I’m seventeen so I know the deal.
It ain’t easy stayin’ out of trouble when
everyone around me’s doin’ drugs, sellin’
drugs, or whatever they can to survive.
That ain’t my future-never will be. I
learned at an early age that life is what you
I’m the oldest of six children, and I
been tellin’ my brothers and sisters they whole life ‘bout the evils of drugs. I know
they’d ‘bout die if they heard I’s doin’ drugs, so don’t worry none-I never would do that.
Back in West Virginia I worked hard to take care of them children. I know they spent
more time with me than they did our own mama. I’m the one stayed home and helped
raise ‘em up. Had to drop out of school in the fifth grade—didn’t matter no how; school
had not done nothing for me-can’t even read. At the time it didn’t matter no how.
Cookin’, cleanin’, and runnin’ a house ain’t things you read about in books. They’s
something you learned out of necessity, least for me.
Mama’d gone to work after papa died in a minin’ accident. He’d been trapped for
four days before they was finally able to get him and his four buddies out. It was April 4,
1978 in the No. 3 mine in Dickinson County, Duty, Virginia. The Clinchfield Coal
Company said they died instantly due to suffocation and oxygen deficient air, but I didn’t
believe it. I’d heard stories.
The insurance money ran out after eighteen months; it was never enough to feed
six children anyway. Mama went to work in a drugstore in downtown Wheeling every
day. I took over the running of the house at ten years old. I did everything for my
younger brothers and sisters, who ‘preciated none of it. Not that I blamed them; I figure
kids need and deserve to be taken care of, and shouldn’t have to give thanks to God every
time someone cooks some collard greens or washes they dirty faces. I just wondered who
was going to take care of me. It seemed no one noticed I’s just a child myself. They
expected me to step up; I always did. It was not until I was fifteen that I started to think
about leaving. My brothers and sisters was getting older and was able to take care of
theyselves. I didn’t think they’d miss me too much. The youngest, Sam, was now almost
as old as I was when papa died and I became Mama Mika. Now I just wanted to be
When I was twelve, my cousin Earlene had gone to live in Cleveland. She came
back once or twice and told stories of her fabulous life there. She made it sound like an
excitin’ place to live with all kinds’a opportunities. I said goodbye to my family one day
and set out for Cleveland and a new life. I had Earlene’s address in my pocket and
twenty-two dollars I’d saved for my getaway. I felt like a million dollars when I got off
the train in downtown Cleveland. It took three hours to locate Earlene’s address on Gibb
Street. Earlene was not very happy to see me. She let me in, but wasn’t jumping up and
down like I’d expected. After three days, I was told by Toby, Earlene’s boyfriend, that I
had to leave. Earlene didn’t even put up a fight.
I started to look for a job, but was not having any luck. Now that I had nowhere
to sleep, I decided to give myself a week on the street before packing it in and heading
back the one hundred and forty two miles to Wheeling, West Virginia. I knew that after
that time, I would have to resort to doing something I did not want to do, so I knew that
the lesser of two evils was going back home to mama and the brood.
I stopped in to many of the places in the Gibb Street neighborhood I’d stopped in
already. There was a Spanish restaurant with a sign still in the window, but I didn’t get a
warm welcome upon my return. Then there was the Korean market on the corner that
needed a person to stock shelves, but I was told in broken English that I did not look
strong enough to lift the boxes of groceries. I told them that I lifted a lot more than that
back in Wheeling, but they just gave me the eye. Then there was the dry cleaners run by
the smiling Chinese man. He seemed likable enough, but said there was no job. As I
crossed over the street, I noticed people coming out of this vacant lot. As I got closer, I
noticed there was flowers and vegetables growin’ in a maze of color and activity. I
leaned on the fence and could smell the air—smelled like home. I was eyein’ the
tomatoes just on the other side of the fence—they was big and juicy-lookin’—when a
man plucked one right offa the vine and handed it to me. I smiled at him and ate it
hungrily, jus’ like an apple. He smiled at that—said I reminded him of his girlfriend—
then he jus’ got quiet. He was guardin’ his tomatoes like they was gold or somethin’. I
was grateful for it because I was tryin’ not to spend alla my money jus’ yet. I still had
fourteen dollars left in my pocket, but tried not to act like it.
The man came and sat next to me—said he was Curtis. He was handsome and
built, but he didn’t act like it the way some guys did. He just sat next to me, wantin’
nothing but my company. We talked for a while, bout West Virginia and all the places
he’d been, like Cincinnati. He kept looking up at the building across the street, like
something was gonna come down out the window and save him. He looked kinda’ like a
puppy dog just then—a big, overgrown puppy. We got to talkin’ ‘bout the garden and he
showed me some of the gardens closest to the street. He didn’t want to leave his post by
the tomatoes, so I jus’ went on my own and gave myself the grand tour.
There was lima beans, lettuce, corn, tomatoes, eggplants, melons and ginger and
such. Everywhere you looked there was different colors of plants and different colors of
people. It was like a rainbow garden. I got to thinkin’ ‘bout planting some collard greens
and pole beans. I know how to tend a garden like nobody’s business. It’s in my blood.
It would be natural for me to have a garden with all a these people. I started getting’
excited ‘bout stayin’ in Cleveland now. Curtis showed me a place where I could sleep
that night, but said there was someone already sleepin’ there. That’s when he introduced
me to Royce, a boy ‘bout a year or two younger than me. Royce had been sleepin’ in the
garden for ‘bout a week or two by this time. Curtis told me that he was good people and
that it would be ok. I decided it was as good a place as any to spend my first night on the
street. It was not as bad as it sounds.
Royce woke me early the next morning so that no one would see us sleeping
behind the corn. He was real quiet and went to work fixin’ up somebody’s garden path. I
helped him collect bricks from down the street and haul them back to the garden. He
helped me pick out a spot to plant some collard greens and pole beans. There was still
plenty of room left for gardens.
I went down the street to the Korean market because that’s where this white man
Sam told me I could buy seeds. He noticed me staking out my garden and came right
over and introduced himself. He had a beard that was kind of shaggy, and he looked you
right in the eye when he spoke. He was the first one there besides Royce and me on
account a’ we slept there. He didn’t seem to care ‘bout none a’ that. He just was being
friendly and helpful and sent me back to the market that refused to hire me.
The man behind the counter didn’t seem to recognize me when I made my
purchase, so I gave him the eye. He looked at me kinda strange then, and I just cracked a
smile. I was feeling so good that I couldn’t stay mad at anybody. Just then his wife came
in carrying a box of oranges so big I thought they coulda used them to block out the sun.
They began aurguin about God knows what, and the oranges began bouncing out of her
box as she struggled to hold onto it. I picked up the oranges and returned them to her box
and easily took it from her arms and carried it over to the produce bins for her. They both
just stopped and looked at me then. After I put the oranges out, they had me carry and
unpack lettuce, melons and tomatoes. I guess my garden could wait until later. I had me
I’d plant my collard greens and pole beans later that day. Royce was gone when I
got back, but I figured he’d be back later. I didn’t need to sleep in the garden a second
night because the Kwans had a cot in the back room. They lived upstairs and so didn’t
really use the room. I could sleep there, eat there, even take a shower there. I was not
exactly raised in luxury, so it suited me just fine. My pole beans and collard greens
came in late that summer and I was happy to show the Kwans how to cook ‘em. They
had a garden growing too—mostly edamame beans, mushrooms, bean sprouts and herbs,
but they knew a lot about gardening and were over there every day.
It made me homesick when I sat down with the Kwans to eat a meal that I used to
cook for all a’ them kids back in Wheeling. I was homesick, but I was out in the world
livin’ on my own and growin’ my own food. I realized that I was stronger than I thought.
I could do this on my own, and I’m not just talking ‘bout carrying no boxes a’ oranges.