By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Third in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area.
It's not like Todd Larche meant for his cheery yellow shirt to match the director's office at the D.C. Alternative Learning Academy in Southeast Washington.
But then, he didn't mean for a lot of things to happen the way they have.
Larche is on his first job interview since fleeing Hurricane Katrina.
He had been a New Orleans teacher for nine years -- eight of them in special education. Now, as academy Director Victor Reece explains this school's mission to help emotionally troubled kids, Larche nods. He always has had a passion for the hard-luck cases. He used to pass out hugs and use his own money to buy his kids food or treats.
"It's a difficult population," explains Reece, whom Larche met at his niece's wedding the day after arriving at his in-laws' Silver Spring home.
"Make no mistake about it, this is Southeast Washington, D.C.," says Kevin Foreman, the school's executive director.
Southeast Washington, or low-income New Orleans, "trust me, it's all the same," says Larche.
The interview concludes with a hug, a good-luck-man and a slap of the hands.
"Thank you, brah," says Larche.
Reece promises to get back with him.
It's a place Larche knows he could fit in. And heaven knows he needs a job: The family has less than a month's worth of money left, and he and his pregnant wife, their 5-year-old and his father are all sleeping in the same room, with his mother-in-law down the hall. He can't stand the idea of burdening his sister- and brother-in-law. He has always been a man to pull his own weight, and somebody else's if they needed him.
But he's worried about taking this job. How can he commit to kids who desperately need stability when he doesn't have any to spare? He might go back to New Orleans at a moment's notice. And with Michele nearly nine months pregnant, he's the only able body to take care of all the other things his family needs.
He goes to his wife's doctor's appointments and helps wade through the forms and phone calls that mark their new life. He needs to be close to her in case she goes into labor. Early mornings, he irons Kristen's clothes, then drops her off at school. He helps his 76-year-old daddy, John, and his 81-year-old mother-in-law, Mere Mere, take their medicine, and cleans up after them.
John sometimes leaves food on the stovetop or dumps cigarette butts in the in-laws' grass. He has even lit up in the house. "I told him don't go in the doggone bathroom and smoke," Todd says, fussing, while his father looks sheepish. At home Michele lets him get away with a quick cigarette inside. "But we're not in New Orleans anymore," Todd says. And this is not their house.
Todd keeps a special eye on Mere Mere, who struggles with Alzheimer's.
Every day she remembers the floodwater like it was the first time, and starts to cry. Michele has a hard time watching her mother's slow decline. It's Todd who gets between his wife's pain and her mother's.
"I'm impatient, I can't help it," says Michele. "If I say, 'Ma, you asked that question 20 times,' he's always, like, 'Leave Mere Mere alone.' He tells her she's right, even when she isn't."
Because no one can take better care of her than Todd. His own mother shot herself when he was in 10th grade. Mere Mere is his second chance at a mother.
Who will take care of his family if he goes back to work? But how will he take care of them if he doesn't? The questions weigh heavily on his mind.
Earlier this week, Michele -- a doctor in New Orleans, still paying student loans -- waits in a line to sign in for her food stamp appointment at Montgomery County Crisis Center in Rockville. She is politely told to have a seat. As children draw pictures or scamper between seats, she sighs deeply, taking in her surroundings.
She is used to being on the provider side of the waiting room. She has never used food stamps in her life.
She watches a social services video and remembers last September, when she was at a family wedding, relaxing in Hawaii.
And Todd Larche, a proud man who has always worked, anxiously waits for the call about a job he'd be perfect for. A job he desperately needs and wonders how he can possibly accept.