Rafe went to the City of San Francisco to tell his story. I explained that he should only say what he was comfortable with. Neatly undermining that advice, I then said it would be impossible for him to say anything wrong. Really, everyone was just excited to have him there. Talking.
Officials from the Department of Human Services and, very possibly, members of the city Board of Supervisors would be meeting over a range of issues. One portion of the afternoon included hearing the tale of a life from their foster care rolls. Since San Francisco County had reported the highest numbers in the state and California boasted the largest foster care rolls nationwide, these officials were looking for a flash of insight into why their county had seen more kids enter foster care per capita in that first year of the new millennium than any other in the United States. I gathered, through my own powers of absent-minded deduction, that everyone hoped to be moved to tears over this point, looming large, for twenty minutes.
From our ombudsperson, I’d gotten further information, most of it as vague as her job title. She said cuts were coming. Our Foundation, with its teen center and support services there to aid kids in the transition out of foster care, could very well disappear. So taking the Department up on the offer to showcase a representative from the system would help.
When she suggested Rafe, I couldn’t think of a good excuse to get him out of it. Our ombudsperson immediately responded “Awesome!” and proceeded to tell me that rumors had it that Congresswoman Pelosi might even show.
* * *
Rafe and I coasted down an off-ramp toward Market Street where a dormant sheath of fog padded the city against the burning orange dusk on our left. He’d been distracted since I’d picked him up at his group home and tried to fill the conversation vacuum by chewing on a candy wrapper loudly. He huffed when he saw himself in the sideview mirror.
“Hold it, let me see that shirt of yours,” I glanced over at him from behind the wheel, long enough to read aloud the words on his T-shirt: “SEX – DO IT FOR THE KIDS!”
“Yeah,” he laughed, “You surprised, huh?”
“Maybe we could turn it inside out…”
“I can just do like this,” he said, folding his arms over his chest like a tiny bouncer.
“Not gonna work.”
“People will say it’s a good joke.”
“I doubt it.” I made a lifting up motion. He didn’t contest it and stretched the shirt over his head, jerking his face through the neckhole, quick to check the cars creeping by in adjacent lanes where people might be looking.
Drivers spoke into phones or perspired with their windows up. A man in a Saturn cried at his windshield and honked. A homeless man slipped through the aisles formed by the traffic and carried a cardboard flap that read, “Anything helps.” Behind him, a billboard proclaimed, “Anything goes for an ERP integration system solutions” beside the picture of a smiling businesswoman with the Earth floating over her head like an idea.
Rafe clapped his hand over his fist. “I know what I’m gonna say.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
“I was a member of the Latin Dragons.”
“Is that true?”
“We don’t have enough time to be smart.”
“I never did a speech before.”
So he rehearsed. He went from the present backwards. He lived in a group home at the moment. He liked it okay. The other guys were a pain in the ass, but cool. When he wasn’t there or at school, he worked at Safeway stocking shelves. Sometimes they let him take home day-old bagels. Before that, he was in a home with a single woman who would forget to have enough food in the house for an additional person. Before that, he took cheap drugs and drank a lot, mostly when he was homeless, which he was for at least a year before he entered the system. His uncle had been in prison for seven years now. That’s who raised him. Rafe sort of remembered his mother.
Rafe checked with me again to make sure I would be talking first.
* * *
My name is nothing you will need to remember. I have contrived it to protect the self-important. Hi.
The city I inhabit becomes a less opaque fantasy each day. In the morning, I stub my toe on the same nail sticking up from my floorboards, hammering it back down while cursing “This overpriced piece of shit matchstick house!” While whistling merrily while I work. While grunting “Don’t you ever learn” only to have the nail wiggle back up later, after a week’s worth of footsteps have backpedaled over the other end of the wood. I leave my place and step into the fog, sniffing for the seawater and wishing I were a fisherman.
But instead of the high seas, I work for foster kids. Rather, ungrateful foster kids run me completely ragged. Instead, I’m here at The Girl’s and Boy’s Town and there’s hope for the least of you. Instead, things within the world are much worse than anyone thought.
I work at a Foundation, with a new dawn capital “F,” that helps prepare foster kids for what we paint for their benefit as the actual world. I work at a nonprofit. I report into municipal employment where I douse figments of my imagination in cold water, unsafe to drink. My only real job is to helm our teen center, where I coordinate the tutoring and direct kids to further assistance and tell people to stop calling me “Blood.”
I’ve gotten to know well the regular young people who lope by. I sometimes catch myself hoping for their collective approval. Often. They are not as street smart as most people give them such true props for. It’s really only me who fits the stereotype like a glove. They have already seen the privilege from which I’ve arrived to them and search daily for ways to reason its fairness relative to theirs. Many of them have, on separate occasions, lost it and smashed something in the center while squeezing out startled tears. Some of them have walked in high, pregnant, shirtless, tweaking or waiting with school books in their hand for an SF State tutor who’s flaked out again on us. Each of them shares howls of laughter over jokes I’m never let in on.
Except for Rafe. Allow me to provide some background. The representative I have with me tonight is Rafe. The speaker weathers his personal tantrums internally and settles arguments saying “Don’t be stupid.” Other kids will do what the system refers to as “emancipate” next year and live, for the first time, on their own; the moment they’ve been waiting for that they will greet, as I’ve been warned, with a reverse compulsion to return into the system, by then, too late. But I am not the one to tell them this.
I tell them I’ve got other problems to worry about. I’ve got a new woman. She is married to another man and has been for several months. It’s really that she’s been trying to pull away from a destructive relationship. We see other people. I don’t want to take things too quickly. We’re not at the point of needing to define our relationship. We’ve really just met. At the last job I quit, we had sex on the teal carpeted floor of the copy room minutes after our boss left the office for the day. More than once. The whole thing is actually fleeting and meaningless. We are a horrible idea. No one is in love, anywhere. So she is taken. She is French. Again, the stereotype.
Did I mention that I have more debt on several credit cards than I’d like to calculate? Did I mention I don’t understand fully my car insurance policy? Did I relay that I may only be capable of love when it’s out of reach, I may only be capable of passion when it’s frowned upon and offensive to every moral absolute that I try to instill upon the kids that come through the door? I keep fragile time. I can’t concede the otherwise assumed lost cause. If only I was better at explaining. But I’m here to talk to you about Rafe.
I tell teenagers not to give up and to find someone and something to love. They say “So what do we care, blood” and I respond “Fine, I only wanted you to know and now you can get back to work.” They find it gay.
They have more questions never asked. They still want to know what’s fair.
* * *
Inside a large hall of the massive DHS building, a coordinator over-fondling his laminated access badge apologized from the podium. He listed the people who couldn’t make it here today due to a last-minute scheduling conflict. The seats were filled primarily with recent hire social workers, the kind that escorted their cases through our center on a daily basis. Other officials were introduced as Case Worker Supervisors. They had all made it. Apparently, these were the Supervisors I’d heard about.
Still, an older woman in a sharp suit came in late with some sort of entourage. She looked like Nancy Pelosi. She and her posse watched me closely as I took the podium and adjusted the mike.
I provided an overview of our particular services, outlining goals for the new year and the reality of how little we had to fund any of them. I emphasized the need for seeing beyond the numbers and introduced someone we’re all very proud of.
Rafe walked to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He hugged the podium in his black T-shirt, still inside out with the tag waving out behind him.
I winced through much of his speech. He said too much. He wasn’t reserved and thoughtful as he was down at the center, but instead put on a thugged-out scowl. I also didn’t think I’d need to remind him to avoid using the word “hella.”
The rest of the hall behind him, from me in the front row to the security guards by the back doors, leaned forward, in collective motions of understanding with index fingers held discreetly to pursed lips. Many couldn’t hold the pose and released the valve on their own personal waterworks, choking up purposefully.
After Rafe stepped down and returned to the seat next to me, he knocked his fist over my hands and nodded.
A few more people from other related city programs spoke. Afterward, the coordinator thanked everyone for the remarks and sincerity. He said they wouldn’t forget what they’d heard today. We stood to leave with others who peeled off from their rows to introduce themselves. They all expressed their deep appreciation over what Rafe had shared.
A woman described herself as “a longtime fan of at-risk kids” and asked for his phone number. I intervened to say we just don’t give that out.
After her, the Pelosi look-a-like approached. She informed us that she was a reporter from Channel 5. They wanted to do a spot on Rafe. A scholarship could possibly be made available if Rafe would tell his incredible story on the air.
We left with her card.
“I messed up,” Rafe said to me back in the car.
“You were great.”
“I was too soon about the drinking.”
“Too soon? You told it how it is, right?”
He reached for the radio and cranked up the volume too loud. We took the streets under the highway, taking the long way back.
By the last stretch, what we’d done felt fully wrong. This commenced with the officials glancing over the broken pieces we’d brought before them, to Rafe snapping his fingers to the song he’d finally found that allowed him to keep posturing, meaner than usual, to me driving him back home to nothing more than we’d left with.
When the song dropped back into the DJ’s voice, Rafe tapped the volume knob down.
“I’m different than them,” he announced.
“Different than who?”
“Those people back there and you, and the boys at my home, too. I’m not the same.”
“Yeah, we’re all different.” I nearly wheeled out the word “diversity” before he interrupted.
“Don’t get on that colors of the wind tip with me. I’m not like the rest.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a better head on your shoulders.”
“I could get some TV gigs like that lady said…”
“Listen, forget about that lady.”
I rolled the driver’s side window down and the wind poured in so we couldn’t hear the turning in our seats and the distinct aching of our own skeletons.
“You feel sorry for me, huh?”
“No, we all sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.”
“Well me, I’m out. In twenty-three weeks, I go like a hero.”
He cracked with enough electricity for both of us. I could hear anticipation breathing out of his pores, but I listened instead to the stillness. The stillness coming from the intersection’s four-way stop and stillness of intent that lasted until I saw Rafe back inside for the evening where he fell again on stillness and returned again the next week, with twenty-three left according to his calculation, and we all began again.