday, when I was older, maybe she could see me differently . . .
One day during detention Ms. Kane stationed me at a desk as far from her as possible and handed me a pile of pamphlets. She was involved in some charity, apparently, and she wanted me to see what it was about. That would be my punishment, to read the pamphlets. I shuffled through them. They’d been issued by an organization called Amnesty International and another called Bread for the World. I’d never heard of either one.
For the next hour I looked at pictures and read stories of people who were starving, who had been tortured, who were child soldiers, who were refugees, and who had experienced other atrocities that hit me right in the stomach. The misery I’d seen at the shelter in Philly or Times Square was nothing compared to what was going on in Africa. This was injustice on an operatic scale. This was unfairness.
It wasn’t an immediate change- your- life moment. I was too self- absorbed for that. But those images got squirreled away somewhere deep inside my adolescent brain and would, a few years later, end up changing my life.
All of these experiences led me to a very nocturnal, insomniafueled, internally focused productivity, evidenced by a growing collection of marble notebooks, dozens of them, angst- filled reflections overflowing every page of every book. These were my journals chronicling my high school tribulations. The amazing thing is that an entry would be dated July 15, 1980, 8 p.m., and there would be a few pages of writing. Then July 15, midnight, and there’d be a couple more. Then July 16, 1980, 2 a.m., and there would be three more. I was utterly consumed. And I barely made it out of high school; my grades— due to neglect and disinterest— descended in a free fall, and my behavior, attitude, and emotional state were not far behind. But make it out I did, and finally I went off to college in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University. Free of my father, at last.
In my obsessive, guilt- ridden way, I became a total grind during my debt- filled freshman year at Georgetown University. While everybody else in the dorm was out drinking and partying, I’d be on the third floor of the library, consuming book after book unrelated to my course work with a voraciousness that, in retrospect, seems fairly desperate. There was too much injustice in the world for a guilty Catholic sinner like me to take a minute off. In my lonely, bruised state, I really believed it was partly up to me to rid the world of injustice. In order to get that done, I was going to have to learn all I could about how the world works.
I had a roommate in the dorm, a smart and charismatic guy named Geoff Mills, and I never let the poor fella sleep. Either I was clacking away on my little portable typewriter writing longwinded papers at the last minute, or I was keeping him up with arguments about Kerouac’s On the Road, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to a sound track of Bob Dylan songs. I slept only a few hours a night; I had an alarm clock on which I wrote “Wake Up You Hopeless Wretch” and left it deliberately on an overturned steel garbage can across the room so that the can would amplify the alarm and I’d have to get out of bed to shut it off and get back to my reading.
Urban poverty was still my obsession, so I signed on with a Georgetown program run by my buddy Dan Porterfield that sent volunteers to teach reading to kids in the projects in one of the low- income African- American neighborhoods in D.C., the section of the city you don’t see in the tourist promotional materials and the monuments. I roped my roommate Geoff into some of those expeditions; we’d have to wear these bright orange vests, and we would be let off at night outside these ominous high- rise towers, abominations of some social engineering experiment of decades gone by. Walking down the dark corridors and venturing into those airless, dilapidated apartments was, for me, a passageway to finding my purpose; I felt I was approaching ground zero of America’s need.
Another important friend during freshman year was the guy who ultimately led me directly to Michael: John Kaiser. John was British, with a fair complexion and pink cheeks, and he slept in his sleeping bag the entire year, ready to leave Georgetown at a moment’s notice; we called him “the dawg.” John and I fancied ourselves the social conscience of the dorm. Everybody else was going to use their Georgetown degrees to become investment bankers, we believed, but he and I were going to help save the world.
One perversely positive thing happened during freshman year. I discovered the miracle cure for acne: Accutane. I took them as religiously as if they were birth control pills. They dried my skin so completely that it created incredible flaking, but at least it eliminated the cysts that had been my mask since the onset of the hurricane otherwise known as puberty. I have a vague memory of beginning my transformation from the ugly duckling I thought I was destined to be, but I studiously paid no attention at all, as absorbed as I was in my learning.
I did, however, take a small emotional chance on a young lady who I had become close with during my senior year in high school, an equally socially awkward student- athlete with whom I used to take all- night walks in our Pennsylvania neighborhood the summer before Georgetown, tentatively sharing our pain and our dreams. We began some form of long- distance full- fl edged dating in the fall semester. During Christmas break, I was driving around with some of my old basketball team, and one of the guys told me that he had seen my girlfriend holding hands with another guy. A little research unearthed that she had been seeing him the entire time I thought we were together. What shred of self- esteem I had begun to build in the early stages of life without acne was smashed on the rocks. I went back into my cave and didn’t come back out for a long, long time. I emerged, strangely, as a guy who was almost bizarrely confident, but only in superficial encounters with women, devoid of intimacy and as self- protective as a porcupine, so certain of my inability to be loved for who I was.
I was too restless to stay at Georgetown, and I wanted desperately to discover my country for myself. So I dropped out after that first year and went off on a kind of hitchhiking expedition trying to absorb as much real world knowledge and experience as I could. I remained an enigma to my parents, who genuinely worried that I was drifting dangerously toward some kind of bad outcome that they couldn’t imagine but could fear.
For part of the time, I hitchhiked around working on various political campaigns in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and finally Chicago (where Harold Washington was seeking to become that city’s first African- American mayor), trying to better understand how our political system works. In between campaigns, I was on the road with my thumb out, going from place to place, talking with everyone, and living out of a tent and a backpack. I also went to Texas and cut across the border to Mexico to learn about labor issues from a tough old union organizer and Latino advocate named Jack Ortega, alternatively nicknamed “El Tigre” and the “con man for the people.”
But the stretch in San Francisco in the fall of 1982 was particularly meaningful because of three role models who laid the foundation for the monumental life choices I was to make a year later. Patrick Goggins, Paul Comiskey, and Johnny Maher. Three Irish guys, all blazing a trail so bright for social justice that they eliminated any doubts I might have had about whether one person can make a difference.
Mr. Goggins was my Georgetown dorm- mate Billy’s dad. When I showed up at his doorstep in the late summer of 1982, Pat Goggins and his wife Ute welcomed me with open arms. He told me that first week that I had wild eyes and I talked so Philly- tough that he thought I had some broken cartilage in my tongue. Mr. Goggins had worked on civil rights issues in the sixties and Native American causes in the seventies, but he had now focused on what he could do to contribute to solutions in the place of his heritage, Northern Ireland. A law encyclopedia salesman, he set up an organization, the Irish Forum, which aimed to get beyond the polarization between the Catholics and the Protestants there and discuss solutions to the challenges Northern Ireland faced. His work emboldened those back in Belfast who were courageous enough to chart a course toward peaceful coexistence, and it helped neutralize some of the hard- core sentiments back in the United States for one side or the other. An encyclopedia salesman in California contributing to peace in Northern Ireland!
Mr. Goggins introduced me to Father Paul Comiskey, a Jesuit priest and lawyer who wore all black and cowboy boots as if he were Johnny Cash or something. Father Paul took on as his ministry the battle against the death penalty and a campaign to improve the shockingly bad conditions of the residents of California’s penal institutions. He helped form the Prisoners’ Union, and he would visit people in prison, advocate for their rights and for smarter policies (serving bad food and having poor prison health care ends up INCREASING costs to the state, not decreasing them), and help with their cases. (The quality of public defense is shockingly bad or even nonexistent in many cases, leading to a situation in which the accused are effectively deprived of counsel, even though the right to defense counsel is a basic hallmark of our justice system.) Father Paul focused on the individual, the person, the human being who— yes— had been accused or convicted of a crime but still deserved to be treated with dignity and fairness, and who was more than the worst thing he or she had ever done.
If Mr. Goggins and Father Paul weren’t enough to inspire me, I had been reading a book about a guy called John Maher, the co- founder of the Delancey Street Foundation, a cutting- edge rehabilitation program for people fighting addictions, overcoming homelessness, or reentering society after incarceration. John Maher was also the subject of a 60 Minutes episode that so enthralled me that I went to his office one morning wearing the Irish scally cap that was my trademark that whole year, and sat in the lobby all day hoping for a chance to meet him. Eight hours passed, and they told me I had to leave because they were closing up, so I came back the next morning and waited again.
Finally, that afternoon the doors burst open and there he was, Johnny Maher, arm in arm with Cesar Chavez, the legendary farmworker activist. He looked at me and said, “So you’re the kid who won’t leave, huh?” And with that he signaled me to follow him, and for two weeks he let me shadow him around San Francisco, attending labor meetings with Chavez, political rallies, clandestine fundraising events for Northern Ireland’s independence, and inspirational speeches he would make to the residents at Delancey Street. Johnny, as people called him, never asked me a question, including my name, but he never stopped talking to me either. He dispensed some of the most motivating advice and stories I have ever heard or read, infiltrating my head and heart with the simple idea that no injustice should be allowed to stand, and that if it wasn’t for us to confront it, then who?
Meeting these huge personalities, these social reformers who saw injustice in the world and had the moxy to think they themselves could change it, taught me to be undeterred by tough odds, and it taught me that an individual can make a difference and that we should see the world as we want it to be and work like hell to make it come true. I even began writing a column entitled The Way We Will for the University of San Francisco paper.
I was drinking from the fire hose of life, but all in a hit and run manner. This applied to my education, volunteer work, jobs, and relationships. I’d work a little bit at some internship or soup kitchen and then move on. I’d take classes at one college and then move on to another, working in odd jobs to make enough money to survive, with an occasional “loan” from my baffled parents. I was a grazer, a nomad, constantly moving on to the next thing to learn a little more, but never making any kind of emotional attachment to anything. My instinctive impulse, as always, continued to be well- guarded withdrawal.
I still felt deeply misunderstood, so not only did I bounce from project to project and school to school in a rapacious ramble to learn and move on but I also veered away from the precipice of intimacy. I went through a lot of short- term girlfriends in those days, and I remember now with sadness that I wasn’t sufficiently concerned with other people’s feelings. I was angry, hurt, and much too self- absorbed.
The universe, though, abhors imbalance, and it has a way of sending us exactly what we need, even if it isn’t what we want. As the summer of 1983 began, I unexpectedly heard from my old Georgetown buddy John Kaiser, the dawg himself, who said he was overseeing a homeless shelter on Fourteenth Street in D.C., near a corner marked by prostitution, drug dealing, and public drunkenness. I went up there one day to visit him, and nothing’s been the same since.
It is life’s most random moments— its chance meetings— that can be the most profound ones.
Those Hefty bags, man, I’ll never forget that. We must have stayed in every shelter in the District of Columbia twice over.
There was one shelter at Fourteenth and N, right across the street from a big- ass church. It was a townhouse, red brick, and there was a big room on the top floor with lots of cots in it. This white dude named John Kaiser kind of ran the place. He wore shorts and flip- fl ops and had a room off to the side that wasn’t much better than ours. He slept in a sleeping bag on a ratty old couch with his cool Russian girlfriend named Kashi. I remember he used to let me and James look for coins in the sofa cushions.
One day me and James go tearing in there— I was about seven, James six— and there’s this other white dude in there. He was tall and wiry, with kind of rough skin on his face and a short beard that ran around the bottom of his chin. Right away I could tell this white man was different. I was used to grownups towering over me and kind of talking down at me, but this guy got down on the floor by me and James so his eyes were at our own level. And he used a different voice than other grownups used, not like he was telling us to do something— or stop doing something— but like he was interested in what we had to say. Man, he was full of questions! “What’s your name?” “How many brothers and sisters you got?” “Where do you go to school?” “What’s your favorite subject?” “You like basketball?” I’d answer one, and he’d be off to the next. I’d never had a grownup so interested in me before; it was kind of funny. Then I remember he asked me a really weird question. He said, “Do you know how to read?”
Read? I was only seven years old! So this white dude, a guy I never saw before, asks if me and James want to go to the library, that minute, and learn how to read.
That was how I met J.P. I guess he asked my mom if he could take us out, and when I think about it, it’s strange she said yes. I mean, she didn’t know this white dude either. He was just some stranger, and he could have taken us anywhere. She liked John Kaiser, though, and trusted him. If this white dude was a friend of his, then he must be okay. Next thing I knew, him and me and James were out there onto Fourteenth Street together.
It was all whores up there back then, and man, some of them were fine! Little as I was, I used to love sitting out there on the stoop and watching them. J.P. asked us if we’d eaten that day, and I’m sure we probably had, but it probably hadn’t been anything but cereal, or peanut butter on bread, or some chips. We was always ready to eat, and J.P. took and got us a McDonald’s. Then we walked up to this little library they had up there. Not the big Martin Luther King library; I guess it was a branch. In a townhouse. Beautiful inside there, and quiet in a way I wasn’t used to. Like, thick quiet. J.P. sat there with us going through books, trying to teach us how to read. We hunched over the books, J.P.’s finger sliding along under the words, and I’d steal little glances sideways. His face was down close to mine, with that rough skin all over it. He’d be all focused on the book, and on me, like nothing else existed in the world. I remember thinking: Who is this white dude? Why is he doing this? Why does he care?
John’s shelter was a tall townhouse. The street outside was raucous. Back then on Fourteenth Street, right there on the corner of that homeless shelter, the prostitutes openly paraded their wares while other people offered all kinds of illicit paraphernalia for sale. The top floor was almost entirely one big room full of beds; John had a small room of his own in the corner. He and his Russian girlfriend, Kashi, shared that same ratty sleeping bag from his days at Georgetown on a couch that was covered with cat hair and cigarette burns; he hadn’t changed a bit. It was great seeing him still involved in the struggle, trying to bring some peace and dignity to people who were temporarily without a home. The Reagan Revolution was in full budget- cutting flower at this point, and John and I immediately launched into an intense discussion about the infuriating indignities we felt it was inflicting on poorer households— both the withdrawal of funding for services and also the chronic demonization of poor people as lazy and immoral. We were thick into our discussion when suddenly two tiny boys came tearing into John’s room like a pair of little tornadoes. The older one was seven; he had a big round caramel- colored face and the brightest and widest eyes I’d ever seen. The younger one, six, was skinny and darker, and he didn’t move more than three inches from the side of his big brother. My friend John made them slow down a second and introduce themselves. “Michael,” the big one said, pointing to his own chest with a pudgy finger. “This is James, my brother.”
He ain’t heavy, father.
They asked John if they could look through his sofa cushions for dropped change, to which he said yes, and they went at it like a couple of gold miners.
I’d been around a lot of kids by then. I’d met children from all sorts of backgrounds at the shelters in Philadelphia and New York, in the projects during my freshman year at Georgetown, and coaching youth basketball teams. Up until then, the kids were never fully three- dimensional individuals to me, but instead they were symbols of something bigger— of poverty, of the inadequate way city governments delivered services, of rotten school systems, of absent fathers. This day, though, I found myself staring at these two little boys as though encountering something entirely new. A light came off them— particularly off the older one, Michael— that just about blinded me. He seemed to glow with a cheerfulness and optimism that was totally counterintuitive given his circumstances. I mean, these boys had nothing and yet radiated with life and sunshine.
As they rooted around in the couch, John took me out into the main room to meet their mother, Denise. She was pretty, and she had a certain dignified air about her, but she also seemed as overwhelmed and exhausted as anyone I had ever met. Their things were strewn around their cots, spilling out of big black Hefty bags that they’d obviously been living out of and lugging through the streets.
By the time we got back to John’s room, the boys had started shooting hoops with balls of paper into the trash can, interspersed with vigorous wrestling. It was like watching a couple of lion cubs rolling around on each other. Here I’d been studying the effects of poverty on children and these two seemed utterly unaffected by it. The word that comes to mind is undefeated; they were completely joyful in the moment. I sat down on the floor to bring my face down to their level, and when Michael turned that big moon face of his at me, it was like a burst of unexpected sunshine.
I began doing the thing my dad used to do— firing questions. “Do you go to school? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite TV show? What’s your favorite basketball team? What’s your favorite football team? What’s your favorite baseball team? Why? Why do you like them? Who’s your favorite player?” Questions, questions, questions— it didn’t even matter what they were, just a constant stream of stimuli in the hopes of getting something back. Michael, the older one, was very sparkly and eager to please. It was clear he loved having all this adult attention turned on him. He was a little bewildered, but he did his best to keep up. James, on the other hand, hung back. He was more wary, and a little sneakier too. He tried to get his little hand into my pocket. Then he took a pair of scissors from John’s desk. Not bad things, really. Just sneaky.
“Hey,” I heard myself say. “You guys know how to read?”
They lit up and laughed as though I was Bill Cosby, their faces a riot of pink tongues and white teeth. I may as well have asked them if they could fly. “I’m serious,” I said. “If you want, I’ll take you to the library and teach you to read.”
“Right now?” Michael piped, his eyes wide, and I thought, well, sure. Why not? Why not right now? I walked out into the main room and found Denise.
“Is it okay with you if I take the boys out for a little while?” I asked. “I thought I’d take them over to the library and teach them a little bit about reading.”
She looked up at me with eyes so exhausted they seemed varnished, and I could see her making all the calculations: Who is this white man? What’s he want with my boys? She’d have seen a wiry guy with a rough, pock- marked face hidden by a sharply trimmed dark beard. She also, apparently, saw something she trusted.
She knew my buddy John; he’d been kind to her. And maybe my suggestion that I, a perfect stranger, immediately take her kids to read at the library was so strange that no self- respecting kidnapper or child molester would think of such a thing. She agreed to let me take the boys for a few hours. Michael and James scampered down the stairs two at a time. Something different! Something new! We didn’t so much walk to the library as play our way there. Who can jump up and touch that sign? Who can leap frog over the fire hydrant? Who can find a leaf with the most red in it? Who can walk backward the farthest without falling down? I was being my dad— every kid’s clown. They were so hungry for play that we’d finish up one little game and they’d be, “What’s next? What’s next?”
The nearest library was a pretty little branch office in a brownstone, and I got down on one knee to explain that we couldn’t play in there, that it’s a library where people go to read quietly. I was a little nervous taking them in there; they were so busy and noisy and full of energy. I figured it would take about two minutes for us to get thrown out. But the two of them— tiny little guys, holding hands— walked in there like explorers happening on some elaborate underground golden temple. Their eyes rolled around as we tip- toed through, utterly rapt at all the books, the shiny polished wood, the immaculate, learned silence that enveloped the room. I sat them at a table and retrieved a picture book, and they fixated on it as though it was a magical artifact from another dimension. The boys had to have seen books in school, but I got the impression that nobody had ever sat with them and thoroughly directed their attention into one. They turned the pages with their mouths hanging open, visibly dumbstruck by some of the stories I was reading them.
I started teaching them how to sound out the letters, and it was a whole new game for them. If I expected them to resist, I couldn’t have been more wrong, because making sounds out of the squiggles on the page was as fresh and fun as crab walking on the grass or playing “I Spy.” Watching them puzzling over how a t and an h together make that hissing sound, or the way one makes an o with one’s lips when making the sound of the letter, I felt as though I was watching a fast- motion film of seeds landing on fertile earth, germinating and sprouting into green shoots. Michael and James had such fresh, ready, unspoiled minds— despite what must have been such a disorienting and sometimes harrowing experience as living from shelter to shelter— that my heart began banging around inside my chest. Until this moment, I’d been focused on the problems of poverty, and I hadn’t allowed myself to think about actual solutions for real people. But watching Michael and James, I found myself thinking: Anything is possible.
I was taking them page by page through a children’s book. I felt lucky that I could introduce them to a world of pictures and words that had fired my imagination when I was their age. On one page was a picture of a family standing outside their house, and before I could turn to the next, Michael slapped his plump little hand down on it. “I’m going to get my mom a house,” he said in a low tone I hadn’t heard before. I look over at him, and his face had utterly changed. His eyebrows, which had ridden excitedly around his hairline all day, were scrunched down around his nose. He looked, suddenly, like a tiny grownup. “Someday soon, I’m going to buy my mom a house and take care of our family.”
“Michael,” I said. “You’re just a kid.”
“That don’t matter,” he said. He looked at the picture a long time, and then slowly turned the page. His face relaxed, the eyebrows floated up. After another couple of pages, he was back to his smiley self, and that dark little interlude might never have happened.
From there I took them to McDonald’s to fill up their bellies for a couple bucks, which is probably all I had in my pocket at the time, and then back to the shelter. They thundered up the stairs yelling to their mother about all the things they’d done, and I went in to John’s room to say goodbye. Before I could leave, Michael came bouncing over and grabbed my hand. “When you coming back?” he asked, his shiny face tilted up toward mine. “When we doing this again?”