When he realized that I was having trouble making out what he had written, he began to be distressed. I tried to give the impression that I understood everything he had written on the sheet in my hands, but it must have been obvious that I didn’t.
Jordan had appeared at the church door again, almost four months to the day since I had last seen him. [See “Boy on the Streets, Part 1”] He actually looked good. I was pleased. Maybe we had gotten it right back then when I had managed to pull together some resources from a couple of community social service organizations, in order to send Jordan back to stay with his mom. Maybe somehow there he’d been able to pull his life a bit better together. Here he was. He looked clean and properly dressed — well, properly dressed for a young, hip-hop guy.
I asked him how he was. He insisted that he was doing great. I asked him how long he’d been back from New York. That’s where we had sent him four months earlier. And where, I wanted to know, was he staying now It had been a conflict with his aunt and uncle there in Columbus, Ohio that had landed him on my doorstep in the first place four months earlier.
Those questions — how long have you been back? where are you staying? — seemed to confuse him. I tried rephrasing the questions. Still, he couldn’t quite follow what I was asking about. My questions assumed that after we’d sent him back to New York, he had stayed there for a while and gotten his life sorted out. I wasn’t quite sure why he would have come back to Columbus. But here he was looking improved.
But my questions confused him because, as I eventually learned, he had stayed in New York scarcely a week before his mother had again put him out, and he had somehow managed to come almost straight back to Columbus. “How long have you been back?” is confusing when you were hardly away at all in the first place. I had last seen him four months earlier. He’d been back in Columbus since a week after I’d last seen him. It took us a while to sort that out.
Still, he looked as if he were in pretty good condition. So, I continued hopeful. He told me he was staying again with his aunt and uncle and their family in the suburbs. He told me that he had a job at the Wendy’s restaurant on Broad Street in downtown Columbus.
[Few people outside of Columbus, Ohio know that the Wendy’s on Broad Street in Columbus was the very first restaurant in the chain. The Wendy’s empire started there on Broad Street when the late founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas, a Columbus native, opened for business there several decades ago. That Wendy’s #1 closed up a few years after my dealings with Jordan.]
So, Jordan’s life situation seemed to be much improved. Then, he told me that he was engaged to be married, and alarm bells started ringing in my head. That’s when I brought him in out of the doorway and sat him down beside me on a bench in the lobby.
Her name, he said, was Nicole. She also worked at Wendy’s. That, he said, was how they had met. They were looking for an apartment together. Maybe my expression showed that I was not entirely enthusiastic about this engagement, because he shifted the topic and told me that he was back in school now, too — a “special school.”
He was here to see me now just to say “hello” — oh, and also to see about getting bus fare for the local transit system. Silly him, he had forgotten to bring money with him when he left home that morning — oh, and by the way, could he get one of those bag lunches I’d given him way back the first time he’d seen me? “I’m really hungry, ” he said. At that point, I knew that some significant parts of what he had just been telling me were certainly not true. But I also knew that it was going to take me a while to figure out which parts.
As he stood in the church kitchen eating his sandwiches, I poured him a glass of milk. He was pleased that I had remembered that
he liked milk with his meal. That simple gesture of remembering his preference for milk and pouring it without being asked seemed somehow to crack Jordan’s protective veneer of pretense. His mask began to slip, and he began to admit that his situation was not quite what he had been claiming.
He was not living with his aunt and uncle in the suburbs. They had put him out. He had been staying at Faith Mission, one of the homeless shelters in the downtown, but the staff at the mission had also just put him out for fighting. So, he was at this point literally on the streets with nowhere to sleep.
Jordan insisted that he did actually have a job at Wendy’s. I didn’t press him on that point, though I found it very hard to believe that he could have sustained his focus enough to get through a job interview successfully — even one as simple as that required for a fast food job. In any case, even if he did actually have a job, I knew that keeping a job while sleeping in alleyways or under bushes in the park was enormously difficult. Personal hygiene slides under those conditions, and that tends to put a boss off. It’s hard to maintain your work schedule when you have to scrounge for food and a place to sleep day in and day out. If Jordan really did have a job, I couldn’t image how he would ever keep it in the days ahead.
Jordan also insisted that he really did have a fiancée, whose name was Nicole. He admitted that he had met her at Faith Mission, not at Wendy’s and that that had happened only a few days earlier. But, he insisted, he had proposed to her, and she had accepted his proposal. One point he was adamant on was that he and Nicole had not been sexually intimate. I had come to know Jordan as one sizzling impulse tied to another tied to yet another sizzling impulse. No one was in control of Jordan’s impulses — least of all Jordan himself. If there really was a Nicole, and if she and Jordan had not been sexually intimate, it was either because Nicole was enforcing that discipline, or, as seemed more likely to me, because Jordan was still so much a little boy at heart that sex simply scared him.
Jordan pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. It was a sheet torn from a Walt Disney Aladin coloring book. On one side of the page, the bold lines of the genie’s face had been colored in. On the other side, writing over top of the coloring book picture, Jordan had scrawled out the lines of what he told me was a poem he’s written to Nicole. His writing was all but indecipherable for several reasons. His spelling did not even quite achieve the level of being phonetic, and he formed his letters of the alphabet in ways that were not merely substandard but were often simply unrecognizable.
Still, Jordan had a child-like pride in his work that was, at the same time, mixed with a gnawing insecurity. Without directly asking for it, he clearly longed for me to offer some sort of validation of his work. He studied me anxiously, as I tried to read what he’d written.
I tried to give the impression that I could easily understand what he’d set down on that coloring book paper. But, it must have been obvious that I couldn’t. He quickly realized that I wasn’t grasping much of what he had written. He became quite distressed. My validation would mean nothing, if he knew that I couldn’t make out the words. More to the point, he knew that if I couldn’t understand what he’d written, Nicole certainly would never understand it.
So, I suggested that he could read his poem to me, and then I could re-write it for him on a plain, white sheet of paper. But he didn’t like that suggestion. He didn’t want Nicole to get the impression that he couldn’t write, not did he want her to think that the poem was someone else’s composition and not his own.
I tried another suggestion. I offered to write the poem out in a clear (correct) form on plain paper, then he could copy what I’d written in his own handwriting on another sheet of paper and give that one to Nicole. This idea appealed to him, and so with much help, I deciphered his poem. At some points, he and I made some changes to the original. Then, when he was satisfied with what we’d produced, I set a clean sheet of paper before him, put a sharpened pencil in his hand, and set him to the work of copying the words of his love poem that I had ever so carefully printed out for him.
He wanted to so much to accomplish this work. He was determined to do it. I so wanted him to be able to set these words of his down on that clean, plain white paper. But, alas, even the simple, mechanical task of copying out the simple shapes from my sheet of paper to his own sheet of paper was too much for his fingers to manage. It soon became apparent to us both that he was simply not going to be able to do it.
He decided that I should staple my version of the poem onto the coloring book page. The colored side of the sheet was, it turned out, part of Jordan’s gift to Nicole. I started to staple all four corners of my copy to the back of the colored picture, but Jordan stopped me. If I stapled all four corners, then Nicole would not be able to see Jordan’s version of the poem. It was important to him that she still be able to see his version also. So, I stapled only the top two corners.
After sorting out this arrangement for wooing his fiancée, Jordan was ready to be on his way. To sleep where? To be abused by whom? To do what with his life? I could see no workable way to house Jordan at that point. He’d already burned through the only options available. I assumed that I’d see him again, whenever he wanted milk and sandwiches. But that was the last time I ever saw him. I like to think he came upon someone with more resources and creativity for helping than I had. Maybe he did. But there are many other possible scenarios for Jordan’s story after that day of poetry writing with me, and most of those scenarios don’t end happily.
As I write this ten years later, I wonder what has become of him by now, presuming he has even survived this long. Is he well along the way to becoming one of those squirrelly, scarred up, nearly toothless “nut cases” I used to deal with so often? Was this how those guys started out? Bright but muddled young men (or women), attractive, naive, child-like, with no real ability to control their impulses.
It’s that lack of impulse control that is, I think, so central to understanding so many of the broken men and women living ruined lives on the streets of every city in North America. In the best of moments, that impulsiveness can seem benign enough — winsomely spontaneous, child-like, energetic, interested in everything. That was Jordan in his best moments. But in darker circumstances — the circumstances that Jordan plunged into when he walked out my door — that impulsiveness can quickly become hostile, aggressive, impatient, childish, self-absorbed.
When Jordan, that little boy in a young man’s body, left my church with his Aladin coloring book page tucked in his pocket and his uncontrolled impulses boiling away in his brain, did he collide with some big, angry man-child with his own uncontrolled impulses exploding in his brain? God help him, I hope not. But if I were guessing the odds. . . .
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.