There are eight rooms above the nightclub on the edge of Prince George's County, just a few blocks from the D.C. line, and they rent for $21 a night. On Friday and Saturday nights, when the club gets crowded and the drinks begin to flow, there's a lot of traffic between the dance floor and the rooms upstairs.
Charmaine Ford, 31, hasn't been to the nightclub for a long time, but for several months in 1971 she went there often to escape her mother's tight control over her social life. She was 16, living in the poor Southwest Washington community known as Buzzard Point, an isolated neighborhood between the Southwest Freeway and the South Capitol Street bridge. She was eager to grow up and angry at her mother for restricting her activities. "I wasn't allowed to go to parties. I wasn't allowed to have a boyfriend. If I went out on a date, I had to have a chaperone," she said.
Mother and daughter fought bitterly until, finally, Charmaine became defiant and refused to obey her mother's orders. She began going to the nightclub with her 21-year-old boyfriend, where they drank a little and frequently ended up in one of the inn's upstairs rooms. One night in May 1971, Charmaine got pregnant.
Charmaine did not care. She thought that a child might free her, once and for all, from her mother's grip. "I got pregnant out of spite. I told my mother the same thing. She had me on a choke chain," she said.
The pregnancy changed her life, but not in the way Charmaine hoped it would. In September 1971, five months pregnant by her boyfriend and clearly showing it, she was turned away from the 11th grade at Western High School; at that time, the school system had a special school for pregnant students. Charmaine, though, stayed home and earned money by ironing clothes and doing hairdressing for her neighbors. Her boyfriend helped out by giving her $75 every two weeks during the pregnancy, but he stopped just before she gave birth.
Her boyfriend wanted to get married, but Charmaine said she turned him down because marriage meant "a man had papers on you" and might act as if he owned her. She also thought he ran around with other women. "I could picture him as my boyfriend, even as the father of my child, but not as a husband," she said.
The night after their son was born in February 1972 -- she named the baby Charles, for his father -- she went to a nightclub and was stunned to see her boyfriend walk in with two women, one on each arm.
The boyfriend, who stopped seeing Charmaine some years ago, did not respond to several telephone messages and a letter asking for an interview. Charmaine's account of what happened next is this:
Her boyfriend saw her on the dance floor, she said, and demanded to know why she wasn't home with their newborn son; Charmaine told him it wasn't his concern. The confrontation ended there, but later, in the parking lot, she discovered him in his car, kissing one of the women. When he saw Charmaine, he climbed out the car and began cursing her. Charmaine turned to leave, but he kicked her buttocks. She cursed him, and he grabbed her, spun her around and slammed her against the door of his old Cadillac.
Hidden under the left sleeve of Charmaine's blouse was a straight razor. She said she had carried the weapon on and off for four years, since several sexual assaults had occurred in the neighborhood. As her boyfriend moved toward her again, she slipped the razor out with her right hand, opened it in one motion and cut him across the throat.
"I let him have it. Right across the throat," she said. He began yelling that he could die. "I looked him dead in the face and said, 'At this point, I do not care.' "
The incident was never reported to police. The man lived, although he needed stitches to close the wound.
That night Charmaine went back home to Buzzard Point, where her mother made the rules and freedom was something to be negotiated. "My mother would say, 'You living in my house. You eating my food. You go by my rules. When it get to the point you don't want to listen to what I say, get out! Get your own place!' "
But Charmaine quickly learned that a baby was far more confining than a strict mother. Then, just before Charles' first birthday, she learned the full consequences of her having become a mother.
One morning, Charles, who was normally a vigorous, active crawler, stopped moving. Charmaine thought he was sick and went to comfort him. She hugged him, but he just lay there, so quiet, so still that she became terrified and rushed him to Children's Hospital.
There, after a month of tests, the doctors told her that Charles had cerebral palsy, an irreversible condition that results from brain damage and affects the central nervous system. They also told her that he would not develop normally, that he would require special care every day of his life and that he would probably die before the age of 25. Coping Day to Day
There is little extravagance in Charmaine Ford's life. She wears little or no makeup. Her clothes are simple and inexpensive, mostly jeans and blouses. Her three-bedroom apartment is small and spare, and she shares it with her mother, her grandmother, her nephew and her three children -- Charles, now 13, and 9-year-old twin boys, Lawrence and Lionel, who were the result of a planned pregnancy in a relationship that broke apart a month before they were born.
There is also little extravagance in Charmaine's demeanor. She has a beautiful smile -- a wide, exuberant smile -- but she rarely shows it. She tries to hide her anxieties but her stomach gives her away: When she gets upset, her ulcer becomes irritated, and she soothes it by drinking directly from a bottle of liquid antacid.
Her life has taught her to be guarded in her relationships, especially those with men. After many months and hours of interviews, she still made a point of insisting that all our conversations take place in her home or in public places such as restaurants. "Oh, I trust you, Leon," she told me. "But after all, you are a man."
She has had several relationships over the past few years and still believes that she can find the right man. She said she feels there is "something missing in my life. I can't place it, but it just feel like something is missing. It could be because I have never been married. I don't know."
Charmaine and her family live in a 14-unit apartment building on Condon Terrace SE in Washington Highlands, one of the poorest communities in Southeast Washington. Charmaine and Charles sleep in the same bedroom, their beds just inches apart. Doctors have never been able to explain exactly what happened to Charles; he appeared healthy at birth, weighing 6 pounds, 6 1/2 ounces, and seemed to grow normally during his first 11 months. But sometime before he was born, or perhaps during his birth, something caused some brain damage that, inexplicably, did not show up until he was 11 months old.
Charles' condition is severe. He is fed from a bottle, wears diapers and has grown only slightly since that day he stopped crawling. He is between two feet and three feet tall and suffers from an untreatable dislocated hip that periodically causes him severe pain. When he is uncomfortable, he tells Charmaine by making guttural sounds that only she or her mother can understand. He spends much of his day in a baby's car seat, propped up so he can watch television or sit with the family at the dinner table. He seems mesmerized by what he sees on the TV screen.
After Charles' condition was diagnosed, Charmaine said, social workers "wanted me to talk to some counselors and welfare people about putting him in a home for kids like him, but I told them no. I decided to take care of him at home myself." She has done it, but only with great struggle and the help of her 57-year-old mother Rosalee.
Charmaine and Rosalee get along well now, their past disagreements faded. Their relationship began to change when Charmaine established her independence at age 22 by moving into her own apartment. The new place was just down the street from Rosalee's house in Buzzard Point, and Charmaine depended on Rosalee to care for Charles while she was working. Then, in 1981, Charmaine decided to leave Buzzard Point altogether and move into her current apartment on Condon Terrace. Rosalee asked if she could come with her, and Charmaine agreed.
Together, the two women keep the household functioning. The family's income comes from four sources: Charmaine's irregular work as a visiting nurse, caring for elderly patients in their own homes; her welfare check; her food stamp allotment, and Rosalee's medical disability check. Their monthly income ranges from $600 to $1,150, depending on how much Charmaine is working. (Charmaine has told welfare officials about her job; that income is taken into account in calculating her welfare grant.)
Whenever things seem bad, Charmaine said, she finds that Charles is her major source of comfort. "Matter of fact, practically my whole life is him. It seems like when I'm upset or I have a problem, he cheers me up. When I'm around him, he can sense when something is wrong with me. If I'm sick, he'll just lay there. He'll take my hand and rub my face. When I'm okay, seems like he's okay. He's happy as long as I'm happy. He is just a wonderful child. He is my heart." The Family's History
Charmaine was not the first teen-age mother in her family, and she was not the first child who was kept on a "choke chain." Her grandmother was just 13 years old when she gave birth to Rosalee in 1929. As a result, Rosalee was raised mostly by grandparents, who took extraordinary steps to make sure that she did not become a teen-age mother, too.
Growing up in the countryside outside the Charles County town of Indian Head, Rosalee was not allowed to date. If she wanted to see a boy, she had to meet him in public view -- a talk over the fence in the front yard was considered proper -- or have a chaperone present. Rosalee said she rebelled against this tight control, yet years later she imposed the same kind of restrictions on Charmaine.
Rosalee did not become a teen-age mother. In her early twenties, she married William Ford, the son of a neighboring family, and gave birth to a son, Donald, and then Charmaine. Part of Charmaine's distrust of men goes back to her own birth. She was born with lighter skin than either of her parents, and William Ford refused to believe that Charmaine was his child. He stuck to his belief and accused his wife of having an affair. As Charmaine became older, she learned of his feelings.
"It really got to me," she said, her voice cracking. "He would never actually acknowledge that I was his. I mean, he actually had me thinking that I was not his child . . . . What makes it so bad is that I'm the spitting image of my father."
William Ford, who died of cancer in 1983, was a violent man who hit Rosalee often enough to break up their marriage. Charmaine and Rosalee both remember the last incident: It was one night in late 1960, when Charmaine was 5 years old. An argument started, and Charmaine's father hit Rosalee hard enough to knock her down. When she tried to get up, he began kicking her with his heavy, square-toed work shoes. She covered her face, leaving the rest of her body exposed; at one point, Rosalee said, he kicked her in the genitals.
Charmaine and 7-year-old Donald tried to stop him. They grabbed soda bottles and hit him repeatedly across the kneecaps, shouting at him. The two small children stood there, swinging the bottles again and again, until their father turned on Donald and chased him out into the Maryland countryside.
Meanwhile, the noise had attracted the attention of an uncle who lived nearby. The uncle knew that William Ford had a violent temper, so he grabbed a double-barreled shotgun and telephoned Charmaine's grandfather, who also lived nearby. Together, their guns drawn, they headed for William Ford's house and ran into him as he was chasing Donald. They marched him back to the house, where Rosalee still lay on the floor, writhing in pain.
"[My father] was telling them that they didn't have nothing to do with it, that it was between him and his wife," Charmaine said. But her grandfather told her father, "If you lift that foot to kick her again, we will take that foot off."
It was 26 years ago and Charmaine was only 5, but she said she remembers her reaction. "I turned around and I looked at him. And I hated him. He was just walking around and talking to himself." She said she shouted, with all the venom she could muster, "I could kill you!"
A short time later, Rosalee left her husband, took Charmaine and Donald and moved to the house on Q Street in Buzzard Point. She got a job as a clerk at Lansburgh's warehouse, working every day and earning $62 a week. Charmaine, who was 6 at the time, said her childhood ended at this point. "I was doing things that older kids were doing, like sweeping the house, folding clothes, washing dishes," she said.
Donald, on the other hand, was not expected to do any housework. He also got much more freedom than Charmaine, who was required to stay inside or within sight of the house. When Charmaine became a teen-ager, she started to complain to her mother about the difference. Her mother told her, "You a girl. That's the reason."
Charmaine said she and her mother had many discussions, but not about sex. She said, "Mother really didn't tell me anything. My mother wouldn't talk about babies. She wouldn't talk about [menstrual] periods. Nothing. She was probably afraid that if she did tell me I would go out" and experiment.
Charmaine's sex education came from conversations with friends and a course, called Personal Family Living, that she took in the seventh grade at Randall Junior High School. She remembers how friends teased her about her sexual inexperience, telling her, "Girl, you don't know what you're missing."
But by the time she was 13, Charmaine had learned to be afraid of men. One incident stands out in her memory:
Late one summer night, on an unlit playground near Charmaine's house in Buzzard Point, five youths attacked a 9-year-old girl as she took a short cut across the playground on her way to a store. After the girl was raped and her assailants had fled, she began screaming; people heard her cries as they sat on their front porches, a common pastime on warm nights in Buzzard Point. Some rushed to help her, unaware that it was too late. Some time later, Charmaine said, she learned that the girl was pregnant.
This incident, along with others, made Charmaine wary of men, and her experiences since then have only heightened her fears. The Transition to Adulthood
It has been 16 years since Charmaine's rebellion against her mother, but she still remembers when she was 15 and met the 20-year-old man who became the father of her first child. At first she did not like him, but she saw him differently after he began courting her. He had money and knew how to spend it: he was a snappy dresser who wore suits, owned his own car and had a steady job as a maintenance man.
Charmaine sees him only occasionally now, and he rarely provides any child support for their son. About two months after Charles was born, he came to see the baby for the first time. The infant started crying at one point, and the man yelled at him to quiet down. Angry at her former boyfriend's impatience, Charmaine demanded that he leave. When he refused, she went to her bedroom, got a gun and threatened him until he left.
Charmaine's experiences with violence and her fears about neighborhood crime have dramatically influenced the way she raises her family. Following her mother's lead, she has imposed her own set of rules on her twin sons. They cannot leave the apartment without an adult. They cannot play outside, not even on the grounds of the apartment building, unless an adult is with them. They cannot go to the store, or play ball in the street, or go to the playground alone. They are escorted to school in the morning and picked up at the end of the day. They spend most of their time inside, watching television.
Charmaine realizes that she cannot shelter them forever; one day, as she did, they will tug at the chain and try to break free. But she believes she is making the right choice -- perhaps, as she sees it, the only choice.