The Boy on the Curb

July 1997

          The early spring night is cool, but holds the promise of warmer evenings. The trees long to bud and leaf, if given half a warm chance. The disc player purrs in the background, as my wife and I tool along on a quiet street that runs parallel to Mineral Point Road on Madison’s west side.

            We are on our way to visit my parents. They live in a charming condo development. This community houses almost every couple who ever raised their children on the near west side of Madison in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. the living spaces are perfectly designed just enough room for the kids and grandkids to visit and too little room for any of them to move back home.

            We are nearing the entrance to the development when I see him. He is young, a man-child, maybe 13 or 14 years old. He is sitting on the terrace. We passed by him but something causes me to hitch. It might have been his posture, or the fleeting look on his face; one of those subtle universal signals that humans use and understand in an instant.

            Something is wrong.

            I slow the car, finally coming to a stop short of our turnoff. I turn and look back down the street. I see the boy rocking back and forth in a sitting position. I shift to reverse and begin to drive backwards.

            To my wife’s quizzical look I answer, “There’s something wrong with that kid we just passed.”

            The car is even with him now. He looks up. There is a pained look on his face. The window comes down and I ask, “Are you OK?”

            “I’m having an asthma attack,” he gasps between breaths.

            I get out of the car and walk to his side. “I have that problem too. I have an inhaler in the car and I can give you a ride to the urgent care center. It’s just down the road.”

            He doesn’t want my stuff or a trip to the clinic. “If you could just take me to where I’m staying. I have my medicine there. This has happened before.”

            I help him to the car, and my wife a nurse, talks to him in a soothing voice that she should patent. She offers to call his parents on our cell phone. But he says no.

            We drive at his direction. He’s a nice kid. Polite. “It’s only four or five blocks from here.”

            “Are you sure we can’t call your folks?” I persist. If this were my child I would want to hear about it pronto.

            “I’m staying with some other people,” he states vaguely.

            I don’t push it any further. Maybe his folks are out of town, or perhaps, in this area of non-traditional families, there is a more complicated relationship.

            Block by block he gives us directions until we reach the apartment complex where he is staying. It is a low income housing development, one piece of Madison’s scattered-site housing puzzle.

            He directs us to a unit in the back corner of the complex. Now just a few blocks from the luxury condo we were going to visit, we enter another world. There is a tattered sofa on a front lawn. An old rusted car sits unattended, with the hood open.

            We pull into a parking space deep in the compound. I tell my wife that I’ll run him inside. We trade glances and she nods. As I get out of the car and trigger the lock, we are eyed by the neighbors sitting on the stoops.

            The many children running about stop and stare at us. As I lead the boy to this apartment, a group of older Hispanic males, adorned in jewelry and Nike suits, grows quiet.

            “Right here,” the boy says. The screen door is kicked in, the bug shield ripped. The main door hangs open and through it I see an older woman with a cane and disheveled hair. Two younger children are inside. A third older boy hangs in the entry way. There are boxes everywhere. My hope is that they are moving in or moving out. My fear is that this is how things always are.

            To the woman’s unfriendly gaze I stammer, “He is having an asthma attack.

            We picked him up a few blocks away.” The young boy slumps in and sits down.

            The woman rummages around the boxes, finds a windbreaker and reaches into a pocket. She hands him an inhaler. “Here, use mine,” she tells him curtly.

            “It’s the same as yours.”

            I stand awkwardly in the doorway for a few moments and then turn to leave.

            At the last moment I catch the young boy’s eye as he sits hunched in a chair amid the boxes, waiting for the inhaled mist to do its work. He nods at me, with a resigned expression. His eyes are too old, too sad, for so young a face. I raise my eyebrows to silently ask, “Are you going to be OK?” He offers a slight, hesitant nod.

            I walk to the car. Over my shoulders the older kid yells a belated thank you. I wave a hand in acknowledgment.

            We exit the housing complex in silence. Diane asks about the boy and the apartment. I tell her what I saw.

            In just a few moments we are puling into my parent’s driveway in our familiar comfortable Madison. I tell my mother and father the story.

            “He was a nice kid,” I say.

            “Those apartments are just down the road,” my dad quietly observes.

            Such a short drive.

            So far away.

            Two months have passed and the boy’s farewell look still haunts me. It was a gaze that said more than “Thanks.”

            His were eyes that pleaded, “Can someone help me?”

            And I wonder what to do.

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