South Bronx Reportage Exposes Lived Reality of Social Policy

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx , by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Scribner, 408 pages, $25.

Random Family is a remarkable work of reporting on more than 10 years in the lives of two Puerto Rican women from a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s style is much like Susan Sheehan’s: She writes an intimate, deadpan, near-daily account of the women’s doings without any mention of her own presence over hundreds of pages. This gives the book its vivid immediacy but deprives it of an authorial perspective and also, oddly, of a certain transparency, for the very intimacy of the description makes you sharply aware of how present the author must have been, and how absent she is in the text. But it doesn’t matter. The account is believable and the book stunning.

When we meet Jessica, she is 16, voluptuous and inviting, and she lives in the midst of the hottest drug-dealing blocks in the area. “Car stereos thudded and Spanish radio tunes wafted down from windows. On corners, boys stood draped in gold bracelets and chains. Children munched on the takeout that the dealers bought them, balancing the Styrofoam trays of greasy food on their knees. Grandmothers pushed strollers. Young mothers leaned on strollers they’d parked so they could concentrate on flirting, their irresistible babies providing excellent introductions and much-needed entertainment. All along the avenue, working people shopped and dragged home bags of groceries, or pushed wheelcarts of meticulously folded laundry. Drug customers wound through the crowd, copped, and skulked away again.”

Jessica is soon pregnant and drops out of ninth grade; within two years, the marginal stability of her life has disappeared. Her mother’s boyfriend moves out of the house because her mother is snorting a gram or two of cocaine every day, men are in and out of the apartment, Jessica’s now 2-year-old daughter cries when she pees and it turns out-after a visit to the hospital-that she’s been sexually molested, and Jessica has given birth again, to twins. In the first week of the month, when the welfare check comes in, her mom cooks pork chops and blasts Latin oldies and feeds the neighborhood; in the last week, money gone, her mom takes to bed and her sister cooks rice and flavors it with ketchup. Then Jessica meets George, whose heroin business grosses $500,000 per week. Within 18 months, George will be arrested, shortly followed by Jessica, but before this happens Jessica will go on fabulous dates, learn to work in the heroin mills, be regularly beaten, and see her mother’s kitchen cabinets filled with food.

Then there’s Coco (called Lolli in the excerpt published in The New York Times Magazine last month), who falls in love with Jessica’s little brother when they are both 14. Cesar is a handsome boy who, as he remembers, goes from “playing tag to hiding drugs in his pockets to carrying guns.” Like Jessica for George, Coco really falls for Cesar, and like George, Cesar will end up in prison. Alone among the four, Coco will stay out of prison, but her life is ruled by it nonetheless. Her goal is to establish herself as Cesar’s main woman-his “wife”-and she takes her kids to see him, plasters pictures of him around the apartment and exchanges countless letters with him. In the course of the next 10 years, she will have five children (two of them by Cesar), take and lose jobs, take and lose rat- and cockroach-infested apartments, and deliver a child prematurely. For the most part, she will not use drugs and, for the most part, her men will not beat her. She will wait for Cesar, though she has other men and he will legally marry someone else. She is better off than many. Her eldest daughter already looks as if she may not be so lucky.

This book makes human the unrelenting problems of the ghetto. Coco tries to budget, but she is also generous and her children have so little. If she overspends by $30, she owes the loan shark $60 next month, and she is suddenly hopelessly behind. She’s reasonably disciplined, and lands a job at a local factory. For a few weeks she gets up at 4:00 a.m., wakes and clothes and feeds the kids and puts them back to sleep in front of the television; all her boyfriend needs to do is to wake them up and get them off to school. She is home by the time they get out. But then her sickly daughter needs medical care and no local doctor will accept Medicaid. So Coco quits her job to take her daughter to the doctor, a three-hour bus ride away.

Random Family does not spell out any analytic conclusions, but the reporting does illuminate the lived reality of our social policies. For example, our social services seem from the outside to be a rationally designed safety net. And to some extent, that’s true: Coco does not starve. But like most of the women she knows, Coco experiences social services as a lottery with arbitrary rules. When she’s not working, her day is spent dealing with appointments: getting the kids ready to go, getting them to the waiting room, waiting for long hours to see someone, getting the kids home. Sometimes you get welfare or Social Security, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get food stamps, sometimes you don’t. Coco’s daughter gets into Head Start, which she loves, but gets kicked out because she’s sick too often. Coco’s landlord refuses to fumigate her apartment for fleas, and in desperation she calls the Department of Health, which sends a housing inspector who condemns the place and then threatens to report her to the Bureau of Child Welfare for neglect if she stays. Perhaps the book’s most useful policy contribution is to reveal how erratic and difficult social services appear to be when you’re on the other side of the bureaucratic door.

Above all in this book, you see the precariousness of human life, the “random family” of the book’s title. People come and go in these women’s lives. They go in and out of prison, on and off drugs, in and out of relationships. Apartments always seem overcrowded as people get evicted, change partners and hang out with friends. This chaos is particularly hard on the women, who are the most vulnerable as kids, the most responsible caretakers, and the ones who bear the brunt of abandonment and violence. The rule is clear: Never leave your girls alone with a man who isn’t blood. But a woman ends up taking someone to the hospital, leaving the kids with the neighbors; she runs to the store while a sister’s friend watches her niece. Most of the girls are sexually abused. Most of the women are beaten by their men. Most of the men are unreliably invested in their children’s lives, and still the women feel that pregnancy strengthens their ties to their men-the woman who gives a man his first son increases her chances of being his main woman, his “wife.”

The chaos is hard on kids, too, who nonetheless sometimes manage to thrive. In one of the more poignant moments in Random Family , Nikki, Coco’s 5-year-old kid, retreats to her room-her mother and her older sister Mercedes are upset because they’ve learned that Mercedes, who is 6, has genital warts. In her bedroom, Nikki takes out a crimson velvet skirt, a gift from her dad, and reaches for a dog-eared photograph of herself as a baby, sleeping in her mother’s arms. It’s a picture she carries to school with her every day. As she dances around the room in her crimson skirt, she presses the picture to her chest and sings to herself that she’s a princess.

Reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book, one is struck again by the idiosyncrasy of American middle-class life, which over the last 100 years has been more predictable than human life has ever been. The precarious world Random Family depicts, the fragility of life and relationships, is probably more like the sweep of human history than most of us realize. It is a sobering thought.

Tanya Luhrmann’s most recent book is Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks At American Psychiatry (Vintage).