It used to be the good life for Mr. and Mrs. George Linkins. So good that they would buy a new car each year that one of their five children was born to celebrate the event.
Not that they were rich. But the money was good while Linkins hung wallpaper in Prince George's County homes. Sometimes he would bring in about $125 a day, he recalls. He figures he made a "pretty good living" considering he started out doing the same thing in Prince George's in 1921 and 25 cents a hour.
The reminders of those "good old days," as Mrs. Linkins likes to call them, still fill their small brick home at 5906 Ravenswood Rd. in Riverdale. A big console TV, modern walnut veneer tables, and overstuffed chair and green plastic potted plants furnish their front room darkened by heavy drapes.
It's the blanketed single bed pushed against a corner of the room that is the constant reminder of the present. It is where George Linkins, once robust, barrel-chested and feisty, spends most of his days now, resigned to the reality that he is no longer family breadwinner, that he is dying of cancer. He stopped bringing home the new cars, color television sets and transistor radios, stopped bringing home the good money in December 1975, when he was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer of the lungs (after having smoked about two packs of cigarettes a day for more than 20 years). The 16 years of married life has paid off in a future that appears will border on destitution. The mechanical conveniences in the home, symbols of solid middle class, serve to screen the poverty that beset the Linkins when George Linkins took to his living room bed.
"We didn't think we lived no different from anybody else," explains Josephine Linkins, 44, the harried mother and attentive wife. She is openly apprehensive of becoming a widow, as doctors have assured her she will become "in a matter of months."
"You work to live, to enjoy," she continues. "We paid for everything we own, didn't get what we couldn't afford. But how could we know something like this would happen?" The Linkins story of how they slid from stable comfort to day-by-day subsistence could have come from the pen of an imaginative soap opera writer.
They never saved any money. ("How do you save when you're feeding and clothing five kids, paying rent and utilities, and just buying things to keep your house up?" Mrs. Linkins asks.) They never bought a house. "I didn't like the idea of having to live next to somebody I didn't want to," Linkins mutters, showing a spark of his old self as he refers to more heated days of racial tension in Prince George's). They never bought life insurance on George Linkins. ("Couldn't get it, company said George's blood pressure was too high," Mrs. Linkins recalls.) Now the family lives on $308 a month in welfare payments and $262 in a month in food stamps which cost $56 a month. Public assistance also covers George Linkins four-figure medical bills, but Mrs. Linkins pays 50 cents on each of the many prescription medicines she buys for her husband. Mrs. Linkins estimates the family has borrowed "thousands" in the past year from friends and neighbors and says, "I just can't go to them no more."
Rent for the three-bedroom house comes to $325 a month. Utilities cost nearly $100 a month. The gas company has already put a $50 deposit toward the Linkins' December bill, but Mrs. Linkins doesn't know yet how she will pay January expenses. "We're going to have to move again and that's all there is to it," she says. "But it's pretty hard finding a house. Nobody wants to rent to five kids." The Linkins had a large house in Champ Springs before they moved into their cheaper Riverdale home eight months ago. Mrs. Linkins also pays on a Monumental Life Insurance policy she says costs $8.50 a month and would pay $3,000 for herself and $2,000 for each of her five children in the event of their deaths. She pays $19.50 a month for family gravesites at Ft. Lincoln in Bladensburg. "I've been paying on it for a long time. If I stop now, I lose the whole thing," she explains. "The welfare department promised me $400 for George's funeral, but I know it ain't going to be less than $2,000."
From his bed, Linkins can hear his wife talk about impending death and her fears about the future. Occasionally he mumbled in a throaty voice that "I've paid for everything in this house and I don't want to hear no more about it." He's wary about his family's problems appearing in the newspaper but he's decided that "publicity might do more for my kids than my pride." His pride has hardly left him. "Wouldn't have done this (talked to a newspaper) before for $10,000," he says, taking his 6-year-old son Raymond on his lap. "But after you fall on your own a couple of times, you learn to let somebody help you."
Regretfully, he runsd his gnarled hand over his still thick salt-and-pepper hair which has steadily fallen out since a series of 20 cobalt treatments he underwent last spring. He apologizes for not having shaved days-old stubble on his fallen jowls. And he still insists he wouldn't step foot in a church "even if I had the strength to get up and go." The list of Linkins troubles seems never ending. Shortly after Linkins' cancer was found, the oldest boy in the family, born to Mrs. Linkins in a previous marriage, died of a gunshot would Jan. 14. Prince George's police determined the death of Harvey Eugne Penwell a suicide.
Mrs. Linkins, a native of Charles Town, W. Va., has only a fifth-grade education, with her only job experience picking and packing apples in an orchard some 20 years ago. Her days are spent caring for her children, who range in age from 6 to 14, and nursing her husband who needs assistance to walk without falling yet insists sometimes on driving their 1971 Pontiac station wagon. Mrs. Linkins doesn't know what kind of work she will look for following her husband's death.
The children, however, stay plump and healty-looking. Mrs. Linkins says they run through the food stamp money the first two weeks of each month. In early September, the welfare department took custody of the two youngest children, Raymond, 6, and Mary Jane, 10, for three weeks. Neighbors had noticed their father chasing them through the neighborhood during a period when he was "temporarily crazed," a relative explained. Doctors say Linkins' bouts with unreality are due to lack of blood flow to his brain caused by the disease.
Despite the Linkins' ongoing drama which Mrs. Linkins says she "hardly believes is real," the family appears to be a close unit and friends stay concerned about their plight. Christmas came to the family in food and toy baskets from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. One of the Linkins boys, Billy, 14, sells subscriptions to a Prince George's newspaper, the earnings from which helped buy a few presents for the holidays.
Neighbors sometmes give clothes to the Linkins children. Helen Linkins, George's niece, stays close by the family to make trips to the hospital, help with the children and nurse her uncle. "They (the Linkins) have gotten a lot of help from many people," Helen Linkins says. "And that's the way it should be. You've got to help somebody sometime, and it might as well be when they really need it."