An Immigrants’ Musing on the Immigration Debate
March 26, 2016
Has it all been said?
April 25, 2016

Tracy from Downtown

It was a blizzard. Nearly six inches were already on the ground and they predicted a foot more. It was freezing cold. The wind was howling. It made the snow feel like hard frozen rain instead. I would have canceled our plans to go out for dinner, but my husband and I had agreed to celebrate my fiftieth birthday by going to one of our favorite local restaurants.

Driving home, our car suddenly swerved to the left, throwing me against the window as my husband exclaimed, “Oh my god, did you see that?” I looked over my shoulder and was shocked to see the silhouette of a person pushing a stroller on the sidewalk. We were on a bridge that crossed over a busy highway. The sidewalk was invisible, covered by the mountain of slush the snowplows had dumped on their first run. Who would be walking in such a dangerous place, while pushing a stroller?

“Stop the car!” I exclaimed, and my husband stepped on the brakes. The instant sound of loud beeping horns from cars passing us was deafening. “Pull over and open the trunk” I commanded, and jumped out of our warm, comfortable SUV, and ran into the dark miserable night, looking for the person to whom the silhouette belonged. I lost a shoe, and as I reached down to get it, a passing car sprayed salty water and ice on my face and soaked my fancy pants.

Just a few yards away, I found a woman pushing a stroller with a child in it. The little boy was just a baby, his hat pulled down, nearly covering his little face. Another boy was walking next to the stroller, holding onto the handle and trying to move his little legs through the snow. A heavy-set man was tagging behind them, plowing through the snow with bags of groceries hanging from his arms.

Having just stepped out of my warm and cozy vehicle after a lovely dinner, and encountering this family in the cold and wet snow, the only thing I could think to say was, “Please get in our car, we will drive you home. This is no weather to be walking with your kids on the street.” They protested, but the screeching sound of someone’s brakes startled us all, and we quickly lifted the baby out of the stroller, folded it, got everyone into the car and pulled away from the curb to get across the bridge—all warm and cozy.

I asked where she lived so we could put it into our navigation device. The young woman was too busy telling us how thankful she was. They had needed groceries and the storm had caught them off guard. She said her place was just another mile ahead, “Right off Route 1.” When she told us to turn right into a driveway, I was confused, and said, “But wait, this is a motel,” and she said: “Yes, it is right here, just drive around to the back of it.”

“But wait, this is a motel,” I repeated, and she said: “Yes, this is where we live.”

When we unloaded the stroller and brought the family to the door of the motel room, she explained that she had lost her apartment in Fall River and was moved to this motel by the State. She received food stamps, but with two hungry boys she often ran out of them before receiving new ones. They were out tonight because she had just received her allotment and needed to feed the boys. I took the stroller out of the car and quietly asked my husband how much cash he had. He gave me all he had in his wallet, a hundred dollars — five twenty-dollar bills. When I handed over the stroller, I opened the woman’s hand and put the bills in it. She hugged me, and said I was her angel.

She seemed so polite, and so well put-together. Her thick, dark, shoulder-length hair was combed back neatly with a pretty hairpin. She had a beautiful face: her lips were full and a deep red color, her dark skin without any wrinkles. I thought she must be about thirty, and could not help but wonder what terrible thing had happened to her, that she was homeless and stranded with two little toddlers.

It was a quiet ride back to our own home.  This was not the sort of thing I needed to worry about at the start of my fifty-first year of life. I had been though a lot myself and desperately needed to rest and pay attention to my own health. But the seed was already planted, and so the next day, I drove back to the motel with one of my daughters and knocked on the door. That is how I came to know Tracy.

She is listed in my phone as “Tracy from downtown.” I don’t know her last name. I took her to Wal-Mart with my daughter and we bought a lot of groceries. I gave her my phone number. I noticed that most of the food she put in the cart was unhealthy, and wondered if perhaps I could help her understand more about nutrition and make better choices for her two toddlers, who were adorable and had just turned one and three. The man, who was with her, she told me, was the father of the boys. While he seemed like a total sweetheart, it just didn’t add up. He was acting more like a guest than a dad.

A week later, Tracy texted me that the State was going to move her again, but she did not know where. “It could be to the Cape, or to Springfield,” she told me. She seemed upset. I called the State office to find out why Tracy would be moved to such remote locations, each two hours from her current job in Boston, when she was trying to get her feet on the ground. I was upset, too, and thought I could help fix this.

I learned a great deal about our system in the next couple hours, and was actually very impressed with the answers from the different offices. They clearly work hard to keep welfare mothers and their children off the streets.  A patient woman on the other end of the phone explained to me that motels are a cheap way to give those mothers temporary housing. “She might need to be moved for different reasons,” the woman said. “Sometimes it is for security reasons, if the mother has been in an abusive situation. Other times it is because the motel is no longer willing to offer the housing. And once in a while, it is because the welfare mom breaks the rules and accepts too many goods from people in the community, which is not allowed, because it would give her free food stamps when she does not need them in the true sense.”

“God forbid a welfare mother would have a good day when she and her family were getting some extra treats,” I exclaimed. The woman agreed, and said, “Believe me, we get a lot of calls from very nice people like you who want to do good and in fact are not helping at all.” I found out that Tracy was not really allowed to get all these groceries from me because that showed that she did not need the welfare money. She had to make due in order to qualify.

It struck me that there was no incentive to get out of the system. Tracy did not have a degree; she did not have her license, and had been on food stamps since she was eighteen years old. I had been told by the State office that Tracy could qualify for education: she could get a degree while the State would take care of her children and provide her with housing.

That week, Tracy and her children were moved to their new temporary apartment, a group house in Roxbury, with other mothers like her. Tracy was relieved that she could stay in Boston, and that the man who she said was the father of her children could come and visit there. He was not allowed to live with them because they were not married, and this house was only for mothers. That meant he was now officially homeless. The State only helped Tracy because she had children. Her companion had no place to go. I learned that there is a constant shortage of beds for homeless men in Boston.

I contemplated whether this family could live with us, in the suburbs of Boston. After all, our children were all in college and their rooms empty most of the time. But we had no public transportation nearby and Tracy would not be able to get to work. I talked to the local bakery and supermarket to see if they had jobs. I was ready to jump in with both feet—until, for the first time in my life, I paused before I set out to fix things, and realized that this story could be seen from two perspectives, and that Tracy’s perspective might look very different from mine. On one hand, she was healthy and perfectly capable of getting educated and she could apply for a better job if she wanted to.  But on the other hand, she was settled in her ways, and seemed to have accepted this lifestyle as her fate. She did not have an incentive for herself, and was not inspired to make her life better. The way she lived now seemed good enough. She was cheerful and happy with small gestures of kindness. In some ways, it was refreshing to see her gratitude for my interest and care. In other ways, it made me sad, and eager to show her that she could have so much more. After all, I had immigrated to the USA when I was just 19 years old, when I did not speak any English. I had a high-school degree and $100 in my pocket and had worked hard to make things happen.

Two weeks passed and three more feet of snow fell in the Boston area. The whole state was shut down. People called it unprecedented. When I sent a text to Tracy to make sure she was ok, she texted back that she was fine, but was worried about the father of her kids. He was sleeping inside the Prudential Center, hoping he would not get kicked out. “Why the Prudential Center and not a shelter?” I asked, wondering if he had been sleeping on the streets since Tracy and I last talked.

“Tomorrow is the first day of his new job,” she texted. “He does not want to risk being late. He will work for a company that counts inventory for retail stores. Their office is inside the Prudential and he has to be there at 7:00 a.m.”

I looked at my husband, who was reading a book next to me in bed. “Do you still have those hotel points?” I asked. He had been working on a project in Springfield, nearly two hours from home and his late meetings often meant he had to stay in a hotel in Springfield. The only perk, we told ourselves, was that the hotel awarded points, which we had been saving to go somewhere special together. But with the entire state buried under 110 inches of snow, and even the subway system shut down on most tracks, I asked my husband if we could use the points to give the father of the two boys a couple nights in a hotel so he could start his new job well rested and showered. My husband looked at me, sighed, and said, “Of course we can.”

I promptly called several hotels in Boston, only to learn that on nights like that, when there is a state of emergency, the hotels are full with medical personnel who have to stay close to work and can’t travel home.

It was close to 11:00 P.M. when I called the hotel back that was closest to the Prudential Center and asked for a manager. I told him the story and explained that our hotel points would cover three nights, and after I agreed that I would warrant the stay with my credit card, the manager finally caved in and found a room. Tracy was so grateful. She called me again the next day to thank me.  I took the opportunity to tell her she should try to go back to school and make a better life for herself. I reminded her that the State was going to help her with both childcare and the cost of school.

When I received a text from her a month later that she was enrolled in a ten-month program to become a phlebotomist, I felt like I won the lottery. She said that she was also waiting for her own apartment with two bedrooms, and would be moving there when the program was done. She was working too, she said, a part-time job in retail. I could picture her: this pretty girl selling clothing to people who needed reassurance before buying a certain item. For several months, “Tracy from downtown” sent me text messages from time to time, informing me of what was new. On December 2, 2015, almost one year after the day we met, Tracy texted me that she was moving into her new apartment and that her boys were turning two and four that week. She had just gotten a permanent full-time job at a department store in Boston. When I asked her how long the State would provide services, she said, “They budget and pay my rent. For now what I have to pay of the rent is $71 dollars. And the State pays for daycare. They will do it forever. I could grow old in there, but I won’t.”

I asked if she had finished her school, she texted back: she did, “but it would be too much money.”  I did not understand what she meant until she added: “It goes by your income.”  I did not pry further. She texted that she was exited to decorate the new apartment for the holidays, and she was hoping to get a puppy for her boys! I immediately called her and told her that she was not allowed to get a puppy; that she needed to keep both feet on the ground. The last thing she needed was another “being” in her life that needed food and care. She laughed, but seemed to understand that I was serious and was trying to help her.

When I texted Tracy to let me know if she needed any furniture, she immediately responded and said she would love anything I could find. She was renting most things, and needed to find a kitchen table and chairs, a couch, a mirror, and a dresser. I fulfilled her requests in ten minutes with a group text to a few women. The families in the town where I live have so much, and were happy to part with the items. The issue was the logistical part and I arranged to pick up all the items the following Saturday, with help of my husband. We filled up the SUV and put in Tracy’s new street address into our navigation device.

When my husband turned onto the street in South Boston, I took a deep breath. The street had brick apartment buildings, one after the next, each of the buildings five floors high. The windows were plain and square; the buildings had no architectural detail at all. There was no color anywhere: no flower boxes, no benches, or playgrounds, anywhere in the vicinity. There was no grass and I didn’t see a single tree. The streets were lined with cars, many of them with broken parts. Some simply had been covered in plastic to prevent rain or snow from coming in through the broken windows.

In front of some of the buildings, several people had gathered, but they were bent over as if hiding something. Their heads were covered with hoods from sweatshirts, and I could not figure out if they were just cold, or trying not to show their faces. Some were lighting up cigarettes. The smell of drugs was strong. I did not see a single child outside, or a smile on anyone’s face. Nobody said a word when they passed us while we started unloading.

It took a little less than an hour to carry all the items to the third floor apartment where Tracy now lived. The car would beep every time we opened or locked it, calling attention to us. I felt increasingly uncomfortable: people stared at us while we unloaded the pieces of furniture. It did not feel like a reasonable option just to leave the car unlocked in this neighborhood, like we would in ours.

In contrast to how uncomfortable we felt outside, every time we stepped into the apartment with another load of goods, Tracy was so happy, greeting us with her little toddler clinging to her leg. She could not contain her excitement when she saw the couch we brought, and immediately lay on it with her two-year-old. He quickly warmed up to us and wanted to show his toys in the little bedroom that he shared with his big brother.

On the rented table, in the small kitchen, three empty bowls and a box of cereal were left over from breakfast; a bra was hanging on a doorknob to dry, and near the front door was a backpack with children’s books spilling out. This was her new home. The apartment looked clean, and Tracy seemed happy. For all intents and purposes, for Tracy, this was as good as it could get. We hugged her and promised to be in touch. She called us angels again.

Our drive home was quiet and I realized: it’s all about perspective.


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