When we arrived for the next open mic event, M. greeted us at the door. He was wearing the same clothes he had worn the week before but he looked more confident, more sure of himself. He was checking people in and managing the list of performers.
He began chatting with B. like they were old friends. Apparently, M. was doing yard work and light household repairs for the owner of the local boarding house in exchange for a sleeping room. He and his girlfriend (wait… did I hear that right? There is a girl involved here?) had submitted over 23 job applications in the past week, applying to every business in town whether there was a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window or not. As they now had an address and had access to the house phone, M. was extremely hopeful.
The two boys sat together, chatted together and cheered for each other. They made arrangements to trade knowledge. B. would teach M. how to improvise and M. would teach B. some percussive guitar. So, B. started showing up at the Arts Center a few hours before open mic events.
One week I threw some bottled water, chips and baby carrots into a bag, stopped at Subway and picked up some chicken sandwiches. I put the food in the center of the table. B. grabbed a plate of food and started eating while M. and his girlfriend, E., just futzed with their papers, their instruments, etc. After a minute, I asked them if they were going to sit down and eat, too.
“Who, us?” E. asked.
“Yes, you.” I laughed. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Are you kidding?!?!?” M. yelled as he whooped and jumped over a chair to get to the table. “I can’t believe you brought us food! Awesome!”
His sandwich promptly devoured, he grabbed for mine.
“Whoa! Don’t they feed you at the boarding house?” I teased. The room instantly became silent.
E. gently informed me that the work they were doing around the boarding house property ‘paid’ only for their room. She told me that since none of the jobs they had applied for had panned out yet, B. had been buying them a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread and a bunch of bananas – sometimes a package of hot dogs – each week. She told me that they adored him for that and explained it was easier to smell other people’s food cooking when you knew you had something of your own hidden away.
I was mortified. And proud. And disgusted. What was wrong with that boarding house owner that he couldn’t feed them? That he would cook, would eat in front of them while denying them? But… If my son could take care of this, why couldn’t, why shouldn’t I?
If B. was using half of his spending money each week to buy food for his friends, couldn’t I at least match that amount? Yes, I was completely overwhelmed with financial issues trying to pay off my husband’s debt, trying to take over bills and get caught up on the past due balances, trying to help my daughter in college. But seriously, could I not come up with just a little bit of extra food? And what was wrong with me that I would even question whether or not I should?
From then on, I would send B. to the Arts Center with a grocery bag filled with food for ‘supper’ along with strict instruction to not bring any of it back home. Every so often, I would leave a grocery store gift card in the bottom of that bag so they could buy milk and things whenever they wanted to instead of waiting for open mic night. A few weeks turned into a few months and groceries for M. and E. just became part of our normal household expenses.
When school let out for the summer, B. mentioned he wanted to spend more time with M.. Not only had M. and E. not been hired anywhere, a couple of places told them that they were tired of them asking for jobs almost every day and that if they were seen on their property again they would have them arrested for trespassing. So the boys decided they were going to spend the summer playing music on the street to see if that might be a viable way of earning some sort of income. Their plan was for me to drop B. off on my way to work and pick him up on my way home.
On our way, I asked B. where I should drop him off – the Arts Center or the boarding house? B. asked me to drop him off in the strip mall parking lot. He informed me that M. and E. were not allowed to be in the Arts Center when there was no staff present. Additionally, the boarding house owner did not permit M. and E. to be in the house when he was at work. Because the other tenants said they felt nervous around homeless kids, they were allowed inside only when the owner was home.
Accordingly, they had been spending nine to ten hours each day simply wandering the streets. With school out for the summer and his days fairly free, B. decided to wander with them. He was looking forward to helping them earn some money working as street musicians.
Proud and trepidatious, I dropped B. off in the parking lot. I waved at M. and E. who were sitting on top of the bike rack, pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.