If you’re here for the music, there are some songs at the end. They’re Blood Brothers songs. Feel free to skip this.
So I’ve danced around it before, and will, out of respect for the clients I’m working with, never go into extreme detail, but as of the beginning of October, I work with kids.
Last year, I worked with incarcerated men and women, but mostly men, in the state of Michigan. One of the reasons I did the work was that beyond whatever mistakes or mental instability or unrepentant rage these men and women had and had made, they were people; they had been born to mothers in hospital rooms, had eaten a birthday cake on their third birthdays, and had a favorite song that they always made them smile when they heard it. They were people and deserved the same dignity, respect and basic level of treatment that people must give each other. What this lead to, for the most part, was me divorcing the guys I was working with from their crimes, unless it was absolutely necessary for the advocacy (EG: Someone was a sex offender, so they needed specialized therapy). For the most part, I was able to work with murderers, arsonists, people who had abused or beat their children, and I was able to try to help them get the medical and mental health treatment that they needed. Criminals, it must be said, are so much more than the crimes they commit.
The transition from working with currently incarcerated adults In Michigan (with a few terribly sad cases of kids charged as adults and in adult facilities) to working in Brooklyn with kids at a court that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration was a big one. When I do this work, it isn’t the idea of the inherent right to dignity and humane treatment that motivates me (although juvenile facilities certainly try their hardest to strip the kids of those things), it’s perhaps an even more broad and even more cliched right: that every child has the right to grow, dream, and succeed. If these kids committed the crimes they’re committing (mostly pretty minor stuff; at worst things like assault, but more common drugs, graffiti, robbery, things like that) in any other district in New York, they’d go to trial and either get let go with a warning or remanded to a juvenile facility for some period, and then let go. In most courts, there’s little attention given to what might be causing kids to skip school, act out, commit crimes. That’s why I’m proud to work where I do. But even though the circumstances are different, my reaction to working with criminals is the same: I look at them as human beings, not a walking section of the penal code. When drug treatment counselors, therapists, school guidance counselors want to know what crimes my clients committed, in most cases I honestly answer them that I just don’t know. Where I work, it’s less important what a person has done, more important what they are (or are not) doing now.
Two quick stories from Detroit:
1) I was leaving a show early at the UFO Factory, the venue near the Eastern Market run by Warn from His Name is Alive. I was the only one in the alley where you enter and leave the space. Suddenly I hear a voice shout “hey.” I turn around to see if i recognize the guy, I do not. The guy shouts again, directly at me, “Come over here. I wanna ask you something.” I, as most people probably would quicken my pace. I hear the guy walking faster. There is no one else around. If you’ve ever been to detroit, you know that no one walks anywhere. The streets, even at noon on a Saturday, are usually empty. I hear the guy getting closer to me, and I think he tries to grab my bag. I take off running and the guy runs to the end of the alley, where, thank god, there’s a semi driver trying to park on the street, and then turns around as if nothing happened.
2) I was leaving a movie at the Detroit Film Theater, a giant movie theater attached to the DIA that’s located in New Center, one of the more developed areas of Detroit. I get stopped at a red light on Woodward, the main street that runs from downtown out to the suburbs, and suddenly I hear a sound like a really bad football tackle happening two feet from my head. I look out the drivers-side window to see two gloved fists drawn about a foot back from the pain of glass. I’m frozen, wondering what the fuck is going on. This time, the owner of those two hands decided my roof would be a better target, and starts banging as hard as he can on the roof of my car. I accelerate as fast as I can though the red light. If there had been any cross traffic, I would have surely crashed. I do not know what would have happened after that.
So it was a long day today. I waited for two of my clients to show up for meetings, one about transferring out of his current school where he doesn’t feel safe, and another about transferring out of his school because it might just be that school isn’t this kid’s thing. Neither of them show up. I leave work a little down, but decide that it’s friday night, and after I eat a quick dinner, I’m going to go play punk bingo at ABC no Rio, which I haven’t been to since I was 15. It’s going to be a fun night. I put on Superchunk, my go-to pump up music. Soon the thoughts of my day at work are gone, replaced with chunky guitars and Mac MacCaughan’s chanted vocals. I work firmly in Red Hook, and so the walk from my office to the Smith and 9 Subway station is about a mile each way. I’m two blocks from the subway station on 9th street, one block away from the BQE viaduct, when a group of probably 8 kids approach me. You can see where this is going.
I pass about halfway through the group when one of the kids, can’t be more than 18, grabs me by the throat and puts me in a choke hold. “Clean his pockets.” I’ve got my ipod in my hoodie pocket, a cellphone in my coat pocket, a wallet in a pocket somewhere. I play my part as the paralyzed “no, seriously, is this actually happening?” white dude. The kid is laughing. His friends are laughing. He says it again, “clean his pockets.” After a second or two he lets go. I can’t think of anything to shout and so I say, about as clever as I can be after this terrifying ten seconds or so, “Thanks, man, that’s what I needed at the end of a work week.” I do not scream, chase after him, or break down in tears. I have no idea why I do not do any of those things. Somehow I keep walking, get on a train, and make it back to my apartment, where I subsequently finish a (small) bottle of Jim Bean and write this.
This kid, so easily, could have been one of the kids I work with. If he was, I would have forgotten his crime (“mugging?” i might say with hesitation when pressed by an intake person at a counseling center) like I do with every case I have.
This experience, at least not two hours later, hasn’t changed the way I think about my job. There’s a part of me that is furious at the kid because of course he’s culpable for his own actions, and a part of me that is furious that this kid is so desperate for power, that he has been so fucking marginalized and discounted, that stealing ipods is a way to prove worth. It hasn’t made me afraid to go back to work (although there is no way in hell i’m walking to the subway alone anymore). It was rattling, and still is. After that, Superchunk didn’t make any sense, so I put on the Blood Brothers.