Janita Jones savored the shade in a park at 13th and K streets NW across from a city shelter for the homeless, smoking a cigarette while a group of bag ladies nearby argued with the squirrels. It was a pleasant respite from her humid apartment in the shelter, but she sighed heavily after each puff, so I asked her what was wrong.
In a cool but worried voice she spoke of her son Lawrence, 13, who had missed his entire seventh-grade year at school. While most boys his age had looked forward to a summer of playing Pac Man, that's about all Lawrence had been doing for the past year.
"Maybe if he had some guidance. . . ," Jones said.
But she had other priorities, she told me, and right now now she was trying to find a place to live. Pressure was mounting for her to move out of the shelter, the third one she had been in since coming to Washington from Michigan last June.
Starting on another cigarette, she wondered if I knew of any cheap places in the city for a mother and her two children. Or a summer school for Lawrence? I wanted to warn her about the myth of Washington as "Sugar City," and that she'd better get out while she still could. But it was too late. Lawrence had a court date July 1 in Wheaton on a theft charge.
While the family was staying at the Pitts Hotel, another shelter, he met a boy and together they went out and got arrested on a charge of stealing a watch. Now the family couldn't go anywhere anyway.
Lawrence was a good boy, she said, an A and B student until fifth grade. "All he wants is a decent family to come home to, a bicycle and school and he'd be just fine," she said.
Lawrence did not get visits from his father, but he's seen plenty of the truant officer. Jones tried to explain her life to them, pointing out that she and her children had been moved to another shelter, but that Lawrence could not transfer to another school until he settled an account for a lost textbook. It cost $20, and Jones could not pay for it. So Lawrence did not go to school. And that was that.
While he was in school, his mother said, students laughed at his tattered clothes and when she tried to console him, he would say to her, "Aw, mom, you don't understand." And she knew he was right. He started playing hooky, riding 14th Street on a bicycle he had pieced together to be with the countless other boys who roamed the streets leading unguided lives.
One day, Lawrence brought home a handbill from a karate school that proported to "build minds and bodies," but it cost too much and his mother told him sadly, "I can't do nothing for you, son."
Some of his street friends showed up one day on mopeds, so Lawrence wanted one, too. He wanted to be like the boys on the block, he complained to his mother. But there was nothing she could do. Sitting in the park watching other women talk with squirrels made her smile with relief: At least she hadn't gone crazy--yet.
But Lawrence had watched his mother try to take on the world alone, and it was wracking his young brain. He was hanging precariously between boyhood and manhood and was becoming confused about what his role should be. She knew it hurt him to watch her beg for welfare, grovel before landlords and work odd jobs that invariably became dead ends.
One day her son came to her and said, as she recalled, "Just sit down, mom, and take it easy. Don't worry about me. . . . I can hang with the boys." It was a worrisome moment to her.
"What he needs is a male model, which is nothing new in this day and age of mothers and children with no husband or father," Jones said. What kind of model?
"Just to shoot some hoops, steer him right, share some experiences," Jones said. "Instill some academia. Hell, just to buy him some foot powder when he needs it," she added with a sigh of frustration.
She wasn't asking for much, certainly not the domineering, ever-present disciplinarian father figure in that traditional family of days gone by. Just a man to lend a hand or at least show up for Father's Day.