Rat

My grief comes in waves. Recently I’ve been in a trough, although there are thousand little peaks and lows between every crest. Every hour is not gloomy, but I can recognize the trough from the sheer quantity of lows. It’s been a lot.

The other night I watched a 1984 documentary, Streetwise, about the lives of street kids in Seattle at the time. It’s an amazing piece of art, intensely honest and tragic and beautiful. The kids were all running from something even more grim than life on the streets. It’s grim all the same. Boys peddle, thieve, and pull tricks to scrape by. Girls sell the only product that they can. Everyone finds escape somehow, usually chemical.

600full-streetwise-screenshot

Rat, photo by Mary Ellen Mark 1983

My dad reminded me strongly of one of the main children the documentary followed, Rat. They grew up similarly; no dad, absent mom, combative, savvy, and proud. He pulled tricks and sold things and I grew up hearing the glory stories as if it were a fairy tale. We all know how he ended up.

There are between 100 and 150 million children living in the streets around the world RIGHT NOW. 250,000 die EVERY WEEK from diseases and malnutrition. 2 million children are objects of sexual abuse. Child pornography and demand for child prostitutes continues to increase globally.

And the ripples caused by each tragedy are felt for generations.

Jeff’s Place

This year I will be working at Jeff’s Place, a children’s bereavement center in Framingham, MA. I got the gig through New Sector Alliance, an organization that matches young professionals with nonprofits that may not have the resources or klout to attract young talent. New Sector runs a few weeks of training, focusing on strategies around teamwork, strategic problem solving, and the social sector broadly, and then we spend the rest of the year at our host sites, with training days mixed in every few weeks.

So I’ve been at Jeff’s Place for a few weeks now, and it’s already been somewhat of a rollercoaster. I’ve been hired to do communications — PR, Marketing, and (shhh… fundraising, though I can’t call it that, as we’re funded through Americorps). Jeff’s Place was founded by Jenny Schreiber, a powerhouse of a social worker who has, with a dedicated team of volunteers, built this organization to serve more than 100 families in the metrowest area. Jeff’s Places’ funding is therefore almost entirely dependent on Jenny’s network, which, while immense, ultimately does have a limit. We currently have a wait-list to accept new families into our services, and due to resource constraints, we can’t meet the demand.

So my job is to make friends with local institutions and individuals to broaden our funding network. It’s an interesting challenge which presents the fundamental question — why would businesses or individuals want to partner with (read: donate to) Jeff’s Place?

For the families involved, Jeff’s Place seems to be a game-changer. As someone who has directly dealt with significant loss, the resulting feeling of being different from the rest of the crowd, the aloneness, is truly overbearing. I personally had to radically change my expectations of myself, as if the jenga blocks hadn’t just been toppled but rather consumed by a wood chipper and spat out into a vat of oil and flame. Loss is intense, and people react to it in myriad strange and unpredictable ways.

Jeff’s Place gets this. The first two days of training at Jeff’s were some of the most intense hours of reflection of my life, barring the incident itself. It essentially consisted of dissecting every aspect of death and bereavement, every permutation of loss and the journey thereafter. Jenny and Melissa, the program director, are truly experts in the field and understand better than anyone I’ve ever talked to that you don’t get over it, you learn to live with it.

And community can help. I never found this in my recovery, this ‘community’ that ‘got it’, and while I remember that I was pointedly not interested in finding it at the time, preferring to do my grieving alone, I was also 19 at the time, and Jeff’s Place is for children ages 3-18. Jenny and Melissa have seen their peer-based support groups work wonders, helping to normalize the abnormal and make not-okay OK.

So here’s where it all stands: I think Jeff’s Place is doing important work, and I will figure out precisely why other people should feel the same way, and hopefully that will translate into meaningful partnerships so that the institution can continue to grow. I feel privileged to be able to call this cause my own, as it was already my own, but now I have a way to make a small but larger difference for others who might find these services to be useful.

If anyone reading this knows of any organizations, business, or individuals who would be interested in donating, hosting fundraisers, or otherwise helping Jeff’s Place to grow, please contact me!

Thank you for reading.

Guárdala.

I approached the theatre on Lavalle y Esmerelda with the intention of seeing Gatsby. I’d heard reviews both raving and hating and wanted to glimpse the glam myself. However upon scanning the billboard, I couldn’t find any listings.

“Ya se fue el Gran Gatsby?” I asked the man in line in front of me, friendly-looking, in maybe his early 50’s.

“Si, solo quedó por dos semanas,” he replied, holding something in his hand.

“Que rápido, quería verlo!” I said.

“Claro, no sé… Bueno, si no podés ver el Gatsby, querés ver Rapido y Furioso 6? Tengo este boleto que es, como, dos por uno— nos daría entrada por treinta pesos.”

I re-scanned the billboard, checking out the other options. I didn’t recognize anything else, and this guy was saving me money, so I decided to go with it. He paid, I paid him, and then I followed him into the theatre lobby where I found myself being presented to a group of people.

“Mira, esta es mi familia.” The man— Roberto— proceeded to introduce me to a woman who I think was his wife, and then to each of his four children, two younger, two older. The younger kids were a smiley bunch. The teenagers were also smiley but they wore those embarrassed smiles of ‘Dad’s doing it again’, a smile I remember quite well myself. I kissed cheeks and shook hands, bemused, as they asked me questions about who I am and why I exist and what part of Brasil I’m from. “Estadounidense, de Boston,” I replied. Apparently my accent sounds Brazilian. OK, I’ll take it, maybe I’d be good at Portuguese.

I learned that the rest of his family was going to see a different movie, a comedy, so Roberto and I would be seeing the Fast and the Furious 6 together, alone. Fine by me. This was all very random, I thought. Roberto interrupted my thoughts by shouting, “Foto! Foto! Un foto!” So I posed with his family while he took a picture of us grinning near a cutout of Iron Man. He told me that his daughter would share the photo with me on Facebook. She overheard, seethed. “Papá!” More exasperated smiling, and then it was time to enter the theatre.

We sat next to each other, squarely in the center row. It was a pretty full house, with the seats in front of us occupied by two couples who were far more interested in making out than watching the film. We shared a pack of tropical flavored mentos, and he offered me a piece of gum. I accepted. The movie started.

It was cheesy but awesome. Come on, it’s the Fast and the Furious SIX— at this point you know what you’re in for: impossible action scenes, hot chicks, unbreakable bones, absurd explosions, and the classic Vin Deisel one-liner melodrama. Perfect. Exactly what I paid for.

But there was something else familiar about this situation. There was a man next to me; laughing when I laughed, wincing when I winced, caught in the same predictable sequences of suspense and relief. He, taking up the entire arm rest, leaning forward during the car chases, letting out that roar of gladiatorial bloodlust as the bad guys are stopped in their tracks.

I know this feeling.

I didn’t realize I was crying until I tasted my tears. And then I realized, and realized, and felt that rigid rage build as my body went stiff and my fists shook fast and furious in time with the explosions onscreen. A car flying through the air narrowly misses Vin Deisel’s head and I hear that familiar cackle and realize that it was me, not him, and then realize, and realize, and feel my rigid body clench anew and tears spout like oil from when BP fucked up.

I know this feeling. I remember having felt it so many times. Rambo. Conan the Barbarian. Blade. True Lies. All the Terminators. Van Helsing. Hellboy. Marvel everything. Judgement Day. LOTR. Hidalgo. Hell, even the Three Stooges. Lost in Space. Watching fucking Raffi with my father. Cookie monster singing, “healthy food, tastes so good…”

I miss this feeling. It is so painfully familiar and bountiful in my memory, but now so uncommon. It’s not the same as being with friends, male or female, regardless of the activity. It’s not even a particularly social or interactive feeling, as most communication was conveyed through grunts and yells or perhaps the rare ‘whoop’. But it was part of the bond that I shared with my father, and it is gone and irreplaceable, and I miss it dearly.

The movie ended without Roberto realizing anything about my condition. I wrote down my name on a napkin so that his daughter might be able to facebook me that photo. We started walking out of the theatre, exchanged a few remarks about the movie, and got out to the street, where I stopped him—

“Una cosita” — “Si?” — “Bueno, sobre su familia. Es muy linda. Guárdala.”

Essentially, I told him to value and protect his family. I then told him in one quick sentence that my own father had passed, and (building off of a Vin Diesel one-liner from 10 minutes earlier) delivered that damn cliche that you never know what you have until it’s gone, which I’m not sure I always agree with, but it was a busy street and we were on our way. He gave me his card. I smiled. We shook hands and parted. I walked off and cried.