Stories from the Hood, Part Seven- Lost Between the Cracks

Stories from the Hood

Lost Between the Cracks

The Valdez Family
Chapter Seven

Introductory narrative – based on a conversation in passing with Phillipe V

The wait for the bus was filled with anxiety.  The woman next to me on the bench fidgeted with her scarf while trying to look the other way.  She was obviously afraid – of me.  After what felt like an eternity, the bus arrived ; the doors opened ; it was crowded.  Against my urge to turn around and run, I forced myself to get on.  

As I entered, the driver’s eyes burned into me with an intense glare that singled me out as a problem to keep tabs on. I spotted a little standing room in the back and shuffled quickly through the bodies to get there.  As I uncomfortably made my way through the tunnel of stares, the pounding of my heart escalated like a combustible bomb.  My appearance never fails to evoke fear in the hearts of strangers.  

I am absorbed with claustrophobic paranoia whenever I am entombed with others like this.  The fear feeds my anxiety which in return feeds the fear.  The emotional chain reaction is beyond my control.  It pushes me to lash out and hurt people in panic as I struggle to hold back all the anger that marinates within me.  

Why do they have to stare at me??  What do they see?  Am I such a monster? Why are they all looking at me like that?  My thoughts race.  It is as if I were wearing an explosive vest that I can’t get off.  I know what I look like. I know my history.  I know I am not a good person.  But I also have feelings and the need to scream back.  Fuck off, I’m still a person. Stop looking at me like that you goddamn mother fucker or I’ll wipe that smug look right off your ugly face.  You think you are so much better than me?  Well you are.  I have done bad things that the likes of you can’t even imagine.  I have hurt people and done time for it.  Inside my head I scream back. 

Suddenly I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m being held under water. I need space. My heart is pounding through my chest and I’m trapped in my skin.  The bus is stopping.  I have to get out – fast – before something happens I will regret.  I don’t want to land back in jail.  I’ve got to get out of this box from hell.  

The bus stops.  With heavy, rapid breathing, I jump off, escaping the suffocating air.  I stop. I pant in and out the cool night air.  I realize I had done the only thing I could.  I should not have gotten on a bus in the first place.  I knew it was a bad idea. I knew this would happen.  This is the way it always is on buses ; I dread it ; I can’t ride a bus ; I don’t mix well with their kind.  At least I’m running in the direction I need to go.  Thank Jesus.  Maybe he can see some good in me. 

After only two days out, another public scene would land me right back in the slammer.  The best way to stay out is to keep to the shadows.  Shaking, I stop running to look at the street sign.  It’s hot and I’m sweating.  I need to score. Another twenty blocks to go.  

Yeah, I must look as scary as I feel.  Yeah, I’ve done bad things.  What chance has someone like me ever had?  None at all – ever.  It’s really my mother’s fault, but what chance did she ever have?  At least I know that bitch had love for me.  Bless Jesus.  My dead brother loved me too and I know my son has respect for me.  There’s an easy car, better than a bus ; better than walking.  A ride to the dealer, a place to sleep for the night, and some income to pay for my habit.  Heroin is a good break from the meth.  I can handle it.  A storefront window catches my attention. I see my reflection race by like a ghost passing in the night.

Phillipe V

I met Phillipe twenty-eight years ago when he was a spirited lad of seven.  Back then he was the leader of one of the neighborhood’s “child gangs”.  They were mostly on their own in the streets, looking for something to do. His home life included domestic violence and was not supportive.  Phillipe was special amongst the roaming young-punk rebels.  He stood out.  Handsome, intelligent, bright-eyed with drive, his energy just seemed to generate a glow, the likes of which the others did not have.  He was like a star without the possibility of ever getting into the sky, a flame burning under water. 

Time has passed and Phillipe is now thirty-five.  When I run into him on the street, I always assume it will be the last time I see him.   Each time we meet, we hug a great hug, emote with a gentle cry, and feel a genuine love from our souls which is mixed with a dash of sorrow as deep as the ocean.  He now has a rugged demeanor, jail-hardened tattoos, balding head, gang-tough talk, and despite the meth, still has beautiful teeth.  From an unfamiliar place deep inside me, I realize we are a part of each other.  As his old neighbor, I was a part of his life growing up and he was a part of mine.   But this story is not so much about Phillipe as it is about his mother, Corinne, and ultimately about Spiderman. 

Commentary plaque on the side my house under the statue of Spiderman.
(Note: the term “Matrixman” is used for copyright reasons only.  In speech and in this blog, this statue is simply referred to as Spiderman.)

The Vasquez Family

My two-story house is on a steep-sloping street. From the second-floor window, I can look directly over into the house across the street.  On the side of the house that faces me, there is a small, seven-foot incline of grass running from the house down to a chain-link fence, then a concrete wall, mostly covered with ivy, that drops to the sidewalk.  My window offered front row seats to the performances on my neighbor’s stage, day in and day out. 

The Vasquez House across the street

Corinne, the mother, was always the lead performer and took center stage.  She was a large, big-boned woman who seemed to tower over everyone with sheer mass and possessed an incredible intensity of presence and charisma.  She was beautiful, or at least was a woman you knew was beautiful in younger days.  She was prematurely aged, as one would guess her to be much older.  At the time we were neighbors, she was in her thirties.  Her voice could have been trained for the opera.  When she called her three kids home from the streets, she bellowed the foulest language imaginable as an operatic diva might deliver her soliloquy. She could be heard for blocks.  I likened her call to the cast iron bell that my grandparents had on their country house, which was rung to call us kids in for dinner when we were deep in the woods.  Corinne had the demeanor and mass of a Luciano Pavarotti without the beard – then cross that with Mae West and add in alcohol. 

One could not come across a more extreme alcoholic than Corinne.  Drunk from the moment she arose in the morning, she held her drink and a cigarette in hand throughout the day.  When she took a bus somewhere, she would ascend onto the bus with a paper cup of vodka in one hand and the rest of the bottle hidden in her purse.  She constantly yelled at the kids and constantly fucked her skinny boyfriend, Raymond, in front of them.  There was no privacy as the house was a small, state subsidized house for indigent families.  Ultimately, she lived in this house for 25 years.  I knew the best strategy with a neighbor like this would be to avoid contact of any kind and stay strangers for as long as possible.  I successfully managed to do this for several years.  

The kids in the neighborhood were somewhat fascinated by my house because I kept a pot-bellied pig, named Obi, in the backyard during the day.  As inner-city kids, they had never visited a farm or seen a real pig before.  They were always peeking through the fence to catch a glimpse of Obi, chattering with utter wonder and excitement.  I wasn’t worried about their fascination with the pig, but I was worried about the Mexican nationals in the neighborhood stealing and eating him. The ornamental prickly pear cacti that one of my neighbors had just planted in the front of their house had been stolen – probably to eat.  My own Mexican neighbors never could understand the concept of having a pig as a pet.  One day they shared pictures with me of their recent visit back to Mexico.  They secretly shot a picture of my pig in our backyard and shuffled it into the pile of their pictures from their trip to Mexico.  When they showed me the pictures of their trip, we had quite a laugh when we got to the picture of Obi!  Obi added to the color of life for everyone around us.  My white English Bull Terrier protected the pig and everyone mistakenly thought it was a pit bull.  The kid’s fear of my fierce-looking dog kept them from breaking into my backyard.  When the kids asked if they could pet my dog, I always told them, “He is trained to bite and attack you if you even try to pet him.  So don’t mess with him.  His name is Maddog”.  They believed it because they had never seen an English bull terrier before; they thought he looked strange, ugly and formidable and were spooked by him.

Obi, Maddog, and John

The children in the neighborhood were extremely destructive.  After they stuffed garbage in my dryer vent, I designed a destruction-proof vent screen in order to dry my clothes;  they were constantly breaking branches off my trees; and they broke two of my street level windows.  The more you yelled at them, the worse their taunting became.  Confrontation entertained them more than anything and they always came back for more.  When one neighborhood kid shot a pellet through my front thermo-pane window, I had no proof and could do nothing… nothing until the father started playing with the pellet rifle.  When the father shot the pellet rifle directly at my six-year old son walking home from school, I finally had something on them to bring the police in.  The police immediately appeared and confiscated the gun from the father.  That family was soon kicked out of their subsidized unit, making way for another dysfunctional family to move in.  Such was life at that time in the duplexes across the street. 

One Sunday, I decided to plant some flowers next to the sidewalk.  I knew that attempting to grow flowers in public view would be a challenge.  So to protect the flowers, I drove thick oak posts into the ground to hold up a two-foot high chicken-wire fence that surrounded the flower beds.  I cut the top of the chicken wire mesh with wire-cutters and bent the sharp wire ends towards the inside.  In this way, it was no danger to those just walking by but anyone reaching over with bad intent would hopefully get cut up by my trap.

It was a very quiet afternoon when I planted the flowers and erected the wire fencing. About an hour later, I was inside the house and through the wall I heard what sounded like a couple of very loud firecrackers going off.  The explosive sounds came from where I had just planted the flowers!  After a brief moment of confusion, I realized with great clarity that it was the sound of my thick oak stakes being snapped and broken by some great force.  The kids accomplished this by running down the sidewalk with all their might – then with all their weight behind them, jumped and rammed into the stakes with their feet, breaking them off at ground level.  In the flash of that moment, the battle was on.  At the speed of light, I bolted out the door just in time to catch sight of the kids disappearing around the corner of the church next to my house.  The flowers, as well as the oak-stake fence, were demolished.  I recognized one of the running perpetrators as the oldest of the three sons from across the street.  I was soon to learn his name was Phillipe.

In my fury, I parted ways with my here-to-for policy of “no contact with the house across the street”.  I stormed over to Corinne’s house, unrelentingly rang the doorbell while pounding loudly on her door.  After much banging, Corinne, in all her glory, finally appeared in front of me.

In the most intimidating voice she could muster, she boomed, “Who are you and what the hell do you want?”  

Of course she knew exactly who I was but I replied, “My name is John and I live across the street.  I am your neighbor.  I am going to bring in the police to take care of your fucking kids because they are destroying my house.”  She was not very receptive to my story.

She replied,”My children would never do anything like that.  It had to be someone else.”

I said back, “I saw your oldest son running off after destroying my new flower bed and fence.  Unless you have a better suggestion, I am calling the police into this.”  She then wanted to see the damage and I drug her across the street and showed her my demolished fence and decimated flowers.  

Upon seeing the damage, she exclaimed with great drama, ”Oh sweet Jesus. I don’t believe that my kids could do something like this.”  Without warning, she suddenly bolted back and belted out to the universe, “You  god-damed fucking bastard kids, get your fucking asses over here NOW!”

And sure enough, one of their shy little heads peeked around the church corner.  With another round of swearing orders to come before her, Phillipe was standing in front of us.  

Corinne said “Phillipe, did you do this?”  

Phillipe said with complete certainty, “No, I didn’t do this. I would never do something like this.”

I then forcefully grabbed his arm, twisted it and showed Corinne the bleeding, dripping scratches that were a perfect match to the pattern of my sharp chicken wire trap.  It was undeniable. 

Corinne started wailing “Oh Baby Jesus In Heaven” “Oh Baby Jesus In Heaven” “Phillipe, how could you do something like this”, “Oh Baby Jesus in Heaven!”.  She then promised to punish Phillipe fiercely and take care of the matter for me. I knew it was all an act that they were playing out in unison for my benefit.

I told her not to punish Phillipe and said that I would not bring the police into this if Phillipe promised to leave my house alone.  He agreed on the spot – his fake promise was so well executed, it could have been out of a Little Rascals movie.

Thus, after years of successful isolation from Corinne, isolation had come to an end.  From that moment on, Corinne would yell across the street to me at the top of her lungs when I would come out of my house, “John, I love you so much. Baby Jesus in heaven blesses you.  I love you John.” Her greetings also included complimentary sexual profanities.  She was an abundantly colorful and vividly alive character.  Nothing was sacred ground or off-limits for Corinne to test and challenge you with.  She was good in the art of touché of the most shocking nature.  Yet, under all her profane flamboyance, her good heart was felt by all.  Her motherly love was abusive but her children knew she loved them – and her love was all they had.  She challenged everyone, the result being that either you couldn’t stand her or you developed an endearing fondness for her.  Most of those around Corinne liked her and enjoyed her as part of the neighborhood tapestry.  I grew to love her for the entertaining richness and spontaneity that she added to my life. 

Corinne had never worked a day in her life.  She could never hold a job with her alcohol problem and had never had the interest to try.  She was sexually abused by her father from a very young age.  This was something she just accepted and as an adult she was on good terms with her father.  He helped her with the rent now and then.  Corinne had four children.  Having children was her survival strategy.  She lived on the monthly welfare money.  Each child had a different father whom the kids never knew or perhaps was just never known.  The first born was Lisa.  When Lisa was only twelve years old, her pedophile grandfather attempted to molest and rape her.  Lisa managed to escape and went to her mother for help.  Corinne said, “Honey it is no big deal.  Quit your whining. He did it to me and I turned out OK.  Just let him have his way.”  At that, Lisa ran away from home at the tender age of twelve.  For twelve years, no one heard from her, then… she unexpectedly re-appeared.  At twenty-four, she returned to re-establish contact and bond with her mother.  It was like some kind of lost and found, mother-prodigal daughter love thing and boom… all of a sudden, they were back into each other’s lives.  It was at that time, I got to meet her after already knowing the rest of her immediate family.  When I met her, she was expecting twins with her college teacher that was twenty years her senior.  They eventually got married and divorced.  Running away seemed to have given her some empowered maturity in relation to her mother but Corrine always drew everyone in as a force to be reckoned with.

Lisa was the oldest sibling, the next oldest was Phillipe, then Eric, and the youngest child was Willie.  The sister was totally out of the picture as the three boys were growing up and Phillipe was like a father to his two younger brothers.  He was always looking out for them and taught them everything he knew in the ways of the street.  Eric and Willie looked up to Phillipe with the greatest respect, admiration and love.  He was the closest thing they had to a father.  The three boys were extremely tight and inseparable.  They shared the same universe.

When Phillipe was sixteen years old, he was removed to the state juvenile detention center because he was always getting into violent fights with his peers at school. He was marinated in his anger.  He also had a solid history of misdemeanor crime by that age.  It was at that time he got his fourteen-year-old girlfriend pregnant.  They had the child.  He would bring his young son along when he came for weekend home visits from the detention center.

I also got to know Corinne’s live-in boyfriend, Raymond.  He was a sensitive and caring guy who no one but Corinne would ever give any credence to.  He worked part-time washing high-rise windows.  He usually paid the $75-a-month rent when Corrine’s father didn’t.  Periodically he would visit with me and we would sit on my front step, smoke a cigarette, and talk about life.  I was his confidant and he always talked about his love for Corinne above anything else.  

Their domestic violence was extreme.  Their fights mostly ended up with Corinne beating up Raymond.  But it was Corinne who was always calling 911 and Raymond who was always going to jail for it.  This was a part of their relationship.  After Corinne would get Raymond locked up, she would then pine for him to get out of jail.  He loved her all the more for putting him in jail as she was always waiting with crying and open arms to take him  back.  After Phillipe was no longer a minor, Raymond and Phillipe would often run into each other in jail.  Raymond and Corinne loved and respected each other deeply, despite the dysfunctional way in which it manifested.  Often the violence was so bad that the kids slept outside on the little grassy slope between the house and the chain link fence.  I had quite a good view of this from my second-floor window. In the morning I would see them sprawled out and crashed out on the sloping grass patch.  Then at 7am, Corinne would come out to yell at them with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other.  I contemplated taking videos of the scene to turn over to child welfare.  I now know that would have just been a waste of time and would not have been of any benefit to anyone.  

Days after my first contact with Corinne over the annihilation of the flower bed, she rang my doorbell and asked, “John, can I borrow $20 so that I can buy some food for the kids. I’ll pay you right back.”  

I told her, “I’m not going to give you $20, but I will loan you $10 and I don’t care what you spend it on.”  We both knew it would be for her alcohol.  I gave her $10 and added, “Here is the deal…  you need to pay back this $10 before I will loan you any more money and the maximum I will ever loan you is $10 at any given time.”

I never kept a tab on her debt because it was self-evident.  I kept an envelope at the door, with her name on it.  If she came over to borrow $10 – the routine was always the same.  Theatrically, I would look in the envelope.  If there was $10 in it from the previous payback, I would give it back to her.  If it was empty, I would show her the empty envelope and say, ”you need to pay back the previous $10 before I can loan you another $10.”  Sometimes, she would borrow and pay back the same $10 three times in one week.  We saw each other frequently and regularly for many years like this.  I must have given her the same $10 hundreds of times.  Her kids would come over to borrow or pay back the $10 as well.  Often the kids looked half conscious, with sleep deprived eyes and wild, uncombed hair.  In the process, I got to know the three boys very well as they were growing up and they thought of me as a friend.  Sometimes Corinne would even ask to borrow a roll of toilet paper.  She always told me she would replace the toilet paper but we always knew the toilet paper was a one-way gift. 

Corrine acted as if she was queen of the hood and perhaps she was. Two houses north of us was a building that used to be the old Italian grocery store (see the previous blog for history on this building).  At this point, the grocery had been gone for quite a few years and was remodeled into a private residence.  The couple who lived there had remodeled the old grocery into a beautiful, open-spaced studio and home.  Years after they had moved in, Corinne came strolling down the sidewalk.  In her usual drunken and aggressive state, she pushed their front door open and walked right into their house.  The couple was sitting on their sofa, meditatively reading books together in the calm stillness of their spacious living room.  They sat and watched as Corinne walked around their living room, looking at things on the shelves as if she was in a store, contemplating the purchase of each item.  Then she came across an old fashioned perfume bottle with a squeeze ball.  She took it off the shelf, pulled her sweat pants open, put the perfume bottle into her crotch and sprayed.  She declared, “Oh my god, I am having such a stinky period. I really needed this.”  The couple lost their composure, started screaming and threw Corinne out of their home telling her never to come back.  She said, “I thought this was the grocery store.” Corinne was a brazen diva of legendary proportions.

Corrine always seemed to be out on the porch of the house with her glass in hand when I went out and she would yell for the world to hear, “John, I love you, you are my superhero.”  She had nicknames for some of her favorites in the neighborhood.  Pamela and Mash lived in the Damascio house across the street (see previous blog).  Mash was always out working around the house.  He was a muscular, tattooed, ex-marine who rarely wore a shirt.  Corinne always called him “Conan” and screamed at him, “Conan, you sexy mother fucker,” whenever he was outside working.  Although Corinne would often throw a sexual innuendo my way as well, it felt a lot like the mating ritual of the black widow spider.  Getting close to such an idea was like getting close to the edge of a black hole. One day when she proclaimed her love for me and told me I was her superhero, I asked her what superhero she thought I was. She decided I was to be Spiderman and I liked that idea.  And so it was, that Spiderman became my alter ego.  Thus the seed of Corrine and my personal relationship with Spiderman was planted.

When I discovered that none of Corrine’s  children ever received any gifts on Christmas, I started giving all the kids, including Phillipe’s little son, gifts for Christmas.  At first they didn’t know what to make of it but after a few years they came to expect it and were all touched by the caring gesture and couldn’t wait to see what I brought them each year.  On one exceptional Christmas, Corinne showed me a Walmart gift certificate worth twenty dollars that someone had given to her son Eric for Christmas. Little did I know at the time, that this $20 gift card would be the beginning of the end for their entire family.  

After Christmas, Corinne decided she needed to spend Eric’s gift card on herself and took the two youngest boys, Willie and Eric, with her to Walmart to do so.  She boarded the bus with her usual cup of vodka and they proceeded to Walmart where she just walked into the store with cup in hand.  The kids were having fun and went into the men’s room and wouldn’t come out.  Corinne was furious and started swearing at the top of her lungs in the store, “You god-damn-bastard kids – get your good-for-nothing-fucking asses out of the john now or I’ll beat the shit out of you.”  She was arrested on the spot.  The State took custody of Willie and Eric and kept them in an emergency family shelter under court order.  

After her release later that night, she collapsed on the sidewalk corner under the street light.  I watched her from my living room window as she propped herself up and wailed in pain like a wounded animal, howling to the moon, “My children have been taken from me, God help me.  My children have been taken from me…”  She wailed with unbelievable gut-wrenching wails, literally all night long.  The next morning, I looked out my window to see her lying at the same spot on the sidewalk, unconscious.

Her two sons, Willie and Eric, were kept at the Colorado Rainbow Emergency Family Shelter indefinitely.  Corinne could have gotten her children back at any time if she was able to stop alcohol consumption.  Every blood test she went in for, month after month after month, she would fail.  She could not stop drinking and her futile attempts at fooling the State never worked.  It was hopeless to think her children would ever be returned to her.  After six months of this, Corinne’s brother temporarily took the older son, Eric.  The youngest son, Willie was left in the shelter alone and was slated to be put into a foster home.  He was then nine and nine is not a likely age for adoption.  I looked up the state adoption website and you could see sad photos of all the children available for adoption.  It was heart-wrenching.  The pictures felt like dogs and cats on an animal shelter site.  The options for unwanted children are dire. They are put into the pathetically flawed foster care system.

At this point, I had seen Willie and Eric regularly for six or seven years.  I always knew they never had a chance in hell with the life they were born into.  They had everything going for them in terms of good looks, intelligence and even charisma.  But it all meant nothing coupled with what they had stacked against them from the time of their conception.  In psychological terms, their inner locus of control was not great enough to compensate for their outer locus of control.  Aside from the rare few who have the genius to beat the odds, those that are born with advantage do better than those born with adversity and there is no safety net for those who get crushed beneath the wheel.  Willie was the only one who seemed to do relatively well with his school grades.  Despite the difficulty of his home life making school impossible, his will to do well showed signs of surfacing before they were repeatedly drowned out.  My heart was torn witnessing their plight.  I decided I could not live with myself to just watch as Willie was thrown to the sharks and destroyed completely by the foster care system.  It felt like my caring was Willie’s only hope.  So I petitioned the state welfare system for adoption.  

I visited Willie at the Rainbow Family Shelter each week for the six months after his uncle took his brother. I gave him a chess set and taught him chess.  We played chess and checkers together as I attempted to make conversation.  He liked to sketch, so I bought him a sketchbook and pencils.  Expressing himself visually was something he loved to do, did often, and had potential.  I felt his drawing could be his therapy and his salvation.  So I encouraged him as much as possible in this direction.  It was hard to get him to open up.   I was a white man from a world he had little chance of entering.  His experiences in life had taught him that anything good could never happen to him.  It was like trying to get a wild deer to eat out of your hand.  He had no trust in anything and no hope.  I don’t think he ever believed it was possible to actually have a father.  He knew the cards he had been dealt and he knew there was nothing in life for him within normal society.  He could not escape his destiny.  But despite fate, there was some deep place within him that desperately held on to a dim glimmer of possibility with me.  If nothing else, his interest was to use me in some way.  I was told he was having problems with depression and suicidal thoughts.  Yet sometimes I would feel him responding to my caring.  I had to believe it was within the human condition to respond in kind.  I also well knew that attempting to take him on in the role of parent would be one of the biggest challenges, and sacrifices, of my life.  I just couldn’t live with myself to sit on the sideline and watch him go down.

It took a full year before their case actually reached a judge for final determination.  At the end of that time, returning the children to their natural mother was not an option.  During this time, I had interviews with the child welfare workers regularly for the adoption process.  The end of the process culminated in an unbelievable meeting with all of Corinne’s family and four welfare workers, which I also attended.  This family assembly took place at Corinne’s house, across the street.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the fate of Willie together as a family with the welfare workers.  All those relevant to Wilie’s life and future were in mandatory attendance by state law.  Phillipe was also present at this meeting.  Phillipe appeared like a helpless father as he watched his brother’s fate unfold.  Phillipe sat with me, to make me feel more comfortable with the family in what felt like a snake pit.  It was at that point, I became a hero figure to Phillipe.  I could feel Phillipe’s respect and admiration very intensely as perhaps he has never felt towards anyone.  There was an unspoken bond between us that, as unlikely as it was, happened.

Everyone who was anyone was in attendance, including Corinne’s daughter and the supposedly “stable” brother who had taken Eric.  Another of Corinne’s brothers wanted Willie but he had a bad prison record, was holding three jobs, and already had five children.  It was unlikely this brother’s request would be taken seriously but that was Corinne’s “plan A”.  He only wanted Willie so he could collect the $400 a month in foster care payments from the state and he planned to secretly give Willie back to Corinne.  

There was also a quiet, young, obese woman in attendance who was some acquaintance of Willie’s sister.  She told me she worked for the government, was single, very lonely and wanted to be a mother.  No one knew what to make of her; no one paid much attention to her and she just added to the awkward tension everyone was feeling.  This was also the first time I met Corinne’s father.  He was on oxygen and was very charismatic and outgoing – the only one able to break the ice at this extremely tense meeting.  He overtly charmed the welfare workers to no end.  During a break, the workers went out on the street to have a cigarette.  I went out with them in lieu of hanging out amidst the icy tension inside.  The air inside was too thick to cut with a chainsaw.  Corinne was dominating everything like some kind of privileged queen hosting a party.  The workers were talking about what a wonderful grandfather Willie had.  I told them flat out, with no minced words, that this charming grandfather was a pedophile who had regularly molested Corrine from early childhood.  I also told them the story about his attempt to rape his granddaughter.  That shut them up in a hurry.

I was Corinne’s “plan B”.  Corinne supported my attempt to adopt Willie because everyone knew that her “plan A” brother would not be approved.  With me living across the street, she thought she could just take him back without the state knowing it.  This was not an acceptable plan for me and I was ready to just get a court order to keep her away and enforce it.  But I knew it would be difficult.  

After that excruciating year, the case finally reached its court date. Corinne could have gotten her children back anytime had she only been able to go without alcohol for a couple weeks.  The judge decided that although I was the best choice as a parent for Willie, he could not approve my adoption request because I lived too close to the mother.  Willie was then put in the foster care system.  Willie’s new foster care mother was the overweight, lonely, single-woman who worked for the government. A mis-match that was disaster from the get go.

My emotions were hardened by that time and I simply felt a wave of guilt-free relief knowing that I had done everything in my power to rescue Willie from certain oblivion and had failed.  I also felt relief that I would not have to bring nine-year old Willie into my life as a brother to my five-year-old son, and raise them together.  I would also have had to deal with Corinne and I knew that Willie’s brother’s Phillipe and Eric would have to be a part of his life, and mine, as the three brothers were bonded souls – a fork in a road not taken that was best left to speculation.

Corrine had three liver failures in the preceding years. After the court decision, she had her fourth and died quickly.  Corrine was in her late thirties.  Corrine’s death felt epic in nature as I consoled her boyfriend, Raymond in our usual spot on my front step.

Six months later I ran into Corrine’s boyfriend Raymond.  He could barely function without her, sobbed on my shoulder, and a week later died of a broken heart.  I started to think about how these colorful and amazing characters were a part of this neighborhood’s history ; a story soon to be forgotten, yet, worth remembering.  I wanted to make my own monument to Corinne and her sons to honor their existence. I decided to create a sculpture of Spiderman climbing up my house in a place where Corinne could have seen it every day.  It would be something that would have brightened each of her days with hope.  Perhaps such a thing could be a beacon of sunshine for others and especially the children of my neighborhood.  It was at this time I was suddenly told that I had cancer, and within days, underwent surgery to remove the tumor and began chemotherapy. Working with this idea of creating a monument to Corinne diverted my focus from my own challenges with cancer and gave me an escape during a difficult time.  It helped me get through my own battles down the long tunnel which lead to recovery. 

A side note on Obi:  Obi was a pig destined for fame.  From the moment I carried him on stage in front of a packed high school auditorium, he was star-struck. It was there that a teacher was voted to kiss a pig in front of the entire school for a fundraiser.  Obi was enlisted to play the part of the pig.  Obi was usually  taken to fits of ear-piercing squeals whenever he did not like something and I had no idea what to expect from him.  But when he got on stage, he responded to the energy of thousands of fans with a pleasant snort and became mesmerized, as if experiencing the heavenly trance of a rock star.  After that, he became very rebellious and I had to put him up for adoption on Craig’s list.  He was adopted by a punk-rock band.  He became their mascot and the star of their show.  And so it was that Obi (short for Obi-Wan Kenobi) left his meager beginnings and went on to live a life of fame as a stage swine in the Denver punk rock scene.
Obi as a newborn piglet. Obi in his winter sweater with Maddog. Obi in his upstairs liter box.
A Star is Born
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Comments:

  • Deb R
    March 21, 2020

    Another great story, John! What an amazing cast of characters, with the true star being your patience and generosity in helping and befriending your neighbors. Can’t imagine how you had the wherewithal to tolerate all the mayhem of these rowdy kiddos. Stay safe and make art!

  • karoline
    March 21, 2020

    wow. the most riveting chapter yet! how’s that book coming along?!

  • Sharon Brown
    March 21, 2020

    John, you are a marvel. I appreciate and admire you more each chapter. I, like you, have also had a bout of cancer. I am always available for a call if you need a pal. Please keep this going.. what you want to say is what I want to hear. Brilliant!

  • Cornelia M Rutherford
    March 21, 2020

    John, I’ve enjoyed each of your blogs. The writing is so engaging and I feel like I know these people and this place intimately. I wonder whatever happened to Willie and Eric, although I’m pretty sure I can imagine. The headlines are full of the adult lives of such kids and it is, indeed, heartbreaking. You’re a good man for stepping up. If nothing else, Willie knew that once upon a time, a good person tried his best to make things right..

  • Colleen A Hennessy
    March 21, 2020

    Great writing, John.
    Heartbreaking.

  • Mary Cay
    March 22, 2020

    Thank you John for continuing to post these wonderful stories from your neighborhood and life. Tragic and true , the images you creat of Corinne and her children are compassionate and funny. You are an amazing writer.

  • Peter
    March 22, 2020

    John
    Kudos. As someone who is in the process of writing my own memoirs , I can only say, I can only wish that my stories are half as well written and compelling as the ones you are producing.

  • Lenny G.
    March 23, 2020

    John, wow! I have thoroughly enjoyed your previous blogs but never got around to adding a commentary. However, this blog has been swirling around in my head all day. Who could have ever imagined that your house, on that corner, would be so encircled by such extraordinary events as described in your current and previous blogs.

    Thank you for sharing these personal and intimate experiences. If I had previously encountered the intersection where your live, I probably would not have even given it much thought. However, now, when I next have the opportunity, I am taking one of my daily walks in your hood. I look forward to that day with some of my new found knowledge of the area.

    If only everyone had a neighbor like you… 🙂

  • Gino the Tango Dancer
    March 26, 2020

    I guess I should not be surprised at what a good writer and storyteller you are. Cheers.

  • dominique hershberger
    April 4, 2020

    Thank you John for another interesting and moving story!

  • Michael Holtby
    April 14, 2020

    John, I’ve been impressed with your writing skills; but I think this one was your best. It was very engaging, funny and sad. You are a good heart. Your challenge with Corinne and her boys made me respect you all the more in terms of your empathy, tolerance and acceptance of them. I knew you were dealing with some kind of health issue. This is the first I knew about the cancer – but it sounds like you’ve been dealing with it for some time. I’m sure during this Covid epidemic you are being extra careful. My brother is in Stage 4 cancer, and his wife is so freaked it is hard for any of us to even talk to him on the phone. Anyway, I loved this story. I know there is one more episode in this Bonath season, but I hope you do an epilogue!

  • JamesSwips
    April 25, 2020

    Good site you’ve got going here.

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