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And every week, there was the unspoken question, the one I didn’t know enough to ask myself : Have you found her yet? The one who reminds you of you?
Twenty years after she lived at a homeless shelter for teens, Janice Erlbaum went back to volunteer. Now thirty-four years old and a successful writer, she’d changed her life for the better; now she wanted to help someone else–someone like the girl she’d once been.
Then she met Sam. A brilliant nineteen-year-old junkie savant, the product of a horrifically abusive home, Sam had been surviving alone on the streets since she was twelve and was now struggling for sobriety against the adverse health effects of long-term drug abuse.
Soon Janice found herself caring deeply for Sam, following her through detoxes and psych wards, halfway houses and hospitals, becoming ever more manically driven to save her from the sickness and sadness leftover from Sam’s terrible past. But just as Janice was on the verge of becoming the girl’s legal guardian, she made a shocking discovery: Sam was sicker than anyone knew, in ways nobody could have imagined.
Written with startling candor and immediacy, Have You Found Her is the story of one woman’s quest to save a girl’s life–and the hard truths she learns about herself along the way.
“A rich and compelling account . . . Ultimately this is a book about the narrator’s journey and the dangers that attend the urge within us all to believe we can save another soul. A terrific read.” –Cammie McGovern, author of Eye Contact
From the Trade Paperback edition. less
Random House Publishing Group; February 2008 367 pages; ISBN 9780345504593 Download in secure PDF format
Title: Have You Found Her
Author: Janice Erlbaum
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Chapter One How I Became the Bead Lady
It’s a Wednesday evening in late May, and I’m at the shelter for my weekly workshop, which is officially listed on the calendar as “Jewelry Making with Janice.” This has been my shtick for the past two and a half years—every Wednesday evening, I come uptown to the shelter, and I sit around for a few hours with the girls of the Older Females Unit making beaded bracelets and necklaces and earrings. I am known, colloquially, as “Bead Lady,” as in, “Bead Lady, you got more alphabet beads this week? ’Cause last week you was runnin’ outa vowels.”
All of the volunteers here have a shtick. Some teach ballet, some lead prayer circles; theater groups come in to do presentations about conflict resolution. Out-of-town church choirs give concerts. The Junior League, a group of young professional women committed to volunteerism, sends representatives once a week to lead workshops about things like prenatal health and budgeting. One guy comes in and supervises pickup basketball games in the gym. There’s a guy named Carl who’s been volunteering on the Older Females Unit for the past fifteen years—a white guy, mousy, quiet, and kind. I have no idea what his shtick is, but the girls seem to like him. They don’t like everybody. I guess when I started, I thought the girls would be so grateful for any kind of sympathy or attention that they’d fall all over the volunteers, but I’ve seen them turn their backs on a lot of people, watched them size up a bunch of white women in high-heeled shoes, out to do their annual Good Deed for the Poor Little Black Girls, and seen them “put it on frost,” as they say, ice up like snowmen. Because the girls at the shelter do not want your charity. They did not ask you to come stare at them with your pity, like they’re some fucked-up zebras at the zoo. They know you have some reason of your own for coming, whether it’s to burn off your bourgeois guilt, spread the word of Jesus, or pad your résumé—you’ve got your shtick, and then you’ve got your angle. What are you doing here, the girls want to know. Slumming? They’ll still ask me that, directly or indirectly, the new ones who haven’t met me before—and there are always new ones, every week. Every Wednesday evening, I’m missing a few girls from the weeks before (“Where’s Angela? Where’s Zuzu? Where’s Grenada?”), and there’s a fresh crop of intakes, girls who watch me warily as I dump my bead supplies on the table in the lounge. “What’s this?” they ask, skeptical. “We’re going to make jewelry. You want to make some?” Invariably: “Is it free?” “Yeah, it’s free. You can make earrings, or a necklace, or a bracelet.” “What about all three?” That’s when I know I’ve got them. “You can make all three,” I tell them, smiling. “If you’ve got the patience, I’ve got the time.” “All right then.” And the chairs scrape back, and I’ll have a table full of girls sitting with me, just like that, asking for a string “big enough for my man’s wrist” or “small enough for my baby.” And soon enough, if it’s an all- or mostly new crowd, between talking about popular music and cell phone plans and whether or not you can tell the sex of a baby-to-be by the changing breadth and flatness of the mother’s nose, the subject will eventually come up: “Miss, Bead Lady, why you come here like this?” As it has tonight. Tonight’s asker is a butch girl of about nineteen, wearing an oversized hockey jersey in black and red, extra-large baggy jeans belted around the upper thighs, do-rag over her braids, and cork-sized fake diamond studs in each ear. She is making a blackand- red bracelet, Blood colors. I always try to dissuade the girls from making gang beads, to no avail. The bracelet has alphabet beads that spell rip pookie. I concentrate on daubing a finished knot with glue. The glue won’t keep the cheap elastic from snapping, ultimately, but it will forestall its demise. “Well,” I say, without looking up. “I used to live here when I was a kid.” “For real?” asks the butch girl, eyebrows high. “You lived here?” “Huh,” murmurs someone else. Another girl at the end of the table elbows her neighbor, Are you listening to this? I keep my eyes on the knot, blow on the glue. “Yep. When I was fifteen, I got sick of living with my mother’s husband, so I left home, and I came here. I was in the minors’ wing for about two months, then they helped me get into a group home, and I lived there for about a year.” “I hate my mother’s husband, too,” offers the girl to my left, the one with the tattoo of a bleeding rose on her left boob. She hands me an earring in need of a hook. “Fuck all of them,” agrees the butch in the hockey jersey, and turns her attention back to me. “So, wait—so things was messed up at home, and you came here, and then they hooked you up, and then things got better? Things is good with you now?” I bend the hook with my pliers, smiling to myself. Succinctly, yes. “Things are very good with me now. And I’m really grateful to this place for helping me get to a place where I can say that.” She leans back, nods. “So that’s how come you came back.” I return the hooked earring to the girl with the bloody-rose tattoo, and she holds it up to her ear, flips her head back and forth like America’s Next Top Model, emits a little squeal of pleasure. “Pretty much,” I say. “That’s crazy,” decrees a girl at the end of the table, pale and haughty, with traces of a Spanish accent. “No offense, miss, but when I get outa here, I am never coming back. Never.” “That’s understandable,” I tell her. “I didn’t come back for almost twenty years.” “So what made you decide to come back, then?” asks the butch girl. Well, okay. This is a question I’ve asked myself over and over, ever since I walked through that door again—What made me decide to come back here, goddamn it? I’d successfully managed to avoid this place for nineteen years, though I never left New York, never lived farther than a subway ride away. After purposely staying away for so long, why did I decide to return to the scene of the crime? Why couldn’t I just leave well enough alone? Two and a half years later, I still don’t know the answer. Survivor’s guilt, I could say, or, because I want to help make a difference. But really, it was something more selfish than that, something I still can’t name. I cut another bracelet length of elastic string, triple-knotting the end. “Well, you know how it is,” I tell her, smiling. “I missed the company.” I’m interested in volunteering here because I’m a former resident of the shelter, and I want to give something back to the place that helped save my life. That’s what I wrote on my application almost two and a half years ago, back in the winter of 2004, when I was all fresh and dewy-eyed. It had been nineteen years since I’d been inside the building, since the day I’d left the shelter for the group home, my donated bag full of donated clothes, a skull and crossbones drawn in eyeliner on my temple, ready to impress my new roommates with my hard-core stories about stabbings and lesbians and twelve-year-old hoes. See you, wouldn’t want to be you. Anymore. Then there I was again, age thirty-four, in my pinstriped pants and my good-enough shoes, sitting around the conference table in the volunteer department with my paperwork in front of me, sneaking looks at the other prospective candidates: a young white girl with her hair in braids, looking to earn college credit; a woman in her forties, also going for college credit; and a bald, muscular guy with a big tense grin. When the volunteer coordinator asked him why he was interested in volunteering, he grinned so hard he almost broke a sweat. “I love kids!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been a foster parent, and I’m really . . . I love kids. Wanna help ’em out.” Grin, grin. Creep, I decided, for no good reason. Child molester. It was something about the muscles; I could picture him shirtless, screaming at his foster kids while he made them do push-ups. He grinned at me, and I smiled back weakly. The volunteer coordinator put on a videotape about the shelter. “Our crisis center serves two to three thousand kids every year,” said the narrator. “Without us, they have few alternatives besides the streets.” One black-and-white photo of a sober-faced kid dissolved into another: kids leaning against walls, kids lying curled up on the sidewalk. Then the happy kids, the shelter kids, in color, with smiles and graduation robes. The music swelled. “With your help,” the narrator urged, “we can make a difference in their lives. We can give them more than just food and shelter—we can give them hope.” Had this place given me hope? I tried to remember. I remembered the food: white bread, cereal, and milk in the morning; bologna sandwiches for lunch; meat loaf and mashed potatoes out of the box for dinner. SpaghettiOs, canned vegetables, vanilla pudding. Never enough of any of it. I remembered the narrow metal bed frame, and the scratchy industrial sheets, and the bathroom I shared with six other girls; I remembered the paneled drop ceiling over my bed. I remembered the three dollars a week they gave us for spending money, and how every Friday night the counselors would open up the supply cabinet and hand out douches, one for every girl. I remembered the douches. I didn’t know if I remembered the hope. I frowned, trying to concentrate, but it was distracting, being back in the building again after all that time, the same building I’d dreaded and dreamed of for years after I left. That smell—cinder blocks and construction paper, the ragged, musty, wall-to-wall carpeting, the heat coming through radiators thick with cracked paint—it hit me like an old song. Right. The night I came here was windy, it was November; I was fifteen years old. I walked through those doors downstairs, went into that office I passed earlier, and talked to my very first nun, who said, “You can stay here, for now, and we’ll find you a place to live.” There was another nun on the videotape now, saying, “Your first responsibility with these young people is to listen. First and foremost, you have to listen to them, and you have to take what they say seriously. And they may not always be telling the truth—in many cases, they won’t be; they don’t know how. But even if you don’t believe the facts of what they’re saying, you still have to believe in them, and believe that you will eventually get the facts. Believe in them, and listen to them, and keep listening, and eventually they will tell you the truth, and they will tell you how to help them, and how to teach them to help themselves.” Listen, I wrote in my notebook, and underlined it. That’s what the first nun did for me, the night I came here. She listened to me, and she believed me. Now I remembered the hope. All the remembering was starting to overwhelm me; I was getting dizzy from it, from the heat in the close room, crowded with extra dimensions of time and space. It was nineteen years ago; it was today. It was in that stairwell right over there, three floors down, those girls wanted my eyeliner and I gave it to them. It was thick in here, the air swollen and static, and I knew from experience that the windows didn’t open. The Ghost of Janice Past was squirming on my lap. What are we doing here? she wanted to know. And when are we getting a smoke? “These young people are suffering,” the nun on the tape continued. “Suffering from abuse, addiction, poverty, neglect . . .” I twisted in my chair, tugged the waistband of my pants, slipped my feet out of my shoes under the table and curled my toes. I could feel the bald guy grinning from two seats away. “Heightened risk of gang violence, prostitution, disease . . .” Oh god. Okay! We get it, all right? We’re here! We’re here, and we’re going to stop all that bad stuff from happening, so let’s quit talking about it and get to work. Finally, the tape was over, and the volunteer coordinator switched on the lights. “Are there any questions?” she asked. I slumped in my chair, wrung out. The grinning bald guy raised his hand and asked my question for me. “When can we start?” I was still flustered when I got back to my apartment that night, pacing the living room with my three cats in tow, their tails crooked with curiosity. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids I’d seen: the young girl waiting for the elevator with me, carrying her days-old baby, smaller than a loaf of bread; the two roughnecks on the corner, with their supersized jeans and their plasticized sneakers shaped like steam irons—I was three feet away from them when I realized they weren’t boys. The girl with the pink yarn in her braids, waiting downstairs in front of the intake office, singing softly to herself, that song from The Little Mermaid. I want to be where the people are . . . Ever since a few weeks ago, when I’d made up my mind to go back and volunteer, I’d been impatient to start making a difference, to start digging through that pile of needy kids and helping them, one by one, until they were all good and helped, and I could relax again, knowing they were all right. Volunteering felt like something urgent I’d left undone, something I’d been putting off for years—like the nightmares I had sometimes, where I’d left the cats neglected and unfed for a week and was racing home to see if they were still alive. Now that I’d laid eyes on these kids, I was even more anxious to get back there to the shelter, to help, to listen and believe, as the nun on the videotape had said. I plucked a half-smoked joint out of the ashtray and lit it, swallowing a deep drag and holding it in my lungs. Such an old habit, my pot smoking—the only vestige of my drug-addled adolescence. I’d quit all my other teenage habits long ago—cocaine, ecstasy, acid, thumb sucking—but now, in my thirties, I continued to smoke pot daily. Self-medicating, I told myself, against the leftover anxieties of a tumultuous youth; after what I’d been through as a kid, I figured I was entitled to smoke as much as I wanted. Besides, everyone said I was the most productive pothead they’d ever met—I could get up in the morning, run a few miles on the treadmill, then smoke half a joint before going to my editorial job; with a few drops of Visine in my eyes, it seemed that nobody was ever the wiser. I paced as I smoked, thinking maybe I’d call my boyfriend, Bill; he should have been home from work by then. I took another long hit off the joint, put it back in the ashtray, and dialed his apartment in Queens. “Our hero returneth,” answered Bill, his chair squeaking in the background as he put his feet up on his desk. “So? How did it go?” I could hear him smiling at me over the phone, could feel it all the way from Queens. Bill and I had been together for two years already, after meeting online, and I still couldn’t believe my luck in finding him, this smart, funny, nerdy, handsome guy who adored me, whom I adored. I pictured him—his warm hazel eyes behind his squared-off glasses, his broad shoulders, his long runner’s legs propped up on his desk next to a stack of comic books and Macworlds—and I wished we’d made plans for him to come over that night. “Okay,” I said. “I mean, good. They said my application looked really good, and my recommendations were strong. So now I just have to pass the criminal-background check, and then they can place me on a unit.” “Excellent,” he said, sounding very satisfied. “That’s great, Shmoo.” I flopped down on the sofa, disarmed as always by Bill’s support. Even after two years, it was still hard to get used to the idea that I had a partner I could lean on and trust, someone who responded to my plans and ideas with “That’s great, Shmoo,” instead of “Well, the only problem with that is . . . ,” like the voice inside my head, like every jerk boyfriend I’d ever had. “I’m so proud of you,” continued Bill. “You feel good about it, right?” “Yeah, I feel good. I feel . . .” Tired. I felt tired all of a sudden, like I’d run out of adrenaline, like it was three in the morning instead of nine-thirty at night. “I just . . . I don’t know what I’m supposed to do for these kids. I don’t know what the hell I think I’m doing. I’m not a social worker, I’m just some person off the street.” Bill cut right through this, authoritative. “Babe, you’re more than just some person off the street. You lived there. Nobody’s going to understand these kids better than you. And they’ll train you, right? I mean, once you’re placed on a unit”—he threw a little extra relish on “on a unit,” like I was going to work at Oz Maximum Security Prison, and I was buoyed for a second by his vicarious excitement—“I’m sure they’ll give you instructions, tell you how the whole system works. You’ll be—” “I wish you were here,” I said abruptly. “I love you and I miss you and I wish you were here.” He paused, restarted carefully. “I wish I was there too, Shmoo.” All I had to do, I knew, was ask Bill to move in with me, and he could be there every night. I didn’t know why I was balking. He was ready to give up his lease in Queens; he was sick of schlepping his overnight bag to work every other day, of trying not to let the milk in his fridge go bad, of missing the three cats he and I had adopted together on nights he spent alone. Two years—that was more than enough time to decide whether or not you wanted to move in with somebody, especially in New York, where rent usually dictates the course of a relationship, and it’s not like I didn’t have enough room; I had more than enough. I just had to ask him, already. “Anyway,” I demurred, “I won’t know more until I hear from this woman Nadine, she’s the head of Older Females. And it might take her a while; they’re really busy over there.” “I’m sure they are busy,” said Bill, and yawned. The desk chair squeaked again; his feet landed back on the floor. “Listen, I’m going to eat something, maybe throw on the hockey game—you want to call me back before you go to sleep?” The nightly before-bed phone call—another amazing feature of the Bill and Janice deal. I was crazy for not asking him to move in. I rose from the couch, and the cat on my lap made an exasperated noise. Me and my wanderlust. “Yeah, okay,” I told him. “I love you, Shmoo.”